It is not for his portrayal of human character that Wilde is famous as a playwright. His strength as a dramatist lies neither in character-portrayal nor in his plots which are deficient in action. His strength lies in his dialogues which amuse us greatly by their humour and wit. However, that does not mean that Wilde fails altogether in the portrayal of his men and women. The four women in The Importance of Being Earnest, for instance, have been drawn with a fair degree of success.
The four women are Gwendolen, Cecily, Miss Prism, and above all Lady Bracknell. Each of these women has clearly been differentiated from the others. Of course, the talent for making witty remarks and observations is common to all these women. In respect of wit they are almost all alike, though Lady Bracknell can be singled out as the wittiest of all and as the most pungent in her wit. Between Gwendolen and Cecily too there are certain similarities, and in some respect one echoes the other. But there are also certain distinguishing features of each of them. On the whole, then, we can safely affirm that each of the four women has been individualized and been made to live before us, though Lady Bracknell occupies a commanding position.
Deficiency of Psychological Interest
It may also be pointed out that Wilde does not go deep -enough in his character-portrayal. He is not interested in an analysis of human nature or in probing human motives. His “plays therefore do not possess adequate psychological interest. All that Wilde is interested in is to write witty dialogues, and in endowing each of his characters (men or women) with a capacity to offer the reader or the spectator in a theatre witty paradoxes, witty epigrams, and witty sarcasms.
Distinguishing Traits of Gwendolen
It would be worth while to take a look at the distinguishing features of each of the four women presented to us in this play. Gwendolen is a charming girl who loves town life and feels bored in the country. She cannot understand how anybody of any importance can exist in the country. Nor did she have any idea that there were flowers growing in the countryside. Though fond of living in the town, she says that she hates crowds. She is an independent-minded girl who accepts Jack’s proposal of marriage without consulting her mother. Subsequently she runs away from home in order to meet Jack at his country house. However, she is not defiant towards her mother. When Lady Bracknell forbids her marriage to Jack, Gwendolen has to keep quiet.
Distinguishing Traits of Cecily
Cecily is in certain ways quite different from Gwendolen. She is a girl of active habits interested in such hobbies as watering flower-plants, but averse to studying German grammar, political economy, and geography, all of which she regards as “horrid”. She is a cheerful, sprightly person who does not approve of her Uncle Jack’s over-seriousness, but who, paradoxically enough, feels depressed by novels which have happy endings. Though quite young (being just eighteen), she is observant and perceptive enough to have noticed the growing intimacy between Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble.
Both Gwendolen and Cecily in Love With the Name “Ernest”
In certain respects, as has been already pointed out, these two, girls are alike. Both readily accept the proposals of marriage from their respective lovers. Both are fascinated by the name Ernest. Gwendolen says that it was always her cherished ideal to love someone of the name of Ernest. It is a divine name with a music of its own, and it produces vibrations, she says. Cecily likewise says that it had always been a girlish dream of hers to love someone whose name was Ernest. Both the girls think that there is something in the name Ernest which inspires absolute confidence. Of course, the reaction of each of these girls to the name Ernest is absurd, but absurdity is the very keynote of this play. Cecily’s account of how she had fallen in love with Ernest (who is actually Algernon) is even more absurd than her enthusiastic reaction to the nare. She fell in love with her guardian’s younger brother without even having seen or met him ; she got engaged to, him in her imagination ; and she even bought herself an engagement ring in his name.
Both Girls Keeping Diaries
Another similarity between the two girls is that they both keep diaries. Gwendolen keeps her diary with her when she goes on a railway journey, because she wants to read something sensational during a journey. This is another absurdity of course, because a diary, being a record of everyday events, can have nothing sensational in it. Cecily’s keeping a diary in order to record “the wonderful secrets of her life” in it is even more absurd because when Algernon praises her beauty in superlative terms she at once picks” up her diary and “ pen, and says that she would like to put down everything that Algernon has to say about her. She also makes au absurd statement when she says that her diary, being a record of her own thoughts and impressions, is meant for publication.
The Blunder Committed By Miss Prism
Miss Prism belongs to a much lower social stratum of society than the other three women in the play. She was originally a nurse in Lady Bracknell’s household. Subsequently she became Cecily’s governess in the house of Jack Worthing. As a nurse twentyeight years ago, she had in a fit of absent-mindedness, put Lady Bracknell’s infant nephew Ernest into a leather hand-bag which she had deposited in a railway cloak-room. Miss Prism gives a brief account of her blunder towards the close of the play, and this account explains the mystery of Jack’s parentage. Of course, this whole incident is something absurd and incredible, but round it the plot of the play hinges. Miss Prism is a woman of some literary pretensions. She once wrote a three-volume novel in which the bad characters received the punishment they deserved while the good ones received their due reward. However, she is opposed to the practice of keeping a diary and tells Cecily that memory is the diary which we all carry about with us.
