The Importance of Being Earnest
by Oscar Wilde
Tools of Characterization
Algernon likes to play the piano inaccurately, eat compulsively, and then lie about how there were no cucumbers at the market. Oh, and he goes Bunburying. At times, Algernon can come across as selfish and insincere.
In contrast, Dr. Chasuble gives sermons and performs baptisms. He might seem to be more responsible than Algernon, but he too has his faults. He spends a great deal of time flirting with Miss Prism, when his position as a cleric clearly orders him to be celibate. So Dr. Chasuble’s actions also reveal his hypocrisy.
In fact, every character’s actions reveal that they can be frivolous or dishonest at certain moments. But since Wilde’s play is clearly a satire, it should come as no surprise that there are no absolute good or evil characters. Each character’s virtues and flaws are indicative of a fairly corrupt society; it is the reader’s job to differentiate just how hypocritical each character is.
Ironically, the more educated a character is, the more pretentious and hypocritical he or she seems.
Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble throw around big words and discuss obscure theories. Their main function in the play is to provide comic relief. Cecily (who is Miss Prism’s student) and Algernon (who describes himself as "immensely overeducated" [II.181]) both say one thing and then do exactly the opposite.
In contrast, Lady Bracknell comes from humble origins and makes no pretense about adoring ignorance. She considers "the whole theory of modern education…radically unsound" (I.184). Throughout the play, she is surprisingly consistent—standing by her statement that she will not let her daughter marry a commoner.
Jack cares for his family out in his country estate, providing a luxurious living for his ward, Cecily, and making sure she gets the best education possible. By doing this, Jack honors his guardian’s will. By all accounts, he is a good "son"—other than the whole Ernest-is-fake thing. Algernon, on the other hand, states outright he "love[s] hearing [his] relations abused" (I.222) and is constantly lying to avoid dining with them.
Cecily seems to genuinely respect and love her Uncle Jack, while Gwendolen blatantly disobeys her mother. Gwendolen’s behavior reflects her mother’s disrespectful behavior to her own family: Lady Bracknell lies to her husband and even makes him eat in solitude when he ruins her table arrangement at dinner. It seems that Wilde is making subtle character distinctions according to social class. In the world of Wilde, aristocrats tend to treat their close family and relatives poorly, while the "lower classes"—like Jack and Cecily—have more trusting and compassionate familial relationships.
Many of the characters’ names reflect aspects of their personalities. Lady Augusta Bracknell’s name repeatedly emphasizes her nobility through the title of "Lady"; "Bracknell" is the name of the land she owns.
Miss Prism is a pun for misprision, which can mean either "neglect" (regarding her abandonment of baby Ernest) or "a misunderstanding" (which highlights her lack of common sense). Dr. Chasuble’s name shows both that he is highly educated—having a doctorate in Divinity—and that he is a cleric. Did you know that that a chasuble is "a sleeveless outer vestment worn by the celebrant at Mass." (Thanks dictionary.com!)
But Jack/Ernest Worthing is not earnest and arguably not worthy of Gwendolen’s hand in marriage. We’re thinking that name was both intentional and ironic on Wilde’s part.