"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 Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" who possesses these three qualities of earnestness despite the two leading male roles portray "Ernest" part-time in the comedic play.
Take a closer look at the double life of respectable Jack Worthing and irreverent bachelor Algernon Moncrieff.
Growing Up Jack Worthing
The beginning of the play 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, and a wealthy man, Thomas Cardew, discovered and adopted him as a child. Jack was named Worthing, after the seaside resort which Cardew visited. Worthing grew up to become a wealthy land-owner and investor, who was the legal guardian of Cardew's 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. In many productions of the play, the protagonist 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 dignity and refinement to the character. But, do not let appearances fool you.
Witty Scoundrel Algernon Moncrieff
One of the reasons Jack seems comparatively serious is due to the frivolous and playful nature of his friend, Algernon Moncrieff. Of all the characters in "The Importance of Being Earnest," it is believed that Algernon is the embodiment of Oscar Wilde's personality. Algernon 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. (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 (Oscar Wilde): According to Algernon, relationships are “Divorces are made in heaven.” About modern culture, he comments, “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.”
One of his thoughts regarding family and living is rather insightful:
“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.
The theme of leading double lives is commonplace throughout The Importance of Being Earnest. Despite his façade of high moral character, Jack has been living a lie. His friend, Algernon, it turns out 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 for the excitement of the city, he says, "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 creates 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.
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. Then Algernon cavorts off to the countryside, seeking amusement. During act two of the play, Algernon intensifies Jack's conflict by posing as Jack's delinquent brother Ernest.
The Loves of Their Lives
Algernon and Jack get entangled in their dual identities and the pursuit of their true loves. For both men, the "Importance of Being Ernest" 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 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 gets 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.
Algernon Falls for Cecily
During their first encounter, Algernon falls in love with Cecily, Jack's pretty eighteen-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."