Thursday, December 19, 2019

Book Review - The Importance of Being Earnest

While reading The Importance of Being Earnest, I kept wondering how I managed to skipped over this one. It seems like something that should have been part of my curriculum in college. Or at the very least I should have seen one of the movie versions of the play. But somehow I did not.

And yet, as I read it recently, it felt very familiar. Part of the familiarity comes from the use of tropes common to comic writing. We have cases of mistaken identity, intentional deceit, unlikely coincidences and more. The dialog is witty and playful but with a biting undertone that gets at the heart of the theme.

The play centers on the interactions of two young men, Earnest and Algernon. At the onset we encounter the two men discussing the merits and virtues of life. During the discussion, we learn that Earnest’s real name is Jack but that he assumes the name Earnest while in London.

He seems ready to give up his duplicity but when he proposes to Gwendolen, she admits that she really loves him most because of his name. So instead of making a clean slate and killing off Earnest, he decides to wholly accept the name. Meanwhile, Gwendolen’s mother opposes their marriage on the grounds that Earnest does not come from an appropriate aristocratic heritage.

Thus we have a young man caught between two identity problems. His fiancĂ© only loves him because of his fake first name and his would-be mother-in-law refuses to acknowledge his potential because he has the wrong last name. Wilde presents these two obstacles as counterpoints to showcase the absurdity of each. Just as it’s absurd that young Gwendolen only loves her man because of his name, it’s equally absurd that he be inadequate for marriage because of his status in society as shown by his last name.

The story continues to play with these ideas through some hilarious moments to come. Algernon and Jack each struggle with their identities both in relationships and in society. We’re shown how ridiculous we can appear when we place too much importance on trivial things. At the same time, there are many things that we trivialize that perhaps we should look at more closely.

The language of the play is fabulous and is a great example of Wilde’s genius. The dialog is sharp and smart with some great quips and repartee. While the character types and the plot elements feel very similar to other plays (I was especially reminded of scenes from Twelfth Night), the writing feels fresh and fun.

This is a super fun story. Well written and hilarious. I really need to seek out a movie version (or see it performed live). It’s got plenty of laugh out loud moments while also providing a thoughtful satire on our impressions and assumptions about society and each other.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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