Miss Prism’s Dislike of Jack’s Younger Brother*
Miss Prism is quite appreciative of her employer Jack’s seriousness of nature and temperament and she tells Cecily that idle merriment and triviality would be out of place in his conversation. Miss Prism is also a kind of moralist. She has formed a very bad opinion about Jack’s spoilt younger brother, Ernest. As a man sows so shall he reap, she says. She is, however, not in favour of reforming bad people. She does not believe in the “modern mania for turning bad people into good people at a moment’s notice.” When it is reported that Jack’s younger brother is not dead after all she says that the sudden return of that young man is peculiarly distressing, because his death was a blessing of an extremely obvious kind.
Miss Prism’s Interest in Dr. Chasuble
Miss Prism feels drawn towards Dr. Chasuble, and develops a matrimonial interest in him. She makes a direct suggestion to him to get married, saying : “You are too much alone, dear Dr. Chasuble. You should get married”. She also tells him that by persistently remaining single a man converts himself into a permanent public temptation.
Lady Bracknell, Gossipy and Fastidious
Lady Bracknell has been regarded as Wilde’s greatest creation in the sphere of characterization. She is indeed an unforgettable character. She dominates the company whenever she is present. She is a talkative, gossipy, fastidious lady with a partiality for cucumber sandwiches. She has a taste for music, but she will not allow French songs which seem to her to be improper.
Snobbish and Class-Conscious
Lady Bracknell is very snobbish and class-conscious. She rejects Jack as a possible match for her daughter because his parentage is unknown. When Algernon says something disparaging about society in general, Lady Bracknell says to him : “Never speak disrespectfully of society. Only people who can’t get into it do that.” When Jack names Cecily’s family solicitors, Lady Bracknell says that one partner in that particular firm of solicitors is occasionally seen at dinner parties and that for this reason she feels quite satisfied with Cecily’s credentials. Lady Bracknell also shows her mercenary outlook on life when, on being told that Cecily has a large amount of money in her name, she at once declares Cecily to be a suitable bride for Algernon.
A Formidable Personality
Lady Bracknell is, indeed, a formidable personality. She not only tries to overawe Jack and afterwards Cecily, but adopts an authoritative attitude towards her daughter, Gwendolen. Nor can we have any doubt that she rules her household and her husband Lord Bracknell. She plainly says that she never undeceives her husband with regard to any matter, implying that she does not allow him to know all that is going on in the house.
A Capacity For Wit Common to All These Women
It is clear from the above brief character-sketches that each of the women in this play exists in her own right, and that there is no possibility of our confusing one woman with the another. Each of the women has her own individual traits of character and each can be recognized by us as a separate entity. However, as already pointed out, in one respect there is some over-lapping. They are all witty, and a witty remark made by any one of them could have been made by any other of them. However, we should not regard this as a serious flaw in an artificial comedy, the object of which is to make people laugh in the theatre and to make them keep laughing most of the time.
Some of the witty remarks made by each of these women would show the ingenuity and the capacity for quick thinking of each. Gwendolen, for instance, provides ample evidence of her sharp and ready wit. When Jack tells her that she is perfect, she denies it on the ground that she intends to develop in many :_directions and that perfection would rule out the possibility of any development. She makes a paradoxical statement when she says that the old-fashioned respect for the young is fast dying out. Another witty paradox which we have from her is when she says to Jack : “If you are not too long, I’ll wait here for you all my” life.” When there is an exchange of repartees between her and” Cecily, she says : “I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different.”
The Wit of Cecily and Miss Prism
Cecily makes a witty remark when she says that human memory records things that have never happened and that could not possibly have happened. Another witty remark that she makes is as follows : “When one is going to lead an entirely new life, one requires regular and wholesome meals.” Cecily’s wit is quite biting in the course of her dialogue with Gwendolen. For instance, when Gwendolen says that she hates crowds, Cecily makes the following sarcastic remark to her : “I suppose that is why you live in town. Miss Prism is witty too, and her wit is often caustic as in her remarks about Jack’s supposed younger brother. She also amuses us when she says that she can understand a misanthrope but not a womanthrope*. Another witty remark that she makes is that no married man is ever attractive except to his wife.
Lady Bracknell’s Wit
So far as Lady Bracknell is concerned, almost every remark that she makes is witty. For instance, she compares Jack’s having been found as an infant in a hand-bag to one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. One of her wittiest remarks is that she cannot allow her daughter “to marry into a cloak-room and make an alliance with a parcel.” She also amuses us when she tells Algernon that it is high time that Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he is going to live or to die. She considers the modern sympathy with invalids to be undesirable as it shows morbidity.