The Importance of Being Earnest | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Importance of Being Earnest | Act 2, Section 1 : Cecily, Miss Prism, and Dr. Chasuble | Summary

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Summary

When Act 2 opens at the Manor House, Jack's country estate, Miss Prism tries to get Cecily Cardew to study her German. Cecily resists and distracts Miss Prism by talking about Jack and his troublesome brother Ernest. Cecily suggests that Miss Prism could reform Ernest because she is so knowledgeable. Miss Prism chides her. Cecily blames memory for "nearly all the three-volume novels" they encounter. This statement leads Miss Prism to admit she wrote a three-volume novel when she was young but abandoned it. Dr. Chasuble enters. Cecily says Miss Prism has a headache and would benefit from going on a walk. Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism go for a walk, leaving Cecily alone to curse her lessons.

Analysis

As Act 2 opens Cecily's fascination with Ernest is clear. In this attraction Wilde alludes to a popular character type: the attractive bad boy whom women want to reform. Wilde wickedly critiques this cliché by having Cecily suggest that Miss Prism could reform Ernest because she knows "German, and geology, and things of that kind." Such a suggestion is, of course, flatly ridiculous. It also applies more widely to British society. In his influential 1869 work Culture and Anarchy, Matthew Arnold explicitly argues that teaching the humanities could improve society and elevate ethically those who study them. Wilde, writing a generation later, mocks the idea: a teenage girl thinks a German lesson will reform an unethical man.

The exchange between Cecily and Miss Prism creates several examples of dramatic irony, in which the audience understands something the characters do not. When Miss Prism discusses her abandoned novel, she says, "The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means." The idea that an art form so predictable could influence anyone makes the idea absurd and critiques the shallowness of some Victorian literary conventions. The entire exchange becomes even sillier when Dr. Chasuble arrives and refers to Miss Prism as "Egeria." Egeria is a figure from Roman mythology who supposedly taught the second king of Rome, issuing both wisdom and prophecy. In contrast, Miss Prism is a silly woman, a product of her class and culture, rather than the blend of nature and spirit that defined Egeria.

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