Sincerity versus hypocrisy
This is the central theme of the play. Wilde lampoons the Victorian convention of preserving the appearance of respectability to hide cruel, manipulative, avaricious attitudes and unrespectable behavior. Many scenes reflect this theme, such as when Gwendolen and Cecily indulge in a catfight thinly disguised behind polite conversation at tea. Concealing her fury at Gwendolen’s insults, Cecily gives Gwendolen large amounts of cake and sugar after Gwendolen has specifically declined both on the grounds that they are not fashionable. Another example is the scene in which Lady Bracknell interrogates Jack about Cecily with the aim of judging her suitability as a wife for her nephew Algernon. Lady Bracknell only notices Cecily’s attractiveness after she has discovered that she has a large fortune.
The theme largely revolves around the name “Ernest” with its sound-alike adjective “earnest,” meaning sincere, honest, or serious. In the context of Victorian morality, as the critic Eric Bentley wrote, the play "is about earnestness, that is, Victorian solemnity, that kind of false seriousness which means priggishness, hypocrisy, and lack of irony" ("The Importance of Being Earnest," from The Playwright as Thinker (New York: Reznal & Hitchcock, 1946, p. 111). It is vitally important to both Gwendolen and Cecily that their lovers’ name is Ernest because it “inspires absolute confidence.” Both women are so obsessed by the superficial seriousness symbolized by the name Ernest that they do not take account of the inner men. Indeed, Gwendolen is so fixated upon the name that has not noticed that Jack has been deceiving her about his imaginary brother for the entire duration of their relationship. Ironically, however, neither Jack nor Algernon are what they seem, so they are not really “earnest.” That Jack turns out really to have been called Ernest all along is an ironic twist: he has been telling the truth in spite of his intention to tell a lie. That Jack has only been truthful by accident is Wilde’s satirical comment on the lies and deceptions by which conventional society operated.
The double life
All the main characters lead a double life. Jack has invented an imaginary brother, Ernest, who enables him to get up to all kinds of mischief in town with impunity. Into the bargain, Jack gains an appearance of charitable behavior in his forays to town ostensibly taken to help his brother out of trouble. Algernon has invented an imaginary friend, Bunbury, who enables him to escape his responsibilities by going to the country, and, like Jack, to appear charitable. Gwendolen fixates so strongly on marrying someone called Ernest that by the time Jack proposes, she has already constructed their romance in her mind; he hardly has to do any wooing for herself. For her, the imaginary Ernest represents sincerity. Cecily too constructs an entire engagement for her and “Ernest,” complete with a break and reconciliation, so fascinated is she by his wicked reputation.
Even those paragons of apparent Victorian respectability, Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism, have hidden pasts. Lady Bracknell had a sister whose son was lost at the very railway station that, in her mind, is such a disreputable place that it disqualifies Jack from marrying Gwendolen. Moreover, the son who was lost is Jack, whom, before the revelation of his true identity, she had despised as a social outcast. Miss Prism, too, has a dark secret, having fled her position as Mrs. Moncrieff’s governess after mistaking the baby Jack for the manuscript of her novel.
Thus, in the play, nobody is what they seem. In particular, the veneer of respectability that society demands is never what it seems. It cannot be taken at face value.
Those critics who use Wilde’s life to illustrate his works point to the significance of the theme of the double life to the homosexual man in Victorian England (as Wilde was). Homosexuality was illegal, and many homosexual men concealed their nature, even marrying a woman, as Wilde did, either out of confusion about their sexual identity or to borrow respectability in society’s eyes.
Homosexuals were not the only people who led a double life in Victorian England. There are many examples of men secretly supporting two households (for example, a wife and a mistress). The novelist Charles Dickens, who wrote novels in support of family values and domestic virtue, was one such man. Though there are complex reasons why such situations were relatively common, a large factor was the narrow Victorian view of what was morally acceptable. For those who could not meet such standards but who wanted to retain a high standing in society, the double life was the solution to the dilemma.
Life as art or fiction
Linked to the theme of the double life is that of life as a fiction, or a work of art. Wilde was an exponent of the Aesthetic movement, which promoted the ideas that art was for art’s sake, and that the purpose of art was to create beauty rather than to educate or to present a moral ideal. Jack, Algernon, Gwendolen, and Cecily all create fictions, but Algernon and Cecily are more artists than are Jack and Gwendolen. This is because Algernon and Cecily create their fictions largely as acts of imagination, to amuse themselves and enrich their lives. They are fully aware of their fictions, and are able to stand apart from them and observe them. Algernon surrounds himself with artistic objects; Cecily is writing a diary which includes her imaginary relationship with “Ernest” and which she intends to publish. Neither identifies with their fictions, imposes them on others, or believes them so strongly that the fiction impinges on their real lives.
Jack and Gwendolen are different. Jack never tells the truth about his fictional life as Ernest, even to Gwendolen or Algernon. Also, he becomes aggressive when Algernon threatens his fiction by turning up at his country house under the name of Ernest. It is significant that Miss Prism substituted her novel manuscript for the baby Jack; this is a symbolic way of saying that Jack’s whole life has been a fiction. Gwendolen, for her part, would rather believe a fiction than see reality: she invents a self-serving reason why Jack deceived her and supplies it to Jack, without wanting to know his real motives. Thus Jack and Gwendolen, while they create fictions, are not artists because they are bound up in their fictions. Their aim is not to create works of beauty or imagination, but to deceive themselves or others.
The nature of marriage
As befits a romantic comedy, the end of which is the marriages of the lovers, there are several exchanges in the play about marriage. In the opening scene, Algernon and Lane are discussing whether it is a desirable state. Lane subtly disparages marriage in a typically Wildean inversion: reversing the nineteenth-century cliché in which an engagement is described as an “understanding” between the lovers, Lane describes his own marriage as a “consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person” (Act 1). Algernon sees marriage as the end of romance: “there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. . . . Then the excitement is all over” (Act 1).
For Gwendolen, marriage is a reinforcement of her romantic notions about the name “Ernest.” For Cecily, marriage is a fulfillment and continuation of the romantic story she has invented about herself and the wicked Ernest. For Lady Bracknell, marriage is somewhat to do with social respectability, but primarily about money, hence her sudden conversion to the cause of Algernon and Cecily’s marriage when she discovers that Cecily has a fortune.
Both the young couples appear sincerely to love one another, and in this regard they stand in opposition to Lady Bracknell and her mercenary approach to marriage.