In The Importance of Being Earnest, how could one interpret the names given to the character and are they related to Victorian society?
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It is safe to say that every name in Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest has an interpretive meaning and that all have some connection to Victorian society. The reasons for this are that (1) this is a moral comedy, thus can be read allegorically, and (2) it is a comic satire upon society. For example, Victorian society put great emphasis upon a person's manner of presenting themselves and upon the sincerity of their moral virtue (it must not be merely a show of good morals but truly good moral behavior). Thus earnestness was a sought after and virtuous quality.
Here is a list of some of the names and their meaning. Each has a metaphorical, symbolic or other meaning.
Worthing: word play on "worthy"; one who is morally worthy
Moncrieff: Scottish name with a barony awarded ("created") from 1248
Bunbury: metaphor for avoiding unwanted responsibilities
Bracknell: from a lost medieval village
Fairfax: one who appears to be fair (pretty, lovely) in face and behavior, though it may only be a facsimile, a copy, of genuine fairness of form, behavior, manner and thought
Cardew: naming someone who cleans wool with thistle to prepare it for spinning, as Cecily hoped to prepare Jack's unfortunate brother "Ernest in town"
Prism: a cut glass with faces, as in a pyramid, that are parallel to each other, as Miss Prism's two occupations: nanny, romance writer
Ernest: having sincere conviction, being genuine
Algernon. You have always told me it was Ernest. I have introduced you to every one as Ernest. You answer to the name of Ernest. You look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life. It is perfectly absurd your saying that your name isn’t Ernest.
Let's examine some detail of one or two of these. Algernon Moncrieff puts on a pretense of being a silly thoughtless doofus, yet, Wilde gives him a surname that means he has longstanding noble blood. This would have guided Wilde's Victorian audience to a deeper understanding of the satire and comedy since they would have been very familiar with ancient Scottish origin surnames.
Lady Bracknell has an amusing and symbolic name. First, the surname Bracknell is a location name indicating the village from where the Bracknell family originated. Bracknell happens to be one of England's lost villages from the Medieval ages. It was lost when it became depopulated for unspecified reasons. There is great irony in having a demanding Aunt of a lost nephew (thanks to Miss Prism) named "Bracknell." Her name is also symbolic because "bracken" is homophone for the first part of Bracknell. Bracken is a dense and coarse, large fern, which is a fairly good symbolic image and metaphor for lady Bracknell: she is a coarse large fern with fronds going out in all directions to guide--or interfere with--all in her path.
Lady Bracknell. Well, I must say, Algernon, that I think it is high time that Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he was going to live or to die. This shilly-shallying with the question is absurd. Nor do I in any way approve of the modern sympathy with invalids. I consider it morbid.
Oscar Wilde'sThe Importance of Being Earnestwas written somewhere between 1892-1894 and was first staged on Valentine's Day 1895 at the St. James's theatre in the West End, London. This period of time is known as the "Yellow Nineties". Led by the "Yellow Book" that published authors of the Fin de Siecle, the aesthetic movement found its mouthpiece through this publication.
All of this being said, it is safe to correlate Wilde's avid participation in the Fin de Siecle movement with his choice of words, names, and settings. We already know that the last names of his characters are related to the places where pieces of the play were conceived. Wilde wrote part of Earnest in Worthing, which is the main reason why this is the last name of his main character, Jack.
In the 1890's the name "Ernest" rated number 24 among the 1000 most used names in Victorian England, with John, James, George, and Charles ranking as the top five. Hence, Jack (John) may be the main reason why Wilde chose this as the alternate name for his main character.
In that same census, the names Gwendolen and Cecily do not show up at all as far as female names are concerned. However, Wilde had a tendency to award names found in Shakespeare's plays (Wilde being a self-proclaimed Shakespeare scholar and fanatic) as well as British history. This being said, Gwendolen is known to be a mythical queen to the Briton race, however, there is no indication in writing that Wilde may have chosen that name for that reason.
Prism is a symbolic name because to the duplicity of the character's nature: she is many shades of the same personality and cannot be classified officially by one color, or category. She is a compilation of many different stories; she has been a writer, a nanny, a governess, and there is more to her that the play does not concede.
Algernon is a French name which means "with a moustache". Although a relatively popular name in Victorian England (think Algernon Blackwood, among others), there is also very little to indicate Wilde's specific preference for that name.
The ultimate book for references regarding Wilde's choices is Frank Harris's Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions. More information regarding his choice of words and names can be found there.
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