The Importance of Being Earnest | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Importance of Being Earnest | Act 3, Section 2 : Lady Bracknell Returns | Summary

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Summary

Lady Bracknell returns, disrupting this happy state of affairs. She tells Gwendolen that she and Jack are not engaged. She also rejects Algernon's engagement to Cecily until she has reviewed Cecily's character and prospects. She quizzes Jack about Cecily's background. When she learns Cecily is rich, Lady Bracknell suddenly approves and finds her attractive. She gives the engagement her blessing, tells Cecily to call her Aunt Augusta, and suggests Cecily and Algernon marry soon. Algernon and Cecily are happy. Jack, however, does not give Cecily permission to marry Algernon and refuses to do so unless Lady Bracknell permits him to marry Gwendolen, which she refuses to do. Lady Bracknell then suggests waiting until Cecily comes of age, but Jack reveals her coming of age will not happen until she reaches age 35. The situation seems deadlocked, and Lady Bracknell prepares to return to London with Gwendolen.

Analysis

Thematically this scene reveals an overt critique of social convention. In Victorian England, it would be common and expected for an older, respectable relative to review potential spouses, so Lady Bracknell's decision to evaluate Cecily would have been accepted as quite normal. Similarly, as Cecily's guardian, Jack could speak for Cecily to share facts about her good qualities in a way that her modesty would not allow, thereby protecting her from inappropriate matches in turn. The general form of such an exchange is usual. The specifics are not. Indeed they are the source of humor and insight. When Lady Bracknell switches suddenly from opposing Algernon's marriage to Cecily to embracing it, even hurrying it along, the snobbish matron reveals the tensions reshaping Victorian ideals. She blatantly equates Cecily's wealth with Cecily's character. In Jack's case it would be appropriate for him to block Algernon as a suitor, given Algernon's irresponsible behavior. But while Algernon has acted dishonestly by presenting himself as Ernest, Jack has done the same thing. To make the criticism shallower (and more amusing), Jack appears more upset about Algernon's consumption of muffins and wine than he is about the dishonesty. While in the moment this may seem (and be) hypocrisy on Lady Bracknell's part, this is also an instance in which she embodies the transformations Victorian society underwent as it was swamped by an emerging capitalist reality, a major aspect of Victorian hypocrisy.

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