As a playwright, Wilde is famous neither for his plots nor for his character-portrayal. His chief merit as a playwright is the dialogue in his plays. The dialogue in his plays is distinguished by its brilliant and scintillating wit. The Importance of Being Earnest shows Wilde’s remarkable talent for witty dialogue. The characters in Wilde’s plays have one trait which is common to all of them, and that trait is their wit. The witty remarks which the characters make could be interchanged between them without any damage to the play. In other words, what one character says could have been said by any other character also.
Some Traits of the Character of Algernon
This does not, however, mean that Wilde cannot create and portray characters who can be distinguished from one another. Lady Bracknell is, for instance, one of the most memorable characters in this drama. And other characters in this play have also been successfully portrayed. Leaving aside the servants, Lane and Merriman, there are three male characters in this play Algernon, Jack, and Dr. Chasuble. Each of these characters has sufficiently been individualized and can therefore be differentiated from the others. They have their contribution to make to the wit of the play, but Algernon is wittier than the other two. When we first meet Algernon, he is playing on the piano, which shows his taste for music. He admits that he does not play, accurately but he claims to play with wonderful expression, sentiment being his forte*. He also shows his awareness of the fact that, on the occasion of a party in his house, the servants” consume too much wine, though he does not treat this matter seriously. He believes that the lower orders of society should set a good example of moral responsibility to the upper classes. This, of couse, is a paradoxical statement from him because we expect that the example of moral responsibility should be set by the upper classes rather than by the lower classes.
Some More Traits of Algernon’s Character
Algernon is fond of eating, and he eats greedily, whether it be cucumber sandwiches or muffins. His eating greedily greatly annoys his friend Jack. He is generally short of money and runs into debts. As Lady Bracknell puts it, he has “nothing but his debts to depend upon”. He considers courtship to be something romantic but a proposal of marriage to be unromantic. A proposal of marriage may be accepted and then the uncertainty ends and it is the uncertainty which is the very essence of romance, according to him. He has no strong feeling for relatives whom he considers to be “a tedious pack of people”. In fact, he loves to hear his relatives abused. He is not at all enthusiastic about attending his aunt’s dinner-parties because his aunt gives him a seat next to Mary Farquhar who annoys him by always flirting with her own husband across the dinner-table. The number of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous, he says.
Algernon’s Invention of an Ailing Friend, Bunbury
Algernon is quite an observant and shrewd man. The inscription inside Jack’s cigarette-case has aroused his curiosity and he questions and probes Jack till he obtains the true facts. He overhears Jack’s country address and makes good use of it. He is fond of Bunburying. He has invented an invalid friend called Bunbury so as to be able to go into the countryside as often as he pleases on the pretext of visiting the ailing Bunbury. His visit to Jack’s country house is part of his Bunburying. He introduces himself to Cecily as Jack’s younger brother and in no time obtains her consent to marry him. In order to please Cecily he is even, willing to be rechristened as Ernest.
A Practical Man
As he himself says, Algernon has never allowed his duty as a gentleman to interfere with his pleasures in the smallest degree. He is always overdressed, as we learn from Jack. He does not deny being over-dressed but he claims that he makes up for this fault by being always immensely over-educated. According to Jack, he has a ridiculous vanity. Cecily loves him not only for his name (which she thinks to be Ernest) but also for his hair which to some extent curls naturally, and she calls him a “dear romantic boy”. He is quite practical, too. He makes it possible for Jack to propose marriage to Gwendolen by taking Lady Bracknell away while he makes it possible for himself to propose marriage to Cecily by sending Jack away to change his clothes.
The most outstanding quality of Algernon, however, is his wit. His sarcasms, sallies, retorts, and paradoxical comments are remarkable for their variety, their originality, and their amusing quality. He gives a witty turn to some of the well-known sayings. -Instead of the saying, “Marriages are made in heaven,” he says `Divorces are made in heaven” The saying, that two is company and three is none, is amended by him as follows : “In married life three is company and two is none.” The amended version implies adultery on the part of the husband or the wife. Instead of the phrase “washing one’s dirty linen in public”, he speaks of “washing one’s clean linen in public”. Truth, he says, is never pure and simple. As for literary criticism, he says that it should be left to people who have not been at a university. In his verbal skirmishes with Jack, he generally has the better of that man. “I never saw anybody take so long to dress and with such little result,” he says to Jack with biting sarcasm. When Jack decides to announce that his younger brother Ernest has died of apoplexy, Algernon suggests that Ernest should be made to die of a severe chill, and the suggestion -is accepted by Jack. Another of Algernon’s witty remarks is that the only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her -if she is pretty and to some other woman if the first is unattractive. The only retort that Jack can make to this remark from Algernon is to call this statement “nonsense” Algernon is undoubtedly a superior talker as compared to Jack. He is never at a loss what to say. His shafts of wit are pungent and sharp, and his retorts often have a barbed point.
Jack, a Serious-Minded Person
Jack Worthing can certainly be differentiated from Algernon. The two men have, indeed, been individualized in such a manner that there is no danger at all of our confusing one with the other. Whereas Algernon is a gay and carefree type of man, Jack is serious-minded. Cecily says that sometimes Uncle Jack looks so serious that he seems to be unwell. Miss Prism commends the gravity of Jack and says that she knows no one with a higher sense of duty and responsibility than Jack. Idle merriment and triviality would be out of place in his talk, says Miss Prism. Algernon observes that Jack is the most earnest-looking person he has ever known in his life.
