Character Analysis in The Importance of Being Earnest
The Idea of Character: Wilde complicates our idea of character by presenting us with a nonexistent one: Ernest, a name clearly punned by the title The Importance of Being Earnest. Through dialogue, Wilde reveals his characters to be nearly identical pairs who congregate around the idea of the elusive Ernest: Jack and Algernon are two dandies who create their own version of “Ernest” so they can sneak off to the city, and Cecily and Gwendolyn are two silly upper-class ladies who declare that they will only marry men named Ernest. Witty conversations and repeated, comedic mishaps not only reveal the shallowness and deceitfulness of their characters, but also provide insight into how Wilde perceived the vapidness of the upper classes.
Character Analysis Examples in The Importance of Being Earnest:
Act I 22
"what a Gorgon is like..." See in text (Act I)
"Gorgon" refers to any of three monstrous sisters from ancient Greek mythology who were so grotesque that anyone who looked directly at them would immediately turn to stone. The most famous Gorgon is Medusa, a terrifying creature with snakes for hair who was, unlike her sisters, mortal and was slain by the Greek hero Perseus, thus making her story a part of popular culture. In likening Lady Bracknell to the Gorgons, Jack characterizes her as a particularly detestable woman.
"as right as a trivet..." See in text (Act I)
A "trivet" meaning a stand or support, typically for a pot, plate, or any other vessel placed over a fire. Originally, the trivet was understood to have three legs, like a tripod, but doesn't necessarily have all three of them now, and is instead often attached to a grate by a way of one or more hooks. For Gwendolen to be as "right" as a trivet means to be as sturdy and dependable, meaning, to Jack's liking.
"the worst excesses of the French Revolution..." See in text (Act I)
The French Revolution was at heart an attempt to reform the country after years of feudalism and aristocratic rule. The peasants stopped working for the land owners, crops failed, and the middle class were no longer excluded from political power. As a member of the English aristocracy, Lady Bracknell of course doesn't want this to happen and thinks of Jack's past as a sign that society has begun to degenerate.
"found..." See in text (Act I)
Foundlings, as people like Jack were called, were orphans who were for one reason or another left by their parents to be "found" by other people and raised as their own. Typically, these foundlings were left on church doorsteps to be raised in overcrowded orphanages, but in some cases were "found" by people, such as Mr. Cardew, who were able to give them some wealth and status.
"to lose both looks like carelessness..." See in text (Act I)
Lady Bracknell puns on the word "lose," taking it to mean both that Jack has lost his parents (in the sense of them passing) and literally lost them (in the sense of their being misplaced). In this interrogation, Lady Bracknell has proven herself to be witty, bizarre, and obviously related to Algernon. Her ideas about marriage, propriety, and wealth are proper to the point of being absurd, and Wilde uses them to prove that these Grundyist ideals are entirely ridiculous.
"All my girl-friends tell me so..." See in text (Act I)
This is the first and only mention of Gerald in the play and establishes that he's a bit of a cad, proposing to girls without really intending to marry them. Gwendolen makes it sound like he's just playing around with these girls, practicing for the real thing. The audience, of course, knows that it's not just fun and games and that he's toying with their affections.
"French songs I cannot possibly allow..." See in text (Act I)
Recall that earlier in this act Jack said that "corrupt French Drama" propagated the idea of marriage being an affair with three people, not two. This casual hatred of the French and their seeming sexual freedom aligns Jack more with Lady Bracknell than Algernon, even though, in practice, he behaves much more like his friend than he's willing to admit.
"I always feel quite certain that they mean something else..." See in text (Act I)
Note that Jack's line about it being a "charming" day isn't necessarily a reference to the weather (which may well be lovely), but that it is in fact an example of a double entendre, which Jack uses to suggest he has found Gwendolen particularly charming or beautiful. Gwendolen rightly assumes that there's more to what he says, but, given that we already know it's a double entendre, she doesn't really need to say so out loud, except to show off her intelligence.
"I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief..." See in text (Act I)
This description, in combination with Lady Bracknell's observation that Lady Harbury appears to be living "entirely for pleasure" in the wake of her husband's death, suggests that Lady Harbury has taken to dating again and that she has dyed her hair in order to attract men. Whether she intends to marry again is, of course, another matter, and Lady Bracknell doesn't wish to speculate on it. Wilde, however, uses it as another example of how escaping marriage can be freeing.
