In The Importance of Being Earnest, the upper classes care about being respectable—so much so that they do a lot of lying about it.
In general, Victorian upper-class society holds slightly different expectations of men and women. Men need to be upstanding, rich, and from a good family. Women need to be upstanding, rich, from a good family, and chaste. Any deviation from the rules (being born poor, or being found in a handbag, in Jack's case) may prevent a young person from making a good match, and continuing his noble line.
Questions About Respect and Reputation
How is Jack and Gwendolen’s behavior toward each other in public slightly disgraceful? How about Algernon and Cecily’s? Who sets the standards of respectability for young couples?
Based on Lady Bracknell’s interview with Jack, what qualities does the aristocracy require in suitors to their daughters? What about in potential daughter-in-laws? What does Lady Bracknell value about Cecily?
Which character—Jack or Algernon—has a more defined sense of respectability? How does this character reveal his ethics?
How is Miss Prism’s holier-than-thou respectability mocked and parodied throughout the play? How does her hidden history undermine her pretentious words?
Chew on This
The ultimate goal in Earnest is to reconcile romantic desires and respectability; in other words, Jack, Algernon, Gwendolen, and Cecily all strive to make their less-than-honorable courtship look appropriate to Lady Bracknell.
Although each character in Earnest strives to be respectable, none actually believes in the socially-prescribed standards, and all often mock the idea that one can be both respectable and happy.