in class today, my students + i tried to compare the strange case of dr. jekyll + mr. hyde + the importance of being earnest, two late victorian works on the duality of human nature.
in jekyll/hyde, it's the psychological + ethical natures of man that are divided: spirit + brute, angel + fiend.
in earnest, it's man's nature as a social animal that causes the divide that algernon dubs 'bunburyism,' a self-invented -ism for the modern man.
algernon concocts a topsy-turvy moral system that innocently excuses him from unwanted social engagements, a fictitious friend bunbury, whose ailments conveniently make algernon unavailable at times (virtually the opposite direction of jekyll's quest for a scientifically authentic self-knowledge, a quest that ultimately annihilates him).
but in wilde's comedy, all the characters have fictionalized versions of themselves, to some degree--not just algernon. jack invents a dissolute brother 'ernest,' whose shameless life in london jack narrates for his appalled country neighbors, unware that ernest's vices are (it is implied) jack's.
cecily cardew, jack's precocious ward in the country, keeps a diary recounting a fictitious romance with jack's worldly alter ego, for whom she mistakes algernon, when he follows jack into the country, + on her first meeting with algernon/'ernest' she announces that, according to her diary, they have been engaged to be married already for months.
even the conventional characters fancy themselves authors--gwendolen, jack's fiancee, keeps a diary that she never travels without, since one should always have something sensational to read on the train. prim + proper miss prism has written a 3-volume novel, whose misplacement triggers the play's central dilemma, unraveled in the final act.
so instead of the angel/brute natures of jekyll/hyde, wilde's play gives us man dichotomized to divert prudish + inquisitorial eyes: one self labeled + catalogued by victorian society (the respectable, moral, dutiful self) + another self self-created + subject only to the whims of imagination (the playful, carefree, pleasure-seeking self).
algernon is the true artist in the play, much like wilde, who boasted, 'i am my own masterpiece!' + whose works often build on the theme that life imitates art much more often than art imitates life.
unlike jack, who has hypocritically invented a self to preserve a conventional, respectable image in society, algernon cares nothing for convention or respectability, + instead of inventing a self, invents an entire world, or, at any rate, an -ism.