Study Guide

The Importance of Being Earnest Marriage

By Oscar Wilde

Marriage

Algernon: Why is it that at a bachelor's establishment the servants invariably drink the champagne? I ask merely for information.

Lane: I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir. I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand.

Algernon: Good heavens! Is marriage so demoralising as that?

Lane: I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir. I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present. I have only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person. (I.9-12)

The question here is whether or not marriage is demoralizing. This is one of the main questions that keeps popping up throughout the play. Lane doesn't think that marriage is "demoralizing." But Lane’s opinions are questionable since his marriage did not succeed.

Jack: I am in love with Gwendolen. I have come up to town expressly to propose to her.

Algernon: I thought you had come up for pleasure? . . . I call that business.

Jack: How utterly unromantic you are! (I.36-38)

Algernon seems to think that proposal and marriage are items of "business," and not "pleasure." He thinks of marriage as a social obligation he must fulfill in order to maintain a respectable name. Jack, on the other hand, has a much more positive view of marriage (possibly because he’s already met the love of his life); he seems to regard marriage as romantic.

Algernon: Nothing will induce me to part with Bunbury, and if you ever get married, which seems to me extremely problematic, you will be very glad to know Bunbury. A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it.

Jack: That is nonsense. If I marry a charming girl like Gwendolen, and she is the only girl I ever saw in my life that I would marry, I certainly won't want to know Bunbury.

Algernon: Then your wife will. You don't seem to realise, that in married life three is company and two is none. (I.94-96)

Algernon’s skepticism about marriage is revealed in his comments about Bunbury. The fictional character, Bunbury, is used as an excuse for a person to get out of his responsibilities. The fact that he thinks Bunbury will be a useful tool for a husband or wife might reveal that he does not think couples are faithful to each other after matrimony. In contrast, Jack thinks that married couples can be perfectly happy and faithful to each other.

Gwendolen: I adore you [Jack]. But you haven't proposed to me yet. Nothing has been said at all about marriage. The subject has not even been touched on. (I.157)

Gwendolen’s comments reveal that she thinks marriages (and proposals) should be organized. Her insistence on a proper proposal also reveals her coy nature.

Lady Bracknell: Pardon me, you are not engaged to any one. When you do become engaged to some one, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact. An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be. It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself . . . And now I have a few questions to put to you, Mr. Worthing. (I.172)

It is obvious from these comments that Lady Bracknell’s idea of marriage differs greatly from Gwendolen’s. While Gwendolen believes that a girl should be able to fall in love and marry the man of her choice, regardless of his social class, Lady Bracknell thinks that love should have nothing to do with it. In fact, she thinks that it’s okay for a girl not to even meet her future husband before marrying him. Lady Bracknell's concept of marriage is based on the idea that it must be—above all—a mark of social status.

Lady Bracknell: You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter—a girl brought up with the utmost care—to marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel? Good morning, Mr. Worthing! (I.218)

Since Lady Bracknell thinks that a woman should marry to improve her social status, it makes sense that she would blast Jack for not knowing anything about his family. She can't imagine any honorable man dreaming of proposing to her daughter without having any noble connections.

Miss Prism: You are too much alone, dear Dr. Chasuble. You should get married. A misanthrope I can understand—a womanthrope, never!

Chasuble: [With a scholar's shudder] Believe me, I do not deserve so neologistic a phrase. The precept as well as the practice of the Primitive Church was distinctly against matrimony.

Miss Prism: [Sententiously] That is obviously the reason why the Primitive Church has not lasted up to the present day. And you do not seem to realise, dear Doctor, that by persistently remaining single, a man converts himself into a permanent public temptation. Men should be more careful; this very celibacy leads weaker vessels astray.

Chasuble: But is a man not equally attractive when married?

Miss Prism: No married man is ever attractive except to his wife.

Chasuble: And often, I've been told, not even to her.

Miss Prism: That depends on the intellectual sympathies of the woman. Maturity can always be depended on. Ripeness can be trusted. Young women are green. (II.81-87)

Here, we see yet another opinion on marriage—this time from two respectable and more mature individuals, Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble. Miss Prism’s comments reveal her belief that all respectable men should get married. Her logic is as follows: bachelors permanently become temptations for women if they stay single. Thus, it is their duty to stop leading women astray. Her comment that "young women are green" suggests that women should wait to marry until they are mature enough to value their husbands.

Chasuble: Your brother was, I believe, unmarried, was he not?

Jack: Oh yes.

Miss Prism: [Bitterly] People who live entirely for pleasure usually are. (II.113-115)

Miss Prism—like Algernon—differentiates between business and pleasure. But she differs from Algernon in that she embraces responsibility and duty. So while she believes that marriage is a social responsibility, she considers it an honor and a mark of respect.

Algernon: But why on earth did you break it off? What had I done? I had done nothing at all. Cecily, I am very much hurt indeed to hear you broke it off. Particularly when the weather was so charming.

Cecily: It would hardly have been a really serious engagement if it hadn't been broken off at least once. But I forgave you before the week was out. (II.224-225)

Cecily’s comment that "it would hardly have been a really serious engagement if it hadn’t been broken off at least once" hints that she thinks marriage is a big deal. But, because Cecily is so young and believes in happily-ever-afters, she has not quite grasped the seriousness of marriage to the extent that Lady Bracknell or Miss Prism have.

Lady Bracknell: To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other's character before marriage, which I think is never advisable. (III.86)

That Lady Bracknell considers it "never advisable" to "give people the opportunity of finding out each other’s character before marriage" just shows that high society has made the institution of marriage more about politics and less about love. A politically or socially respectable marriage has nothing to do with chemistry between the couple and everything to do with each individual’s bloodlines and credentials.

Jack: [Embracing her] Yes . . . mother!

Miss Prism: [Recoiling in indignant astonishment] Mr. Worthing! I am unmarried!

Jack: Unmarried! I do not deny that is a serious blow. (III.148-150)

In the nineteenth century, it was unspeakably dishonorable for an unmarried woman to have children because it meant that she had lost her virginity before her wedding night. Miss Prism is horrified that Jack would imply that she is his mother when she has no husband. Compared to social standards nowadays, the practices of the nineteenth century were way harsher and more judgmental of women than they are now.