Male Character Analysis in 'The Importance of Being Earnest'

A Closer Look at Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff

Portrait of Oscar Wilde
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In Oscar Wilde’s "The Importance of Being Earnest," earnestness is correlated with diligence, seriousness, and sincerity. That being said, it is difficult to find many characters in the play who would possess such qualities. The two male protagonists certainly do not display much earnestness despite the fact that at one time of this comedic play or another, they each take on the name "Ernest."

Take a closer look at the double life of respectable Jack Worthing and irreverent bachelor Algernon Moncrieff.

Growing up Jack Worthing

Act One reveals that protagonist John "Jack" Worthing has a most unusual and amusing backstory. As a baby, he was accidentally abandoned in a handbag at a railway station, exchanged for a manuscript. A wealthy man, Thomas Cardew, discovered and adopted him as a child.

Jack was named Worthing, after the seaside resort which Cardew visited. He grew up to become a wealthy land-owner and investor and became the legal guardian of Cardew’s young and beautiful granddaughter Cecily.

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 "Algy" Moncrieff. He doesn't take part in his jokes and tries to uphold a certain image.

In many productions of the play, Jack has been portrayed in a somber, straight-faced manner. Dignified actors such as Sir John Gielgud and Colin Firth have brought Jack to life on stage and screen, adding an air of stature and refinement to the character. But, do not let appearances fool you.

Witty Scoundrel Algernon Moncrieff

One of the reasons Jack seems serious is due to the stark contrast between him and his friend, Algernon Moncrieff. Compared to Algy, a young man of frivolous and playful nature, Jack almost appears to represent morals that the Victorian society was so after.

Of all the characters in "The Importance of Being Earnest," it is believed that Algernon is the embodiment of Oscar Wilde’s personality. He exemplifies wit, satirizes the world around him, and views his own life as art’s highest form.

Like Jack, Algernon enjoys the pleasures of the city and high society. But he also enjoys eating, values sophisticated attire, and finds nothing more amusing than not taking himself and the rules of society seriously.

Algernon also loves to offer urbane commentary about class, marriage, and Victorian society. Here are a few gems of wisdom, compliments of Algernon (Oscar Wilde):

On relationships:

"marriage" is "demoralizing"
“divorces are made in heaven”

On 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.”

On family and living:

“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.”

Unlike Algernon, Jack avoids making strong, general commentary. He finds some of Algernon's sayings to be nonsense. And when Algernon says something that rings true, Jack finds it socially unacceptable to be uttered in public. Algernon, on the other hand, likes to stir up trouble.

Dual Identities

The theme of leading double lives runs through the entire play. Despite his façade of high moral character, Jack has been living a lie. It turns out that his friend has a double identity as well.

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. He says, "Oh pleasure, pleasure! What else should bring one anywhere?"

Despite his proper and serious outward appearance, Jack is a hedonist. He is also a liar. He has invented an alter-ego, a fictional brother named “Ernest," to help him escape his dreary and dutiful life in the country:

"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."

According to Jack, living morally doesn't make one healthy nor happy.

Algernon has also been leading a double life. He has created a friend named “Bunbury.” Whenever Algernon wants to avoid a boring dinner party, he says that Bunbury has fallen ill and Algernon is free to escape off to the countryside, seeking amusement.

Even though Algernon compares his "Bunbury" with Jack's "Ernest," their double lives aren't the same. Jack changes into a different person when he becomes Ernest; he even goes so deep within his lie as to bring props when he announces that Ernest is dead.

In comparison, Algernon's Bunbury offers simply an escape. Algernon doesn't suddenly change into a different person. In this way, the audience might start wondering who the bigger trickster of the two is. This is further complicated when in Act Two, Algernon intensifies Jack’s situation by posing as his delinquent brother Ernest and capturing Cecily's interest.

What Is What? Truth Vs. Fantasy

The ongoing back and forth between truth and lies, fantasy and reality, becomes even more complex when we realize that Gwendolen, Jack's fiancée, fell in love with him when he was pretending to be Ernest. Her rationalization is that someone named Ernest must be a very trustworthy and honorable gentleman, which is in direct contrast with Jack's original reasons for inventing Ernest.

So did Gwendolen fall in love with the real Jack/Ernest—the social delinquent—since they did meet in the city, or did she merely fall in love with the name Ernest, and therefore really with Jack, as he is known in the countryside?

Finally, when Jack proclaims that he has been telling the truth the entire time, it becomes yet another questionable statement. On one hand, it is a fact that his real name is Ernest, but he didn't know it until that very moment. It is now up to the audience to answer the truth question for themselves—if a lie ends up being a truth, does it erase the initial deception that went into building that lie?

Along the same lines, when Jack admits at the very end of the play that he has "now realized for the first time in [his] life the vital Importance of Being Earnest," the ambiguity is very palpable. Is he simply talking about the importance of being named Ernest? Or is he talking about the need to be serious and honest?

Or, Jack voicing Wilde's own beliefs, that what is, in fact, important is NOT being earnest—serious and honest—and instead of questioning the standards of Victorian society? This is the power of Wilde's artistry. The lines between what's true and important and what is not are blurred and the contemporary society of his audience—the Victorian age—is put into question.

The Loves of Their Lives

Algernon and Jack get entangled in their dual identities and the pursuit of their true love. For both men, "the importance of being Ernest/earnest" is the only way to make it work with their hearts' true desires.

Jack's Love for Gwendolen Fairfax

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 is that she 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 gets it out of him in Act Two:

"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.

Algernon Falls for Cecily

During their first encounter, Algernon falls in love with Cecily, Jack’s pretty 18-year-old ward. Of course, Cecily does not know Algernon’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."