The Importance Of Being Earnest: Methuen Student Edition / Edition 1

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Wilde's "trivial play for serious people" is a sparkling comedy of manners. This hilariously absurd satire pits sincerity against style, barbed witticisms against ostentatious elegance. Wilde's brilliantly constructed plot and famous dialogue enrich the appeal of his celebrated characters, as he turbans accepted ideas inside out and situations upside down in this, his masterpiece.

The Student Edition offers a plot summary, full commentary, character notes and questions for study, besides a chronology and bibliography.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780413396303
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
  • Publication date: 9/1/2003
  • Series: Student Editions Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 144
  • Product dimensions: 5.14 (w) x 7.78 (h) x 0.37 (d)

Meet the Author

Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin in 1856. In the years following his graduation from Oxford in 1878 he published poems and stories which included The Picture of Dorian Gray. Lady Windermere's Fan was produced in 1892, A Woman of No Importance in 1893 and An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895. Later work included De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol. He died in 1900.


Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on October 16, 1854, to an intellectually prominent Dublin family. His father, Sir William Wilde, was a renowned physician who was knighted for his work as medical adviser to the 1841 and 1851 Irish censuses; his mother, Lady Jane Francesca Elgee, was a poet and journalist. Wilde showed himself to be an exceptional student. While at the Royal School in Enniskillen, he took First Prize in Classics. He continued his studies at Trinity College, Dublin, on scholarship, where he won high honors, including the Demyship Scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford.

At Oxford, Wilde engaged in self-discovery, through both intellectual and personal pursuits. He fell under the influence of the aesthetic philosophy of Walter Pater, a tutor and author who inspired Wilde to create art for the sake of art alone. It was during these years that Wilde developed a reputation as an eccentric and a foppish dresser who always had a flower in his lapel. Wilde won his first recognition as a writer when the university awarded him the Newdigate Prize for his poem "Ravenna."

Wilde went from Oxford to London, where he published his first volume of verse, Poems, in 1881. From 1882 to 1884, he toured the United States, Ireland, and England, giving a series of lectures on Aestheticism. In America, between speaking engagements, he met some of the great literary minds of the day, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Walt Whitman. His first play, Vera, was staged in New York but did poorly. After his marriage to Constance Lloyd in 1884 and the birth of his two sons, Wilde began to make his way into London's theatrical, literary, and homosexual scenes. He published Intentions, a collection of dialogues on aesthetic philosophy, in 1891, the year he met Lord Alfred Douglas, who became his lover and his ultimate downfall. Wilde soon produced several successful plays, including Lady Windermere's Fan (1892) and A Woman of No Importance (1893). Wilde's popularity was short-lived, however. In 1894, during the concurrent runs of his plays An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, he became the subject of a homosexual scandal that led him to withdraw all theater engagements and declare bankruptcy. Urged by many to flee the country rather than face a trial in which he would surely be found guilty, Wilde chose instead to remain in England. Arrested in 1895 and found guilty of "homosexual offenses," Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labor and began serving time in Wandsworth prison. He was later transferred to the detention center in Reading Gaol, where he composed De Profundis, a dramatic monologue written as a letter to Lord Alfred Douglas that was published in 1905. Upon his release, Wilde retreated to the Continent, where he lived out the rest of his life under a pseudonym. He published his last work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, in 1898 while living in exile.

During his lifetime, Wilde was most often the center of controversy. The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was serialized in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine in 1890 and published in book form the next year, is considered to be Wilde's most personal work. Scrutinized by critics who questioned its morality, the novel portrays the author's internal battles and arrives at the disturbing possibility that "ugliness is the only reality." Oscar Wilde died penniless, of cerebral meningitis, in Paris on November 30, 1900. He is buried in Paris's Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Author biography from the Barnes & Noble Classics edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Good To Know

To make ends meet, Wilde edited the popular ladies' periodical Woman's Day from 1887 to 1889.

When in exile on the Continent, Wilde was forced to live under the alias Sebastian Melmoth.

It is rumored that Wilde's last written words were found in his journal, left behind in the Left Bank flophouse where he died: "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has got to go."

Wilde is buried in the Paris cemetery of Père Lachaise; there, he keeps company with other famous artists, including Jim Morrison and Edith Piaf.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (full name)
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 16, 1854
    2. Place of Birth:
      Dublin, Ireland
    1. Date of Death:
      November 30, 1900
    2. Place of Death:
      Paris, France

Read an Excerpt


Like Dr. Johnson, but without the aid of a Boswell, Oscar Wilde is an author whose personality endures more vividly than most of his writings. I hasten to add that The Importance of Being Earnest endures, and so do some of Wilde's essays and "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." But, like Rasselas, "The Vanity of Human Wishes," and Johnson's other permanently interesting writings, they comprise a rather modest residue for a lifetime of literary work.