His Parentage Unknown
The story of how Jack as an infant was lost and found is -quite interesting. The nurse, Miss Prism, had put him absent mindedly into a leather hand-bag which she deposited in the cloak-room of Victoria railway station. A certain Mr. Thomas. Cardew found the infant, adopted him, and brought him up. Jack frankly tells Lady Bracknell that he does not know his parentage. He sees no reason to feel ashamed of the presumption that he was an illegitimate child, though the presumption proves to be wrong. Lady Bracknell rejects him as a possible son-in-law because of his unknown parentage but Gwendolen finds the fact of his unknown parentage to be most romantic and stirring.
His Invention of a Wicked Younger Brother ; and His Love For Cecily
Jack falls deeply in love with Gwendolen whom he finds to be a very charming girl, and the only girl he ever saw in his life whom he would wish to marry. While confessing his love to Gwendolen he feels somewhat confused and cannot complete his sentence. In order to be able to go to town as frequently as possible to meet. Gwendolen he has invented a younger brother who is supposed to be leading a loose and irresponsible life in London and who often needs his help. This invention and his subsequent effort to get rid of this supposed younger brother lead him into a very embarrassing situation, but all ends well for him. He is even prepared to undergo a second baptism in order to change his name, but that is found to be unnecessary.
Jack is a good guardian for his ward, Cecily. He wishes to adopt a high moral tone in order to exercise a healthy influence upon her. Cecily is quite devoted to him, and she speaks well of him. He does not, however, prove as smart and clever as Algernon who corners him regarding the inscription inside his cigarette-case. In his verbal skirmishes with Algernon, he generally has the worse of that man, as has already been” pointed out above. On several occasions, all he can say to a verbal attack from Algernon is : “Oh, that is nonsense.” He is also unable to get rid of Algernon when the latter visits his country residence. He is, indeed, no match for Algernon either in manipulation or in wit. Sometimes, however, he rises to the occasion and makes an. effective retort. “Some aunts are tall, and some aunts are not tall. You seem to think that every aunt should be exactly like your aunt,” he says to Algernon, thus clinching the argument. Another of his witty remarks is : “My dear Algy, you talk exactly as if you were a dentist. It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn’t a dentist.” When Algernon expresses a desire to meet Cecily, Jack says : “I will take very good care you never do. She is excessively pretty, and she is only just eighteen.” When Algernon says that, if ever he gets married, he will try-to forget the fact, Jack makes the retort that the Divorce Court was specially invented for people like Algernon. Jack also shows his wit when he describes Lady Bracknell as a “Gorgon”, and a “monster without being a myth”. Having been rejected by Lady Bracknell as her would-be son-in-law, he withholds his consent to the marriage of his ward Cecily to Lady Bracknell’s nephew, Algernon. However, the complication is soon resolved, and everything ends& well with them all.
Dr. Chasuble, a Pompous Clergyman
The third male character in the play is Dr. Chasuble, the Rector, who is also individualized and who is absolutely different from the two leading male characters. Dr. Chasuble is a pompous clergyman. Cecily wittily and paradoxically describes him as a most learned man who has never written a single book. We feel greatly amused by his claim that a particular sermon of his can be adapted to almost any occasion, joyful or distressing. He has preached this particular sermon at harvest celebrations, at christenings, at confirmations, on days of humiliation, and on festal days. When he addresses Miss Prism as “Egeria”, be explains that he has made a classical allusion drawn from the pagan authors. He is a Christian priest but he quotes pagan authors, and this ability to allude to them is a sign of learning in his eyes. He tries to be witty when he says that, if he were fortunate enough to be Miss Prism’s pupil, he would hang upon her lips. Then he explains that he has spoken metaphorically, his metaphor having bees drawn from bees.
His Emotional Interest in Miss Prism
Dr. Chasuble has been feeling a romantic interest in Miss Prism, and has mildly been flirting with her too. Yet when Miss Prism suggests that he should get married to relieve his loneliness, he speaks of the celibacy prescribed by the Primitive Church. This is sheer hypocrisy, because eventually he does marry Miss Prism. He expresses a fervid opinion about her when he says that she is the most cultivated of ladies and the very picture of respectability.
His Readiness to Christen Adults
Dr. Chasuble does not mind christening grown-up people. According to him, the sprinkling, and even the immersion of adults ,is a perfectly canonical practice. He is prepared to do away with, the immersion in order to simplify the ceremony and also because “our weather is so changeable.” He is prepared to christen both Jack and Algernon and later, when they change their minds, be feels quite annoyed, perhaps because he feels deprived of the fee he would have received. In this connection he refers to four of his unpublished sermons and speaks with a sense of professional authority and an air of learning which amuses us.
His Formal Sympathy With Jack
Dr. Chasuble expresses his condolences to lack in a purely formal and conventional manner. He speaks like the preacher. that he is : “And now, dear Mr. Worthing. I will not intrude into a house of sorrow. I would merely beg you not to be too much bowed down by grief. What seem to us bitter trials are often blessings in disguise.” When Miss Prism finds fault with the dead man, Dr. Chasuble raises his hand and urges Miss Prism to develop the spirit of charity in herself because nobody is perfect ; and he adds : “I myself am peculiarly susceptible to draughts.”