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Teaching Guide

Teaching The Importance of Being Earnest

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Reading The Importance of Being Earnest is the best time for your class to go Wilde…Oscar Wilde, that is. We can help get the party started with our teaching guide, in which you'll find

  • historical and literary connections to Wilde's other works and the general mood of the Victorian era (read: stuffy).
  • an activity relating this old play to that new thing called Facebook.
  • essay and discussion questions exploring the personal life of Oscar Wilde.

And much more.

We call this guide The Importance of Using Shmoop. And with this teaching guide, everyone can be important.

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  • 13-18 Common Core-aligned activities to complete in class with your students, including detailed instructions for you and your students. 
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  • Resources to help make the book feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
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Instructions for You

Objective: The Importance of Being Earnest spends a lot of time exploring and critiquing society and class. This play is all about class distinctions, unspoken rules, and social scandal. Who’s dating? Who’s getting married? Who’s telling lies? The rumor mill churns with speculation and gossip.

In this lesson, students will explore the theme of society and class in the play, making connections between Victorian society and our own. Students will read current gossip columns and use them to make inferences about our social norms. Then students will analyze the social rules of Victorian society and compose their own gossip column about one of the play’s “scandals.”

This lesson will take two to three class periods to complete.

  •  Copies of The Importance of Being Earnest
  • Sample gossip columns or computers with Internet access

Materials Needed:

Step 1: Point out that The Importance of Being Earnest is all about high society, scandal, and gossip. Now, we may not have a noble class in our society, but we are just as thrilled with scandal and gossip as those Victorians were, and it’s important to help your students make this connection. Help students see that our equivalent to Victorian high society is the Hollywood elite. You might nudge their understanding along with a few guiding questions:

  • Who do we look to for what is stylish and fashionable?
  • Whose personal lives are most on display in our society?
  • Who do we collectively gossip about in our society?
  • Who are the elite or the inaccessible in our society?

Step 2: Next, pass out some sample gossip columns that deal with our Hollywood elite. You can find these in print or online in publications like Entertainment Weekly or Us Weekly celebrity-news. We recommend that you bring in the examples rather than assigning this to students to avoid any overly uncomfortable topics or issues that may not be age/school appropriate; but at the same time, don’t be too tame either. The idea here is to help students see and critique how our society pries into private lives, casts judgment based on social norms, and revels in scandal, so find the juiciest gossip you think your students are mature enough to handle.

Read and discuss these gossip columns, helping students to make inferences about our social order and social norms. Here’s one of our famous helpful lists to guide your discussion:

  • What are the subjects of these articles? What does this say about our concerns as a society or about what we consider newsworthy?
  • Which issues do you consider more private and which do you think the public ought to know about? Explain your reasoning.
  • What types of people end up in the news for things that would otherwise be private? Why are we so concerned with their private lives? Do we have a right to be? Are there some situations where we do have a right to know?
  • What subjects are absent from these articles? What types of things do we as a society seem uninterested in, concerning celebrities?
  • What can you infer about our social norms from these articles? What behavior is considered acceptable or unacceptable? What do we consider scandalous or shocking?
  • How important is reputation for celebrities? What kinds of things seem to lead to a good or bad reputation based on these articles?
  • Is it more acceptable to break some social norms than others? Which ones? Why?
  • How do you feel about our societal values based on these inferences?

Step 3: Now connect this conversation back to the play:

  • What inferences can you make about Victorian social norms based on the play? Check out Shmoop on Society and Class for help.
  • What does Victorian society seem to value?
  • What social rules are related to class distinctions? Do we have any similar rules in our society?
  • What things do they find shocking or scandalous? Are these similar to or different from our society?
  • How important is reputation in Victorian society? How do the characters maintain their reputations? Check out Shmoop on Respect and Reputation.

Step 4: Now that your students have made brilliant text-to-world connections, divide them into groups to brainstorm all the “scandals” that occur during The Importance of Being Earnest. They’re looking for gossip column-worthy stuff here. What would get media attention? What would have everyone talking? Here’s a shortlist of some of our favorite scandals from the first two acts to get you started:

  • Algernon discovers Jack’s cigarette with an inscription from Cecily.
  • Jack reveals that he has invented his brother, Ernest, to escape to town whenever he pleases.
  • Algernon reveals that he has invented an invalid, Bunbury, to escape to the country.
  • Jack proposes to Gwendolyn, but she believes he is Ernest.
  • Jack reveals that he was found in a handbag as a child.
  • Algernon shows up at the country house to woo Cecily impersonating Ernest.
  • Gwendolyn and Cecily believe they are both engaged to Ernest.
  • The truth about all the Ernest impersonations comes out; the women are scorned.

Step 5: Who knows gossip better than high school students? No one. Each student will write an article in the style of a gossip column about one of the scandals in the play. Students should focus on imitating the voice and style of the sample gossip articles, and they should highlight the social norms that are being violated.

Step 6: Time to debrief. Allow students to share their articles, either in small groups or with the whole class. Continue your conversation about social rules and social order. The Importance of Being Earnest may be a hilarious comedy, but Wilde has some important things to say on this topic. Ask students to consider what Wilde’s purpose might be in poking fun at Victorian society and the upper class. Does this play make an argument about social rules? How do students feel about this issue? When are our social rules useful? Harmless? Problematic? Oppressive? What would Wilde say?

