The play opens in the morning room at Algernon Moncrieff’s flat in Half-Moon Street, London. Lane, Algernon’s servant, is arranging tea and cucumber sandwiches because Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell, is coming for a visit. Meanwhile, Algernon is playing the piano in the adjoining room. When he asks Lane whether he has heard him play, Lane says he didn’t think it was polite to listen. ”That’s too bad,” says Algernon, for he doesn’t play accurately, but with a wonderful expression. On Algernon’s question why the servants constantly drink the champagne during dinner parties, Lane responds that the bachelors have much better wine than married couples. Algernon is shocked by the possibility that marriage could be so demoralizing. Lane can not confirm it, being that he was married only once, and that was because of a misunderstanding. After Lane leaves the room, Algernon wonders if the lower orders are of any use if they don’t set an example.
Algernon’s friend Ernest Worthing stops by for an unexpected visit. He lives in the country and occasionally comes to London. What Algernon doesn’t know is that Ernest’s real name is Jack. Ernest, that is Jack, is delighted to hear that Lady Bracknell and her daughter, Gwendolen, are coming for tea. He is in love with Gwendolen and has come up to London especially to propose to her. Algernon tells him that it’s impossible because Gwendolen’s mother will oppose to it, and he (Algernon), as Gwendolen’s first cousin will not give his blessing unless Jack answers him a few questions.
The last time he was there, Jack forgot a cigarette case with a questionable inscription from a lady named Cecily. At first, Jack pretends it is a present from his aunt but ultimately has to confess everything. He reveals that his real name is Jack and that Cecily is his ward. She is the granddaughter of Thomas Cardew, who had past away. He adopted Jack as a baby and now Cecily is in his care. As far as she is concerned, Ernest is his younger brother who lives in the city and repeatedly needs help getting out of trouble. He invented him because he believes he must be reputable around her and always set an example.
Algernon finds this entertaining and calls Jack a “Bunburyist”. This adjective comes from the name “Bunbury”. “He” is an invented friend of Algernon’s who is frequently ill and in need of care, which gives Algernon a chance to leave whenever he wants. Jack promises he is through with “Ernest”, but Algernon tells him that he will need him more than ever if he’s going to be married.
Aunt Augusta (Lady Bracknell) and Gwendolen arrive. Jack has an opportunity to witness Algernon’s “Bunburying” when he tells his aunt he won’t be able to come to her dinner that evening. However, he promises to attend her reception on Saturday and invites her to the music room to show her the program he has drawn out for the occasion.
Once left alone, Jack and Gwendolen confess their love to each other and she accepts his proposal. However, she says she wouldn’t marry him if his name wasn’t Ernest. Lady Bracnell returns and, seeing Jack on bended knee, demands an explanation. When Gwendolyn informs her about the engagement, she tells that she doesn’t have the right to arrange such a thing for herself. She sends her to the carriage in order to interrogate Jack. She seems somewhat satisfied with his answers until she asks him about his parents. She is astounded to find out that Jack was found in a cloakroom at Victoria Station by Thomas Cardew, who also raised him. Therefore, she announces that Gwendolen cannot “marry into a cloakroom, and form an alliance with a parcel” and leaves.
Jack tells Algernon that he is going to kill “Ernest” and go back to being himself all the time, partly because Cecily is too much interested in him. In the meantime, Gwendolyn returns and tells Jack they can never marry, but she will always love him. She asks for his country address so that she can write to him daily. As Jack dictates the address, Algernon sneakily writes it on his shirt cuff.
This act is set at the garden of Manor house, Jack’s home in the country. The scene shows Cecily and her tutor, Miss Prism. Cecily seems to prefer watering flowers and talking about her Uncle Jack than studying German, and her teacher doesn’t try as hard as she should to make her concentrate on her lessons. Miss Prism thinks that Jack is a very honorable and responsible man, and Cecily quite agrees with her. She wishes he would allow his brother Ernest to visit. They start talking about writing. Cecily keeps a diary where she notes everything that happens to her, while Miss Prism reveals that she once wrote a novel which she misplaced.
When local reverend, Dr. Canon Chasuble comes in, Cecily comments that Miss Prism has a headache and that she would probably enjoy a walk. Miss Prism says that she said no such thing, and Dr. Chasuble takes the opportunity to flirt with her. Finally she agrees to go for a walk with him. It is obvious that they are attracted to each other.
