An earnest person is someone who practices diligence, seriousness, and above all sincerity. That being said, it is difficult to find a male character in the play who possesses all three qualities of earnestness. Despite this, the lead characters of The Importance of Being Earnest entertained and endeared audiences for over one hundred years.
Jack Worthing’s Childhood:
During Act One, protagonist Jack Worthing reveals a most unusual and amusing backstory:
As a baby, he was accidentally abandoned in a handbag at a railway station. A wealthy man, Thomas Cardew, discovered and adopted the child. The child was named Worthing, after the seaside resort which Cardew visited. Jack Worthing grew up to become a wealthy land-owner and investor. Jack also became the legal guardian of Cardew’s granddaughter, Cecily. Jack’s Double Life:
Double identities are commonplace throughout Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Despite his façade of high moral character, Jack Worthing has been living a lie.
As the central character of the play, Jack might seem serious at first glance. He is far more proper and less ridiculous than his dandified friend, Algernon Moncrieff. In many productions of Earnest, the protagonist has been portrayed in a somber, straight-faced manner. Dignified actors such as Sir John Gielgud and Colin Firth have brought Jack Worthing to life on stage and screen, adding an air of dignity and refinement to the character. But don’t let appearances fool you.
Jack’s relatives and neighbors believe him to be a moral and productive member of society. Yet, Jack’s first line in the play explains his true motivation for escaping his country home for the excitement of the city:
JACK: Oh pleasure, pleasure! What else should bring one anywhere? So, despite his stuffy outward appearance, Jack is a hedonist. He is also a liar. He has invented an alter-ego, a fictional brother named “Ernest.” His life in the country has been so tedious that he wanted to create a reason to abandon his dreary and dutiful persona. JACK: When one is placed in the position of guardian, one has to adopt a very high moral tone on all subjects. It’s one’s duty to do so. And as a high moral tone can hardly be said to conduce very much to either one’s health or one’s happiness, in order to get up to town I have always pretended to have a younger brother of the name of Ernest, who lives in the Albany, and gets into the most dreadful scrapes. Jack Loves Gwendolen:
Despite his deceptive nature, Jack is sincerely in love with Gwendolen Fairfax, the daughter of the aristocratic Lady Bracknell. Because of his desire to marry Gwendolen, Jack is anxious to “kill off” his alter-ego Ernest. The problem: Gwendolen thinks that Jack’s name is Ernest. Ever since she was a child, Gwendolen has been infatuated with the name. Jack decides not to confess the truth of his name until Gwendolen forces it out of him in Act Two:
JACK: It is very painful for me to be forced to speak the truth. It is the first time in my life that I have ever been reduced to such a painful position, and I am really quite inexperienced in doing anything of the kind. However, I will tell you quite frankly that I have no brother Ernest. I have no brother at all. Fortunately for Jack, Gwendolen is a forgiving woman. Jack explains that he arranged a christening, a religious ceremony in which he will officially change his name to Ernest once and for all. The gesture touches Gwendolen’s heart, reuniting the couple.
(SPOILER: Of course, Jack will be in for a surprise in Act Three when he discovers that he actually does have a brother – his best friend Algernon!)
The Witty Scoundrel: Algernon Moncrieff
One of the reasons Jack seems comparatively serious is due to the irreverent and playful nature of his friend, Algernon (“Algy”) Moncrieff. Of all the characters in The Importance of Being Earnest it is believed that Algernon is the embodiment of Oscar Wilde’s personality. Algy exemplifies wit, satirizes the world around him, and views his own life as art’s highest form.
Like Jack, Algy enjoys the pleasures of the city and high society. (He also enjoys muffins and comes off as a bit of a glutton!) Unlike Jack, Algernon loves to offer urbane social commentary about class, marriage, and Victorian society. Here are a few gems of wisdom, compliments of Algernon (AKA Oscar Wilde):
Relationships: “Divorces are made in heaven.”
Family: “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.” Modern Culture: “Oh! It is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.” Jack avoids such commentary. He finds some of Algy’s sayings to be nonsense. And when Algernon does say something that rings true, Jack finds it socially unacceptable to be uttered in public. Algy, on the other hand, likes to stir up trouble.
Algernon has also been leading a double life. He has created a friend named “Bunbury.” Whenever Algy wants to avoid a boring dinner party, he says that Bunbury has fallen ill. Then Algernon cavorts off to the countryside, seeking amusement. During Act Two, Algernon intensifies Jack’s conflict by posing as Jack’s delinquent brother Ernest.
Algernon Loves Cecily:
During their first encounter, Algy falls in love with Cecily, Jack’s pretty eighteen-year-old ward. Of course, Cecily does not know Algy’s true identity at first. And like Jack, Algernon is willing to sacrifice his namesake in order to win his love’s hand in marriage. (Like Gwendolen, Cecily is enchanted by the name “Ernest”).
Both men go to great lengths in order to make their lies become the truth. And that is the heart of the humor behind The Importance of Being Earnest.