Instructions for Your Students

There’s no doubt that there are tons of scandalous activities going down in The Importance of Being Earnest. Made up names, made up people, handbags for parents; you’d better believe that all of high society London would’ve been gossiping. But are things really so different today?

In this lesson, you will explore the theme of society and class in the play, making connections between Victorian society and our own. You will read current gossip columns and use them to make inferences about our social norms. Then you’ll compose your own gossip column about one of the play’s scandals.

Step 1: Now, we may not have a noble class in our society, but we are just as thrilled with scandal and gossip as those Victorians were. So what’s our equivalent to Victorian high society? Well, let’s take a look:

  • Who do we look to for what is stylish and fashionable?
  • Whose personal lives are most on display in our society?
  • Who do we collectively gossip about in our society?
  • Who are the elite or the inaccessible in our society?

Step 2: So if our version of a noble class is the Hollywood elite, let’s take a look at the most current gossip. Ever glanced at the headlines while in line at the grocery store? There are some pretty outrageous rumors flying around about our beloved movie and music stars. Check out these sample gossip columns on celebrities.

  • What are the subjects of these articles? What does this say about our concerns as a society or about what we consider newsworthy?
  • Which issues do you consider more private and which do you think the public ought to know about? Explain your reasoning.
  • What types of people end up in the news for things that would otherwise be private? Why are we so concerned with their private lives? Do we have a right to be? Are there some situations where we do have a right to know?
  • What subjects are absent from these articles? What types of things do we as a society seem uninterested in, concerning celebrities?
  • What can you infer about our social norms from these articles? What behavior is considered acceptable or unacceptable? What do we consider scandalous or shocking?
  • How important is reputation for celebrities? What kinds of things seem to lead to a good or bad reputation based on these articles?
  • Is it more acceptable to break some social norms than others? Which ones? Why?
  • How do you feel about our societal values based on these inferences?

Step 3: Let’s take this conversation back to the context of The Importance of Being Earnest:

  • What inferences can you make about Victorian social norms based on the play? Check out Shmoop on Society and Class for help.
  • What does Victorian society seem to value?
  • What social rules are related to class distinctions? Do we have any similar rules in our society?
  • What things do they find shocking or scandalous? Are these similar to or different from our society?
  • How important is reputation in Victorian society? How do the characters maintain their reputations? Check out Shmoop on Respect and Reputation.

Step 4: Now that you have made all these brilliant text-to-world connections, you’ll get into groups to brainstorm all the scandals that occur during The Importance of Being Earnest. You’re looking for gossip column-worthy stuff here. What would get media attention? What would have everyone talking? What would “respectable” people find outrageous or shocking? Get those pages turning because this play is just dripping with secrets, lies, and deceit.

Step 5: Armed with your list, each of you will write an article in the style of a gossip column about one of the scandals in the play. You should focus on imitating the voice and style of the sample gossip articles, and be sure to highlight the social norms that are being violated. Need an example to get you started? Let’s discuss how a gossip column might handle one of the play’s first scandals:

As the play begins, Algernon discovers that his good friend, Ernest, has accidentally left a cigarette case at his house. Then Algy notices that the inscription in the case is to “Uncle Jack” from “little Cecily.” Hold on, who’s Jack? Did Ernest steal this case? Does he have a secret identity? Could he be a spy? A criminal? Does he have some terrible secret past he doesn’t want anyone to know about? And who is this Cecily? Does Ernest/Jack have a child out of wedlock that he’s hiding? A brother who abandoned his family? Why hasn’t he told anyone about Cecily? Is something wrong with her?

See what we mean? The speculation alone could keep the gossip columnists busy for weeks. Then when Algy discovers the truth about Jack being Jack in the country and Ernest in the city, another round of gossip and rumor would ensue. Why does Jack maintain two identities? What’s he hiding? Why hasn’t he told his beloved Gwendolyn anything about this? What will happen when she’s finds out he’s been lying all this time? What else is he lying about?

As you explore all the possible rumors and responses to the scandal you write about, remember to consider the characters’ motives and the societal values that they are trying to appear to meet in order to maintain a respectable reputation. For instance, in this cigarette case scandal, you would discuss Jack’s possible motives for having two identities. What might he be up to under one name or another that he wouldn’t want to tarnish his reputation? Remember, if you were a gossip columnist, you wouldn’t have the whole story. Rather you are speculating about the whole story based on one juicy piece of information.

Step 6: Let’s get this rumor mill going! You’ll share your articles and the gossip you came up with in small groups. Then, we’ll continue our conversation about social rules and social order. The Importance of Being Earnest may be a hilarious comedy, but Wilde has some important things to say on this topic, so let’s dig in:

  • What do you think Wilde’s purpose might be in poking fun at Victorian society and the upper class?
  • Does this play make an argument about social rules?
  • How do you feel about this issue?
  • When are our social rules useful? Harmless? Problematic? Oppressive? What would Wilde say?

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