"[Gravely.]..." See in text (Act I)
Lane lies in order to cover for his employer, who has eaten all of the cucumber sandwiches already. This ability to lie and think on his feet suggests that, though Algernon isn't interested in Lane's personal life or his personality, Lane himself knows Algernon very well and is able to lie for him in front of (the very shrewd) Lady Bracknell without even batting an eye. This isn't necessarily a characteristic Lane embodies outside of work, but it certainly suggests that he's good at his job.
"I am always smart..." See in text (Act I)
Wilde makes a pun on the word "smart," using it to mean both that Gwendolen is smart (or intelligent) and that she's dressed "smartly" (or in an elegant, impressive, sophisticated way). Thus, Gwendolen is characterized as a bright and beautiful young woman who's perhaps too smart for Jack but clearly a relative of the sharp, witty Algernon.
"in married life three is company and two is none..." See in text (Act I)
Algernon plays on the familiar phrase "two's company and three's a crowd," where "company" refers to the exact number of people you want in a situation, such as two lovers who think that a third person would be a third wheel or a "crowd." Algernon suggests that having a Bunbury (or, indeed, a lover) is essential in a marriage, because two people alone won't be enough for each other. Jack, of course, disagrees.
"You are absoltely careless about sending out invitations..." See in text (Act I)
From this line, we can assume that Jack doesn't often invite Algernon to dine out and that it's often Algernon who makes plans for them to spend time together. It's possible that Jack doesn't want to be seen out and about with Algernon, because of his reputation and his more subversive beliefs, but it's unclear, from these lines, whether this is a real concern for Jack or an impediment to their friendship. Certainly, they seem to spend a lot of time together, whether or not it's in public.
"It isn't the sort of thing one should talk of in private..." See in text (Act I)
Notice the use of the word "should" here. That suggests that talking about modern culture in private is inappropriate and that one's views on general subjects such as this should only be expressed in public, presumably to ensure that they align with public opinion and uphold the status quo. Jack, unlike Algernon, puts some stock in the status quo and feels the need to give it lip service. In private, of course, he's friends with Algernon, which already tells us that he's not as proper as he pretends to be.
"I happen to be more than usually hard up..." See in text (Act I)
Recall that Algernon's "flat" (apartment) has been described as being "luxuriously and artistically" decorated. This implies that Algernon has or had some means, whether it be family money or another source of income, and that he's prone to squandering it needlessly to maintain his lavish lifestyle. His financial situation, though casually introduced here as the butt of a joke, builds on the theme of money and will affect Algernon's romantic prospects later in the play.
"She is my aunt. [Takes plate from below.]..." See in text (Act I)
This combination of stage action and dialogue places emphasis on the word "my," making Algernon seem like a petulant child snatching away a plate and saying, "She's my aunt," in a single motion. This further characterizes him as a self-absorbed character, while at the same time illuminating his unusual ideas of what constitutes "proper" and appropriate behavior (i.e. it's okay for him to eat them, but not for Jack to).
"If ever I get married, I'll certainly try to forget the fact..." See in text (Act I)
Algernon implies that if he ever gets married, all the romance will get sucked out of the marriage and he'll have to "forget" the fact that he's tied down. In theory, this process of forgetting will allow Algernon to tap back into the romance he felt at the beginning of the relationship. In practice, however, he'll be "forgetting" his marriage in the sense that he'll be stepping out on his wife. Jack picks up on this in the next line.
"Eating as usual, I see, Algy..." See in text (Act I)
Wilde hasn't given us a physical description of any of his characters, but implies here that Algernon (Algy) might be somewhat overweight, or that he's simply very fond of food. The familiar abbreviation "Algy" suggests that he and Jack (under his assumed name "Ernest") have become very close and are in the habit of occasionally making snide remarks about each other without meaning anything malicious by it.
"what on earth is the use of them..." See in text (Act I)
Algernon thinks that the lower classes should set an example for the upper class by adhering strictly to Victorian ideals of morality, and in particular to the Grundyism that demanded one be conventional and prudish in personal matter. (Mrs. Grundy was a figure of propriety and decency made up to represent the tyranny of Victorian ideals). Wilde uses Algernon to skewer these ideals and say that there's no one in England who really adheres to them.
"I don't know that I am much interested in your family life, Lane..." See in text (Act I)
Notice how Algernon separates himself from his servant by refusing to engage with him on a personal level. This characterizes Algernon as someone who's inherently classist, self-involved, and a little catty. That Lane casually says that his family life isn't that interesting both adds to the humor of the situation and suggests that Lane has, in the course of his employment, internalized his employer's disinterest and his sense of humor in order to make himself a better servant. We learn very little of Lane's personal life after this exchange.
