The Importance of Being Earnest | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Importance of Being Earnest | Act 2, Section 4 : The Proposal | Summary

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Summary

Merriman enters, announcing he has put away Algernon's (Ernest's) luggage. Algernon says he'll be staying for a week. Jack and Algernon argue over Algernon's stay. Algernon eventually says he cannot leave while Jack is in mourning, but he will leave if Jack changes out of his mourning clothes. When Jack goes into the house to change, Algernon, alone on stage, announces he is in love with Cecily. She returns to the garden, and Algernon (as Ernest) tells her Jack is making him leave. Algernon announces he loves Cecily. She takes out her diary and starts recording his declaration of love. When Algernon proposes, Cecily not only accepts but also tells him they have been engaged for three months. She proposed for him and accepted long before they ever met. As they express their love, she reveals she has always dreamed of marrying someone named Ernest. When Algernon asks if the name really is important, she insists it is, so he excuses himself to ask Dr. Chasuble to rechristen him as Ernest.

Analysis

The humor in the play alternates between social satire and silliness. Algernon's refusal to leave while Jack is in mourning is silly. Jack is not in mourning; he is pretending. But Jack plays along. Their pretense slides into social satire as the characters suggest that if Jack changes out of his mourning clothes, he will no longer be in mourning, implying that the depth of some people's mourning is as superficial as the clothing they wear and suggesting that clothing does not necessarily equate to what people feel.

The silliness continues when Algernon proposes and finds out he has already been engaged for several months. On the one hand, such an engagement is impossible and contradicts social norms. On the other hand, Cecily's explanation of their engagement carries a kind of profundity. She notes that Ernest was the main topic of conversation between Miss Prism and her and says, "And of course a man who is much talked about is always very attractive. One feels there must be something in him, after all." This is prescient on Wilde's part as this is the nature of celebrity: people become attractive because they are famous and talked about, not because of any innate qualities.

It is easy for an audience to laugh at Cecily. But an audience might laugh at Algernon as well. He goes along with her explanation of their engagement even though it is silly and unbelievable. Wilde underscores the absurdity of the world he's invented by having Cecily, like Gwendolen, dream of marrying a man named Ernest. While one woman having this dream is so unlikely as to be almost impossible, having two women with such a dream is absurd. The effect is to suggest that the characters in the play are, in some ways, interchangeable.

A small detail worth noting is that Cecily accepted Algernon's imagined proposal on February 14, Valentine's Day, when some people are pressured to feel romantic love and be in a relationship. This was also the day on which this play was first performed in London.

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