If Wilde's personality has outlasted most of the words be put on paper, it is still a personality intimately connected with his writing. If we may believe his friends, he expressed himself best and most characteristically in his high-spirited, infinitely resourceful, ingenious conversation. When he first came to London, he was an ostentatious "character" who affected an outlandish costume, but his true reputation overcame this notoriety, only to be eclipsed in turn by the scandal that ended his career.

Among his many friends, Wilde enjoyed the greatest distinction as a wit, as an irrepressible dazzler on all occasions. Max Beerbohm told S. N. Behrman: "Well, in the beginning he was the most enchanting company, don't you know. His conversation was so simple and natural and flowing--not at all epigrammatic, which would have been unbearable. He saved that for his plays, thank heaven." Fortunately, Wilde knew enough to preserve his witticisms, and not only the epigrammatic ones. If his rapt listeners did not include a Boswell, he compensated for this deficiency by being his own Boswell, preserving his wit in his literary work. Connoisseurs among his acquaintances preferred hisjokes and stories in the- form he gave them as he spoke, but we who are Wilde's posterity are beggars who cannot be choosers. Accordingly, we read his novel, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, and such plays as Lady Windermere's Fan and An Ideal Husband, seeking the occasional plum, the bright remark couched in Wilde's distinctive style. But the witticisms work best in a setting that is worthy of them, and they got such a setting only in The Importance of Being Earnest. Only this work, Wilde's last completed play, is a feast of such plums, the only one of his plays that is consistently written in his highest and wittiest style, the conversational style that belonged peculiarly to Wilde himself.

Invariably, wit comments upon its opposites, slowness of thought and infelicity of expression; implicitly, it ridicules. dullness and solemnity. In his previous plays, Wilde had softened his attack upon ordinary reality by creating some good, dun people who carried on the necessary business of the main plot. But The Importance of Being Earnest, being wholly dedicated to wit, presents good, dull people only to caricature them. The brightly burnished style of this play directly comments upon the drabness of ordinary speech, and, indeed, it defies the real world. Defiance was always part of Wilde's public attitude, but only in The Importance of Being Earnest was he so bold as to make this defiance plain from the beginning to the end of the play. Even his two plain speakers embody a highly stylized plainness, Philistinism cubed, as it were, and the one plainer speaker disappeared while the play was being cut for performance. As it stands, this comedy is the fullest embodiment of Wilde's lifelong assault upon commonplace life and commonplace values. It was inevitable that the conventional world should strike back at Wilde, at his character and his ideas, if not specifically at his play, but the speed and cruelty of the world's retribution surpassed expectation. Four days after the opening of his last and finest comedy, the succession of events began that brought about his disgrace, imprisonment, and exile.

Wilde's defiance, it should be understood, was deeply personal. It was not at all the product of any seriously considered social criticism, but, rather, it stemmed from an individualism supported by a philosophy of art for art's sake. I find it significant that George Woodcock, in the principal study of Wilde's social thought, discovers some trenchant, if incidental, social criticism in the earlier plays, but next to nothing of this element in The Importance of Being Earnest, accordingly, he dismisses Wilde's masterpiece with a single sentence. But this play is not only Wilde's masterpiece; it also has the virtue of expressing its author more fully than any of his other dramatic or narrative writings. Mr. Woodcock to the contrary notwithstanding, it does criticize society, but not from the usual standpoint of social reform. Wilde attacks society on aesthetic grounds, in this play as in his previous works. What he recommends to us, and by implication only, is not social reform, women's suffrage, or child-labor laws, but style--a style of life, of behavior, and of speech. By showing the height of wit and manners, he criticizes their absence. This may not sound much like anyoneelse's's kind of social criticism, but it is Wilde's critique! of society, and it fulfills the logic of his life as an artist up to that moment.