While they are gone, Merriman, the butler, enters the garden and announces the arrival of Mr. Ernest Worthing (who is really Algernon, pretending to be Jack’s brother). The two of them start up a conversation. Cecily tells him that Jack won’t be back until Monday afternoon. Algernon says that he will be leaving on Monday morning, so they will miss each other. As their conversation continues, Algernon asks Cecily if she will reform him. She says she doesn’t have the time to do it that afternoon, so he decides to reform himself.
As they pass into the house, Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble return. She tries to convince him that he should marry, but he opposes to it because the primitive church was against it. Jack enters in mourning clothes saying that his brother Ernest has died of a severe chill in Paris. He takes the opportunity to ask Dr. Chasuble to re-christen him that afternoon around 5 p.m. Cecily comes from the house and announces that Jack’s brother Ernest is in the dining room. Jack says that he has no brother, but Cecily thinks that he is just angry at Ernest. Then Algernon comes out. Jack is shocked and tells Algernon that his visit is disgraceful. Cecily defends him and it becomes evident that Algernon has been talking to her about “his friend Bunbury”.
Jack and Algernon have a conversation in private. They argue back and forth and Jack tells Algernon that he must leave at once. When Merriman enters to tell Jack that Algernon things are arranged, Jack instructs him to order a dog-cart for Algernon to leave in and goes into the house himself.
In the meantime, Cecily has returned to the garden to water the flowers. Algernon tells her that he must leave and confesses her his deepest love and affection. She copies his words in her diary. Algernon asks Cecily to marry him, and she agrees. In fact, she has made up an entire romantic story of their courtship and engagement. She has even written imaginary letters to herself from him. She tells Algernon that her dream has always been to marry someone named Ernest because the name inspires such confidence. So, like Jack, Algernon decides that he must be re-christened Ernest.
While he rushes out to make christening arrangements, Cecily writes Ernest’s proposal in her diary. She is interrupted by Merriman announcing Miss Gwendolen Fairfax to see Jack; unfortunately, Jack is at the rectory. Cecily agrees to see her, supposing that she is an old lady associated with her uncle in some charity in London. Gwendolen comes in and they introduce themselves, expressing admiration for one another. Gwendolen did not know Jack had a ward, and she wishes Cecily were older and less beautiful. Both declare that they are engaged to Ernest Worthing. When they compare diaries, they decide that Gwendolen was asked first; however, Cecily says that since then, he has obviously changed his mind and proposed to Cecily. Merriman and a footman enter with tea, which stops their argument. They discuss geography and flowers in a civilized manner while the servants are present. However, during the tea service, Cecily on purpose gives Gwendolen sugar in her tea when Gwendolen did not want sugar and tea cake when Gwendolen specifically asked for bread and butter. The situation is very tense.
Jack arrives, and Gwendolen calls him Ernest. He tries to kiss her, but she demands an explanation of the situation. Cecily explains that this is not Ernest but her guardian, Jack Worthing. Algernon comes in, and Cecily calls him Ernest. Gwendolen explains that he is her cousin, Algernon Moncrieff. The ladies then comfort each other because the men have played a hideous trick on them. Jack admits that he has no brother Ernest and has never had a brother of any kind. Both ladies announce that they are not engaged to anyone and go into the house.
No time has passed, but in Act III Gwendolen and Cecily are in the morning room of the Manor House, looking out the window at Jack and Algernon and hoping they will come in. If they do, the ladies are determined to be cold and heartless. Then the men do come in and start explaining why they lied about their names. The women accept their explanations but still have a problem of their names not being “Ernest”. Both men announce that they plan to be re-christened, and Gwendolen and Cecily forgive them, and both couples embrace.
Merriman discretely coughs to signal the entrance of Lady Bracknell. She desires an explanation for these hugs, and Gwendolen tells her that she is engaged to Jack. Lady Bracknell says that they are not engaged and insists that they cease all communication. She inquires about Algernon’s invalid friend, Bunbury, and Algernon informs her that Bunbury has died. He also adds that he and Cecily are engaged. Lady Bracknell isn’t sure whether she approves of it until Jack tells her that Cecily has a fortune of 130,000 pounds.
