Paired Discussion Questions on Act One

Each pair of students assigned a question will develop a well-edited, carefully worded paragraph response to be taken up in class next time.

1. Why does Jack Worthing, JP [Justice of the Peace] call himself "Ernest" instead when he is in "town" (London)?

2. Why is Miss Fairfax referred to as "The Honourable Gwendolen Fairfax"? Why is this form of address used only formally and never colloquially?

3. Why has Algernon invented an invalid friend named "Bunbury"?

4. Gwendolen is obviously as haughty and headstrong as her mother; how, then, can Lady Bracknell assert some measure of control over her?

5. Jack has an insurmountable impediment to marrying Gwendolen in his background: what, as Lady Bracknell sees it, is this problem? How does she propose that he resolve this problem>

6. How does Wilde use the subject of cucumber sandwiches to reveal the characters of Jack and Algy?

7. How does Wilde satirize the vacuous mentalities and lifestyles of the British aristocracy in Lady Bracknell's interview with Jack?

8. How does Wilde use Jack's cigarette case pique his friend Algy's curiosity and thereby set up the initial complication of the action?

9. How does Wilde use the cigarette case to facilitate the exposition of the dramatic action?

10. Why does Jack intend to "kill off" his fictitious brother if Ernest has been so useful to the bachelor-cum-guardian?

11. The character of Algernon Moncrieff reflects the public persona of the dramatist himself: in what ways in Algy like Wilde?

12. Why is the classical allusion in which Wilde compares Lady Bracknell to the Gorgon particularly apt?

13. The other classical allusion, to the Emperor Augustus, is more oblique: why did Wilde choose the name "Augusta" for Lady Bracknell?

14. Why is it appropriate that Lady Bracknell should ring the doorbell in a "Wagnerian manner"?

15. What does Wilde reveal about Lane, "The Gentleman's Gentleman"?

16. What do such place names as Tunbridge Wells, Shropshire, Grosvenor Square, Belgrave Square, and Half-Moon Street, Mayfair, reveal about the characters?

17. What is the essence of such Wildean aphorisms as the following?" "[Women flirting with their own husbands] looks so bad. It is simply washing one's clean linen in public."

18. What point is Wilde making about journalism in general and reviewers in particular when Algernon remarks, "You should leave that [literary criticism] to people who haven't been at University. They do it so well in the daily papers"?

19. Jack describes himself politically as a "Liberal Unionist." This contemporary allusion to the Irish Question is really a criticism of a breakaway faction of the Liberal Party. Look up the term, then explain how Wilde uses the reference to imply his own political convictions while simultaneously criticizing Jack's.

20. Analyze the situation at the end of the first act, including Algy's overhearing Jack's real country address, to predict what will happen in the second act.

Paired Discussion Questions on Acts Two and Three

1. "Gwendolen and Cecily are not so much opposites as complements." Explain this remark by reference to their speeches and actions.

2. Early on in Act One Jack Worthing articulates the difference between city life and country life. Show three ways in which the life of the country (as exemplified by the Manor House, Woolton, Herfordshire) is very different from the bachelor life of The Albany, London.

3. Like Jack, Algy leads a double life, utilizing an escape mechanism when necessary to free himself of a life of social obligation and lead a life of unrestrained pleasure. Explain their differing motivations, but how both are "confirmed Bunburyists," nevertheless.

4. In what ways would the terms "hedonist," "aesthete," and "gourmand" be suitable descriptors for Algernon?

5. A subtle sub-theme of the play is readers, publishers, fiction, and censorship. Look at the specific passages that deal with these issues, as well as Miss Prism as a failed romance novelist and the sexual innuendo about the subversive material in French farces. What points by implication is Wilde making about contemporary literature?

6. Lady Bracknell has been described as "the perfect embodiment of the attitudes and rules of conduct of the British aristocracy." How does Wilde unmask the mercenary motives of Lady Bracknell to reveal her essential snobbishness and hypocrisy in the final act?

7. To a certain extent, Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble are also satirical figures through whom Wilde attacks British institutions, namely education and the Church of England. Explain briefly what aspects of these institutions Wilde is satirizing.

8. Define the term "bunburying," and explain its significance in the play. How does bunburying relate to Wilde's critique of Victorian earnestness? How are even Cecily and Dr. Chasuble "bunburyists"?

9. What are the conflicts in The Importance of Being Earnest? What types of conflict (physical, moral, intellectual, or emotional) dominate this work? How does the final scene resolve all these conflicts?

10. The play has a number of objects that acquire additional meanings as the action develops. Explain how three of the following symbols in The Importance of Being Earnest relate to the plot and especially to the characters: cucumber sandwiches, bread-and-butter, the German language, French music and language, "the chapter on the fall of the Rupee," bottles of champagne, teacake, muffins, and the capacious handbag.

11. Jack speculates momentarily on the possibility that Gwendolen will become exactly like her mother: to what extent does Wilde show them to be similar? In what ways do mother and daughter differ in their tastes and attitudes?

12. Plot secrets are one way for a dramatist to maintain suspense: how do the cigarette case and the capacious handbag represent plot secrets? How does Wilde unravel the first plot secret in Act Two and leave the unraveling of the other plot secret for the third act?

13. "Although we see little of them, each of the butlers has a back story and serves as a vehicle for Wilde’s satire of the aristocracy." Explain.

14. Lady Augusta Bracknell is compared to the Gorgon of Greek myth, and Laetitia Prism to the nymph Egeria of Roman myth. To what extent do these classical allusions illuminate our understanding of these characters, and especially of Jack’s attitude toward the former and Canon Chasuble’s attitude towards the latter?

15. If the principal characters will go to any lengths to avoid their responsibilities and place self- interest at the top of their own agendas, then a resolution of the conflicts in the play would be impossible: somebody has to make concessions. How does the resolution scene in the third act resolve the conflicts between

Lady Bracknell and Jack?

Jack and Algernon?

Gwendolen and Cecily?

16. "All the characters feel they can shape the plot to their private satisfaction, but continually find chance interfering; that chance eventually fulfills everyone’s desires requires a tour de force of clever structuring by Wilde." Explain with reference to three of the following characters:

Lady Bracknell

Jack Worthing

Algernon Moncrieff

Gwendolen Fairfax

Cecily Cardew.

Related Materials

Victorian Web Overview Decadents and Aesthetes Overview Oscar Wilde

Last modified 17 November 2011