"misunderstanding..." See in text (Act I)
A play on the word "understanding," which in this context refers to an engagement or agreement to marry between Lane and a woman. He didn't really want to marry this woman, which results in his believing that marriage may well be a happy situation for some people, but that it wasn't for him. Misunderstandings like this will result in most of the conflicts in the play and will be its primary source of humor.
"I keep science for Life..." See in text (Act I)
Here, "science" should be read as an "exact science" or perfection in performance and approach that Algernon doesn't bother with in his music, but instead reserves for his day to day life. In this brief aside, Wilde characterizes Algernon as sharp, witty, and exacting in his self-expression, which, as we'll see, is both incredibly mannered and wildly funny.
Act II 18
"There is no evidence at all that I have ever been christened by anybody..." See in text (Act II)
In the course of the play, the name "Ernest" has become synonymous with the characteristics of being honest, respectable, and trustworthy. Wilde doesn't dwell on the point, but the fact that Jack and Algernon both wish to be christened with this name suggests a fundamental shift in their character: that they want to be the nice, honest, beloved men they're been pretending to be and put all this absurdity behind them. This desire seems at once incredibly foolish and remarkably endearing.
"such a painful position..." See in text (Act II)
This painful position is one of being forced to speak the truth, which is very different from merely telling the truth. There are two things to take away from this line: that Jack has hitherto led a life where it was not particularly necessary for him to lie, and that when he has lied in the past he has gotten away with it without a problem. His discomfort here stems from his deep-seated sense of privilege, which tells him that, as a man, he's entitled to do whatever he wants and never have to deal with the consequences.
"agricultural depression..." See in text (Act II)
Yet another allusion to the financial troubles faced by the aristocracy and landed gentry in the 19th Century, when land became, as Lady Bracknell suggested in Act I, a liability to the rich, who continually lost money by maintaining their lavish estates. Cecily alludes to all of this to make fun of Gwendolen, who, in positioning herself as a member of a higher class, has opened herself up to critique on this subject.
"our social spheres have been widely different..." See in text (Act II)
Gwendolen all but calls Cecily provincial, implying that by knowing of and casually referring to a gardening tool like a spade she's revealing herself to be of a lower class. Of course, Cecily has merely used the well-known phrase, "Call a spade a spade," which Gwendolen has no doubt heard before and understood perfectly well. In her deliberate refusal to recognize this idiom, the audience can see the difference between Gwendolyn's satirical one-liners, which come from a place of cruelty, and Algernon's witticisms, which seem merely to be in jest.
"a lorgnette..." See in text (Act II)
A lorgnette is a pair of eyeglasses with a handle, often referred to as "opera glasses" because of their use by the audience of many stage productions. Gwendolen uses her lorgnette to get an unusually close look at Cecily, and assumes, based on what she sees, that Cecily isn't staying long. This may prove Algernon right in believing that women have to hate each other for a while before being friends. Or it may be Wilde's way of saying that none of us look good under a microscope (as the lorgnette in this situation is).
"The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man..." See in text (Act II)
Gwendolen inverts traditional gender roles, saying that men are best suited for the home (a sphere typically reserved for women). In doing so, Gwendolen asserts her power as a strong young woman, while at the same time subverting gender stereotypes and putting Algernon in his place along with her father. As with all the subversive ideas in the play, Wilde uses this inversion of gender roles for comedic effect, but the audience can assume, given his satirical tone, that his critique of modern British society still stands.
"Half of the chaps who get into the Bankruptcy Court are called Algernon..." See in text (Act II)
A sly reference to Algernon's actual financial situation. Recall that in Act I he described himself as being "more than usually hard up," as in running out of money. It's not clear exactly how Algernon supports himself or if he's living off family money, but it would appear, from this flippant remark, that Bankruptcy Court isn't very far away for him, and that Cecily's decision to marry him may be fiscally unwise.
"do you mean to say you could not love me..." See in text (Act II)
Recall that in Act I Jack asked this very same question of Gwendolen, who took the same position as Cecily. Wilde uses this repeating plot line to draw direct parallels between the two main characters, Jack and Algernon, as well as their significant others. In this way, we see that Jack and Algernon, though markedly different in both their moral code and sense of humor, respond the same way to this situation, making them, if not brothers by blood, brothers in spirit.
"after a long struggle with myself I accepted you under this dear old tree here..." See in text (Act II)
Cecily's "engagement" to "Ernest" and her keeping of the diary speak to an elaborate fantasy world in which Cecily believes whatever she wants to believe and invents entire love affairs without ever actually meeting the other party. Though Wilde depicts this as humorous and more than a little absurd, there's an element of childishness to it, and this emphasizes her youth and immaturity, while at the same time building on the theme of courtship in the play.