Lady Bracknell gives her consent to Algernon’s engagement, but Jack immediately objects as Cecily’s guardian. He says that Algernon is a liar and lists all the lies he has told. Also, Cecily does not inherit her fortune and lose Jack as a guardian until she is 35 years old. Algernon says he can wait, but Cecily says she can’t. So Jack declares that he will agree to the marriage if Lady Bracknell will consent to his engagement to Gwendolen. That is out of the question, and Lady Bracknell prepares to leave with Gwendolen.
Dr. Chasuble arrives and announces that he is ready for the christenings. Jack replies that they are useless now, and Chasuble decides to head back to the church where Miss Prism is waiting. The name Prism shocks Lady Bracknell, and she demands to see the governess. When Miss Prism arrives, she sees Lady Bracknell and turns pale. Lady Bracknell reveals that Miss Prism left Lord Bracknell’s house 28 years ago. On a normal walk with the baby carriage, she disappeared, along with the baby. She demands to know where the baby is. Prism explains that in a moment of distraction, she placed the baby in her handbag and her novel in the baby carriage. The baby and handbag were accidentally left in the train station. When she discovered her mistake, she abandoned the baby carriage and disappeared. Jack excitedly asks her which station it was, and when she reveals that it was Victoria Station, the Brighton Line, he runs from the room and returns with a black leather bag. When Prism identifies it, he embraces her, believing her to be his mother. She objects that she is not married and says that he will have to ask Lady Bracknell for the identity of his mother.
Jack discovers that he is actually the son of Lady Bracknell’s sister, Mrs. Moncrieff, and that Algernon is his younger brother. The only problem left is that of Jack’s Christian name. Since he is the eldest son, he would have been named after his father, but no one can remember his name. However, Jack happens to have The Army Lists of the last forty years (their father was a general). Amazingly, they discover that his name was Ernest John Moncrieff. So now Jack’s name is Ernest and he does have a brother. He can now marry Gwendolen, and Algernon can marry Cecily. Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism call each other by their first names and all couples embrace. Jack asserts that he has finally realized “the vital importance of being earnest.”
Wilde sets the tone for the play; whish is very satirical, in the very first scene. The many layers of meaning work together to entertain and to provoke thought. He makes fun of all the Victorians hold sacred, but in a light-hearted, amusing way. His humor has multiple layers of meaning: social criticism of the upper and middle Victorian class values, references to the homosexual community and its culture, and epigrams- short, witty sayings- and puns that not only provide humor but also strengthen his social critique.
First, Wilde must introduce his characters and setting. Both Jack and Algernon are living their lives through masks; deliberately, their double lives parallel Wilde’s living as a married man with a secret homosexual life. Algernon is a young man very concerned about his clothes and appearance. His fashionable apartment in a stylish setting immediately tells you that you are reading (or watching) a comedy about the upper class. After introducing Algernon, Wilde turns him into a comic figure of self-indulgence, stuffing his mouth with cucumber sandwiches, which is opposite to the repressive Victorian values of duty and virtue. In fact, as Algernon and Jack discuss marriage and Gwendolen, food becomes a symbol for lust, a topic not discussed in polite society. Much of what Algernon says is hopeless triviality, beginning a motif that Wilde will follow throughout the play: society never cares about essence but instead admires style and triviality. Wilde seems to be saying that in Victorian society people seem unaware of the difference between trivial subjects and the more valuable affairs of life.
Jack is a little more serious than Algernon. As a product of his time and social standing, Jack knows the rules, the appropriate manners, and the virtue of turning a phrase beautifully. He is an accepted upper-class gentleman, mainly because of the Cardew fortune. Novels written during this period, such as those of Charles Dickens, often turned on melodramatic plot devices such as the orphan discovering his real identity and winning his true love. Wilde comically twists this popular orphan by having Jack found in a handbag in a major railroad station.
Both men are living a secret life, Jack with his Ernest identity and Algernon with his friend, Bunbury. Even Lane, Algernon’s servant, seems to have a second life in which he steals champagne and sandwiches from his employers. Wilde seems to be saying that in a society where all is respectable but dull, a false identity is necessary if one wants to be himself once in a while. Then there is the intentional use of the name Ernest. Earnestness, or devotion to virtue and duty, was a Victorian ideal. It stood for sincerity, seriousness, and hard work. Duty to one’s family and name was a form of earnestness. Wilde turns these associations upside down, making Ernest a name used for deception. By using the name Ernest throughout the play, and even in the title, Wilde is making references to social criticism, his own life, and his plot devices. He playfully makes a pun using earnest/Ernest when Algernon says, “You are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life,” following his discussion of Ernest as Jack’s name.
