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 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 some aspect of their personality. Lady Augusta Bracknell’s name repeatedly emphasizes her nobility through the title of “Lady,” and “Bracknell” which 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 http://www.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 of Wilde’s part.
Character Roles (Protagonist, Antagonist…)
John (Jack) Worthing
A young, eligible bachelor about town. In the city he goes by the name Ernest, and in the country he is Jack — a local magistrate of the county with responsibilities. His family pedigree is a mystery, but his seriousness and sincerity are evident. He proposes to The Honorable Gwendolen Fairfax and, thoughleading a double life, eventually demonstrates his conformity to the Victorian moral and social standards.
A languid poser of the leisure class, bored by conventions and looking for excitement. He, too, leads a double life, being Algernon in the city and Ernest in the country. Algernon, unlike Jack, is not serious and is generally out for his own gratification. He falls in love and proposes to Jack’s ward, Cecily, while posing as Jack’s wicked younger brother, Ernest.
The perfect symbol of Victorian earnestness — the belief that style is more important than substance and that social and class barriers are to be enforced. Lady Bracknell is Algernon’s aunt trying to find a suitable wife for him. A strongly opinionated matriarch, dowager, and tyrant, she believes wealth is more important than breeding and bullies everyone in her path. Ironically, she married into the upper class from beneath it. She attempts to bully her daughter, Gwendolen.
The Honorable Gwendolen Fairfax
Lady Bracknell’s daughter, exhibiting some of the sophistication and confidence of a London socialite, believes style to be important, not sincerity. She is submissive to her mother in public but rebels in private. While demonstrating the absurdity of such ideals as only marrying a man named Ernest, she also agrees to marry Jack despite her mother’s disapproval of his origins.
Jack Worthing’s ward, daughter of his adopted father, Sir Thomas Cardew. She is of debutante age, 18, but she is being tutored at Jack’s secluded country estate by Miss Prism, her governess. She is romantic and imaginative, and feeling the repression of Prism’s rules. A silly and naïve girl, she declares that she wants to meet a “wicked man.” Less sophisticated than Gwendolen, she falls in love with Algernon but feels he would be more stable if named Ernest.
Cecily’s governess and a symbol of Victorian moral righteousness. She is educating Cecily to have no imagination or sensationalism in her life. Quoting scripture as a symbol of her Victorian morality, she reveals a secret life of passion by her concern for the whereabouts of her misplaced novel and her flirtation with the local vicar. She becomes the source of Jack’s revelation about his parents.
Rev. Canon Chasuble, D.D.
Like Miss Prism, he is the source of Victorian moral judgments, but under the surface he appears to be an old lecher. His sermons are interchangeable, mocking religious conventions. Like the servants, he does what Jack (the landowner) wants: performing weddings, christenings, sermons, funerals, and so on. However, beneath the religious exterior, his heart beats for Miss Prism.
Lane and Merriman
Servants of Algernon and Jack.
Lane says soothing and comforting things to his employer but stays within the neutral guidelines of a servant. He is leading a double life, eating sandwiches and drinking champagne when his master is not present. He aids and abets the lies of Algernon.
Merriman keeps the structure of the plot working: He announces people and happenings. Like Lane, he does
not comment on his “betters,” but solemnly watches their folly. His neutral facial expressions during crisis and chaos undoubtedly made the upper-class audience laugh.
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