The Importance of Being Earnest | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Importance of Being Earnest | Act 1, Section 3 : Entrance of Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen | Summary

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Summary

Lane ushers in Lady Bracknell, who is Algernon's Aunt Augusta, and Gwendolen, his cousin. Lady Bracknell mentions a friend, Lady Harbury, who looks much younger since her husband has died. She then asks Algernon to help her plan an upcoming reception, and the two leave the room briefly. While they are alone, Jack, in the guise of Ernest, tells Gwendolen how much he loves her. She says she loves him too and that it has always been her dream to marry someone named Ernest. Startled, Jack asks whether she could love him if his name were something else, like Jack. They discuss it, and then Jack proposes. Gwendolen accepts, and Lady Bracknell returns.

When Gwendolen tells her of the engagement, Lady Bracknell sends Gwendolen to wait in the carriage. She quizzes Jack to make sure he is a suitable candidate. He seems to be until they get to the matter of his family. Jack never knew his parents. When he was a baby, he was placed in a leather handbag and abandoned in a railway station. Mr. Thomas Cardew found and adopted him. Lady Bracknell rejects Jack's proposal to Gwendolen because he lacks family connections. She leaves.

Jack explains the situation to Algernon, telling him that Jack plans to get rid of his imaginary brother Ernest. They talk about what to do that evening, and then Gwendolen returns so she and Jack can plan their next steps. They agree to write regularly, and when Jack gives her his address, Algernon makes note of it. Jack sees Gwendolen to her carriage, leaving Algernon alone. Lane enters, bringing Algernon several envelopes and a sherry. Algernon drinks the sherry, tears up the envelopes without opening them, and informs Lane that he plans to go "Bunburying" the next day.

Analysis

Jack and Gwendolen's eagerness to talk about their love shows the importance of love in their lives. Gwendolen's desire to marry someone named Ernest, however, which she says has been a lifelong dream, is absurd. Wilde mocks the ideal of romantic love and its arbitrary nature. Choosing someone based on a name is absurd, but is it any more or less absurd than other dreams regarding marriage? Audiences can also read this "dream" in another way. Earnestness was a desirable quality in the Victorian age. An earnest person is serious and sincere as opposed to lighthearted or playful. Gwendolen's desire to marry a man named Ernest is a case of linking language and reality too closely: she desires a man named Ernest because she wants a man who is earnest. Reducing earnestness to a label markedly satirizes this ideal.

On the surface Lady Bracknell's rejection of Jack as a husband for Gwendolen is arbitrary. She judges Jack for traits beyond his control. Jack is judged favorably based on the money he inherited from his adopted father, but he is rejected because he is abandoned by his biological family. Yet he did not choose either event, just as he did not choose his name (Gwendolen's potential reason for rejecting Jack as a husband). Wilde employs humor to critique the arbitrary nature of social interaction, which is largely based on surface-level traits rather than true character.

The action in this sequence provides commentary on several other aspects of romance. Lady Bracknell's comment regarding Lady Harbury serves as a warning about marriage: Lady Harbury looks much younger since her husband has died. The humor in this account lies on the surface; the wisdom comes from its juxtaposition to Jack and Gwendolen's eager pursuit of each other as they ignore this example of marital unhappiness. The closest Jack gets to questioning the nature of marriage is calling Lady Bracknell a "monster" and asking Algernon if Gwendolen is likely to become like her mother. When Algernon says yes, the audience understands this possibility but Jack dismisses the response and moves ahead in pursuit of love and marriage.

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