Gwendolen Fairfax: Character in The Importance of Being Earnest

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Ignorant of Country life

      More than any other female character in the play, Miss Gwendolen Fairfax suggests the qualities of conventional Victorian womanhood. She has ideas and ideals, attends lectures, and is bent on self-improvement. She is a young and charming girl who loves town life, but feels extremely bored living in the country. She cannot fathom how anybody of immense importance can reside in the country. Nor did she have any idea about the presence of so many flowers in the countryside. Although she is fond of living in the town, she says that she hates crowds, This shows a contradictory statement made by her.

Her Reaction to Jack's Declaration of Love

      Gwendolen reacts weirdly when she comes to know of Jack's love for her. Without giving Jack the scope to complete his sentence, she bursts into an elaborate speech about how he has always fascinated her and how it was her dream always to love someone by the name of Ernest. When he asks whether she really loves him she replies: "Passionately". She further says that the name Ernest is divine, has a music of its own and produces vibrations in her. The name Jack or John, according to her, conveys only domesticity and nothing more. She could never marry a man having the name Jack or John, says Gwendolen. A woman who marries Jack or John would not get a single minute's solitude in her house, Gwendolen further says. But before Jack proposes marriage to her, she immediately accepts the proposal in advance. She then praises his wonderful blue eyes and expresses the hope that he will always look at her exactly in the way in which he is looking at her now. The story of his 'romantic origin' stirs the deeper fibres of her nature! Now her reaction is indeed ludicrous.

A Free-minded Women

      Gwendolen was not so obedient girl of her mother. Her wishes are strong and to fulfil them she does not hesitate to defy her mother. When Lady Bracknell commands Gwendolen to accompany her in the next room her response is one of a good girl showing her willingness to join her mother but then tactfully stay with Jack, alias Ernest. She even manages to visit Jack at his country house defying her mother's forbidding order. When Lady Bracknell arrives there in search of her daughter, Gwendolen openly declares that she is engaged to Jack. Her bold steps show a free, wilful mind that in fact directs her actions.

Gwendolen’s Wit

      Like other characters the dialogues of Gwendolen are replete with witty comments. These comments sparkle with her intelligence. When Jack praises her as a perfect woman she replies that she has least intention to be perfect. She intends to develop in various directions and perfection only hinders this process. She ridicules Jack's discussion on weather and comments that such discussion only reveals one's pretension since weather is not the actual subject that he intends to discuss, something else lies beneath it. She reminds Jack of his lapse in formally proposing her when he speaks about their marriage. Her paradoxical comments are incisive and poignant. Her general comment about the current trend startles us: "the old-fashioned respect for the young is fast dying out." She admonishes Algernon when he tries to prevent her from taking with Jack alone: "Algy, you always adopt a strictly immoral attitude towards life. You are not old enough to do that." We are shocked as well as amused by how the antithetical ideas being incorporated into one statement. We cannot miss the epigram in her assessment of Jack: "the simplicity of your charcter makes you exquisitely incomprehensible to me." Another such comment she makes when Jack asks her to wait for him: "If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life." In the same vein she describes her father's anonymity outside family circle:

"Outside the family circle, I am glad to say, papa is entirely unknown. I think that is quite as it should be. The home seems to me to be a proper sphere for the man. And certainly once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate. And I don't like that. It makes men so very attractive."

      This paradoxical strain is also present in her explanation of her poor eye-sight and her mother's role in it. She tells Cecily: "Mamma, whose views on education are remarkably strict, has brought me up to be extremely short-sighted; it is part of her system. So, do you mind my looking at you through my glasses?"

      She calls uncertainty a terrible subject and hopes that it may last longer. There are ample of such witty comments made by her. For example:

(i) In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing."
(ii) "I never change, except in my affections."

      For her witty comments she becomes an important source of the play's humour. Even her trivial comments are seeped in such comical attributions. When Cecily requests her that they should speak in wisdom, a quick reply comes from Gwendolen: "An excellent idea! I always speak at the same time as other people."

Gwendolen’s Temperament towards Cecily

      Gwendolen remains amicable and gentle towards Cecily as long as she does not suspect any amorous relationship between Cecily and Jack. Once this suspicion overpowers her, a kind of hostility tends to show itself in her attitude towards Cecily. She expresses her wariness in this regard with her usual paradoxical manners: "I cannot help expressing a wish you were - well, just a little older than you seem to be - and not quite so very alluring in appearance. Well, to speak with perfect candour. Cecily, I wish that you were fully forty-two, and more than usually plain for your age. Ernest has a strong upright nature. He is the very soul of truth and honour. Disloyalty would be as impossible to him as deception. But even men of the noblest possible character are extremely susceptible to the influence of the physical charms of others. Modern, no less than Ancient History, supplies us with many most painful examples of what I refer to. If it were not so, indeed, History would be quite unreadable."

      The last sentence of the extracted speech suggests her weird conception of history whose interest lies in the incidents of infidelity caused by physical attraction between men and women. But as soon her suspicion turns false she becomes friendly to Cecily. She shows her gratitude telling her: "you have lifted a load from my mind. I was growing almost anxious." However, again a misunderstanding between the two crops up that results into bitter verbal exchanges between the two and this continues till everything is clarified. In one such furious verbal duel Cecily tells that she calls spade a spade. Soon comes Gwendolen's queer reply: "I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different." Her ignorance and resulting wonder that she exhibits after coming to Jack's countryside house amuse us. She is amazed after seeing a variety of countryside flowers. Though she dislikes crowds, she hates seclusion of countryside as she feels the place is not suitable for any socially important person.

Few other Amusing Remarks by Her

      Gwendolen's comment is remarkably comical when both she and Cecily being ignored by their respective lovers, she suggest Cecily to cough to draw their attention and when their lover come to them Gwendolen advises Cecily to keep a dignified silence and then shifts her stance telling that "this dignified silence seems to produce an unpleasant effect." When both Jack and Algernon express their desire to be re-diristened as Ernest, such generous act on their part elicits an exclamation from Gwendolen and in her characteristic wit she comments, "How absurd to talk of the equality of the sexes! Where questions of self-sacrifice are concerned, men are infinitely beyond us."

Conclusion

      Though more self-consciously intellectual than Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen is cut from very much the same cloth as her mother. She is similarly strong-minded and speaks with unassailable authority on matters of taste and morality, just as Lady Bracknell does. She is both a model and an arbiter of elegant fashion and sophistication, and nearly everything she says and does is calculated for effect. As Jack fears, Gwendolen does indeed show signs of becoming her mother "in about a hundred and fifty years," but she is likeable, as is Lady Bracknell, because her pronouncements are so outrageous.

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