The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde

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Plot Summary

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the plot summary of Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest.

The Importance of Being Earnest | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Act 1

The Importance of Being Earnest, set in England in the 1890s, focuses on the romantic relationships of two young couples. Act 1 opens in Algernon Moncrieff's flat. Algernon is playing the piano while his servant, Lane, prepares to host Algernon's Aunt Augusta for tea.

Algernon's friend Jack Worthing, in his identity as "Ernest," enters. "Ernest" is pleased to learn that Algernon's aunt and her daughter Gwendolen are coming for tea. Algernon says "Ernest" must leave because he flirts with Gwendolen. "Ernest" says he plans to propose to Gwendolen, but Algernon refuses to give his consent until "Ernest" resolves the issue of Cecily. He produces a cigarette case that "Ernest" had left there and quizzes him about the inscription. "Ernest" explains that Cecily is his ward and admits he maintains two identities: Ernest when he's in town and Jack when he's in the country. Worthing's dual identity parallels Algernon's habit of using his imaginary invalid friend Bunbury as an excuse to avoid social obligations.

Lady Bracknell (Algernon's Aunt Augusta) and her daughter Gwendolen arrive. After serving them tea, Algernon accompanies his aunt to another room to plan a party. Once "Ernest" and Gwendolen are alone, "Ernest" proposes. Gwendolen accepts. When Lady Bracknell returns, Gwendolen informs her of the engagement. Lady Bracknell sends her daughter to wait in the carriage and quizzes "Ernest" to determine his suitability as a husband. His lack of family connections is a problem: he is a foundling, placed in a handbag that was left in a railway station. Lady Bracknell rejects "Ernest" and leaves.

As "Ernest" and Algernon talk, Gwendolen returns. She tells "Ernest" his uncertain origin makes her love him more. When "Ernest" shares his address in the country so they can write letters, Algernon takes note of it.

Act 2

Jack's ward, Cecily, is studying reluctantly with her governess, Miss Prism, at Jack's country home. When Dr. Chasuble, the minister, joins them, Cecily persuades Miss Prism—who is attracted to the minister—to take a walk with him. Their departure leaves Cecily alone when Algernon arrives, pretending to be Jack's brother Ernest. "Ernest" makes romantic overtures, and the two become attracted to each other. They disappear into the house. Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble return. Jack Worthing arrives. He says his brother Ernest has died and asks Dr. Chasuble to christen him.

Cecily comes out of the house and informs Jack that his brother is there. When Jack says he doesn't have a brother, Cecily returns with "Ernest." The others leave Jack and "Ernest" alone to reconcile. Jack wants "Ernest" to leave. They agree "Ernest" will leave if Jack changes out of his mourning clothes. Jack goes to change his clothes. Cecily returns, and "Ernest" proposes. Cecily accepts and informs him they've already been engaged for months. She decided this without having met him. She also informs him she's always had a dream of marrying someone named Ernest. "Ernest" excuses himself to find Dr. Chasuble to ask to be christened as Ernest.

Gwendolen enters. The two women seem to be becoming friends, until they discover they are both engaged to marry Ernest Worthing. They argue over who has the better claim until Jack enters. Gwendolen asks if he is engaged to Cecily; he denies it. Cecily identifies Jack as Jack rather than Ernest. Algernon reenters. Cecily asks Algernon if he is engaged to Gwendolen. He denies it. Gwendolen identifies Algernon as Algernon rather than Ernest. The women are offended to learn they've been lied to and neither is engaged to a man named Ernest. They stalk off into the house angrily. When the two men are left alone, Jack expresses his love for Gwendolen and states his desire to marry her. Algernon denies him. Algernon expresses his love for Cecily and states his desire to marry her. Jack denies him. Both declare their intentions to be christened as Ernest so they can marry their respected beloveds.

Act 3

The lovers come together in the drawing room. The women quiz the men regarding their lies. The men argue that the purpose of the lies was to be close to the women. The women accept their stories but insist their names are nonnegotiable barriers. Lady Bracknell reenters. Jack announces he is engaged to Gwendolen. Lady Bracknell rejects this statement. Algernon informs her he is engaged to Cecily. Since Cecily is Jack's ward, Lady Bracknell quizzes Jack to see if she is a good match for Algernon. When she learns Cecily is wealthy, she approves of the marriage. Jack, however, withholds his consent.

Dr. Chasuble enters, looking for Jack and Algernon. Jack informs him there won't be any christenings. Dr. Chasuble is disappointed and says Miss Prism has been waiting at the church. Lady Bracknell recognizes the name and asks to see her. When Miss Prism enters, Lady Bracknell interrogates her about an event that happened 28 years ago. Miss Prism accidentally left a baby, for whom she was responsible, in a handbag in a railway station.

Jack asks which station. When Prism tells him it was Victoria Station, the Brighton line, Jack disappears upstairs. He returns with a handbag. Miss Prism identifies it as hers. Lady Bracknell explains that the baby Miss Prism was caring for belonged to her sister, and Jack is revealed as Algernon's older brother. Because he was named for his father, Jack learns his real name has been Ernest all along.

The Importance of Being Earnest Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Jack reveals he has two identities.

Rising Action

2 Jack proposes to Gwendolen.

3 Lady Bracknell rejects Jack's proposal.

4 Algernon pretends to be Ernest to court Cecily.

5 Cecily and Gwendolen discover both are engaged to Ernest.

6 The couples reconcile; the men plan to be rechristened.


7 Lady Bracknell quizzes Miss Prism about a missing baby.

Falling Action

8 Miss Prism identifies Jack as the baby she abandoned.


9 Jack learns his real identity and can marry Gwendolen.

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