"The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, Act I

Jack and Algernon are two bachelors who use false identities to get what they want—and get into trouble—in this comedy by Oscar Wilde. Read the full text here.

Here are links to our lists for the play: Act I, Act II, Act III

Here is a link to our lists for A Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

Activities for this list:

definitions & notes only words
  1. luxuriously
    in a rich manner
    The room is luxuriously and artistically furnished.
  2. forte
    an asset of special worth or utility
    I don’t play accurately—any one can play accurately—but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte.
    Algernon is both punning and ironical here because "forte" is a direction in music that means to play loudly, which he did, but he did not play the piano well, so it is not his forte. Additionally, the sentence is a reversal of the purpose of a musical direction, since the volume in which one plays often emphasizes emotions, but Algernon declares that his special, tenderly romantic emotions are what direct him in his inaccurate but worth-hearing piano-playing.
  3. attribute
    credit to
    I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir. I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand.
    In blaming marriage for the decreased quality of champagne (thus attributing the good supply of liquor to Algernon's bachelorhood), Lane diverts his employer's attention away from the fact that he and other servants drank several bottles. Here, and later when he lies to prevent his employer from getting in trouble with his aunt about the missing cucumber sandwiches, Lane shows an attribute ("a construct distinguishing objects or individuals") of agreeable cleverness.
  4. consequence
    the outcome of an event
    I have only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.
  5. languid
    lacking spirit or liveliness
    Algernon. [Languidly.] I don’t know that I am much interested in your family life, Lane.
  6. lax
    without rigor or strictness
    Lane’s views on marriage seem somewhat lax.
  7. excessively
    to a degree exceeding normal or proper limits
    When one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people. It is excessively boring.
  8. immensely
    to an exceedingly great extent or degree
    How immensely you must amuse them!
  9. extravagance
    excessive spending
    Why such reckless extravagance in one so young?
  10. constitute
    form or compose
    The Divorce Court was specially invented for people whose memories are so curiously constituted.
    Jack is responding to Algernon's statements: "The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact." "Constituted" is also a curious adjective to describe a memory that seeks to forget, but Jack uses it as a pun that connects to the legal procedures that formed and inform Divorce Court.
  11. speculate
    reflect deeply on a subject
    Oh! there is no use speculating on that subject. Divorces are made in Heaven--
  12. earnest
    devout or heartfelt
    You answer to the name of Ernest. You look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life.
    In addition to being a pun on the chosen name of Jack's alter ego, "earnest" means "characterized by a firm, humorless belief in one's opinions" (which describes Jack as he explains the reason for his two names), "devout, heartfelt" (which describes Jack's feelings for Gwendolen), and "not distracted by anything unrelated to the goal" (which can describe Jack's decisions about being christened).
  13. invalid
    someone who is incapacitated by a chronic illness or injury
    I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose.
    "Invalid" also means not valid ("well-grounded in logic or truth or having legal force")--this is a fitting description of Bunbury because 1) he's not real; 2) it's a ridiculous-sounding name, especially in comparison to Jack's lie about an "Ernest"; 3) he always seems to get sick at the most inconvenient times for others; 4) Algernon cannot use Bunbury to avoid paying his bills.
  14. induce
    cause to act in a specified manner
    Nothing will induce me to part with Bunbury, and if you ever get married, which seems to me extremely problematic, you will be very glad to know Bunbury.
  15. sententious
    abounding in or given to pompous or aphoristic moralizing
    Jack. [Sententiously.] That, my dear young friend, is the theory that the corrupt French Drama has been propounding for the last fifty years.
  16. cynical
    believing the worst of human nature and motives
    For heaven’s sake, don’t try to be cynical. It’s perfectly easy to be cynical.
    Jack, about to propose to Gwendolen, does not want to hear Algernon's cynical views on marriage, which include the point that "in married life three is company and two is none." In trying to dismiss the theory, Jack connects it to the corrupt French Drama, which is actually more ironic than cynical of the Irish playwright, since Wilde was fluent in French, spent time in Paris, and wrote a play in French that could not be produced on the English stage because it was about Biblical characters.
  17. expurgation
    the deletion of objectionable parts from a literary work
    I’m sure the programme will be delightful, after a few expurgations. French songs I cannot possibly allow. People always seem to think that they are improper, and either look shocked, which is vulgar, or laugh, which is worse.
    Within the play, "expurgation" is used by Lady Bracknell to refer to changes she might want to make in the musical program that Algernon has planned for her reception. Outside the play, Wilde could be referring to the work he had to do (the play originally had 4 acts) to make it an appropriate yet mocking fit for the Victorian audience.
  18. pulpit
    a platform raised to give prominence to the person on it
    The fact is constantly mentioned in the more expensive monthly magazines, and has reached the provincial pulpits, I am told; and my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest.
  19. metaphysical
    highly abstract and overly theoretical
    Ah! that is clearly a metaphysical speculation, and like most metaphysical speculations has very little reference at all to the actual facts of real life, as we know them.
  20. notorious
    known widely and usually unfavorably
    Besides, Jack is a notorious domesticity for John!
  21. recumbent
    lying down; in a position of comfort or rest
    Rise, sir, from this semi-recumbent posture. It is most indecorous.
    "Indecorous" means "not in keeping with accepted standards of what is right or proper in polite society"--this adjective does not entirely describe the nature of Jack's semi-recumbent posture; while it may seem improper to the intruding Lady Bracknell, in Gwendolen's eyes, it is the position she wants Jack in and she wants him to get it right, as other men, like her brother, have tried to do through practice.
  22. delicate
    easily broken or damaged or destroyed
    Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.
  23. disposition
    a natural or acquired habit or characteristic tendency
    The late Mr. Thomas Cardew, an old gentleman of a very charitable and kindly disposition, found me, and gave me the name of Worthing, because he happened to have a first-class ticket for Worthing in his pocket at the time.
  24. contempt
    a manner that is generally disrespectful
    To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.
  25. indiscretion
    a petty misdeed
    As for the particular locality in which the hand-bag was found, a cloak-room at a railway station might serve to conceal a social indiscretion—has probably, indeed, been used for that purpose before now—but it could hardly be regarded as an assured basis for a recognised position in good society.
  26. indignation
    a feeling of righteous anger
    [Lady Bracknell sweeps out in majestic indignation.]
  27. trivet
    a three-legged metal stand for supporting a cooking vessel
    Oh, Gwendolen is as right as a trivet.
    "Right as a trivet" means "in perfect state or health" which according to Jack, means Gwendolen has agreed to marry him. This is an odd analogy for a man in love, especially in contrast to the one comparing Gwendolen's mother to a monstrous female creature in Greek mythology. The word "trivet" sounds funny and has echoes of the play's subtitle: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.
  28. tedious
    so lacking in interest as to cause mental weariness
    Relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven’t got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die.
  29. patronizing
    characteristic of those who treat others with arrogance
    Jack. [In a very patronising manner.] 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!
  30. profligate
    unrestrained by convention or morality
    What about the profligate Ernest?
  31. apoplexy
    a loss of consciousness from the lack of oxygen in the brain
    I’ll say he died in Paris of apoplexy.
  32. loathe
    find repugnant
    I loathe listening.
  33. incomprehensible
    difficult to understand
    The simplicity of your character makes you exquisitely incomprehensible to me.
  34. surmise
    infer from incomplete evidence
    [Lane presents several letters on a salver to Algernon. It is to be surmised that they are bills, as Algernon, after looking at the envelopes, tears them up.]
  35. immoderate
    beyond reasonable limits
    [Algernon is laughing immoderately.] What on earth are you so amused at?

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