The Importance of Being Earnest
by Oscar Wilde
Analysis: Steaminess Rating
Exactly how steamy is this story?
There’s no actual sex in The Importance of Being Earnest. But the whole reason we have a plot is because of differing opinions on two corollaries of sex—love and marriage. We’re not going to get into all the diverse and controversial opinions on these issues, but even in the prim and proper Victorian era, the name of the game is to continue one’s family line. That means having babies. And we all know where those come from.
Birthing healthy babies requires that, ideally, both parents should be healthy. There’s a hint of this in Earnest. It’s in the scene when Jack and Algernon are planning to kill off Ernest. Jack, who has a creative streak, suggests they blame Ernest’s "death" on apoplexy, a kind of severe stroke. But Algernon protests, saying:
"Yes, but it’s hereditary my dear fellow. It’s a sort of thing that runs in families. You had much better say a severe chill." (I.241)
After being interrogated on every aspect of his life by Lady Bracknell, Jack quickly agrees; the last thing he needs is a hereditary disease. Lady Bracknell would be sure to sink her claws into that.
Interestingly, the characters who blurt out the most suggestive lines are the women. We think this has something to do with the reversal of traditional gender roles in the play. Consider this collection of suggestive lines and notice how all of them are spoken by women:
- Gwendolen: Oh, I hope I am not [perfect, as Jack has suggested]. It would leave no room for developments, and I intend to develop in many directions. (I.110)
- Lady Bracknell: I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. (I.184)
- Miss Prism: And you do not seem to realise, dear Doctor, that by persistently remaining single, a man converts himself into a public temptation. Men should be more careful; this very celibacy leads weaker vessels astray. (II.83)
- Cecily: I might respect you, Ernest [if your name were not Ernest], I might admire your character, but I fear that I should not be able to give you my undivided attention. (II.239)
There’s lots of flirtation going on and it seems the women are inverting the typical power structure. They dictate the terms and make insinuations.
Jack and Algernon do communicate their desires, though, through food. They’re constantly eating. Algernon munches on cucumber sandwiches right before his Aunt Augusta arrives. At the same time, Jack snacks on bread and butter. Later, Algernon dines with Cecily and promptly drinks Jack’s favorite wine. After being rejected by the girls, Jack and Algernon fight over muffins. Back in the day, "muffins" was sometimes used as slang for female genitalia.
But ultimately—sassy innuendo aside—this play is safe to see with even your most Victorian family member.