The Importance of Being Earnest | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Importance of Being Earnest | Act 1, Section 2 : Algernon and Jack | Summary

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Summary

As Algernon and Ernest talk, they eat the food Lane had set out. When Ernest asks who is coming to tea, Algernon says the guests will be his Aunt Augusta and Gwendolen Fairfax. Algernon chides Ernest for the way in which he flirts with Gwendolen. Ernest counters by explaining that he loves Gwendolen and has come to town specifically to propose to her. Algernon says that as Gwendolen's first cousin he forbids the marriage until Ernest clears up the question of Cecily.

Algernon has Lane bring in a cigarette case Ernest had left there. Algernon quizzes Ernest about the inscription on it. It was a gift from Cecily, who Ernest claims is his aunt. The case is inscribed, however, "From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack." Ernest then admits that he goes by two names: Ernest Worthing in town and Jack Worthing in the country. When he needs an excuse to do something, he claims his younger (fictitious) brother Ernest is always getting into trouble. He admits that Cecily is not his aunt but his ward, the granddaughter of the man who adopted him.

Algernon seizes on Jack's second identity as a parallel with something he does: Algernon has an imaginary invalid friend named Bunbury. Whenever he needs an excuse to do something, he claims Bunbury is ill. Jack denies any similarity and says that if Gwendolen accepts his proposal he will kill his imaginary brother.

Analysis

This extended expository scene between Jack and Algernon establishes the major plot points, deepens understanding of the themes and characters, and is, of course, continually funny. Jack has been living a double life, claiming he has a rogue brother named Ernest; Jack is in love with Gwendolen; he is adopted; and he is responsible for the granddaughter of the man who adopted him.

Algernon's Bunbury, the imaginary invalid, and Jack's misbehaving brother Ernest upend the Victorian ideal of duty. Jack and Algernon have both invented secondary identities that allow them to escape the weight of social expectations.

The play's complicated attitudes toward love are visible as Algernon discusses love and courtship. Algernon tells Jack that being in love is romantic but proposing and marriage are not.

Algernon's comments on love reveal how Wilde upends social norms to create humor and to comment on the institution of marriage. Although love stories in popular fiction may end with the couple marrying, Algernon points out that marriage is fundamentally different from courtship, more business than fun.

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