In Oscar Wilde's infamous play, The Importance of Being Earnest, I will explore how Jack, the main protagonist, shies away from the societal pressures around him, and, instead, develops a double identity. You'll find that Jack's love of the town, his need to avoid his duties as a guardian, and his desire to shed his uptight reputation feeds his creation of this doppelgänger persona.
Mirrors surround us all. Often, they are the first things we look into when we awake, as we put ourselves together and prepare for the day ahead. Although mirrors are mere reflections of ourselves, they can often be misleading. Similarly, the metaphorical mirror found in Oscar Wilde’s, The Importance of Being Earnest deals with Jack Worthing and the character of Ernest. Growing up essentially as an orphan, Jack knows quite little about his upbringing. The high class Victorian society in which he is raised attributes to Jack’s development of a double identity. Critic Dennis Spininger argues that, in this society, “deception is a prevailing way of life, where it is fostered and required by those who pretend to abjure it” (Spininger 52). Spininger’s point ties into Jack’s split identity, due to the fact that leading a deceitful life is acknowledged even by those who simply choose to abstain from it. Because Jack is brought up in a community where he feels pressured to act as someone he is not, he creates this split personality in order to escape. By the end of the play, Jack’s gravitation towards his mirror self, Ernest, and this character’s pleasurable lifestyle ultimately takes over as he finally realizes who he truly is. Through this exploration of self, Jack’s love of the town, his need to avoid his duties as a guardian, and his desire to shed his uptight reputation feeds his creation of this doppelgänger persona.
At the start of the play, readers are introduced to the commonality of a split identity, particularly in terms of this surface obsessed society. The concept of the double life is first recognized in terms of “Bunburying," as defined by Jack’s close friend, Algernon. Algernon uses the notion of Bunburying as a way to venture off into the country and do as he pleases, while still maintaining his high authority. Algernon believes, “one has a right to Bunbury anywhere one chooses. Every serious Bunburyist knows that…. One must be serious about something, if one wants to have any amusement in life” (Wilde 40). Here, Algernon believes one has the free will to act as their double identity anywhere they so choose. He thinks one should create this imaginary persona in order to cope with the hardships of living in a higher class society. Because these characters have experienced a society ruled by deception and falsehood, they feel even more inclined to develop a double identity. Algernon even continues to discuss the importance of abiding by this principle in order to fulfill ones’ life. He argues that even being passionate about a double life is more worthwhile than leading a life void of satisfaction. Algernon’s opinion holds strong throughout the play as Jack begins to develop his own Bunbury.
Jack Worthing begins venturing off to town as a way to escape his uneventful life in the countryside. In the first act of the play, Jack arrives at Algernon’s flat, thrilled to discuss his recent travels. As he greets Algernon, Jack explains, “when one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people. It is excessively boring” (Wilde 2). In this statement, Jack describes the town, or city life, as a place where he can fulfill his desires, whereas the country is seen as a place to entertain others. When Jack is able to flee off into the town, he feels carefree and able to do as he pleases. Contrastingly, when Jack is stuck in the countryside, he finds the expectations of charming others redundant and superficial. Rather than conform to society’s expectations in the country, Jack’s unconscious takes control, portraying his true wishes: a pleasurable life in town. In Jack’s unconscious mind, the town represents a place where he is able to satisfy his desires. While in the town, he does not feel the need to please anyone other than himself. In the country, Jack knows he must behave and adhere to the strict expectations of those around him. Thus, Jack imagines another version of himself, Ernest, in order to provide a scapegoat for his “shameful” actions in town. Evidently, Jack gravitates towards a life which satisfies himself, and only himself. Because he does not want this to be revealed to those who view him in high regard, Jack creates Ernest as a way to indulge, yet not be discovered in his fault of carelessness.
