Jack Worthing: Character in The Importance of Being Earnest

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Introduction

      Jack Worthing, like the other main characters in Oscar Wilde's play, is less a realistic character and more an instrument for representing a set of ideas or attitudes. Wilde uses him to represent an upper-class character easily recognized by his audience. Jack also gives Wilde an opportunity to explore attitudes about Victorian rituals such as courtship and marriage. As an alter ego of Wilde, Jack represents the idea of leading a life of respectability on the surface (in the country) and a life of deception for pleasure (in the city). His name, Worthing, is related to worthiness, allowing Wilde to humorously consider the correct manners of Victorian society.

Anonymous Parentage

      Jack Worthing is the hero of the play. His parentage is in cloud till the play reaches its climax. The story of his lost and found as an infant is quite interesting and amusing. This episode endowed the play with more comical elements. Miss Prism, who is now Cecily's governess, had been a nurse in Lord Bracknell's house. She had a habit of forgetting things. And in a moment of forgetfulness, she placed infant Jack into a leather hand-bag and deposited it in the cloak-room of a railway station. A gentleman called Mr. Thomas Cardew, found him and bring him to his household. He adopted him and gave it the name of Worthing. As Jack himself explains: "Late Mr. Thomas Cardew, ... gave me the name of Worthing, because he happened to have a first-class ticket for Worthing in his pocket at that time". He unhesitatingly informed Lady Bracknell of his unknown parentage. On which Lady Bracknell advised him.... "to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex...." if he desires to marry Gwendolen. Lady Bracknell rejected him for his anonymous parentage, however, Gwendolen finds his origin "romantic and stirring".

A Representative of Upper-class Victorian

      As a recognized upper-class Victorian, Jack has earned respectability only because of his adopted father's fortune. It has put him in a position to know the rules of behaviour of polite society. His ability to spout witty lines about trivial subjects and say the opposite of what is known to be true are learned results of his position. When Lady Bracknell questions his qualifications for marrying her daughter, he knows she wants to hear about his pedigree. He recognizes that he needs the correct parents along with his wealth.

His Love for Gwendolen

      Jack is deeply in love with Gwendolen and wants to marry her. He finds her to be a very charming girl, he ever saw in his life. He came to London with the purpose of proposing marriage to Gwendolen. His voice stammers when he proposes "Miss Fairfax ever since I met you I have admired you more than any other girl... I have ever met since... I met you." And his stammering is the sign that he is proposing somebody for the very first time in his life. He is not aplomb in his manners like Algernon. But he is quite clever in his own way. And an example of his cleverness is his invention of a wicked younger brother Ernest. Who leads an immoral life and whose irresponsible deeds endowed Jack with opportunities to visit London. He is sure enough that he will "kill" his brother, as soon as Gwendolen accepts him. After consulting a lot with Algernon, he comes on the conclusion that he will inform everybody in his country house that Ernest died of a severe chill in Paris. But Algernon is far more advanced, he reaches Jack's country house in the guise of his younger brother Ernest because he has now developed interest in Cecily and desires to meet her. Jack arrives there in mourning clothes. He informs Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism about his brother Ernest's untimely death. They both show their regret for the same. Cecily is greatly shocked to see uncle Jack in mourning attires because his younger brother (for whom he is mourning) is still alive and very much present there. Jack is annoyed at the way Algernon is behaving with Cecily and refused to shake hand with him. Algernon is fully enjoying Jack's discomfort. Later on both of them wish to be christened as Ernest in order to please their beloved. However, everything went well for Jack because his real name turns out to be Ernest. His point was: "I always told you, Gwendolen, my name was Ernest, didn't I? Well, it is Ernest after all."

His Serious Nature and Love for City Life

      Jack Worthing appears to be a serious person. But his seriousness is all a result of his responsibilities as a guardian - a guardian of a beautiful and charming young girl. In Cecily's views, he sometimes appears so serious that she doubts on his mental fitness. Miss Prism thinks that, "Your guardian enjoys best of health and his gravity of demeanour is especially to be commended in one so comparatively young as he is. I know no one who has a higher sense of duty and responsibility." He himself explains reasons for his seriousness to Algernon, "When one is placed in the position of guardian, one has to adopt a very high moral tone on all subjects. It's one's duty to do so."

      He finds country life rather dull and uninteresting. He finds no means of joy and amusement in countryside. He is of the opinion that one amuses oneself in town while other people in countryside. He is hardly on speaking terms with his neighbours in the country because they are perfectly horrid people according to him.

Encounters with Lady Bracknell

      Jack's encounters with Lady Bracknell, mother of Gwendolen are not at all pleasing. Although Gwendolen has accepted Jack's proposal of marriage, Lady Bracknell expresses her desire to interrogate the suitor for her daughter's hand. Jack explained everything frankly about his anonymous parentage and upbringing by Mr. Thomas Cardew. Jack finds Lady Bracknell to be an intimidating woman and tells Algernon:

      "As far as Gwendolen is concerned we are engaged. Her mother is perfectly unbearable. Never met such a Gorgon. I don't really know what a Gorgon is like, but I am quite sure that Lady Bracknell is one. In any case, she is a monster, without being a myth."

      His second encounter with Lady Bracknell is when Cecily is interrogated by her, before she is giving her approval to her alliance with Algernon. Jack clears Lady Bracknell's doubts about Cecily's character and background and informs her in a tone of irritation:

      "I have also in my possession, you will be pleased to hear, certificates of Miss Cardew's birth, baptism, whooping, cough, registration vaccination, confirmation and the measles both the German and English variety."

