Analysis: Writing Style
Funny, Full of Epigrams
Wilde's humor in The Importance of Being Earnest relies on creating absurd situations and characters whose lack of insight causes them to respond to these situations in inappropriate ways. For example, Lady Bracknell’s preoccupation with her own parties and complete lack of sympathy for invalids make her react to the news of Bunbury’s illness in an ridiculously cold manner:
Lady Bracknell: Well, I must say, Algernon, that I think it is high time that Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he was going to live or to die. This shilly-shallying with the question is absurd… I would be much obliged if you would ask Mr. Bunbury, from me, to be kind enough not to have a relapse on Saturday, for I rely on you to arrange my music for me. (I.130)
Most of us recognize that death by illness isn’t a matter of conscious choice and would take pity on the dying Bunbury. Not Lady Bracknell. She’s more concerned with the propriety of her music arrangements. She’s frivolous, worrying about style over the life-and-death struggle of Bunbury.
The entire play runs in a similar vein—with characters responding to situations in ways that are either too serious or too flippant. This exaggeration gives Earnest its distinctive brand of Wildean humor.
Keep an eye out, too, for Wilde’s patented epigrams—succinct, witty sayings. They are often general reflections on life (and, bonus: can be lifted straight out of the text and used to impress your friends). For example:
"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his." (I.228)
Wilde’s ability to craft these sayings is what made him famous... and is the true source of inspiration for the play. In a letter to an actor/producer friend in which he described the drama (hoping to get an advance, as he was strapped for cash), Wilde admitted as much—"The real charm of the play, if it is to have charm, must be in the dialogue" (source: "Appendix: Letter to George Alexander." The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays. Ed. Michael Cordner. Oxford U, 2008).
Luckily for us, he was totally right.