The beginning of his life was surely conducive to individualism, if not to art. He was the product of an eccentric Dublin family--Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde, second son of a prominent physician, William Wilde, and Jane Elgee Wilde, who, as "Speranza," wrote articles and verses passionately urging liberty for Ireland. William Wilde was a notorious philanderer and the father of several illegitimate children; once his wife wrote a private letter chiding one of his former mistresses and was promptly sued by the lady in question in an action that anticipated Oscar Wilde's suit against the Marquis of Queensbury for libel by private correspondence. The dramatist was born October 16, 1854, but later so that he might seem even more of a prodigy than he really was, he represented himself as having been born in 1856, a year that is still sometimes recorded as the date of his birth.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 9
The Importance of Being Earnest 27
From Wilde's Letters 110
Excerpts from Four-Act Version 113
Commentaries 132
George Bernard Shaw: "An Old New Play" 132
Max Beerbohm: "The Importance of Being Earnest" 136
St. John Hankin: "The Collected Plays of Oscar Wilde" 140
James Agate: "Oscar Wilde and the Theatre" 152
Bibliography 159
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Customer Reviews

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( 52 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 50 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2014

    Love this play!

    My theatre class is going to put on this production at our school in a few months and I can't wait. This play is unbelievably hilarious and witty as well. There are alot of big words that don't quite make sense but when you put it all together it creates the perfect classic story about betrayal and deception and diguise! I have read alot of plays in my 14 year life and this is definately at the very top of my favorites list!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2013

    Simply Delightful and A Quick Read

    This is such a brilliant play! Honestly it's simply hilarious and a must read for absolutely everyone! It's funny enough for reader's to be entertained throughout the play and it uses satirical prose to reveal a deeper meaning.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2013

    Yall is stooooooooopid. Go f**k yoselves please read

    Just kudding!!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 10, 2012

    Rrad silverfishes story at ski result two!


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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2012

    Very funny

    It was awesome clasic situation. Really easy and fast read. Itvtruly leaves you with a lesson if being earnest

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  • Posted September 5, 2011

    Wonder full read

    I read this when i was in high school and instead of being bored to death my class found this thouraly entertaining and funny i recomend watching the movie :D

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 28, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A Yearning to Read Review

    Jack: A young man with no parents. Has a ward - the daughter of the man who brought him up. Is entirely overprotective of her. Has a made-up brother named Earnest, a troublemaker who never actually existed and is, in fact, Jack. Is in love with his best friend's cousin, Gwendolyn.
    Algernon: A young man whose parents have died. Has an aunt and a cousin, Lady Bracknell and the aforesaid Gwendolyn. Has a made-up friend, Bunbury, and sometimes tours the country in the guise of this Mr. Bunbury. Falls in love with Jack's ward and decides to meet her as soon as he can - putting aside the fake name of Bunbury and taking on the name of Earnest, stealing Jack's place as Jack's brother.
    In this wonderful romantic comedy, nothing is what it seems, and Jack and Algernon must dig their way out of the little mess they've made for themselves so they can marry the women they love.

    I read this play for school, but I would easily read it again...maybe, now. I was super impressed by the hilarity and perfection of this story. I laughed out loud at the quirky statements that make these characters who they are. I couldn't help but fall in love with Jack. I loved the simplicity and lightheartedness. Without a doubt, this is one of my all time favorite plays.

    Using two words that I've already used, this book is "simply hilarious." I highly recommend it to ages fifteen and up. The reason for this is because I tried reading it in 9th grade and didn't get it at all. It makes much more sense now and I laughed so hard at a few statements that I remembered as boring and stupid. But at the right age, it is definitely worthy and easy read.

    Enjoy! :)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Oscar Wilde was a genius!

    I had to read this in my senior year of high school. I am so glad that my teacher had this assigned. This play is so wity it will make you laugh out loud. The characters are so original and Wilde does such a good job of making you want more from them. This is a must read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2002

    Witty and Humorous

    This book is a perfect example of how people in society potray themselves as dignified individuals while keeping the realization that they play an important role in society. They adjust themselves to fit their own standards, and live up to their character and gender roles of their class and time.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 1, 2002

    Wildes at his best

    Being the last work of a great writer it does perfect justice to his name and leaves a lasting impact before the curtain is down finally. Oscar Wilde has weilded his mighty pen in this play with its full power and churns out a biting satire on middle class hypocrisy of Victorian England. But as it is true for all great literature this play transcends itself from the limitation of space and time and becomes a classics for all ages and places. I strongly recommend this play for all theatre lovers and stage production as it will be a delightful presentation. However even simply reading of this play is as much a matter of great joy. It is certainly a great value for one's time and money so much so that its worth is really invaluable. It is certainly a literary classics and in this play Wilde is at his best.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2001

    A new bom for WW3!

    This book is a bom!

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted February 15, 2014

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    Posted February 28, 2011

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