The Importance of Being Earnest: Character Profiles
Jack (also known as John and Ernest) Worthing, J.P.
Jack Worthing, the protagonist of the play, is a wealthy young man who is Algernon’s best friend and Cecily’s guardian. The initials “J.P.” stand for “Justice of the Peace,” meaning that Jack is a legal judge. Jack has a country estate in Hertfordshire, where Cecily lives.
Jack was a foundling, having been left as a baby in a hand-bag at Victoria railway station by the family governess in a fit of absent-mindedness. He was adopted by the wealthy man who found him, Mr. Thomas Cardew, Cecily’s grandfather. When the play opens, for an unspecified time, Jack has been leading a double life through a fictional brother called Ernest. In fact, “Ernest” is none other than Jack himself: Jack calls himself Ernest in town (London) and Jack in the country. “Ernest” is known for getting into all kinds of mischief and trouble, giving Jack an excuse to escape to London whenever he wishes. Jack is able to blame his misbehavior in town on “Ernest,” and at the same time claim a morality he does not possess when he goes to town supposedly to help Ernest out of trouble. It is implied that Jack uses his alias to lead the kind of life of which respectable Victorian society would have disapproved. There is irony in the fact that “Ernest” is supposedly Jack’s wicked brother, yet the name means “sincere” and “honest.” It is these connotations of the name that appeal to both Gwendolen and Cecily, who are both obsessed with the idea of marrying someone called Ernest. As Cecily remarks, echoing Gwendolen, “There is something in that name that seems to inspire absolute confidence.” There is further irony in the fact that Jack does, in fact, turn out to be called Ernest: he has been telling the truth while intending to tell a lie.
When Lady Bracknell refuses to allow Jack to marry Gwendolen on the grounds of his socially unacceptable origins at a railway station, it becomes imperative for Jack to find out who he really is. It turns out that he is Lady Bracknell’s nephew, his mother being Lady Bracknell’s “poor sister” who entrusted the baby Jack to the governess. The governess turns out to be none other than Miss Prism.
Algernon is a wealthy young man who is Jack’s best friend. He is Lady’s Bracknell’s nephew and Gwendolen’s cousin. He lives in London. Witty, idle, and charming, Algernon speaks in amusing epigrams. He dresses stylishly and lives surrounded by beautiful objects. All these qualities mark him out as a “dandy,” a person who is devoted to wit, style, and refined appearance. He is also a type of artist, in that his life is a work of art, or fiction. He takes an innocent delight in his creation of the fiction of Bunbury and in his discovery of Jack’s deception.
Algernon becomes intrigued by Jack’s description of Cecily and pretends to be Jack’s brother Ernest in order to gain entrance to Jack’s home and to meet her. He instantly falls in love with her and proposes marriage to her. For an unspecified period, Algernon has pretended to have an invalid friend, Bunbury, who lives in the country and whose frequent relapses give Algernon the perfect excuse to escape to the country whenever he likes. It is implied that having to tend to Bunbury (which Algernon calls “Bunburying”) allows Algernon to escape his responsibilities and tiresome duties in London, such as dining with Lady Bracknell.
Algernon is more likeable than Jack, partly because he does not take himself so seriously, but also because he does not have Jack’s habitually deceptive nature. For these reasons, it can be argued that Algernon is the true hero of the play.
Gwendolen is Lady Bracknell’s sophisticated daughter, a product of London’s fashionable upper-class society. She is in love with Jack, whom she knows as Ernest. She is obsessed with the name of Ernest, and tells Jack: “my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence.” Thus, she is determined to marry Jack/Ernest even before she meets him, and consequently, Jack has to do very little wooing for her to agree to marry him. Like Cecily, Gwendolen inverts the conventional Victorian gender roles of aggressive male and submissive female: she is the aggressor in her romantic relationship with Jack.
Gwendolen is a likeable character, for the same reasons that Lady Bracknell is likeable. Both women are in the habit of making outrageous pronouncements with an air of absolute authority. In her absurd attachment to the name of Ernest over and above any considerations of the inner man, Gwendolen represents Victorian conventional morality, which (Wilde suggests) fixated on superficial appearances over truth and integrity. The audience is alerted to the probability that she is a younger version of her mother by Jack’s question to Algernon: “You don’t think there is any chance of Gwendolen becoming like her mother in about a hundred and fifty years, do you, Algy?” (Act 1) Also significant is Algernon’s reply, “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy.”
Gwendolen willfully blinds herself to Jack’s deceptive nature, suggesting that their liaison is on shaky ground. When she asks Jack why he deceived her about his imaginary brother, she supplies the answer herself. It is an answer that offers her the comforting but false notion that Jack simply wanted an excuse to come to town to see her as frequently as he wanted. When Jack evasively replies by asking if she has any doubts on the subject, she says, “I have the gravest doubts upon the subject. But I intend to crush them.” Like Lady Bracknell’s refusal to accept the unrespectable truth about Jack’s childhood (“I would strongly advise you, Mr. Worthing, to try and acquire some relations as soon as possible, and to make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over” – Act 1), Gwendolen would rather cling to a convenient deception than face the truth.