Marriage in Victorian England is also one of the major themes of the play. Wilde saw marriages filled with hypocrisy and often used to achieve status. He also saw marriage as an institution that encouraged cheating and killed sexual attraction between spouses. When Lane says that wine is never of superior quality in a married household, Algernon questions whether Lane was ever married. Lane mentions that his one marriage was a result of a “misunderstanding.” The nonsense continues as Jack explains that his purpose in coming to the city was to propose to Gwendolen. Algernon humorously explains that to be in love is romantic, but a proposal is never romantic because “one may be accepted.” Marriage brings about an end to the romantic excitement of flirting: “…girls never marry the men they flirt with. Girls don’t think it right.” Each of these references to marriage or courtship trivializes a serious subject and turns around accepted values. Wilde corrupts the saying, “Two’s company; three’s a crowd” when he has Algernon saying, “In married life three is company and two is none”. In short, Wilde seems to say that marriage is a business deal containing property, wealth, and status. Family names and bloodlines are deathly important.
The frivolity of the classes is also a subject of this first act. While the servants, such as Lane depend on the upper classes, they also examine their morals. They might not comment, but their facial expressions betray their understanding of their own role in life, which involves waiting and doing, but not commenting. In Victorian England, style and correct manners were much more important than essence. Algernon feels his style of piano playing is much more important than his accuracy. Triviality is the witty, admired social wordplay of the day, a perfect honor to style over substance. In fact, the characters in this play often say the opposite of what is understood to be true.
Victorian culture is also a target. Algernon’s pun “More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read,” is a reference once again to hypocrisy. One reads something scandalous to be in style, but does not speak of it in polite company. Daily newspapers come under Algernon’s attack as the writings of people who have not been educated and who think of themselves as literary critics. Perhaps Wilde is saying that the critical reviews of the day should be in the hands of people who are educated to understand art.
Some critics have suggested that Wilde began his writing projects by accumulating a group of epigrams he wished to explore. He turned them upside down to suggest that most people never stop to think about how meaningless they are. For example, “Divorces are made in heaven” (originally “Marriages are made in heaven”) suggests that divorce contributes to happiness. Wilde makes fun of peoples’ trivial concerns over social status when he says, “Nothing annoys people so much as not receiving invitations.”
Gwendolen trivializes serious ideas and imagines people and events that have never existed. Strangely, she chooses a husband based on his name. Wilde is asking if marrying for a person’s name is any more absurd than marrying based on wealth and parents. Gwendolen is also constantly saying words that are the opposite of what is known to be true, illustrating Wilde’s idea that upper-class conversation is trivial and meaningless. She tells Jack, “The simplicity of your character makes you beautifully inexplicable to me.” Instead of the young respecting their elders, Gwendolen mourns, “Few parents nowadays pay any regard to what their children say to them. The old-fashioned respect for the young is fast dying out.”
Jack’s proposal itself is ludicrous. Gwendolen is only concerned that the form is correct. In fact, she fully intends to say yes only if his name is Ernest. When Jack mentions the word marriage, she protests that he has not even discussed it with her yet, and he must do so in the correct style. She asserts that her brother even practices proposing to get the form correct. Wilde is taking a subject – love and marriage – that should be filled with passion and depth and turning it into an exercise in form. This scene is a parody of love and romance, capturing the emptiness of Victorian values that rely on style, not substance.
The personification of the Victorian upper-class woman who has a title from her husband in the play is Lady Bracknell, who is arrogant, prejudiced, and conservative. Wilde uses her to continue his satire of Victorian attitudes about marriage. She will tell Gwendolen when and to whom she will be engaged, and Gwendolen has nothing to say about it. In fact, love is not a factor in marriage nor is the opinion of the children. Lady Bracknell cross-examines Jack, commenting on his wealth and politics. Discovering he has no parents and that he was found in a hand-bag at a train station, she suggests he produce at least one parent- no matter how he does it- to strengthen his marriage prospects. Wilde is mocking Victorian attitudes toward marriage and asking why bloodlines and wealth should be more important than love.
As for education, the proper Victorian believed schooling should be reserved for those with social status. Through the preposterous Lady Bracknell, Wilde is once again criticizing a society where the upper class is determined to keep attitudes and power in the hands of the few. A proper education is later confirmed in the readings Miss Prism gives to Cecily Cardew, Jack’s ward. Any revolution or change in thinking at any time is opposite of what the conservative upper class believes in. Politics should be in the hands of the “right people,” the radical idea that people should be taught to actually think and question is scary to those in power.
