The Importance of Being Earnest is Oscar Wilde’s witty play centering around Jack Worthing and the consequences of having a false identity (named Ernest) to escape social obligations and limitations. As Jack explains to his friend Algernon Montieff, his name is “Ernest in town and Jack in the country” (5).
Algernon learns of this deception by an inscription on Jack’s cigarette case, addressed to him by his real name, and is shocked by his confession, responding that Jack looks “as if [his] name was Ernest” and that “[he is] the most earnest looking person he ever saw in [his] life” (5). Jack’s situation turns into a complicated affair when his beloved Gwendolen, Algernon’s cousin, accepts his engagement proposal. She declares that her “ideal has always been to love [someone] of the name of Ernest”, a fact that causes her to be drawn to Jack on the basis of his false name alone. Additionally, she refuses the idea of loving him if he was named Jack, since she believes “there is very little music in the name…[and] the only really safe name is Ernest” (11). As a result, Jack attempts to be christened as Ernest to secure the love and hand of Gwendolen in marriage. Abandoned as a baby in a handbag, Jack discovers his real name was Ernest all along, after his birth mother reveals the circumstances of his abandonment.
Abandoned as a baby in a handbag, Jack discovers his real name was Ernest all along, after his birth mother reveals the circumstances of his abandonment.
The play creates an interesting commentary on the complexity of identity, as well as the role of ideals and names in the perception of an individual. Algernon’s understanding of who Jack is as a person seems to entirely rely on his possession of the name Ernest. Although it is true that a name is a big part of a person’s identity in terms of inheritance of family history, lineage, heritage and the identification of one person from another, a person’s identity exists beyond the foundation of names. Whether or not Jack was aware of his real name prior to meeting his mother does not stop him from existing as both Ernest or Jack. Simply put, regardless of what name he is assigned or chooses, he remains essentially himself. A person is, after all, a sum of all their experiences among many other factors which contribute to the development of identity.
The play creates an interesting commentary on the complexity of identity, as well as the role of ideals and names in the perception of an individual.
Gwendolen’s idealistic love of Ernest is an example of the role of ideals in the perception of another person. Despite the fact that Jack is the same person who she knew as Ernest, once she learns of his false identity, she refuses to marry him unless he is christened and adopts the name Ernest. The implication is, of course, that he does not resemble or is not Ernest in any way, unless he adopts the name of Ernest. Indeed, we often rely on people to define and realize a part of our own identities. We are incapable of fully realizing ourselves without consulting others. Their ideals, expectations and perceptions of ourselves would theoretically lead us to learn more about who and what we are as human beings, as well as shape us in some way. However, others’ perception of our social identity does not always equate to the truth. Failure to meet other people’s personal definitions (based on their understanding) of who we are does not mean we are not ourselves. Just as Jack is both and neither Jack and Ernest, human beings exist as the ultimate contradiction — changing in the face of time, yet remaining just the same.
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. Dover, 2013.