Algernon Moncrieff: Character in The Importance of Being Earnest

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Introduction

      Algernon Moncrieff is a member of the wealthy class, living a life of total bachelorhood in a fashionable part of London. He is younger than Jack, takes less responsibility, and is always frivolous and irreverent. As a symbol, he is wittiness and aestheticism personified. He, like Jack, functions as a Victorian male with a life of deception. Unlike Jack, he is much more self-absorbed, allowing Wilde to discuss Victorian repression and guilt, which often result in narcissism.

His Appearance

      Algernon is a wealthy and rich man living in luxury. According to Jack, he is always over-dressed. Neither the denies the fact of his being over dressed. His dress is immaculate. His clothes are the correct fashion of the period, but they are worn with the slightly flamboyant air of the dandy. The jacket consists of a formal single-breasted black coat; the trousers are fairly tight; boots are of patent leather; the collar is high or winged; a figured waistcoats, a cravat, and a flower worn in the buttonhole give a touch of colour. His hair is parted in the middle and is perfectly straight. He is either clean-shaven or has a small waxed moustache. A monocle would certainly be in the character of Algernon."

His Love for Music

      Algernon Moncrieff is a young man of pleasure, who enjoys life to its fullest. He belongs to an aristocratic family, though presently he is in rather poor conditions. He is the nephew of Lord and Lady Bracknell and resides in a luxuriously furnished flat in Half-Moon Street, London. In the very opening scene we find him playing on piano which reflects his excessive love for music. However he himself acknowledges the fact that he does not play accurately on piano. At the same time, he emphasises that he can produce wonderful expressions and sentiments through his music. In Act I he says to his man-servant Lane, "I'm sorry for that, for your sake. I don't play accurately — anyone can play accurately — but I play with wonderful expression. As far as piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for life."

      He shows his awareness of the fact that in a bachelor's house, servants consume too much champagne. A bachelor has no control over servants. He inquires Lane, his servant about the excessive quantity of wine consumed at his last party. Lane retorts that a bachelor's house always has superior quality of champagne and take no interest in inquiring about its use, so servants mostly drink it and that too with their master's acknowledgment. He is of the opinion that lower order of society ought to set a good example of moral responsibility and which they generally do not. He is a character who seems to be very fond of making paradoxical remarks. See the paradox in the present statement:

"Really, if the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility."

      The upper class is generally considered to set models for lower class. So here this statement is contrary to generally accepted opinion.

A Voracious Eater

      Algernon is a rapacious eater. He tells Jack that one should be serious about meals: "I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them." Most of his statements are paradoxical and speak against the generally accepted truths. Later in the end of the play when his true self is disclosed, he kept on eating muffins. Jack rebukes him and accuses him of eating in "a perfectly heartless manner." Jack blames him to be perfectly heartless because he is eating, while Gwendolen and Cecily are annoyed with them. Algernon replies:

"When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me. Instead when I am in really great trouble, I refuse everything but food and drink. At the present moment I am eating muffins because I am unhappy. Besides I am particularly fond of muffins."

      He is mostly engaged in eating. It appears as if he is a person whose sole aim in life is to eat, eat and eat. When Jack orders him to leave his house and depart to London, Algernon's reply reflects his excessive love for food:

"You cannot possibly ask me to go without having some dinner. It's absurd. I never go without my dinner. No one ever does, except people like vegetarians and people like that."

His Ideas on Matrimony

      He has got his own practical views on marriage. He certainly reckons courtship to be something romantic, but a proposal of marriage is entirely unromantic in his opinion. When he learns that Jack has come to London to propose to Gwendolen, he describes Jack's action to Gwendolen as "business" and not as "pleasure". In Act I of the play, when Jack calls him unromantic, he retorts: "I really don't see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over, The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I'll certainly try to forget the fact."

His Attitude to His Kins

      He does not have a very high opinion about his relatives, especially his Aunt Augusta. He would not mind if his relatives are being criticised by others rather he feels pleased when they are abused. This is again a paradox because nobody could ever feel delighted at his relatives being abused. He says to Jack:

"My dear boy, I love hearing my relations abused. It is the only thing that makes me think of them at all. Relative's are simply a tedious pack of people who haven't got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die."

      He has invented a fictitious friend Bunbury to avoid Aunt Augusta's frequent high class dinner parties. And the reason being - she either provides him with no woman companions or two of them at the same time. He especially dislikes aunt's putting him next to Mary Farquhar who always flirts with her own husband across the dinner-table. It is very absurd to watch somebody flirting with her own husband in the presence of others. He says: "The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous." He often leaves London on the pretext of visiting his sick friend Bunbury in the countryside.

His Awareness of Games

      Algernon is very expert in Bunburying. He is aware of the "rules of the game". He has invented a fictitious friend Bunbury, who resides in country and is always sick. This invalid friend provides him with the opportunities to visit countryside. When he came to know about Jack's 'Ernest', he tells him about his Bunbury:

"You have invented a very useful younger brother called Ernest, in order that you may be able to come up to town as often as you like. I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose. Bunbury is perfectly invaluable."

His Affection for Cecily

      His visit to countryside in Jack's house is a part of his Bunburying. He introduces himself to Cecily Cardew (Jack's ward) as Jack's younger brother Ernest. He makes a confession that he is not good enough for the world and requests her to reform him. He tells her that good looks are a share and every man would love to be caught. He admits "I had been bad in my own small way." He stated in the first act that "the only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty, and to someone else if she is plain." He declares his love for Cecily in the following words:

"Cecily, ever since I first looked upon your wonderful and incomparable beauty, I have dared to love you wildly, passionately, devotedly, hopelessly."

