The Importance of Being Earnest

The purpose of art is to depict man as he could be and should be—as man the hero. It would seem odd then, that a movie with two liars as the main characters could be good art. While The Importance of Being Earnest is not great art, it is certainly good art.

Based on the play by Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest depicts an attitude crucial to a well-lived life—the benevolence universe premise:

The “benevolent universe” does not mean that the universe feels kindly to man or that it is out to help him achieve his goals. No, the universe is neutral; it simply is; it is indifferent to you. You must care about and adapt to it, not the other way around. But reality is “benevolent” in the sense that if you do adapt to it—i.e., if you do think, value, and act rationally, then you can (and barring accidents you will) achieve your values. You will, because those values are based on reality.

The main characters, Jack and Algie, relish life’s pleasures. They are cultured men who enjoy fine dining, music, and intelligent conversation, but neither is a promiscuous playboy. Each leads a double life, using a fictitious character as an excuse to escape their daily lives. While there is no excuse for their deceit, neither has malevolent intentions and simply wants to inject some excitement into his life.

Each adopts Ernest as the name of his alter-ego. And unknowingly, each falls in love with a woman who has always desired to marry a man named Ernest. The story seems destined for a happy ending until their ruse is discovered.

The premise is absurd. That a woman would fall in love with a man merely because of his name is the height of superficiality. That a man would love such a woman shows a complete lack of self-esteem. And that is precisely Wilde’s point. The Importance of Being Earnest is a satire of the mores of the Victorian Era.

While the pretentious superficiality of late nineteenth century England was the specific target of Wilde’s attack, his message is timeless. And that is what elevates The Importance of Being Earnest to good art.

From the endless obsession with Kim Kardashian to the popularity of Paris Hilton, superficiality is alive and well today. Kardashian, Hilton, and their ilk offer a pretense of value, but if we scratch the surface, we find nothing but mindless hedonism. They are just as empty as the high society of Victorian England.

Happiness does not result from the superficiality of idolatry. Happiness is the psychological consequence of achieving one’s values. And that does not depend upon the appraisal of others. It depends on one’s rationality and a recognition of the importance of being earnest.

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