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
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"Although literary critics have tended to praise uniqueness in literary characterizations, many authors have employed the stereotyped character successfully." Considering The Importance of Being Earnest, how do the conventional or stereotyped characters function to achieve the author's purpose? 

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It is sometimes true that a reliance on stock characters may be seen by some critics as a lesser form of art; however, comedy and satire often do employ stock characters as part of the author's purpose. In the case of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, the characters are not exactly stock characters, but the way the characters mirror one another, each lacking originality in their own right, certainly helps Wilde critique the behaviors and beliefs of the Victorian upper class.

The protagonist, Jack, is a bit unusual in the sense that he is apparently an orphan but was adopted by a wealthy man and thus permitted to live a life of luxury. Once his guardian dies, though, Jack must care for the man's granddaughter Cecily, who is now his ward. Partly as a way to escape his responsibilities at his country estate, Jack goes by the name Ernest in London, where he is friends with another excessively wealthy man, Algernon. Like Jack, Algy is not exactly cut out for the strict Victorian expectations and invents an invalid friend he calls Bunbury. Whenever he wants to get out of an obligation, he invokes Bunbury, who is always ill and always needs Algy's support. In act 1, the men discover their very similar schemes, though Jack is sure he is nothing like Algy.

Later in act 1, we meet Gwendolen, who is Jack's love interest and Algy's cousin. In a particularly telling scene, Gwendolen confesses she loves the name Ernest and will only marry a man by that name. When we move on to act 2 and meet Cecily, the same scene is enacted between Cecily and Algy, who is now pretending to be named Ernest. In these scenes, Wilde intentionally mirrors the women's reactions, even includes some of the same lines, to draw parallels between the women's characters (and the men's, as well). Ultimately, upper-class women are depicted as superficial and frivolous, while upper-class men are shown to be deceitful, careless, and selfish.

The similarities Wilde highlights between characters by repeating scenes in which the women profess their love for "Ernest" and the men are revealed to not be "Ernest" (or "earnest") work toward a send-up of Victorian marriage customs and the absurd behaviors of the upper class—those with too much time on their hands, clearly. The women's obsession with the name Ernest exaggerates the upper class's obsessions with family names, status, and power. The silly behavior of the two men critiques the society's too-strict expectations for both sexes.

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First, there is a problem with a statement to the effect that "literary critics" value uniqueness. While some literary critics do, others do not. In fact, the notion that originality is a virtue in a literary work is a relatively modern one; in many genres such as oral-traditional epic, originality would be regarded as a weakness. Comedy also tends to be a genre which relies heavily on stereotypes and stock characters.

Wilde's success as a comic playwright has less to do with his plots or the originality of his characters than with verbal pyrotechnics. Several of the characters in the play could be straight from Roman comedy, with Lady Bracknell taking the role of the "matrona" (strict and powerful mother figure), Lane the "servus callidus" (clever servant), and the two young couples the traditional young romantic lovers. 

Much of the comedy in the play is created by the way in which the characters ironically subvert the stereotypical expectations. For example, the orphaned young hero is a typical stereotype. Normally, one would expect Lady Bracknell to utter conventional expressions of sympathy on hearing of Jack's being an orphan. Instead, she states:

"To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness."

Although Cecily and Gwendolyn might appear to fit the stereotypes of the helpless young maidens who need to be rescued by their male lovers, in fact, they turn out to be intelligent, manipulative, and quite determined. In general, the women of the play create humor precisely by subverting the stereotypes of weak, helpless women. Cecily, in particular, rather than fitting the stereotype of an innocent country girl, is well educated and quite sophisticated. 


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