Society is described in multiple contexts as clever people talking nonsense and triviality. In a dialogue between Jack and Algernon, Jack says, “I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.” When Algernon says, “We have,” Jack wonders what they talk about. Algernon replies, “About the clever people, of course.” Wilde continues satirizing the Victorian love of the trivial when he ends the act with Jack and Algernon observing that nobody ever talks anything but nonsense. Each of these conversations reprimands British society’s concern for the superficial at the expense of deeper values.
The subject of Cecily introduces a new kind of woman to the play. When Algernon expresses some interest in Jack’s ward, Jack explains that she is not at all like the usual young woman in society. “She has got a capital appetite, goes on long walks, and pays no attention at all to her lessons.” Unlike most young Victorian women, Cecily seems to be independent, strong, and can figure out what she wants.
As the play progresses, Wilde continues his epigrams and puns. One of his most memorable refers to the nature of men and women. Algernon explains, “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” Perhaps Wilde feels that while women might not wish to become their mothers, men would be wise to cultivate some of the attitudes and values of females; perhaps this is a nod to homosexuality. Idleness, duty, and marriage are brought together in the conversations of several characters. Sighing bitterly, Miss Prism observes that people who live for pleasure are usually unmarried. Cecily, however, exclaims to Miss Prism, “I suppose that is why he (Jack) often looks a little bored when we three are together.” Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble also provide a comic touch to the subject of religious zeal and its relationship to Victorian morals. Religion is presented as dry, meaningless, and expensive. The reverend explains to Jack that the sermons for all sacraments are interchangeable. They can be adapted to be joyful or distressing, depending on the occasion. Through these thoughts Wilde expresses the meaninglessness of religion and the obviously hackneyed, empty words of sermons. Jack’s request for a christening is humorous when one considers that he is a grown man—christening is a rite usually appropriate for small babies.
Wilde also humorously captures the absurdity of rigid Victorian values through the character of Miss Prism. She is a prim woman, and much like the cut glass of the prism. Wilde utilizes her as his representative, a morally upright woman who has written a melodramatic, romantic novel. Obviously, hypocrisy lurks beneath the strict surface of the prim governess. Her absurdity over rigid morals reaches the top when she hears that Ernest is dead in Paris after a life of “shameful debts and extravagance.” As if to follow through on her duty to raise Cecily with rigid values, she says, “What a lesson for him! I trust he will profit by it.” Furthermore, when we learn her true identity at the end of the play- we see that she has distorted who she really is. She is responsible in a very serious deed- losing a baby. That is not at all the light she has previously cast.
There is also symbolism in the name of Dr. Chasuble. The word “chasuble” is a vestment worn during services. This is appropriate given to the nature of Chasuble’s profession. It could be interpreted that, because Wilde chose to name him after a piece of clothing, a covering, the outer vestment- that there is more underneath. Chasuble’s name is also a pun because when said aloud can sound like Chase-able. Regarding Miss Prism, he is in fact Chase-able, which he had previously claimed he was not. There is more to him than meets the eye.
The hidden and repressed sexual nature of Victorian society is presented in this play, too. Cecily is fascinated by sin and wickedness- but from afar. She hopes Ernest looks like a “wicked person,” although she is not sure what one looks like. She is particularly interested in the fact that the prim and proper Miss Prism has written a three-volume novel. Such novels were not deemed proper literature by Victorians, but were read in secret. Of course, the moral of the novel shows clearly that good people win, and bad people are punished. In fact, Miss Prism describes the conservative literary view of the day when she defines fiction as “the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.”
