Manners and Sincerity
The major target of Wilde's scathing social criticism is the hypocrisy
that society creates. Frequently in Victorian society, its participants
comported themselves in overly sincere, polite ways while they harbored
conversely manipulative, cruel attitudes. Wilde exposes this divide in
scenes such as when Gwendolen and Cecily behave themselves in front of
the servants or when Lady Bracknell warms to Cecily upon discovering she
is rich. However, the play truly pivots around the word "earnest."
Both women want to marry someone named "Ernest," as the name inspires
"absolute confidence"; in other words, the name implies that its bearer
truly is earnest, honest, and responsible. However, Jack and Algernon
have lied about their names, so they are not really "earnest." But it
also turns out that (at least in Jack's case) he was inadvertently
telling the truth. The rapid flip-flopping of truths and lies, of
earnestness and duplicity, shows how truly muddled the Victorian values
of honesty and responsibility were.