"When one is dictating one should speak fluently and not cough..." See in text (Act II)
Notice how Cecily gives Algernon the illusion of power and influence by using the word "dictating" to suggest that he's telling her what she should write. In reality, Cecily is dictating their encounter, telling him what to say, when to say it, and how. Algernon, of course, recognizes that she's in control and expresses surprise over it, though in fact he likes this quality about her.
"The absence of old friends one can endure with equanimity..." See in text (Act II)
"Equanimity" meaning even-keeled, mildly tempered, unperturbed. If her old friends (or relatives) were to excuse themselves or be absent for an extended period of time, Cecily wouldn't mind at all. This blasé attitude with regards to her personal relationships likens her in many ways to Algernon, who seems only to care about his own amusement and desires, and who falls in love with her in part because of their similar temperaments.
"But they don't seem to know what thrift is..." See in text (Act II)
"Thrift" means prosperity, success, and good fortune or luck. In this context, "thrift" means that the lower classes prosper or thrive, not by having more children but by having fewer. This subverts the Biblical precept to "go forth and prosper" (or have many children) by claiming that the poor would be more successful (or have more money) if they had fewer children to support. That Miss Prism says this with disdain shows how classist and prejudiced she is.
"Quixotic..." See in text (Act II)
Characteristic of Don Quixote, the main character of the novel of the same name by Miguel de Cervantes. As an adjective, it means to be naive, unrealistic, capricious, and whimsical. Often, it means to be in some way ridiculous or strange, as when Algernon asks Cecily if she would mind him "reforming" himself that afternoon (where "reform" is used to suggest a sex act or some form of romance that could make "Ernest" set aside his wicked ways).
"Egeria..." See in text (Act II)
In ancient Roman mythology, Egeria was a nymph who become King Numa Pompilius' trusted advisor and companion. Egeria purportedly advised him on the creation of Rome's laws and rituals, basing them on religious practices predating the formation of the Roman Empire proper. As a nymph, Egeria was also said to be very beautiful, which is why the Chasuble has made the comparison: he's infatuated with Miss Prism.
"the things that have never happened, and couldn't possibly have happened..." See in text (Act II)
Cecily makes a keen observation about the faulty nature of memory: it tends to misinterpret things, believing something to be "true" or to have happened when, from an objective perspective, it never did or wasn't even possible. For example, there are Victorian novels about courtship where one character believes herself to be betrothed to a man and in the end it turns out he's just toying with her. Cecily would much rather read something based on fact than memory, which sets her apart from the other women in the novel, who enjoy these three-volume novels.
"this modern mania for turning bad people into good people..." See in text (Act II)
Recall that in Act I Lady Bracknell made a very similar remark about illness, saying, "Nor do I in any way approve of the modern sympathy with invalids." Both Miss Prism and Lady Bracknell represent a social class and generation that wasn't interested in progress and clung to their idea of the past at the turn of the 20th Century. In this way, they both become symbols of the social hierarchy and mouthpieces for a way of thinking about the world that soon began to fall out of fashion.
"You know German, and geology, and things of that kind influence a man very much..." See in text (Act II)
Given Cecily's earlier disdain for German, coupled with this statement about German being very impressive to men, leads one to wonder if Cecily has any real interest in men. It would appear, from these lines, that she doesn't particularly care about having any influence on them or attracting one with her language skills. Instead, she wants to do whatever she wants (like watering flowers), and if a man happens to come along, all the better.
"Indeed, he always lays stress on your German when he is leaving for town..." See in text (Act II)
Neither Miss Prism nor Cecily knows the truth about Jack's trips into town, but the audience knows that he's going out for no other reason than to goof off in the city and enjoy himself. This hypocrisy (of telling his ward to be studious and proper while himself galavanting around town) illuminates one of the central tensions in British society of that time: adults demanding a higher sense of morality and propriety from the youth than from themselves.
Act III 12
"you young scoundrel..." See in text (Act III)
Notice how well Algernon fits into the role of Jack's younger brother, who has already been described as "wicked," bad, and a degenerate. Wilde has gone to great lengths to establish that Algernon and Jack have a lot in common (their Bunburyism, their wit), and in this scene we can finally see the family resemblance. In retrospect, their banter in the first two acts reads like the bickering of two brother who both love and hate each other, as siblings often do.