The pleasurable life Ernest leads becomes even more enticing to Jack as he wishes to abandon his dutiful life as a guardian, as well as a higher class member of society. Unconsciously, Jack acknowledges that his desires become fulfilled in the town, but consciously, he knows he cannot just abandon his life in the country. Unaware of how to deal, Jack splits his psyche to account for his actions. In the countryside, Jack serves as a ward for his young niece, Cecily, which has become overly tiring. As Jack explains to Algernon his motives for creating a double identity, Jack states, “when one is placed in the position of guardian, one has to adopt a high moral tone on all subjects. It’s one’s duty to do so. And as a high moral tone can hardly be said to conduce very much to one’s health or one’s happiness, in order to get up to town I have always pretended…” (Wilde 6). By using the word, “placed” to describe his position as Cecily’s guardian, Jack denotes that he had very little say in this decision. In Jack’s mind, he has no family ties to Cecily, yet he still has to watch over her as if he did. He believes that, as Cecily’s guardian, he is expected to be honest and have a respective view “on all subjects”, meaning all vital aspects of life (Wilde 6). Because Jack is seen as someone who is supposed to behave properly and model proper ethics, he feels overwhelmed. He even concludes that having this position in society directly affects his overall well-being. Jack’s unconscious fuels his desire to escape to the town, where he is able to act as he pleases. Undoubtedly, this passage pertains directly to Jack’s desire to formulate Ernest. Because he wishes to rid his troublesome lifestyle, he creates this character as a coping mechanism. While Jack’s conscious unhappiness sparks his initial decision to leave to the town, his unconscious encourages him to leave in the way he does. Leading a serious life becomes too distressing, so he uses Ernest as a way to let go and rid the societal pressures he feels as a guardian.
Jack’s life in the country becomes even more tiresome as his uptight reputation is shown through the eyes of Cecily. When the second act opens in the countryside, Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess, and Cecily discuss Jack’s manner. Cecily concludes, “Dear Uncle Jack is so very serious! Sometimes he is so serious that I think he cannot be quite well…. He often looks a little bored when we three are together” (Wilde 21). In this particular passage, Cecily is concerned about Jack, for his demeanor is seeming to cause a detriment to his health. She also notices how, when her, Miss Prism, and Jack are together, Jack is usually unamused. As an outsider, even Cecily can see that the high expectations of the countryside impact Jack greatly. To Jack, the country represents a place of duty and responsibility, where he is presumed to uphold a serious character. Unconsciously, Jack desires something more. He creates a split identity to not only indulge, but also free himself from societal norms. Jack does not want to be forced into a surface society, so he creates a false identity to repress his true desires.
As the play comes to a close, Jack’s natural born identity is exposed, which ties into his initial desire to develop a double, mirrored self. In the final act of the play, Lady Bracknell, Algernon’s aunt, informs Jack of his family heritage. She discloses that Jack is the son of her sister, and “being the eldest son, [he] was naturally christened after [his] father” (Wilde 53). After a brief search, Jack eventually comes to find his father’s name was Ernest, thus proving his true identity. This particular moment in the play relates to Jack’s original creation of a mirror self. Jack’s split psyche has now become one, proving that his false identity is indeed his real identity. Ironically, Jack finally comes to the realization that his whole life has been truthful, despite his efforts to create a split psyche. While this separate self was initially created as a way to escape the pressures of daily life, Jack comes to find that his alter ego, Ernest, has embodied his real character all along. This awareness especially rings true in Jacques Lacan’s theory of psychoanalysis. While a majority of Lacan’s theory is based around the idea of a mirror identity, he also discusses the importance of a symbolic stage shift in a child’s life. According to this theory, the imaginary, or mirror stage, takes place as the child focuses on their mother, but, as the child veers out of the imaginary stage, they begin to gravitate towards their father. According to Lacan, the father represents cultural norms, language, and power. Because Jack was naturally christened with his father’s name of Ernest, his unconscious created this split identity as a way to signify dominance and control. When Jack is known as Ernest, his life is more enjoyable, he is freed of his duties as a guardian, and he rids his stern character, which are all qualities he unconsciously desires.
Delving back and forth as Jack from the country and Ernest from the town, Jack begins to prefer one lifestyle over the other. Unconsciously, the town represents a place where Jack can satisfy his desires, while consciously, the country symbolizes a place of unwanted societal strain. Eventually, Jack comes to know his real identity: Ernest. Jack does not only use his falsehood as a tactic of escaping Victorian society; he also becomes a representation of its’ deceit. When Jack becomes “the illusion he had manufactured for deceptive purposes, then, and only then, does he naturally fit into a society that depends on artificial surfaces as much as this one” (Spininger 52). Yet again, Spininger suggests that although Jack initially creates this double identity by means of escaping an illusory society, his realization of truth shows he was Ernest all along. This inversion of truth and lies, of earnestness and deceit, pertains to the convoluted values of Victorian society. Only in Jack’s revelation does he conclude that Ernest’s ways of life are his own, proving his acceptance of self. Like the deception mirrors bring to our lives, Jack’s initial creation of his mirror identity ultimately embodies his true character.
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Spininger, Dennis J. “Profiles And Principles: The Sense Of The Absurd In The Importance Of Being Earnest.” Papers On Language & Literature. Academic Search Premier. Web. 3 December 2012.
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. New York: Dover Publications, 1990.