Illustration of Jack Worthing in a top hat and formal attire, and a concerned expression on his face

The Importance of Being Earnest

by Oscar Wilde
Start Free Trial

Compare the characters of Jack and Algernon in Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a comedy of manners that critiques the members of the Victorian upper class of the period—namely those members of society who had little to do with their time besides seek entertainment and social experiences. Jack and Algernon are two such men,...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a comedy of manners that critiques the members of the Victorian upper class of the period—namely those members of society who had little to do with their time besides seek entertainment and social experiences. Jack and Algernon are two such men, having found themselves in families where money appears to be no question, and time is divided either between city or country diversions. Both men, despite possessing financial freedom, seek to escape the social expectations of strict propriety and live on their own terms. These restrictions of the day are relieved by each developing a double life: Jack becomes Earnest in the city, adopting an entirely new name and disposition, and Algernon becomes a less self-centered, caring friend to his dearest “invalid Bunbury.” When Algernon discovers Jack’s deception, he adopts it as his own, leading to the humorous confusion between Gwendolen and Cecily, who both believe they are connected to the same serious, typically Victorian gentlemen. In a way, Wilde presents Jack and Algernon as two versions of the same character, as both play the part of the dandy at one point or another; and as they are inevitably revealed to be brothers, it all makes perfect sense in the end.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Both Jack and Algernon seem to chafe under the Victorian restrictions that demand upright morality and adherence to social codes. Jack creates an escape for himself by inventing an immoral and ill-behaved younger brother called Ernest, for whom he must constantly go to the city to bail out of scrapes. When he arrives in the city, however, he pretends to be Ernest so that he can act as badly as he wants without tarnishing Jack's upstanding reputation. Algernon has created an invalid friend, named Bunbury, who lives in the country. Using Bunbury as an excuse, Algernon is able to avoid unpleasant social obligations and is free to disappear from polite society to "visit" his friend. Both men are, thus, unhappy with the demands placed on them by society and have found creative ways to circumvent those expectations. The characters are rather more similar than they are different, and so it comes, perhaps, as less of a surprise when we learn that they are, in fact, brothers.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Jack (Earnest) Worthing is a man approximately in his late 20's or early 30's, presumably an orphan, and the guardian of a niece which is related to the man who adopted him after finding him inside a handbag at Victoria Station.

As it was, his protector was a rich man, and Jack enjoys a home in the country (where his name is Jack) and a place in the city, where he goes to entertain himself under the name "Earnest".  His character is quite favorable for marriage based on on his income, but his lack of family history makes it a burden for him to marry his lady love, Gwendolyn.

While Jack seems to be the symbol of decorum, Algernon Moncrief is the epitome of the Victorian Dandy.

Algernon is younger than Earnest. He is an aristocrat living way above his means in London. He is characterized by always being hungry, or eating. He does not have any cares for marriage, family, respectability nor responsibilities. He owes money to several debt collectors, and he is apparently more worried about being fashionable, acquainted and fed than stable. He depends on Earnest for his meals at Willi's and to reach his love interest, Cecily- Jack's niece.

In terms of similarities, you can conclude that Earnest (the character Jack pretends to be when he is in the city) is a mirror image of Algernon. However, Jack himself has also similar traits.

Both Algernon and Jack lead double lives: Algernon escapes to the country to visit a fake invalid friends he named "Bunbury" while Jack escapes to the city under the name of Earnest.

They both share a fascination with hunger and danger- When Jack is Earnest in the city, he too runs humongous bills at restaurants and gets in trouble with creditors. Also, like Algernon, he shares a love for the ladies. In the end we find out that they are actually brothers, and that their father's Christian name was Earnest after all-making them both "dully" Earnests

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team