"I deposited the manuscript in the basinette..." See in text (Act III)
Wilde doesn't belabor the point, but by placing the manuscript in the basinette he signifies to the reader that this is Miss Prism's child, and that this work that she has labored over in her off hours has become more important to her than a real-life baby, whom she thoughtlessly leaves in a train station. This may be how Wilde himself feels about his writing: that it is like his child, and that he cares for it as if it were his flesh and blood. Metaphorically speaking, it probably is.
"I wish he would arrive at some conclusion..." See in text (Act III)
Recall that in Act I Lady Bracknell expressed a dislike for the fictional Mr. Bunbury because he couldn't make up his mind whether to live or to die. In repeating this sentiment, she likens Jack to Mr. Bunbury and implies that she doesn't care one way or another what he decides or what happens. This emphasizes both Lady Bracknell's characteristic impatience and Jack's similarities with Algernon, who, as the inventor of Bunburyism, is the source of the indecision Jack's being accused of here.
"an Oxonian..." See in text (Act III)
An alum of Oxford University, the most prestigious university in all of England. Algernon had mentioned on several occasions that he's too well educated to enjoy polite society, but has never specified where or what he studied. That he's an Oxford man explains both his great wit and his sense of superiority, which permeates all his interactions with the other characters in the play.
"It looks so calculating..." See in text (Act III)
From Lady Bracknell's perspective, all women lie about their age as a matter of course, to the point where it has come to be expected. Any woman who doesn't lie about her age must have some secret reason for doing so in her eyes, which paradoxically makes an act of honesty into an act of deception In this, we can see that Lady Bracknell thinks of social interaction as a series of moves and countermoves wherein one's main objective is to look well to others.
"We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces..." See in text (Act III)
Recall that in Act II Cecily accused Gwendolen of wearing a "shallow mask of manners," or in other words pretending or acting like she's a more polite and respectable person than she really is. This "mask" is thematically linked to Lady Bracknell's "surfaces," which reveal only one's most superficial characteristics (one's wealth, status, prestige). Both Lady Bracknell and Cecily suggest that we live in a shallow world, but Cecily's the only one of the two who doesn't like it.
"That is all..." See in text (Act III)
Jack uses understatement to express his supreme displeasure with Lady Bracknell and their entire conversation. In point of fact, Cecily has inherited a large sum of money, and Jack knows very well that it will change Lady Bracknell's mind about the engagement, but he tells her about it in such a perfunctory way so as to make her ideas about money and social status seem all the more shallow.
"Markby, Markby, and Markby..." See in text (Act III)
Note the repetition in this line. It appears that three names, like three addresses, inspires confidence in someone of Lady Bracknell's social sphere and satisfied her with regards to Cecily's status and heredity. That the three names are in fact the same satirizes Lady Bracknell's old-fashioned sense of decorum while at the same time poking fun at the names of law firms and businesses, who sometimes have comical names like this one.
"above the proper average that statistics have laid down for our guidance..." See in text (Act III)
Keep in mind that statistics about engagements everywhere can only be lain down or collected after the engagements have already been finalized and that, by their nature, the statistics can't dictate how one should behave and can only show how one has already behaved. Lady Bracknell wants to use the statistics about what everyone else has done to influence her own decisions, but forgets that these kinds of statistics can fluctuate wildly regardless of her decisions.
"his morbidity..." See in text (Act III)
In general, the word "morbidity" refers to the state of being diseased, injured, or incapacitated for reasons of health. Here, Lady Bracknell uses it to mean that Mr. Bunbury was morbid in the sense of being a brooding, morbid person obsessed with change. Recall that in Act I Lady Bracknell referred to the modern sympathy for invalids or sick people as morbid, too. This suggests that anyone who doesn't think as she does or suffers for their cause (physically or otherwise) is, as she says, a morbid person who deserves what they get.
"I nearly always speak at the same time as other people..." See in text (Act III)
There haven't been any other examples of this in the text, but given Gwendolen's flippant tone here we can assume that she means this in the sense of talking over someone and not in the sense of being united or expressing the same idea, as she does with Cecily. This characterizes her as a self-interested person who doesn't listen to others and thinks nothing of ignoring them.
"In order that I might have an opportunity of meeting you...." See in text (Act III)
Keep in mind that Algernon did, in fact, impersonate "Ernest" to meet Cecily, and that this isn't just a way of ingratiating himself to her. His intention was to charm her and deceive her into believing he would set aside Ernest's disreputable ways and become an honest man, but now that she knows he isn't Ernest, he has, paradoxically, become an "earnest" suitor who hopes that she'll understand the sincerity of his love.