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The Importance Of Being Ernest Character Analysis English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 921 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The way Wilde characterized the characters in this play, chiefly Jack Worthing, displays these people as uptight and serious that wouldn’t put a toe out of line. This initial characterization of Jack would seem to the audience a character that should belong in a drama, but Wilde added to Jack the extra quirk of being found in a handbag, and thus not knowing who his actual parents. Wilde did this first display and to ridicule the Victorian dogma stressing normalcy and their frowning upon that which, “seems to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life… (Lady Bracknell, Act I, pg. 134).” Wilde uses the circumstances of Jack’s abandonment to symbolize both Jack’s ambiguous social status throughout the play and to emphasize his mobility within social circles, whether that is up or down. The handbag that baby Jack is perfectly used to symbolize this ambiguity, for this bag was has all the trademarks of normalcy:

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Thus, this commonplace container contains a baby of uncommon origin. There is no coincidence that this ordinary handbag/baby container is discovered in a cloakroom, for these pieces of apparel can all be worn to conceal one’s true form, face, or identity. The Victoria Station has prevalence to this play as well. The western trail, including the Brighton line, led to the wealthier parts of London while the eastern road led to places like Chatham and Dover, which were more impoverished. Wilde uses the fact that the baby Jack is at the intersection of these two lines to literally put him in an identity crisis. Does he come from a poor common family or a rich aristocratic one? Lady Bracknell chose to look on the negative side and judge him as common until proven noble (indecently exposing Wilde’s contempt for the aristocratic propriety and downright snobbishness). There is however another, more positive way to interpret his discovery at Victoria Station. Trains are all about moving people to the places where they need to be. Wilde uses Jack’s presence at Victoria Station to be a comment on his social status, suggesting that he has great social mobility; that he may have success in climbing up the social ladder to a prestigious position. This is foreshadowed by the fact that he’s found specifically on the Brighton line, the road that leads to the richer parts of town. And indeed the story of Earnest is about Jack’s social advancement. In fact, Wilde reveals at the end that Jack is a true member of the aristocracy as part of the Moncrieff family, which makes him a worthy husband for another aristocrat, Gwendolen. So the scene of Jack’s orphaning contains aspects, like the ordinary handbag and the cloakroom, to show that he may seem common, but with the hint of an aristocratic background, through which Wilde reveals Jack’s true social identity.

The most prevalent reason the characters in The Importance of Being Earnest lie is to get out of social or familial duties, to instead do something more enjoyable. Not surprisingly, only a few characters hold honesty in high regard. However, the viewer can see how hard it is for Wilde’s characters to set things straight once they’ve lied about them. As the situation gets increasingly complicated, Wilde must weave more complex lies for his character to get out of the tangles of their previous lies. Perhaps the most striking thing is that none of the characters ever shows true remorse or guilt about lying. The first examples of lying are the two imaginary people created by Jack and Algernon, which Wilde uses to symbolize the empty promises or deceit of the Victorian era. Not only is the character Ernest anything but earnest for the majority of the play, but he also doesn’t even really exist! This makes Jack’s creation of him doubly deceitful. Bunbury sounds as ridiculous and fictional as he actually is. Both of these figments of fantasy allow Jack and Algernon to live a lie; so as to seem as if they uphold these high moral standards, while in reality are gallivanting around without suffering any repercussions. Jack takes it a bit farther since he actually impersonates his so-called good-for-nothing brother. Even when Jack and Algernon are caught in their lies, they never suffer any real punishment. That they can both kill off their imaginary alter egos or friends without much to-do, shows Victorian society’s real values; the Victorian era did not value honesty, responsibility, or compassion for the under-privileged (neither Lady Bracknell or Algernon exhibit much pity for Bunbury when he “dies”), but only style, money, and aristocracy. It is appropriate that the nonexistent characters of Ernest and Bunbury show how shallow are the Victorians’ real concerns.

It seems that Wilde’s main point in The Importance of Being Earnest is to criticize Victorian society by showing how shallow and hypocritical is it. What do aristocrats do all day? Sit around, drinking tea, taking shallow gossip, and even gallivanting around under false pretence. What does Lady Bracknell want to see in Jack, her future son-in-law? Money, property, stylishness, and an aristocratic name. She cares little for his character. As the play goes on and we see just how shallow everyone’s desires are, and we tend to laugh. Wilde does not allow his tone to get too heavy or dark. Instead, we find the characters in The Importance of Being Ernest amusing.


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