      When Lady Bracknell inquires about Cecily's property, he informs her that she has about a hundred and thirty thousand pounds in her name. Soon after knowing Cecily's possession, Lady Bracknell gives her consent to her nephew Algernon's alliance with Cecily, but Jack rejects to give his consent to this marriage.

Miss-match for Algernon

      Jack and Algernon do not match with each other. Algernon is jolly by nature while Jack is serious. In the beginning of the play Jack is scrutinized by Algernon for his unscripted cigarette-case. Algernon is showering one after other verbal attack on Jack and he is left with four words, "Oh, that is nonsense". Jack has to reconcile with Algernon on the matter of entertaining him at dinner at an expensive restaurant and in return Algernon will provide him with a chance to converse in private with Gwendolen. Algernon claims to be an immensely over-educated man and Jack retorts:

      "Your vanity is ridiculous, your conduct an outrage and your presence in my garden utterly absurd. However, you have got to catch the four-five, and I hope you will have a pleasant journey back to town. This Bunburying as you call it, has not been a great success for you."

      A Worthy Guardian for Cecily: Jack is very good guardian for Cecily. He has adopted a highly moral tone when he is placed in the position of a guardian: And this is the reason why he has invented a younger brother with the name of Ernest, who lives in London. Cecily calls them as "uncle Jack." He rebukes Algernon to mind his behaviour with Cecily.

      "As for your conduct towards Miss Cardew, I must say that your talking to a sweet, simple and innocent girl like Cecily is quite inexcusable. To say nothing of the fact that she is my ward."

      However, all this is useless because it leaves no imprint on 'Algernon's behaviour.

His Wit and Tactfulness

      Of particular significance is Jack's role in the dialogues about social attitudes and rituals, such as courtship and marriage. He often plays the straight man to counter Algernon's humor, but occasionally, he gets the witty lines. Respectability is also a function of Jack's character. Although he leads a deceptive life in town, he represents the ideal of leading a responsible life in the country. He agrees more with the idea of Victorian earnestness or duty than Algernon does. However, because he deceives people in the city, he is still a symbol of Wilde's deceptive life of pleasure in the homosexual community. Jack longs for the respectability of marrying Gwendolen and is willing to do whatever it takes. In the long run, he assumes his rightful place in the very society he has occasionally skewered for its attitudes. Wilde is able to soften Jack's respectability and position as a symbol of the ruling class by showing his enormous sense of humour. The funeral garb for his fake brother's death and the story about the French maid both show that while Jack longs for respectability, he still has the wit and rebelliousness to recognize the ridiculous nature of trivial Victorian concerns.

      There are several occasions when Jack provides us with amusement and effective remarks. For instance, when he is with Algernon and Lady Bracknell is about to reach there - he talks of aunts that some aunts are tall and some aunts are not tall. "You seem to think that every aunt should be exactly like your aunt." At an another occasion, he says to Algernon, "My dear Algy, you talk exactly as if you were a dentist. It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist to one who isn't a dentist." His wit is reflected through his words. When he says to Algernon, "My dear fellow, the truth isn't quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girl." Jack is aware of the fact that Cecily is taking interest in Ernest (his false brother) and when Algernon expresses his wish to meet Cecily, Jack retorts: "I will take very good care you never do. She is excessively pretty, and she is only just eighteen." Algernon says that if he ever gets married, he will try to forget the fact that he is married. Jack retorts that the Divorce Court was especially invented for the people like Algernon. When it becomes a compulsion for him to admit the facts about his imaginary younger brother Ernest, he does so in a witty and paradoxical manner:

      "It is very painful to me to be forced to speak the truth. It is the first time in my life that I have ever been reduced to such a painful position and I am really quite inexperienced in doing anything of the kind. However, I will tell you quite frankly that I have no brother Ernest. I have no brother at all. I never had a brother in my life, and I certainly not have the smallest intention of ever having one in the future."
Algernon mocks at Jack saying that he has an extremely trivial nature, Jack replies:

      "Well, the only small satisfaction I have in the whole of this wretched business in that your friend Bunbury is quite exploded. You won't be able to run down to the country quite so often as you used to do, dear Algy. And a very good thing too."

Conclusion

      More than any other character in the play, Jack Worthing represents conventional Victorian values: he wants others to think he adheres to such notions as duty, honor, and respectability, but he hypocritically flouts those very notions. Indeed, what Wilde was actually satirizing through Jack was the general tolerance for hypocrisy in conventional Victorian morality. Jack uses his alter-ego Ernest to keep his honourable image intact. Ernest enables Jack to escape the boundaries of his real life and act as he wouldn't dare to under his real identity. Ernest provides a convenient excuse and disguise for Jack, and Jack feels no qualms about invoking earnest whenever necessary. Jack wants to be seen as upright and moral, but he doesn't care what lies he has to tell his loved ones in order to be able to misbehave. Though Ernest has always been Jack's unsavory alter ego, as the play progresses Jack must aspire to become Ernest, in name if not behavior. Until he seeks to marry Gwendolen, Jack has used Ernest obligates jack to embrace his deception in order to pursue the real life he desires. Jack has always managed to get what he wants by using Ernest as his fallback, and his lie eventually threatens to undo him. Though jack never really gets his comeuppance, he must scramble to reconcile his two worlds in order to get what he ultimately desires and to fully understand who he is.

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