Much worldlier than Cecily, the reverend and Miss Prism flirt outrageously and make allusions about desire and lust. Where a headache is usually used as an excuse for a lack of sexual interest, Miss Prism uses it as a reason to go on a walk alone with the minister. The humorous cleric speaks in metaphors and often has to define what he means so that he will not be misunderstood. For example, he states, “Were I fortunate enough to be Miss Prism’s pupil, I would hang upon her lips.” He continues, “I spoke metaphorically. My metaphor was drawn from bees. Ahem!” Such an obvious allusion to the birds and the bees thinly covers a passionate inner life that must not be discussed. Miss Prism answers in kind, calling him “dear Doctor,” which seems to be a flirtatious title. There is more than meets the eye here, and Wilde is clearly pointing out the sexual repression of his society and satirizing the societal concern for correct and proper appearances, regardless of what simmers under the surface. The coded conversation between Miss Prism and Chasuble eventually turns to the discussion of the reverend’s celibacy, which becomes a joke throughout the act. When he defends the church’s stand on celibacy, Miss Prism explains that remaining single is actually more of a temptation to women. The 1890’s represent a world where adults do not discuss sex directly with their children or in polite society. No wonder Cecily is so fascinated by the subject of wickedness. In her society, young girls are protected from any knowledge of sex, and adults speak of it in obscure terms so as not to let out the big secret.
Cecily’s schooling is a perfect opportunity for Wilde to comment on the grim, unimaginative education of England. Political economy was a fast growing academic subject at the time- the area of male students, not young women; therefore, Cecily shouldn’t read books on that subject. Grim, conservative, and unimaginative books are seen as the best way to educate the young. With this foundation, they learn not to question and not to change dramatically the society in which they live. Merriman’s humor is opposite to Jack’s seriousness. Even his name indicates his hidden humor. He does not express approval or disapproval, he accommodates his upper-class employers and carefully rehearses his facial expressions to show nothing, but through this deliberate rehearsal, Wilde is showing what an artificial, rehearsed society the upper class lives in. Merriman’s job is to arrange comings and goings and keep the house running smoothly; he’s a proper English servant who knows his place. Similarly, Miss Prism criticizes Cecily for watering flowers – that is a servant’s job. In this way, Wilde pokes fun at the Victorian concept that everyone has his duty, and each knows his place.
Cecily keeps a diary of her girlish fancies, and they are much more interesting than reality. Because her education is so boring, she lives an interesting fantasy life, which contains her own secret and self-directed education. She, like Algernon, seems to be interested in immediate pleasure, and she puts him in his place when she first meets him. When he calls her “little cousin Cecily,” she counters with, “You are under some strange mistake. I am not little. In fact, I believe I am more than usually tall for my age.” Algernon is totally taken aback by her forwardness. Wilde here is hinting at a new and more assertive woman.
Wilde also attacks the concepts of romance and courtship. Gwendolen and Jack have already demonstrated that proposals must be made correctly, especially if anyone is nearby. Now, Cecily and Algernon present a mockery of conventional courtship and romance. As always, appearance is everything. Cecily’s diary is a particularly useful tool to symbolize the deceptive character of romance and courtship. When Miss Prism tells Cecily that memory is all one needs to remember one’s life, Cecily replies, “Yes, but it usually chronicles the things that have never happened, and couldn’t possibly have happened.” Young girls’ heads are filled with romance and immature ideas about marriage; the true nature of courtship in Victorian, upper-class society is a business deal, according to Wilde, where financial security and family names are traded for wives. Wilde shows this clearly when Algernon proposes to Cecily and tells her he loves her. He is a bit confused when she explains that they have already been engaged for three months, starting last February 14 – at least that is how she recorded her fantasy in her diary. In fact, she even mentions where, when and how their engagement took place. Furthermore, she has letters written by Ernest that profess his love and record the breaking off of the engagement. (No engagement is serious if it is not broken off at least once and then forgiven.) Cecily and Gwendolen have in common their singled-minded persistence in pursuing a husband named Ernest. They have strong opinions, are able to deal with unexpected situations, and are connected in many cases by dialogue that is monotonous and similar. However, they also have many differences.
Cecily Cardew is passionate about her desires and her goals, but she is also overly protected in the country setting. She is being brought up far away from the temptations and social life of the city, protected until her coming out. Her goal is to marry a solid Victorian husband with the trustworthy name of Ernest. When she meets Algernon, she is sure she has found him.
Gwendolen Fairfax is a big-city, sophisticated woman in sharp contrast to Cecily Cardew. Gwendolen has ideas of her own. Like her mother, Gwendolen is determined. She knows what she wants. She comes to the country to pursue her Ernest, thinking she will rescue him. Whatever her opinion, she states it very clearly. With her lorgnette, she views her world with the shortsightedness filled in her by her Victorian mother- like mother, like daughter. However, this daughter occasionally goes against boundarys placed on her by her class and time period. Humorously, Wilde displays Gwendolen’s shortsightedness when he mentions her diary. Gwendolen’s thoughts generally consist of observations about herself. She is totally self-centered, like most of the characters in Wilde’s play.
