The Importance of Being Earnest

Topics: Plays

Stubborn, irresponsible and shallow: three words to describe the character Jack, from ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. In Oscar Wilde’s light-hearted play, Jack is a wealthy young man, who is a main character involved in the complex plot(s). Throughout the play, Wilde slowly reveals different things about Jack so the audience feel like they are getting to know him better. The playwright obviously has strong views about people from the Edwardian era (setting of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’), and his characters are his way of communicating these opinions.

Jack is a noticeable character and has very individual traits, which adds to the atmosphere of the play and makes it more humorous. By giving each character a distinctive personality, it helps the audience distinguish between the many plots because the more extreme a character is, the more likely it is that you remember them. He appears to have no understanding of responsibility as at the beginning of the play he says ‘Oh, pleasure, pleasure! What else should bring one anywhere? ‘, when Algernon asks why he has come to the town.

This shows he is irresponsible because it shows he just wants to have fun and enjoy himself. This quote also shows he is wealthy and extravagant because he can obviously travel whenever he wants to and has the cash to do so. This links back to the point that he is irresponsible because if he had the sole responsibility of anything then he wouldn’t just be able to travel – for example if he worked then he would not just be able to leave his job.

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The word ‘pleasure’ emphasises the point that the character Jack is wealthy, as he clearly has a luxurious lifestyle and the money to afford’ pleasure’.

The phrase ‘what else should bring one anywhere? ‘ also suggests he is young and care free because he has no understanding that people might not travel for pleasure. He appears to be living in his own little world and has no idea that others struggle to find the money to survive and have to work very hard to do so. This is an important part of Oscar Wilde’s message – that the rich were quite nai?? ve – but I will discuss this further later. On the other hand this quote could show he was just spontaneous and always looking for an adventure.

Instead of being frivolous he is just enjoying the money he has and making the most of his life. It would probably depend on the audience’s views on money as to whether they saw Jack as overly extravagant or just spontaneous. The idea that he is irresponsible is actually not a true character trait, because actually Jack is quite devious, and does have responsibilities because he is a guardian in the country, where he is known as Jack, to Cecily his ward. The previous quote applies to this as well because doesn’t want Algernon to find out he has responsibilities as he may come across as boring.

While he is actually travelling to the town for ‘pleasure’, he tries to cover the fact he has a secret life in the country with ‘what else should bring one anywhere? ‘ This acts as a cover because Jack knows that travelling isn’t always about pleasure but he tries to fit in with Algernon’s profligate lifestyle. At many points in the play Jack says things that make the characters he is talking to believe he is someone he is not. This is usually due to the fact he is trying to cover up his lies. There are points when Jack is shown to be demanding.

When he travels to the town, in act one, he says to Algernon ‘I simply want my cigarette case back’. This shows Jack to be demanding and perhaps impatient. The phrase ‘simple want’ implies he is impatient as this is the way the line would be performed when on stage. I imagine that the line would be delivered in a snappy way, and Jack would probably look quite angry or uncomfortable. The line is short which would make the audience believe that Jack is short-tempered and the word ‘want’ adds to this.

His demand is polite yet the tone in the actor’s voice would give away that Jack was actually frustrated. In the conversation that is taking place, Algernon has read the inscription on the cigarette case, which makes it obvious that is belongs to ‘Jack’ and is from Cecily. Algernon knows Jack as Ernest as this is what Jack calls himself in the town. Algy also knows the cigarette case belongs to Ernest so is confused by the inscription which goes against what he knows. The conversation arouses suspicion with Algy and so he starts questioning Jack (or Ernest as he is known to Algernon at this point).

The quote links to this because instead of having a short-temper, he could have appeared impatient because he was anxious about being found out. The actor could show this by being fidgety and looking uncomfortable with the situation. This makes sense because Jack is happy with the way he has two lives, one in the town and one in the country and as no-body likes to be lied to, Algernon and Jack would probably wend up having a fight, and things would probably have to change or Algernon would want to meet Cecily and everything would get confusing, so Jack didn’t want him to find out.

If this is the case the word ‘simply’ would be Jack trying to cover the fact he was really anxious to get his cigarette case back without Algy discovering the lies and him trying to sound as casual and calm as possible. Throughout the play, he is very cagey about the secrets and right up until the end, there are still things being discovered. Oscar Wilde sometimes gives the characters lines that just spark the idea with the audience that they are lying.

At the beginning Jack says ‘Eh? Shropshire? Yes of course! This gives the idea that Jack is lying about where he has been and where his house in the country it because he sounds confused. He is hesitant to begin with, like he is unsure of what he is talking about, even though, he should be sure. The question marks show the actor would go up at the end of the words, to make it clear it is a question. The actor would also probably have a confused face, while he thinks about what is being said. Jack after giving away slightly that he was lying tries to go back on himself, and cover it up by saying ‘Yes, of course’, as if he knew all along.

