The Importance of Being Earnest

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The Importance of Being Earnest Questions

(Feel free to see the questions related to the themes at

Lies and Deceit
Respect and Reputation
Society and Class
Versions of Reality: Romance
Foolishness and Folly

Define an epigram. What do the following epigrams say? Keep track of epigrams in the play.

“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” “The past is of no importance. The present is of no importance. It is with the future that we have to deal. For the past is what man should not have been. The present is what man ought not to be.The future is what artists are.” “It is better to be beautiful than to be good. But . . . it is better to be good than to be ugly.”

In these brief quotes, you can learn a great deal about Wilde’s style, his views on education, how he felt about the theater, his belief in the importance of artists, and his philosophy of aestheticism—all of which will assist their understanding of the play. After reading the play, review these quotes and connect them to the characters, tone, and themes of the text.

Rules of Victorian Etiquette
Much of the humor of The Importance of Being Earnest is derived from the rigid social rules of the era. These rules, and many more like them, can be found in Anna R. White’s Youth’s Educator for Home and Society (1896), which is available online.

Social Basics for the Young Lady:
• Upon being introduced to a gentleman, a lady will never offer her hand. She should bow politely and say, “I am happy to make your acquaintance,” or words to that effect. • When bowing on the street, it is appropriate to incline the head gracefully, but not the body. • When traveling by train, tramcar, or omnibus, the well-bred lady has a delicate sense of self-respect that keeps her from contact with her neighbor, as far as such contact is avoidable. • A lady never looks back after anyone in the street, or turns to stare at them in the theater, concert hall, church, or opera. • A lady never, ever smokes.

• In crossing the street, a lady raises her dress a little above the ankle, holding together the folds of her gown and drawing them toward the right. Raising the dress with both hands exposes too much ankle and is most vulgar. • A lady (or gentleman for that matter) will always rise to her feet in respect for an older person, or one of a higher social standing. • Above all, the lady strives to be dignified and elegant in everything she does.

And for the Gentleman:
• A gentleman will always tip his hat to greet a lady.
• When walking in the street, the gentleman always walks on the outside to protect his lady from the dangers of the road. • If a gentleman is smoking and a lady passes by, he should remove the cigar from his mouth. • A true gentleman should always rise when a lady enters or leaves the room, and remove his hat upon entering a room where ladies are present. He should also precede a lady in ascending the stairs, and follow her in descending them. • A gentleman always stands to shake hands.

• During the daytime, a gentleman never offers a lady his arm unless to protect her in a large crowd. In the evening, it is appropriate for her to take his arm. • A gentleman should never place his arm on the back of a chair occupied by a lady. It is helpful to have students make a list of some of the rules of decorum that exist within their social circles; this activity will allow them to see similarities and differences between the time periods.

Questions for Discussion

1. In Oscar Wilde’s time, “earnestness”—sober behavior, a serious turn of mind—was valued as an important character trait. How does Wilde...
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