How are stock characters used in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde?  

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favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

We might read Gwendolyn as a soubrette: a female character who is vain and flirtatious.  Though she is somewhat mischievous and likes to hear and spread gossip, the soubrette is ultimately light-hearted.  Gwendolyn falls in "love" with Jack, but it seems that the name she believes is his––Ernest––plays a big part in her feelings.  It also appears as though her mother's disapproval of Gwendolyn's feelings for Jack/Ernest go a long way in prompting her to feel them even more deeply; in other words, she loves him for his name and because her mother doesn't like him.  Her initial interaction with Cecily shows her vanity and gossipy side, but, in the end, she has a sense of humor and a good heart.

We could read Cecily as an ingenue: another young female character who is completely wholesome and sweet.  Although Cecily can give as good as she gets in terms of her interaction with Gwendolyn, she is young and sweet and very romantic.  She's concocted this entire fantasy relationship with Jack's "brother," Ernest, and when he seems to show up at the house, she is already head over heels in "love" with him as a result of his name (which isn't really his) and his bad-boy nature (which is somewhat more truthful).  

Using stock characters really increases the humor in the play, because we recognize these characters as types.  They aren't characters with whom we are likely to empathize, because they are not really three-dimensional or well-developed; they are also quite static––they don't learn lessons or grow.  They are almost all at least a little bit immoral in a way that would not be funny at all in real life, but because we see them for what they are, we can laugh at their behavior and their really terrible choices.  

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Most of the characters in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde are based on the prototypical stock characters of Roman comedy. They are often used for humorous effect. Some of the stock characters are:

Lane: Algernon's butler is an example of the servus callidus, the clever servant. This tends to be funny because of the incongruity of the servant who can appear smarter and more "noble" than his master.

Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing: These are slightly older and smarter versions of the adulescens, the young male lover who is a typical protagonist. The comedy in Wilde comes from the way that the two young men at first go against type by appearing worldly and cynical, but then reveal themselves as just as romantic and impulsive as their prototype. 

Lady Bracknell: She fits the role of the matrona, and is an hyperbolic version of this stock character. The humor is derives from the way she inverts gender roles, by being a powerful force in a patriarchal world.

Reverend Chasuble: This is a stock character of the senex, the old man, who creates comedy by falling in love in a somewhat incongruous fashion. 

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The Importance of Being Earnest

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