Jack Worthing, the play’s protagonist, was discovered as an infant by the late Mr. Thomas Cardew in a handbag in the cloakroom of a railway station in London. Jack has grown up to be a seemingly responsible and respectable young man, a major landowner and Justice of the Peace in Hertfordshire, where he has a country estate. In Hertfordshire, where he is known by what he imagines to be his real name, Jack, he is a pillar of the community. He is guardian to Mr. Cardew’s granddaughter, Cecily, and has other duties and people who depend on him, including servants, tenants, farmers, and the local clergyman. For years, he has also pretended to have an irresponsible younger brother named Ernest, whom he is always having to bail out of some mischief. In fact, he himself is the reprobate brother Ernest. Ernest is the name Jack goes by in London, where he really goes on these occasions. The fictional brother is Jack’s alibi, his excuse for disappearing from Hertfordshire and going off to London to escape his responsibilities and indulge in exactly the sort of behavior he pretends to disapprove of in his brother.
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 honorable 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 Ernest 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 progressesJack must aspire to become Ernest, in name if not behavior. Until he seeks to marry Gwendolen, Jack has used Ernest as an escape from real life, but Gwendolen’s fixation on the name 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.
Algernon, the play’s secondary hero, is closer to the figure of the dandy than any other character in the play. A charming, idle, decorative bachelor, Algernon is brilliant, witty, selfish, amoral, and given to making delightful paradoxical and epigrammatic pronouncements that either make no sense at all or touch on something profound. Like Jack, Algernon has invented a fictional character, a chronic invalid named Bunbury, to give him a reprieve from his real life. Algernon is constantly being summoned to Bunbury’s deathbed, which conveniently draws him away from tiresome or distasteful social obligations. Like Jack’s fictional brother Ernest, Bunbury provides Algernon with a way of indulging himself while also suggesting great seriousness and sense of duty. However, a salient difference exists between Jack and Algernon. Jack does not admit to being a “Bunburyist,” even after he’s been called on it, while Algernon not only acknowledges his wrongdoing but also revels in it. Algernon’s delight in his own cleverness and ingenuity has little to do with a contempt for others. Rather, his personal philosophy puts a higher value on artistry and genius than on almost anything else, and he regards living as a kind of art form and life as a work of art—something one creates oneself.
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 Wootton 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.
More than any other female character in the play, Gwendolen suggests the qualities of conventional Victorian womanhood. She has ideas and ideals, attends lectures, and is bent on self-improvement. She is also artificial and pretentious. Gwendolen is in love with Jack, whom she knows as Ernest, and she is fixated on this name. This preoccupation serves as a metaphor for the preoccupation of the Victorian middle- and upper-middle classes with the appearance of virtue and honor. Gwendolen is so caught up in finding a husband named Ernest, whose name, she says, “inspires absolute confidence,” that she can’t even see that the man calling himself Ernest is fooling her with an extensive deception. In this way, her own image consciousness blurs her judgment.
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.
If Gwendolen is a product of London high society, Cecily is its antithesis. She is a child of nature, as ingenuous and unspoiled as a pink rose, to which Algernon compares her in Act II. However, her ingenuity is belied by her fascination with wickedness. She is obsessed with the name Ernest just as Gwendolen is, but wickedness is primarily what leads her to fall in love with “Uncle Jack’s brother,” whose reputation is wayward enough to intrigue her. Like Algernon and Jack, she is a fantasist. She has invented her romance with Ernest and elaborated it with as much artistry and enthusiasm as the men have their spurious obligations and secret identities. Though she does not have an alter-ego as vivid or developed as Bunbury or Ernest, her claim that she and Algernon/Ernest are already engaged is rooted in the fantasy world she’s created around Ernest. Cecily is probably the most realistically drawn character in the play, and she is the only character who does not speak in epigrams. Her charm lies in her idiosyncratic cast of mind and her imaginative capacity, qualities that derive from Wilde’s notion of life as a work of art. These elements of her personality make her a perfect mate for Algernon.