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The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest


by Oscar Wilde

Diaries and Miss Prism's Three-Volume Novel

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

You might wonder what the heck Cecily’s and Gwendolen’s diaries have in common with Miss Prism’s three-volume novel.

Let's start with the nitty-gritty: they're all written. Think about what you do when you write. It’s always a very personal activity because the way you string words together is completely your creation. Your writing is an expression of yourself. So it’s no surprise that some people want to keep their personal thoughts private. Many people’s thoughts and desires are pretty irrational and/or idealistic.

This is especially true in The Importance of Being Earnest. Almost any type of book or writing, with the sole exception of Jack’s Army Lists, reveals someone’s wishes or dreams. Cecily’s diary meticulously documents her desire for a lover (and future husband) named Ernest. It even includes imaginary love letters from him. Gwendolen’s diary does the same, minus the letters. Lady Bracknell’s notebook keeps tabs on men who have the potential to become worthy suitors for Gwendolen’s hand.

Most of the content in these pieces of writing is unrealistic at best and fantastic (in the fairy-tale sense) at worst. But these thoughts are kept private.

Miss Prism’s three-volume novel, on the other hand, reveals what happens when one tries to impose an impossibly idealized world onto gritty reality. Miss Prism probably wrote her novel in her younger days, when she was dazzled by other romantic and sentimental stories published in the same "triple decker" genre. So her writing could have been a sort of diary, a projection of a perfect inner world and her deepest desires put into words.

But everything fell apart when she tried to publish it, thus pushing it into the public sphere. It caused her to forget her real responsibility—baby Ernest—while she was daydreaming about her future success. She lost her job over it and was pursued by Scotland Yard. Her actions made her a criminal. And Lady Bracknell returns years later to haunt her about it.

So the diaries and three-volume novel of our female characters represent the innermost fantasies of idealistic young girls, dreams that clash directly with reality. Miss Prism puts it best with her quote:

"The good end[s] happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means." (II.15)

Luckily for the characters in The Importance of Being Earnest, they live inside a fictional universe... and so they all get happy endings.

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