Group Discussions

Each group will briefly discuss and arrive at a consensus answer on one of the following interpretive problems. One person should be the group's recorder, another the group's spokesperson. The remaining group members must be prepared to accept questions from the instructor and other members of the class, and to cite relevant textual support. The spokesperson's oral report to the whole class should be kept to five minutes or less.

1. Boyle, Robert. "Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)." British Novelists, 1890- 1929: Traditionalists. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 34. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985. Pp. 315-331.

Boyle describes Wilde's last play as a humorous "treatment of decay and death," and of "human suffering," in which Wilde finally abandons the effort to balance "conventional moral norms with the realities of human behavior" (325). Reacting to these remarks, develop an essay topic about an underlying, serious theme in The Importance Of Beinq Earnest.

2. Beckson, Karl. "Oscar Wilde." Modern British Dramatists, 1900-1945. Part 2: M-Z. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 10. Pp. 204-218.

"Central to Wilde's life and art was the idea of the dandy as the embodiment of the heroic ideal as well as of the aesthetic temperament hostile to bourgeois sentiment and morality" (205). Which of the characters in the play embodies this aesthetic principle, and how? From your consideration of these characters' utterances and actions develop an appropriate essay topic.

3. Keach, William. Teacher's Manual: Adventures in English Literature. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1980. Pp. 183-7.

Keach contends that Lady Bracknell's "cross-examination of Jack lays the groundwork for much of the rest of the plot" (184), and that the underlying tension of the play depends upon "the contrast of city and country so important to the double lives being led" (183). Explain these two points, then develop one of them into a suitable essay topic.

4. Reinert, Otto. "Satiric Strategy in The Importance Qf Being Earnest." College English 18, 1 (Oct., 1956): 14-18.

"Wilde's basic formula for satire is [his characters'] assumption of a code of behavior that represents the reality that Victorian convention pretends to ignore" (15). Reinert argues that in this play Wilde is principally concerned with the difference between conventional and actual manners and morality. Discuss these points, then refine this "formula for satire" into an essay topic.

5. Foster, Richard. "Wilde as Parodist: A Second Look at The Importance Of Being Earnest." College English 18, 1 (Oct., 1956): 18-23.

Foster feels that the terms "farce" and "comedy of manners" are unsuitable for this Wilde play because it is far more subtle, complicated, and artist than such labels imply. "Farce. ..depends for its effects upon extremely simplified characters tangling themselves up in incongruous situations, and upon a knowing audience gleefully anticipating their falling victim, in their ignorance, to some enormous but harmless confusion of fact or identity." Furthermore, "A comedy of manners is fundamentally realistic: it requires the audience to accept the world presented on the stage as a real world, a possible world" (19). Foster contends that the play is in fact an elaborate lampoon. Apply the terms "farce," "comedy of manners," and "lampoon" to The Importance Of Being Earnest, then develop an essay topic that utilizes these terms.

6. Jordan, Robert J. "Satire and Fantasy in Wilde's The Importance Qf Beinq Earnest." Ariel 1, 3 (July 1970).

Jordan, pointing out that inverted relationships are the norm in this play, rejects the proposition that The Importance Qf Being Earnest is a satire or a social criticism; rather, "at the most important level it seems to be a fantasy in which unattainable human ideals are allowed to realize themselves." Elegance, symmetry, taste, indifference to con- ventional morality, and a total lack of sexual corruption (for which Wilde substitutes "food-lust") are achieved in this make-believe world. Apply the term "fantasy" to Wilde's play, demonstrating how it achieves some of Foster's ideal elements listed above, then develop a suitable essay topic.

A Note on Essay Topics

Topics may call for comparison between two like things, such as the humour in Married with Children and The Importance Of Being Earnest. Contrast, on the other hand, implies that the writer is out to demonstrate differences between things usually thought to be similar. For example, one might contrast the duplicity of Jack and Algernon here with that of Dr. Jekyll in Stevenson's novella.

Other possibilities are explanation and analysis, for example: "Why We Laugh WITH and Not AT Lady Bracknell."

Topics for 750-word out-of-class essay (English 1112, Lakeland University)

Over the next week you will be voting on the following topics, then writing a unified, coherent 750+ word essay on ONE of the following topics developed by your classmates. Each class, having voted, will have a choice of THREE topics listed. It is quite conceivable that no two classes will make the same three choices. You may use texts and dictionaries, but resort to published criticism on the play moderately (if at all): the emphasis in this assignment should be on developing a rational argument from the text of the play (including the so- called "Gribsby Episode" in the Appendix). You may use a word-processor or type your paper: please remember to double space and observe appropriate margins. All pages should be numbered, and a suitable cover sheet stapled on top.

1. Wilde suggests that his Victorian contemporaries should treat trivial matters with greater respect and pay less attention to what society then regarded as serious. Discuss how Wilde expresses this philosophy and comment on the effectiveness with which he has communicated his 'message' with reference to ONE of the following in the play: death, politics, money, property, food, or marriage.

2. Using three examples drawn from the play, show how Algernon uses Wilde's aesthetic principles to transform his life into a work of art.

3. How does Wilde portray food as both a weapon and a means of demonstrating one's power? Discuss threee examples from the play to demonstrate how Wilde uses food.

4. Describe how this play mayor may not fit the criteria associated with the genre of the lampoon. Define the term "lampoon" and apply this definition to the play: what is Wilde lampooning? What is his intention in lampooning it? What are his techniques, and do these produce appropriate attitudes in the audience?

5. Define the term "fantasy," then demonstrate how Wilde treats ONE of the following fantastically (as opposed to realistically): Victorian society's class structure, food and the Victorian conventions surrounding it, the resolution of the plot.


a. Parenthical documentation rather than foot- or end-notes will be considered acceptable; for a play longer than a single act, please provide act number in roman numerals followed by page number in arabic numerals.

b. Double space all text; if you are doing your essay by hand, you may single space quotations of forty words or longer, but integrate shorter quotations; for example:

Lady Bracknell is unrealistically, almost contemptuously honest when she reveals her ignorance of the German language. Objecting to French songs on the grounds of the possible appearance of impropriety, she remarks, "But German sounds a thoroughly respectable language, and indeed, I believe is so" (I: 128, emphasis added).

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Last modified 13 March 2006