In The Importance of Being Earnest, the characters’ foolishness is the core of the comedy. Often, we don’t know whether a character says something contradictory or random in a serious way, or if the character is just joking. This ambiguity in tone makes readers both slightly uncomfortable and prone to laughter.
Wilde shows his characters’ folly in a number of ways: spinning something that is out of human control as if it were a simple matter of mundane choice, inverting aphorisms so that they mean the opposite of what common sense dictates, and simply juxtaposing random things so that they create an absurd situation.
Questions About Foolishness and Folly
Name three examples where characters say something paradoxical to give a comedic effect.
What is the effect of juxtaposing a serious situation (like having the girls leave the boys after discovering their deception) and a trivial one (like fighting over muffins)? Can you think of other situations where juxtaposition creates a foolish and funny scene?
In your opinion, are the characters serious when they say things like "in all matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing" (III.19)? How does their ambiguity of tone make the situation funny? How does this logic drive the plot?
Consider all the characters. It seems they all have some foolish aspects. Which character, in your eyes, is the most foolish? Why?
Chew on This
In The Importance of Being Earnest, the crux of Wilde’s humor depends on the inversion of common sense and the juxtaposition of random elements.