Act One of “The Importance of Being Earnest”

How does Oscar Wilde render Act One of The Importance of Being Earnest funny?

Wilde makes use of dry sarcasm, outlandish statements, and shift in word-class to create a general sense of incongruity and absurdity in Act One, contributing to the humour of the Act. For example, upon Jack stating that he has come up to town expressly to propose to Gwendolen, Algernon responds “I thought you had come up for pleasure?… I call that business.” This statement both helps flesh out Algernon as a thoroughly unromantic character, but also creates humour; his dry sarcasm’s contrast with the lovestruck Jack gives the scene a light-hearted juxtaposition. Wilde also makes use of wildly inappropriate statements, such as when Algernon declares that “The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty, and to someone else if she is plain.”. The statement is funny not only because it comes out of the blue, but also because of how it contrasts with what one would expect to be the prudish values of the time; you would never anticipate such wild licentiousness from a society as conservative as 19th-Century England. Finally, Wilde’s use of shift in word-class also creates humour in the Act, most notably in how he used “Bunburying” as a verb for sneaking away from marriage under the excuse of a (imaginary) friend being unwell, drawing on his purported friend, “Bunbury”. In a sense, the humour of the scene derives from how it contradicts the traditional representation of Victorian ideals; whereas we begin the play with a preconception of a prudish, socially conservative, traditionalist society, especially in the upper-class, Wilde contradicts this by presenting us with an image of exactly the opposite.

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