The Importance of Being Earnest | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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Course Hero, "The Importance of Being Earnest Study Guide," December 2, 2016, accessed November 17, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Importance-of-Being-Earnest/.

The Importance of Being Earnest | Act 2, Section 2 : Cecily Meets Algernon/Ernest | Summary

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Summary

Merriman announces Mr. Ernest Worthing has arrived. Algernon enters, pretending to be Jack's brother Ernest. He and Cecily immediately begin to talk and flirt. Algernon directly praises Cecily's beauty when they move into the house, still talking.

Analysis

When Cecily learns Ernest has arrived, she says, "I have never met any really wicked person before. I feel rather frightened. I am so afraid he will look just like everyone else." This line is a fine example of one of the comic structures scholar Robert Jordan points out: Wilde provides a comment that leads the audience to think they know what to expect, then he destroys that expectation by a shift at the end, creating a shock or even a jolt.

When Cecily sees Algernon, she realizes that he looks like everyone else. This gap between character and appearance is one to which Wilde returns in other works, especially The Picture of Dorian Gray, published a few years before this play. In that book a man's portrait ages, showing all the signs of his wild, dissipated life, while the man himself stays young and handsome. Both the book and the play underscore a fundamental interest for Wilde: the gap between appearance and reality.

When Algernon tries to explain he is not really wicked, Cecily signals clearly that she prefers someone disreputable. Algernon plays along, but his alleged wickedness is only verbal: he says he's wicked but he doesn't actually do much that is bad at all. Their most important exchange comes at the end of the section, as Algernon praises Cecily's appearance. When Algernon says her good looks are "a snare that every sensible man would like to be caught in," Cecily replies she wouldn't want a sensible man because she wouldn't know what to do with him. The exchange is both funny and profound: a man who is susceptible to his senses, a sensible man, would indeed likely want to be caught by beauty. On the other hand Cecily is not attracted to a man who is sensible or who shows good sense or judgment. She is attracted to Algernon, who pretends to be someone and something he is not.

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