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.