This is a subtle effect used by Wilde, which just triggers the feeling he is being dishonest with the audience. From this point they are then more likely to pick up on other times when he is lying, which adds to both his character and the storyline. Narcissistic is a word that could be used to describe many of the characters but Jack definitely has this characteristic. Wilde makes all the characters self-centred and vain, which is a lot of the reason why the play is a comedy.

It adds to the humour because they are only interested in their own lives, so end up clashing because they are unable to understand other people. Wilde shows Jack to have this trait with the line ‘It is very painful for me to be forced to speak the truth’. He doesn’t realise how much his lying might upset people and hasn’t thought about the consequences. All he wants is happiness for him and this links back to the point that he is demanding because he doesn’t understand that others may have their own concerns. He has been lying but he doesn’t think about how this will affect others just how ‘painful’ it is for him.

It sounds as if he doesn’t realise that the lies may hurt others but he understands that it is wrong because he is embarrassed about having to tell them. He doesn’t want to admit he has lied because he likes the situation he is in even though it is deceitful. At certain points he can be very hypocritical. He says to Algernon ‘my dear fellow the sooner you give up this silly nonsense the better’ about his lying and having a double personality. This is hypocritical because Jack also has another personality and identity but this is what he is telling Algy off for!

The fact he calls it ‘silly nonsense’ shows that he recognises that what he is doing is a bit stupid and immature but this doesn’t affect his actions because he is benefiting from having two identities because he can get out of things he doesn’t want to do. Jack also appears to be romantic throughout the play. He loves Gwendolen and want impress both her and her mother; who won’t let them marry. In the first act he appears very romantic when he admits his love to Gwendolen. The character has the line, ‘I have never loved anyone in the world except you’. He sounds very charming and this line is likely to surprise and impress Gwendolen.

On stage this would probably be a very intense and emotional scene. Gwendolen and Jack are having this secret conversation while Lady Bracknell (Gwendolen’s mother), is in the other room, so it could be quite rushed or panicky. Later in act one he calls her ‘My own darling’ which shows he is affectionate, but possible a bit possessive. The fact he calls her ‘darling’ shows he is affectionate and adoring of her because it is a familiar pet-name. He says ‘my own’ which is the part that makes him sound possessive because it sounds like she is a possession; an object rather than a woman.

This could mean the character is controlling and maybe clingy. He wants other people to know Gwendolen is with him and it could be pride or it could be jealousy and control. Towards the end of the play, in act 3, Gwendolen says ‘I am engaged to be married to Mr. Worthing’. This quote makes Jack (Mr. Worthing) appears to be romantic because the couple have stayed together through the action in the play so far, even though they have had opposition. They are still serious about each other, and love each other even though their relationship was frowned upon and challenged by the highly respected Lady Bracknell.

She was quite a fierce character so it makes it more likely that Jack and Gwendolen are truly in love, because they are in an unofficial and nonstandard relationship (because of the way they got together), and so should probably not be together but even with Lady Bracknell pressuring them to split up they haven’t. Their relationship is unusual because in that era, if you wanted to marry a woman you went to her parents first but Jack didn’t do this, he went straight to Gwendolen, which must have angered Lady Bracknell as she would have felt protective towards Gwendolen.

This proves Jack is romantic because he must have really loved Gwendolen, or at least really wanted to be with her because Lady Bracknell was very powerful and what he was doing, she disapproved of and could have probably done something about. However in the end Lady Bracknell does intervene, but Jack still protests by not allowing Cecily to marry Algernon, Lady Bracknell’s nephew. This shows a selfish side of Jack; he is stopping someone else’s relationship because he can’t have his own way.

This links back to the idea that he was self centred because if he was selfless than he would let Cecily and Algernon be together because that would make them happy and even though he is upset, they could still continue their relationship, but they can’t without his permission. ‘I was in handbag’. This is a quote that describes Jacks mysterious past, in which he was abandoned and found in a railway station. This has probably had an impact on his life and character and he may be so self-centred because he felt rejected and feels he deserves to be because his real parents didn’t want him and so he gives himself the attention.

On stage the conversation would probably be quite awkward because Lady Bracknell is questioning him and he is obviously embarrassed about his part and doesn’t want it to come out. It remains quite mysterious (until the end) because he doesn’t know who his parents are until it is revealed that his mother is Lady Bracknell’s sister. Jack is engaged to Gwendolen but that is just one relationship that he has. His best friend is called Algernon and actually turns out to be his brother! He lives in the town but travelled out to the country to find out about Jack.

The two characters are in many ways very similar because they are both dishonest and irresponsible. This is shown when Jack says ‘I could deny it if I liked, I could deny anything if I liked’ because he is implying that he is used to and good at lying and can get himself out of any situation. This is possible not the best thing to say in this situation as he has been found to be lying; by saying this he is implying that he lies all the time. This would only make the characters trust him less and wonder what else he has been lying about.

