Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest may be the most pure example of a Victorian farce. To begin with, the chaos and the misunderstandings all are based on romantic pursuits and completely self-centered ambitions. From the opening, the absurd is the foundation; Jack leads a double life depending on his city or country residence, Algernon insists to Gwendolyn that he is named “Ernest,” and Lady Bracknell exists to enforce Victorian and upper-class rules of behavior. The entire plot is in fact composed of many chaotic situations, and the improbability of them reinforces the farce.
Algernon, Jack/Ernest, Gwendolen, Cecily, Lady Bracknell, and Miss Prism are all constantly negotiating with one another to satisfy their desires, and the structure of force relies on the constant threat of exposure, as well as the purely romantic consequences and motivations. Beyond any other plot device, and apart from dialogue that moves from sentimental expressions to the most trivial arguments, there is the truly farcical element of Gwendolen’s being unable to love any man not named Ernest, which bizarre need actually drives a great deal of the plot.
Regarding the characters themselves, it is arguable that they have no real dimension, and because they are caricatures of certain types. Algernon and Jack, for example, are typically privileged young men of the era, and each becomes as concerned about cucumber sandwiches as they are about love. Similarly, Gwendolen and Cecily are perfect images of high-born young women of the period, and Lady Bracknell is the ultimate stereotype of the wealthy, old-fashioned, domineering Victorian woman of means. At the same time, however, and even within the emphasis on the trivial, it may be said that the characters have depth. Algernon’s falling in love with Cecily, for example, is part deception and part honesty. He assumes a false identity but, even under the ridiculous circumstances, his devotion to Cecily is real. Both men go to extremes in deception, in fact, but their ultimate motivations are true to life. Then, and her snobbery aside, even Lady Bracknell reveals depth when, in the conclusion, she is clearly pleased that love is in place along with social demands. Essentially trivial and almost cartoon-ish, Wilde’s characters still operate on the most human and real motivations.
Understanding this relies on seeing beyond the playwright’s language. Wilde’s people consistently express themselves in arch, grandiose phrasing, and the formality of the speech greatly adds to comedic quality. When even the most ridiculous concern is spoken in such language, the sheer contrast between the elegance of the language and the content is inevitably comic. This is speech vastly removed from our own usage of language; everything is expressed in a tightly formal way, and even “casual” conversations are built on complex structures. In a sense, the audience may almost “hear” semi-colons and other grammar elements in the dialogue and, again, the exaggerated quality of the formal creates a sense of satire, as the characters are objects of satire in themselves.
Lastly, Wilde’s remark that “the pure and simple truth is never pure or simple” very much applies to the play, and in spite of its farce nature. As the play represents, people “stumble” into truth as they often make efforts to disguise it, and no matter their emphasis on the trivial. More exactly, and even in such a contrived work with a beautifully happy ending, the underlying message is that the truth will eventually be exposed, and be more complicated than anyone may expect. Miss Prism’s confession about the manuscript and the baby in the handbag, for example, supports this. The truth was always there but human ideas, motivations and actions confused it. The core of the play must go to resolution, but the greater reality is that all of the main characters “find their way” to the truth, and in spite of themselves.