Wilde connects Cecily and Gwendolen very cleverly by using parallel conversations and by repeating bits and pieces of sentences. Their artificial speech and comments on trivial subjects are part of polite conversation. Jack and Algernon are also linked with parallel lines that display the similarities in their situations.
The culmination of Wilde’s commentary on Victorian social rituals is the tea ceremony with Cecily and Gwendolen. This witty exchange of conversation is representative of Victorian social ritual where proposals, social calls, and parties are all carefully orchestrated. Because it is conducted under obvious pressure, the tea becomes a ridiculous event. Throughout the tea pouring and the cake cutting, Cecily and Gwendolen are mindful of their manners in front of the servants. Even their anger is civilized. When Cecily makes a satirical comment about Gwendolen living in town because she does not like crowds- indicating that she has few friends and little social life- Gwendolen bites her lip and beats her foot nervously. Cecily is trained to make this comment “sweetly.” For her own part, Gwendolen calls Cecily a detestable girl, but her comment doesn’t produce the same effect.
Truth and deception also continue to be a part of Wilde’s country world. Gwendolen passionately comments on Jack’s honest and upright nature. Of course, we know that her Ernest has lied about himself throughout the course of their courtship. Algernon also engages in deception when he acknowledges that his trip to Jack’s estate has been the most wonderful bunburying trip of his life. What began as trivial has become an engagement. Both men accuse each other of deceiving the women in their lives, and Jack says that Algernon cannot marry Cecily because he has been deceptive to her. Alternatively, Algernon accuses Jack of engaging in deception toward his cousin, Gwendolen. It seems that marriage plans will not materialize for either of them anytime soon. Their deception as Ernests is definitely over, and now they must figure out how to pick up the pieces.
Wilde attacks social behavior with the continuation of speeches by his characters that are the opposite of their actions. While Cecily and Gwendolen agree to keep a dignified silence, Gwendolen actually states that they will not be the first ones to speak to the men. In the very next line she says, “Mr. Worthing, I have something very particular to ask you.” Wilde seems to be saying that people speak as if they have strong opinions, but their actions do not support their words. Wilde continues his criticism of society’s valuing style over substance when Gwendolen says, “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.” Lady Bracknell discusses Algernon’s marriage assets in the same light. She says, “Algernon is an extremely, I may almost say an ostentatiously, eligible young man. He has nothing, but he looks everything. What more can one desire?” Indeed, in a society where looks are everything and substance is discounted, Algernon is the perfect husband.
The aristocrats seem to esteem the appearance of respectability, meaning children are born within the context of marriage. Wilde once again mocks the hypocrisy of the aristocrats who appear to value monogamy but pretend not to notice affairs. Jack’s speech to Miss Prism, whom he believes to be his mother, is humorous in both its bitter defense of marriage and also its mocking of the loudly advertised religious reformer’s virtues of repentance and forgiveness. He says to Miss Prism, “Unmarried! I do not deny that is a serious blow…. Mother, I forgive you.” His words are all the more humorous when Miss Prism indignantly denies being his mother. It was not at all unusual for aristocrats to have illegitimate children, but society turned its head, pretended not to know about those children, and did not condemn their fathers.
The gap between the upper class and its servants is explored in the scenes with Merriman and Prism. When Lady Bracknell unexpectedly shows up at Jack’s, Merriman coughs discretely to warn the couples of her arrival. When Lady Bracknell hears the description of Prism and recognizes her as their former nanny, she calls for Miss Prism by shouting “Prism!” without using a title in front of her name. Lady Bracknell divides the servant from the lady of the manor.
Lady Bracknell also reveals that her aristocratic brother’s family entrusted their most precious possession—Jack—to a woman who is more interested in her handbag and manuscript than in what happens to the baby in her charge. Wilde seems to be questioning the values of a society that hires other people to neglectfully watch its children.
