The Importance of Being Earnest | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Importance of Being Earnest | Act 3, Section 3 : Jack's Origins Revealed | Summary

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Summary

Dr. Chasuble enters, ready to christen Jack and Algernon. Lady Bracknell scorns the idea. Dr. Chasuble is sorry to hear this news and says he will return to the church where Miss Prism is waiting for him. Lady Bracknell is startled by the name and quizzes Chasuble about Miss Prism. Quite sure she knows Miss Prism, Lady Bracknell sends for her.

When Miss Prism arrives, Lady Bracknell interrogates her, asking, among other things, "Prism! Where is that baby?" Lady Bracknell explains that 28 years ago, Miss Prism left the Bracknell house pushing a pram containing a baby boy. She never returned. The police located the pram, which contained the unpublished manuscript for a novel but not the baby. Lady Bracknell ends this historical review by asking Miss Prism again where the baby is. Miss Prism says she doesn't know but admits that, at the time, she was distracted and accidentally swapped the baby for the manuscript she kept in a handbag. She then left the handbag and the baby in the cloakroom of Victoria Station, at the "Brighton line." When he hears this, Jack excuses himself and goes upstairs.

Jack reappears with an old handbag, which Miss Prism identifies as the one she left in the railway station. Jack embraces Miss Prism as his mother. She denies the relationship and refers him to Lady Bracknell, who identifies Jack as her sister's son and Algernon's older brother. After celebrating with his new relatives, Jack asks after his Christian name. Lady Bracknell cannot remember, only that he was named after his father. Algernon doesn't know his father's name either because he died when Algernon was a year old. Since he was a military man, they check military records for the period. They discover Jack's father's name was Ernest. Gwendolen reiterates her love for the name Ernest. Jack asks for forgiveness. The couples reconcile, and Jack delivers his famous moral: "I've now realised for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest."

Analysis

This final section brings most plot threads together, though it is worth noting that as carefully constructed as this play is, one plot thread is left hanging. Although Jack really is Ernest and fulfills Gwendolen's dream, Algernon is still named Algernon. The audience might forget it in the chaos of the play's final moments but his Aunt Augusta has forbidden him to be rechristened. Might Algernon and Cecily be left out of the play's happy ending? Probably not, because Ernest is likely to reverse his ruling and allow his new brother to marry Cecily.

There is so much humor in this final section that Wilde may actually get in his own way at times, stepping on his jokes by piling them too closely together. For example, when Lady Bracknell is trying to confirm Miss Prism's identity, she refers to the governess as having a "repellent aspect." Dr. Chasuble counters that she is the "very picture of respectability," and that is enough for Lady Bracknell to know they speak of the same person.

This is a useful dig at period social conventions. For conventional Victorians, respectability is something one must actively choose and maintain. In this scene Wilde suggests that Miss Prism maintains her respectability and reputation not because she is virtuous but because she's unattractive. She doesn't have to resist sexual advances if no one makes them.

The climax of the play comes in two surges. The first occurs when Lady Bracknell interrogates Miss Prism to determine what happened to the missing baby. The second occurs when Jack discovers his identity, first as someone who has a family and then as someone named Ernest. Each of these final peaks incorporates the play's themes in strikingly intertwined fashion. For example, when interrogating Miss Prism about the baby, Lady Bracknell is accusatory, as fits the crime. But she does not particularly welcome Jack when he is revealed as a relative. Her focus is on the crime, not the lost family member. Although she presents herself as the defender of values, Lady Bracknell fails markedly here, thus reversing expectations and taking a swipe at social conventions.

The importance of language is shown through a pun as Jack delivers the play's final line: "On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I've now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest." This obvious echo of the title highlights the Ernest/Earnest pun.

The play ends with all the couples pairing off. Jack and Gwendolen are united relatively sensibly: they were courting throughout the play, and the only obstacles to their marriage (his name and lack of family) have been removed. Algernon and Cecily can unite only through absurdity. Perhaps they are carried along in the momentum of the moment since for them to wed means Cecily has to give up her longstanding objection to Algernon's name. And finally, Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism also fall into each other's arms, even though she has been accused of a crime and neither has openly expressed love before. That small detail may be Wilde's most telling critique of period artistic conventions. As Miss Prism said earlier of her novel, "The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means." This dig at unimaginative fiction in fact makes no sense in the play as no one is particularly good. But the expectations of the form trump all, even rational thought.

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