The Hypocrisy of Being Earnest

Category: Hypocrisy
Last Updated: 17 Aug 2022
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The Victorian era was a time of smugness and pomposity for the newly rich generation who quickly rose in class during and after the industrial revolution. Nothing was as it seemed in this day when earnestness was allegedly the most prized attribute a man could possess. In Oscar Wilde’s classical satire, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” every character embodies the ideas and values of this “earnest” age. Oscar Wilde’s primary character in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Jack, spouts hypocrisy when his mouth is open, and sometimes when it is closed. At first impression, Jack seems to be a true gentleman.

Indeed, the beginnings of his conversation with Algernon in the opening scene proves just that, but when the subject of his travels back and forth from the city to the country is brought up, Jack makes excuses and hastily changes the subject to more lighthearted topics like cucumber sandwiches (890). But very soon Algernon broaches the subject of “Bunburying,” to Jack’s ignorance. Little does this kindly gentleman know, however, that he is in fact “one of the most advanced Bunburyists (Algernon) know(s)” (894). The explanation Algernon receives from his questions is simply that Jack is Ernest in town, and Jack in the country.

Perhaps Jack who is Ernest is not as earnest as he seems? Algernon certainly thinks so. He produces a cigarette case belonging to Jack with the inscription “From little Cecily with her fondest love” (892). At which point, Jack says that it is very ungentlemanly to read someone else’s cigarette case. If Jack is so concerned about being gentlemanly, then why is he, as Algernon puts it, a “Bunburyist? ” Only a few lines later, Jack says to Algernon: “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” (893).

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This statement condemns him as a dreadful hypocrite to attentive readers. Jack claims to be a gentleman though he leads a double life, yet still dictates to others how a gentleman should act. In essence then, Jack, despite his admonishing of Algernon, is very much talking like a hypothetical dentist even if he isn’t one. It is not only Jack who is a hypocrite, however, as Algernon and Jack committed twin sins. After Jack’s admission of leading a double life, Algernon too confesses: You have invented a very useful younger brother called Ernest, in order that you may be able to come up to town as often as you like.

I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose. Bunbury is perfectly invaluable. If it wasn’t for Bunbury’s bad health, for instance, I wouldn’t be able to dine with you at Willis’s to-night… (895) Bunbury and Ernest are one of the same. However, Algernon is guilty of hypocrisy in more than just this instance. Upon Jack’s entrance, Algernon has a spread laid out in preparation for Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen, including a selection of cucumber sandwiches.

When Jack reaches for one, his hand is slapped away by the host, because they are to be saved, then Algernon continues eating the cucumber sandwiches (891). However, perhaps the most astonishing crime of hypocrisy Algernon commits takes place in act II, upon Jack’s discovery that Algernon is assuming the role of his “brother,” Ernest. Algernon declares that “one must be serious about something, if one wants to have any amusement in life. I happen to be serious about Bunburying” (932). With this statement, Algernon has admitted that the only thing he is serious about is lying to others.

This Victorian gentleman, who claims to be earnest, is serious about nothing but the deception of others. Cecily and Gwendolen, too, are prisoners of their own hypocrisy. Indeed, it seems as though Cecily is such a hypocrite that the only hypocrisy she can detect herself is in lies. Upon her meeting with Algernon, who is at the time pretending to be Jack’s wicked imaginary brother Ernest, Cecily expresses that: “I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy” (913).

In addition, Cecily too contradicts the lady-like humble manner the Victorian women were so proud of. As Algernon, in guise of Ernest, declares his love for Cecily, instead of the typical thank you and returning of compliments, she pulls out a diary and writes the compliment down, asking for more. Gwendolen, meanwhile, is worrying over whether or not she is still to love Jack since his name is Jack, and not Ernest as he deceived her. Her judgment is sure to be flawed though, seeing as how in her opinion, “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing” (935).

At last, the true irony of this hypocritical opinion comes out when Jack confides that he is to be rechristened “Ernest. ” Then, Gwendolen is not opposed to the marriage as she had been five minutes prior. Indeed, as events unfold her decision changes along with the changing of Mr. Worthing’s first name. Remember, that earnestness is prized above all, so Gwendolen and Cecily both desire to marry a man named Ernest. Whether he is really earnest or not is of no importance, because as Gwendolen said, style is much more important than sincerity.

All in all, the behavior of Wilde’s infamous hypocrites is astounding, to say the least. However, this must say something of the manner of the “earnest” Victorian age. Was it truly being earnest that was the desire of men and women? Or was it to appear earnest? If the latter is true, then it was necessary to be a hypocrite just to keep a name. Regardless of the case, it can be sure that Worthing at least has succeeded. All of his life he claimed to be Ernest, not Jack, but when he found out he truly was Ernest, he finally realized the importance of being earnest.

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The Hypocrisy of Being Earnest. (2017, Mar 30). Retrieved from

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