      His proposal of marriage is immediately accepted by Cecily because she has also fallen in love with him as he bears the name of Ernest and is already engaged to him in her imagination. He is ready to undergo another baptism to please Cecily as she is fascinated with the name of Ernest.

His Poor Monetary Condition

      We are also well aware of the fact that Algernon is not in a prosperous time when the play opens. He is short of money and as Lady Bracknell puts, "Algernon has nothing but his debts to depend upon." We all notice him tearing some letters that he has received (they are all bills which he is unable to pay). He is least bothered about his debts. At one point he himself says, "Half of the chaps who get into the Bankruptcy court are called Algernon."

His Curious and Observant Nature

      In Algernon curiosity is much stronger urge than moral correctness. He does not even hesitate to look inside Jack's cigarette case. He is totally unmoved when Jack tells him: "It is a very ungentlemanly thing to read a private cigarette case." He is a very observant and shrewd person. He knows the tricks to take the things out from other. Again it is his curiosity and shrewdness which leads him to Jack's country. He overhears Jack's country address and from here his Bunburying game starts. He has - invented an invalid friend called Bunbury. Whenever he want an escape from town life he moves to countryside on the purpose of visiting Bunbury.

His Witticism

      Along with Lady Bracknell, Algernon is given witty lines and epigrams showing his humour and disrespect for the society he will inherit. In discussing the music for Lady Bracknell's reception, Algernon says, "Of course the music is a great difficulty. You see, if one plays good music, people don't listen, and if one plays bad music, people don't talk." This is Algernon's wit and wisdom contained in a single line. Occasionally, he even congratulates himself on his humour: "It's perfectly phrased!" he poses and moves luxuriously about the stage with the studied languor of the aesthete who has nothing to do but admire his own wittiness. One might certainly see him as a representation of Wilde's cleverness and position in the aesthetic cult of the 1890s.

      He forbids Jack from eating cucumber sandwiches saying that they are meant for his aunt Augusta, but he himself starts eating them and his reply to Jack's question is: "That is quite a different matter. She is my aunt." He offers bread-and-butter to Jack and when Jack begins eating, Algernon again makes a witty comment:

"Well, my dear fellow, you need not eat as if you were going to eat it all. You behave as if you were married to her (Gwendolen) already. You are not married to her already, and I don't think you ever will be."

      He further adds: "Well, in the first place, girls never marry the man they flirt with. Girls don't think it is right."

His Paradoxical Remarks

      He goes on making paradoxical statements. Instead of saying "Marriages are made in heaven", he says, "Divorces are made in heaven". A common saying "Two is company, three is none" is beautifully operated by him and comes out before us as "In married life three is company and two is none." He talks about the increasing trends in London's high society: "The amount of women in London who flirts with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one's clean linen in public."

      Instead of the idiom "washing one's dirty linen in public", he has used "washing one's clean linen in public." While people use the phrase, "the whole truth, pure and simple",

      Algernon says: "The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility."

      He thinks about literary criticism: "You should leave that to people who haven't been at a university. They do it so well in the daily papers."

      Jack talks about Algernon as, "being always immensely over-educated." And he tells Jack, "I never saw anybody take so long to dress, and with such little result." He is better than Jack in terms of talks. Jack tells him that he has decided to inform everybody that his fictitious brother Ernest has died of apoplexy in Paris, Algernon tells him that apoplexy is a hereditary disease. He suggests him that he should instead, say that his brother has died of severe chill and Jack accepts his suggestion.

      The promptness with which Gwendolen accepts Jack's proposal is comical. Though the preposterousness of her behaviour strikes us at once, we understand that Wilde has deliberately invented comically exaggerated incident as a part of the play's comic design.

Parallelism with Wilde

      Parallel to Wilde in deception, Algernon is leading a double life. He uses an imaginary invalid friend, Bunbury, to get out of boring engagements and to provide excitement in the otherwise dull life of Victorian England. As he says, "A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it." This secrecy, of course, was also a facet of Wilde's life, which was unravelling before his Victorian audiences all too quickly by the time the play opened in London. With his irreverent attitudes about marrying and his propensity for a secret life, Algernon represents the rule-breaker side of Oscar Wilde - the side that eventually would meet its downfall in a notorious trial.

A Symbol of Defending Stringent Victorian Morality

      Finally, Algernon functions as an expression of the lengths to which Victorians had to go to escape the stifling moral repression and guilt brought about by a society that values appearance over reality. Algernon's constant references to eating and his repeated actions of gorging himself on cucumber sandwiches, muffins, and whatever food might be handy are symbols of total self-absorption, lust, and the physical pleasures denied by polite society. Just as institutions such as the church (Chasuble) and the education system (Prism) function to keep people on the straight and narrow ideas, human nature denies these restrictions and seems to have a will of its own. Algernon symbolizes the wild, unrestricted, curly-headed youngster who is happiest in breaking the rules.

Conclusion

      Algernon is a proponent of aestheticism and a stand-in for Wilde himself, as are all Wilde's dandified characters, including Lord Goring in An Ideal Husband, Lord Darlington in Lady Windermere's Fan, Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance, and Lord Henry Worton in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Unlike these other characters, however, Algernon is completely amoral. Where Lord Illingworth and Lord Henry are downright evil, and Lord Goring and Lord Darlington are deeply good. Algernon has no moral convictions at all, recognizing no duty other than the responsibility to live beautifully.

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