Wilde continues his assault on family life by mentioning its strange qualities in several conversations. It appears rather strange, for example, that Lady Bracknell cannot even recall the Christian name of her brother-in-law, Algernon’s father. He died before Algernon was one, so stranger yet is Algernon’s comment, “We were never even on speaking terms.” He gives that as the reason he cannot remember his father’s name. Further assaulting family life, Wilde has Lady Bracknell describe Lord Moncrieff as “eccentric”, but excuses his behavior because it “was the result of the Indian climate, and marriage, and indigestions, and other things of that kind.” Marriage is placed together with things such as indigestion. In explaining Lord Moncrieff’s marriage, Lady Bracknell says that he was “essentially a man of peace, except in his domestic life.” Family life and domestic bliss do not get high marks in Wilde’s estimation.
When Miss Prism humorously resolves the problem of Jack’s family, Wilde takes his hero of unknown origins and presents him as the aristocrat who will now be take his rightful place in the social structure. As soon as Jack is known to be a member of the established aristocracy, a Moncrieff in fact, he is seen as an appropriate person for Gwendolen to marry. They will, according to Wilde, live happily ever after in wedded bliss and continue the aristocratic blindness to anything that truly matters. In discovering that he has been telling the truth all along- his name is Ernest, and he has a brother- Jack makes fun of the Victorian virtues of sincerity and honesty and asks Gwendolen to forgive him for “speaking nothing but the truth.” He now realizes the importance of being the person he is supposed to be. Wilde is saying perhaps that a new kind of earnestness exists. Maybe it is possible to be honest and understand what should be taken seriously in life rather than being deceptive, hypocritical, and superficial. Critics debate the interpretation of the last line. Some of them believe, however, that the ending shows Jack mockingly redefining Victorian earnestness as just the opposite: a life of lies, pleasure and beauty.
In the end, Wilde leaves his audience thinking about the trivial social conventions the Victorians considered important. Their Victorian virtues perhaps need redefining. Institutions such as marriage, religion, family values and money should perhaps have new interpretations. The character of people, rather than their names and family fortunes, should weigh most heavily when considering their worth. Wilde was able to use humor to mock these attitudes and convince his readers about the importance of being earnest.
- Algernon: “I don’t play accurately – anyone can play accurately – but I play with a wonderful expression” Act I
One can take this as an example of Wilde’s support of the Aesthetic movement, which valued art for art’s sake. This philosophy did not require art to instruct or handle political issues. Unconcerned with the accuracy of his music, and in appreciation of its artistic value, Algernon can here be viewed as an Aesthete.
- Algernon: “Really, if the lower orders don’t set us an example, what on earth is the use of them?” Act I
This quote is intended to be humorous. Algernon is being serious, but Wilde is commenting on the absurdity of the upper class and their lack of moral responsibility. It is ironic because in the 19th century the upper class was supposed to be the respectable class, setting an example for everyone.
- Algernon: “My dear fellow, the way you flirt with Gwendolen is perfectly disgraceful. It is almost as bad as the way she flirts with you.” Act I
This is another unintentionally humorous quote on behalf on Algernon. It’s tone mocks the stuffiness and hypocrisy of dating among the upper class.
- Miss Prism: “No married man is ever attractive, except to his wife.” Act II
This is an example of the marriage theme.
- Algernon: “What a fearful liar you are, Jack. I have not been called back to town.” Act II
This is an example of an ironic statement. Algernon calls Jack a liar; yet, he has come to Jack’s country under a false identity.
- Cecily says to Algernon: “It is always painful to part from people whom one has known for a very brief space of time. The absence of old friends, one can endure with equanimity.” Act II
This is another example of the epigrams used throughout the entire play, which render it hilarious.
- Cecily to Algernon: “Well, I know, of course, how important it is not to keep a business engagement.” Act II
This is humorous, because to Victorians – as well as to ourselves – it is important to keep business engagement. Yet, this statement is not amusing to the characters of the play.
- Gwendolen: “Something tells me that we are going to be great friends. I like you already more than I can say.” Act II
This is an example of Victorian manners. Gwendolen says this to Cecily within moments of meeting her. This statement becomes even more humorous when examined in light of the disagreement they have only a short time later.
- Lady Bracknell to Algernon, regarding his re-christening: “Lord Bracknell would be highly displeased if he learned that that was the way in which you wasted your time and money.” Act III
This is one example of Lady Bracknell’s characterization: she is primarily concerned with money. This is an excellent example of the wealthy’s appreciation of money over morality.
- Jack: “I’ve finally realized for the first time in my life, the vital importance of being earnest.” Act III
This quote is explained in the “Commentary” part.
- “Collected works of Oscar Wilde”; Wordsworth Editions
- Encyclopedia Encarta