Cecily, the grand-daughter of Jack’s late adoptive father Mr. Thomas Cardew, is Jack’s ward. She lives at Jack’s country estate with her governess, Miss Prism. Several factors mark her out as more natural and less artificial a character than Gwendolen: she lives in the country (traditionally the home of innocence), is compared by Algernon to a pink rose, and, as Lady Bracknell says disapprovingly (in Act 3), dresses and wears her hair simply. She is also the only character who does not speak in epigrams, although she is witty.
Cecily resembles Gwendolen in her fixation upon the name Ernest. She echoes Gwendolen’s words in her pronouncement that “There is something in that name that seems to inspire absolute confidence” (Act 2). However, it is important to note that while Gwendolen willfully blinds herself to Jack/Ernest’s deceptions, Cecily has fallen in love with “Ernest” because of his reputed wickedness. This shows Cecily’s independent spirit and tendency to rebel against convention, also seen in her unwillingness to “improve” (Act 2) herself by studying the rather dull subjects set for her by Miss Prism.
Like Algernon and Jack, Cecily is given to creating fictions. So intrigued has she become by Ernest’s scandalous reputation that when Algernon arrives at Jack’s house under Ernest’s name, she has already created a fictional reality in which she has been engaged to marry Ernest for three months. Her imaginative delight in creating fictions, along with her habit of keeping a journal in which she records all her thoughts and impressions and which she intends to publish, are characteristic of the artist. These features make her a fit match for the similarly inclined Algernon. They also give her a degree of alignment with the Aesthetic ideal of “art for art’s sake” and with Wilde himself.
Lady Bracknell is the archetypal upper-class Victorian matron: domineering, snobbish, and conspicuously lacking in compassion. She is the primary representative in the play of conventional Victorian morality, which, Wilde suggests, cared little about how good a person was as long as he appeared respectable in the eyes of fashionable society. For example, she will not accept Jack as a husband for Gwendolen because he is unaware of who his biological parents are and therefore lacks a respectable family pedigree. Further, she disapproves of his origin as a foundling in a cloak-room at Victoria railway station because of the social unacceptability of such a public place, which then carried the suggestion of illicit liaisons. She cares nothing about the humane aspects of his disrupted childhood. She advises him to “acquire some relations” and to produce “at any rate one parent” (Act 1) to satisfy her narrow idea of respectability. The implication is that if Jack were to succeed in inventing such relations (meaning that he would be an even bigger liar than he is already), he would automatically become acceptable to her. Through Lady Bracknell, Wilde lampoons the superficiality of upper-class and middle-class morality, which fixated on appearances at the expense of the reality.
Lady Bracknell is quite unaware of the absurdity of her views and pronouncements, which she delivers with unassailable authority. She is the character who is most blind and who has least vision, as she is trapped inside a web of superficiality in a way that the more artistically-inclined and independent-thinking Algernon and Cecily are not. Nevertheless, Lady Bracknell, like Gwendolen, is a likeable character because her pronouncements are so outrageous as to be funny. Because of her lack of awareness of truth, the humor is, of course, unintentional.
Typically, in romantic comedies (of which genre this play is an example), the union of the young lovers is opposed by an older antagonist, often a parent of one of the lovers. Comedic convention demands that youth and love always win over age and its antiquated attitudes. Lady Bracknell occupies this role of antagonist in opposing the match between Jack and Gwendolen and, according to convention, is doomed to fail in her attempts.
Miss Prism is Cecily’s governess. As her name suggests, she has all the apparent respectability and moral severity expected of a Victorian English governess, but in fact, she has a hidden past. It transpires that many years ago, she was in the service of Lady Bracknell’s sister, Mrs. Moncrieff. One day, she took Mrs. Moncrieff’s baby out for some air and in a fit of absent-mindedness, put the baby in her hand-bag and the manuscript of a novel she was writing in the baby’s pram. She accidentally left the hand-bag (with the baby) in the cloak-room at Victoria railway station. When she realized her mistake, she abandoned the pram containing her manuscript and fled. The baby turns out to have been none other than Jack, who is therefore Lady Bracknell’s nephew.
Miss Prism’s secret life as a novelist and her interest in Dr. Chasuble reveal her to be a romantic and would-be artist underneath her stern exterior. Her role in revealing Jack’s true identity lends her something of the role of the fallen woman in Victorian melodrama, who carried a secret which, when uncovered, revealed hidden relationships that neatly resolved the plot. Wilde makes the subtle but important difference of making Miss Prism genuinely respectable (the lost baby was not hers, but belonged to her upper-class employer), if absent-minded.
Dr. Chasuble is the local vicar in