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Hyperbole in the Importance of Being Earnest

Satire is a genre used and widely known for its comedic purposes. It involves the mocking of an individual for humorous means; however, it is commonly used by authors and playwrights to display criticism of the society that the character is in.

In the first act of the play, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff have an exchange at Algernon’s flat in Half-Moon Street about Jack’s alter-ego; Earnest, who he creates to be able to “escape” from the obligations and responsibilities that he is faced with because of societal expectations. During the exchange, there are a few glimpses of the use of ironic techniques portrayed by Wilde through Jack’s character with reference to social and cultural norms when Jack states: “I don’t propose to discuss modern culture. It isn’t the sort of thing one should talk of in private.” (Wilde, 11) This is ironic as modern culture is something to talk about and discuss, however, in the aristocratic society, it is frowned upon to question or disagree with the cultural norms and values in a negative manner.

Further into the exchange between Jack and Algernon, Wilde also portrays irony in terms of marriage when Jack tells Algernon: “my dear fellow, the truth isn’t quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girl. What extraordinary ideas you have about the way to behave to a woman” (Wilde, 33). Jack’s views on how to treat women represent the upper-class society’s views as he believes that honesty is not considered an important factor in relationships.

Additionally, later on in the play, when Lady Bracknell is introduced as a typical upper-class aristocrat who has strong and set cultural views on marriage as well as everyone’s obligations in the “privileged” society. The playwright uses hyperbole as a literary device to show the cultural norms through her exchange with Algernon about how there should be an even number of people present at the dinner table when Algernon tries to decline the offer of feasting with her, “I hope not Algernon, it will put my table completely out. Your uncle would have to dine upstairs. Fortunately, he’s accustomed to that.” (Wilde, 19) This statement mocks the upper-class and their over-exaggerated mannerisms in a comedic manner by portraying how they turn something that is very insignificant into unacceptable, without any reason simply because they are privileged and have more power and control over others who are “beneath them”.

Wilde further uses hyperbole when Algernon tells Lady Bracknell that he will be unable to attend dinner because of his invalid friend “Mr. Bunbury”. Lady Bracknell replies with “Algernon, I think it is high time that Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he was going to live or die. This shilly-shallying with the question is absurd… I should be much obligated if you would ask Mr. Bunbury, from me, to be kind enough not to have a relapse on Saturday, for I rely on you to arrange my music for me” (Wilde, 20) The use of the term “shilly-shallying” shows how even the matter of life and death is insignificant to her. As she represents the upper-class society, it shows that it does not matter what the situation is as long as they get what they desire, which is control. When Lady Bracknell states “ask Mr. Bunbury, from me, to be kind enough not to have a relapse on Saturday,” (Wilde, 20), it mocks the upper-class in a way that shows how they ask for more than one is able to do and have high expectations from everyone to act according to how they want them to, which also enhances the genre of satire in the play as is brings a new comedic perspective towards the upper-class society.

Wilde uses more of the previously explored literary technique of irony to enhance satire further along the play through Acts 2 and 3. When Algernon pretends to be Jack’s brother (Earnest) in the Manor House at the countryside, Algernon states “I certainly won’t leave you so long as you are in mourning. It would be most unfriendly. If I were in mourning you would stay with me, I suppose. I should think it very unkind if you didn’t.” (Wilde, 59), showing how it is ironic as at the end of the play, it is revealed that Algernon is, in fact, Jack’s biological brother.

This happens towards the end of the play leading onto Act 3 when Gwendolen and Cecily come to realize the truth about how both, Jack and Algernon have been lying to them about how their names were “Earnest”. Wilde uses hyperbole as a technique to show two extreme sides of their “love” and emotions towards who they thought was “Earnest”. Cecily and Gwendolen also represent the aristocrat society, as when they find out that both of them had been wronged, they both go against Algernon and Jack which shows superficiality: “My poor wounded Cecily!” (Wilde, 78) and “My poor wounded Gwendolen!” (Wilde 78) which portrays how marriage was highly based on the “name” one carried in the upper-class society, rather than it being a genuine relationship between two individuals.

Continuously throughout the play and towards the end, Oscar Wilde shows and reveals how he cleverly used the name “Earnest” as one with a pun on it as it suggested more than just one meaning. Firstly, the actual meaning of the name which stands for honestly, truthfulness and integrity ironically does not describe Jack Worthing or Algernon Moncrieff. This is because, firstly, both of the characters have an alter-ego to obtain their desires and to “escape” from the upper-class society’s obligations and responsibilities. Additionally, they lie to Gwendolen and Cecily about being “Earnest” so that they are able to marry them. Therefore, the word “Earnest” ironically expresses the notion of false truth and false morality as neither, Jack nor Algernon, portray themselves to be “Earnest”, as neither of them express moral values, and only towards the end of the play does Jack realize, for the first time in his life, “the vital Importance of Being Earnest” (Wilde, 106), as it shows that he has finally learnt the value of being honest.

Both, irony and hyperbole are two clever literary techniques used by Oscar Wilde in the “Importance of Being Earnest” to portray his criticism towards the upper-class Victorian society in a comedic manner. The play is exposed to the audience humorously, while at the same time, it expresses the contradictory and hypocritical actions of those who conform to the aristocrat society of the late 1800’s which ties the play together in a satiric manner.

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