Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest is my favorite work by Oscar Wilde. The play is a delightful exhibition of wit and mastery of the English language. And contained within this benevolent satire is a very important message: the need to persevere in the pursuit of one's values, that is, the importance of being earnest. (I have attempted to minimize the plot spoilers in this post, but I cannot avoid doing so completely.)

The play tells the story of two aristocratic friends, Ernest Worthing and Algernon Moncrief, who spend their days enjoying life's pleasures. Both fall deeply in love, and while the women reciprocate their affections, Victorian traditions prohibit either from marrying.

One of the most popular literary figures of his day, Wilde was not one to mindlessly embrace the societal traditions of his time. Indeed, Earnest flaunts those traditions. Personally, he was imprisoned for two years for engaging in "indecent" relations with young men--homosexuality was a crime in Victorian Britain.

The lessons from Earnest go beyond merely exposing the presumptuous arrogance of those who seek to impose their values upon others by force. It shows us that values--and particularly immensely important values--are not achieved easily. Perhaps most importantly, Earnest implicitly shows us that the mind is the source of value creation.

When confronted with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, both Ernest and Algernon devise a plan that is clever. And when that fails, Ernest proposes a cooperative solution to overcome the final impediment to both men's marriage. Both men rely on their minds--which they have previously used largely to avoid responsibility and pursue hedonistic pleasures--to achieve the values they passionately desire.

I highly recommend the 2002 film starring Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, and Judi Dench. It beautifully dramatizes a benevolent universe.

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