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Oscar Wilde created one of the most delightful and memorable social comedies with "The Importance of Being Earnest." First performed in 1895, the play satirizes the stiff and proper customs and institutions of Victorian England. These quotes illustrate Wilde's way with words in this witty farce.
Social standing was very important during the Victorian era. You did not have a chance to rise to the top, as you might in the U.S., through hard work and luck. If you were born to a lower class -- generally the poorer and less-educated in society -- you would remain a member of that class for life, and you were expected to know your place, as these biting quotes illustrate.
- "Really, if the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?" - Act 1
- "My dear Algy, you talk exactly as if you were a dentist. It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn't a dentist. It produces a false impression… " - Act 1
- "Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square." - Act 1
Marriage during the Victorian era was decidedly unequal. Women lost all of their rights when they entered into the marriage contract and were forced to endure the control and cruelty of their husbands. Women fought to gain more control in the institution of marriage, but they did not gain those rights until after the end of the Victorian era.
- "I have always been of opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing." - Act 1
- "An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant as the case may be." - Act 1
- "And certainly once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not?" - Act 2
The Roles of Men and Women
Like everything else in this era, men and women were expected to behave in a prim and proper manner. But, a peak under to covers -- so to speak -- shows that what men and woman thought about their roles was very different than what appeared on the surface.
- "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his." - Act 1
- "The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty, and to some one else, if she is plain." - Act 1
- "London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years." - Act 3
The Importance of Being Earnest
Must Victorian-era social interactions involved a dichotomy between what people said and how they acted in public and what they truly thought. The play's title -- and many of its quotes -- allude to Wilde's belief that it was important to be earnest, and that truthfulness and honesty were lacking in Victorian society.
- "Pray don't talk to me about the weather, Mr. Worthing. Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. And that makes me so nervous." - Act 1
- "The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!" - Act 1
- "Gwendolen, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?" - Act 3
- "I've now realised for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest." - Act 3
Check out these other sources to help you in your studies of "The Importance of Being Earnest."