Algernon Moncrieff is a witty and amoral bachelor, who is the nephew of Lady Bracknell and best friend of Jack Worthing, also known as “Ernest.” Wilde satirizes Algernon’s character to critique and satirize the conventions of the Victorian society in which they live, which values the appearance of traits such...
Algernon Moncrieff is a witty and amoral bachelor, who is the nephew of Lady Bracknell and best friend of Jack Worthing, also known as “Ernest.” Wilde satirizes Algernon’s character to critique and satirize the conventions of the Victorian society in which they live, which values the appearance of traits such as “being earnest” and moral above authenticity and truth.
Algernon is portrayed as a carefree “dandy,” personifying aestheticism—he enjoys great wit, rich food, and epigrammatic phrases. One of the ways that Wilde satirizes Algernon’s character is shown in his invention of Bunbury. Bunbury is a fictional invalid that Algernon insists he must attend frequently but, in reality, Algernon utilizes Bunbury to get out of “dull” social gatherings or other events that do not appeal to his sensuous nature. Wilde thus satirizes the values that Victorian society upholds, as they would rather someone invent virtue and lead a double life than admit to any moral failings. This, in turn, becomes a moral failing of Algernon and the other characters that inhabit Wilde’s world.
Algernon’s choice of an invalid is particularly appropriate, as it enables Algernon to feign a sense of duty and superior morality. However, the fact that he chooses to invent Bunbury to avoid seemingly more indulgent activities, like social gatherings, displays Algernon’s spoiled nature, whilst also gesturing towards the rot at the heart of genteel society.
The tendency of Wilde’s characters to lead double lives in The Importance of Being Earnest persists throughout the play, with this theme highlighting Algernon’s hypocrisy. Algernon takes the false name of “Ernest” in a bid to win the love of Cecily. As many women are attracted to the quality of “earnestness,” taking this name seems a natural choice for men seeking a romantic partner. Yet Algernon, well aware that Cecily loves Jack’s brother, Ernest, is merely utilizing bunburying to bolster his self-serving purpose.
During their first meeting, Cecily says to Algernon,
I hope that you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time.
Whilst the act of bunburying helps Algernon escape Victorian social conventions and therefore create his own reality through art, by pretending to be someone he’s not, he displays his hypocrisy. Regardless of whether the good pretend to be bad or the bad pretend to be good, by leading a double life and bunburying, the authenticity required to be truly “earnest” evades Algernon.