He also sounds a bit cocky and again self-centred because he thinks he can do what he likes, without thinking and he can get away with it. This is a characteristic that he shares with Algy which is possibly why they get on so well. They are both ‘Bunburyists’ which means they have created another identity to get them out of social meetings that they don’t want to take part in! This shows they are both selfish and probably ungrateful because somebody has gone to the effort of inviting them to the event and then they pretend they are busy to get out of it.

This is backed up by the quote ‘you have invented a very useful younger brother … in order that you may be able to come up to town as often as possible’ because it explains why Jack ahs created Earnest. Although they get on well on the whole, they sometimes have small disagreements over petty things. In act two they have a disagreement over muffins. ‘How can you sit there, calmly eating muffins, when we are in this horrible trouble’ is a quote from this argument. They continue arguing over the muffins, but there is an underlying reason for this argument.

They are both probably a bit annoyed and nervous as to what is going to happen next because both the women have just found out they are ‘Bunburyists’ and have gone inside. This has left the men in bad moods and they need to take it out on someone so they have a go at each other over the first thing they can. Though the play is quite light-hearted – being a comedy – there is a serious message underneath. I believe one ‘symbol’ of this is the food. It seems to be a key idea carried through the play: the cucumber sandwiches in the first act and muffins and cake and sugar in the second act.

I think that the food and gluttony is a representation of other appetites and levels of indulgence. When Jack eats the bread and butter, that is meant for Gwendolen, enthusiastically it is humorous but also could show that he is assuming Gwendolen likes him, and also that he shouldn’t’ like Gwendolen and is being greedy wit his women. This idea is intensified because Algy says ‘you behave as if you were married to her already’ as if the bread and butter represented Gwendolen.

This idea is also present when Cecily and Gwendolen meet in act two and Gwendolen claims ‘Cake is rarely seen at the best houses nowadays. And sugar is ‘not fashionable anymore’ because it shows Gwendolen is very fussy and very concerned about image and others opinions. This is the same when it comes to men because she was only marrying Jack because she thought his name was Earnest. Wilde uses theses symbols (like the food) and themes to get across his message. The main theme is marriage, both as part of the storyline and as an underlying opinion of Oscar Wilde and his opinions of the people of the era. It soon becomes clear that in the Victorian era money, social class and background are the important things for the upper class to find a partner.

This is shown when Lady Bracknell is interviewing potential bachelors for Gwendolen ‘How many bedrooms? ‘. She is clearly thinking about the vale of the property and making sure Gwendolen will have a rich husband who will be able to support her financially. Cecily is very dreamy but Jack is the only one who is a true romantic and although he has fallen for a rich woman wouldn’t necessarily want/need a rich woman. The fact that this is a play means that the audience would have to go to the theatre, probably meaning they are quite wealthy, and might not understand the jokes fully because it is about their lifestyle, so it could offend.

I think for this reason Wilde made it a comedy so he didn’t put people of too much by having a go in a light hearted way. Another message of the play is that all the characters are very similar. If you pick out any line, which doesn’t contain a name then a lot of the time it is difficult to know which character said it. This could suggest that Wilde believed the upper class lacked character and individuality. Regularly in the play the characters (especially Gwendolen and her mother Lady Bracknell) appear to lack personality and just seem shallow and only concerned with money and what is fashionable.

All the characters are well spoken, and often appear to be being polite well their motives are actually quite malicious. What the Victorians believed about morality is also a source for mock the Victorians for Wilde. Throughout the play there seems to be a set of unwritten moral rules that everyone should obey. For example when Jack finds out Algy has read his cigarette caser he says he thinks reading a private cigarette case is ‘ungentlemanly’. Wilde mocks this by making the characters take this to extreme lengths.

The whole play is quite satirical and presents a moral paradox due to the fact the title is ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, Earnestness is a quality of being serious and as none of the characters are meant to be this, its satire. What Wilde wants us to see as truly moral is really the opposite of earnestness: irreverence. The fact that the two main male characters lie throughout the play might also be a point that Wilde tries to get across. Both treat life as if it is just a game or a work of art that they can do what they like with.

Algy although untruthful, only created Bunbury to travel different places however Jack takes it to another level, by taking on both identities, bothering with costumes when ‘Ernest’ dies etc. Algy makes up stories that don’t harm the others view on truth but Jack acts almost hypocritically. Overall, Jack didn’t actually change that much over the course of the action. He starts lying and just lines from the end says ‘it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth’, so his views have not changed considerably.

The plot has not changed his life a huge amount, especially not in a negative way that would prompt change. He has found out he has a brother, but it is his best friend anyway so even though it may change their relationship, it’s not negative. He temporarily split form Gwendolen but then they got back together so this is not negative and also Lady Bracknell has discovered Jack is her nephew so this is good. This means we will see no reason to change because everything is good and how he wants it to be. Wilde’s message is clear, and in general I would say he thought the upper class were shallow and self-centred!

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The Importance of Being Earnest. (2017, Oct 16). Retrieved from

The Importance of Being Earnest
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