The Importance of Being Earnest

What do the aristocracy in Earnest value? How does Wilde show that Jack and Cecily have the same kinds of values?


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Jack, the Older Brother

Even before he knows he’s an older brother, Jack acts like an older brother. As a guardian to Cecily, he’s used to setting down rules, even guiding curriculum, as we see in the tutoring scene with Miss Prism. Jack is bossy. In the first scene, he liberally dispenses "shoulds" to Algernon. Jack has no problem giving out one piece of advice after another: one shouldn’t read a private cigarette case, shouldn’t discuss modern culture, shouldn’t talk like a dentist, etc.

Jack isn't any less dishonest than Algernon, but Jack is more serious about keeping up his air of respectability. When he finally comes out with the truth about Cecily, "who addresses me as her uncle from motives of respect that [Algernon] could not possibly appreciate" he takes pains to separate himself from Algernon, who is "hardly serious enough" (I.79-83).

Jack also has a bit of that older sibling control thing, enhanced with a tendency to get in bad moods when things don’t go his way. Wilde describes Jack's reaction as "irritable" three times in the play – when Algernon rushes him, when Lady Bracknell quizzes him on Cecily’s background, and when the same lady can’t remember his father’s first name. Jack is as willing as Algernon to humiliate himself to get what he wants – the entrance with him dressed all in mourning is priceless – but he’s less amused when things turn out badly:


This ghastly state of things is what you call Bunburying, I suppose?


Yes, and a perfectly wonderful Bunbury it is. The most wonderful Bunbury I have ever had in my life. (II.357-358)

Algernon enjoys the social game, while Jack wants results.

Jack on the Social Ladder

The men are also distinct from each other in terms of their taste in women. Jack is attracted to Gwendolen, a "sensible, intellectual girl" (I.295). Gwendolen is a sophisticated city woman, and her style and education make her desirable to Jack. So does her good name – a department in which Jack, socially speaking at least, could stand to improve. Even before Jack discovers his true origins, he has a lot to gain from marriage into the Bracknell family (though he’ll have to deal with Lady Bracknell on a continual basis.)

Cecily the Country Girl

Part of what makes Cecily attractive to Algernon is her seeming simplicity. She’s not intellectual like Gwendolen, who very early on scolds Jack, "Ah! that is clearly a metaphysical speculation, and like most metaphysical speculations has very little reference at all to the actual facts of real life, as we know them" (I.149). We can’t really imagine Cecily talking about metaphysics – or facts, for that matter. Cecily does everything she can to vigorously avoid Miss Prism’s attempts to educate her. She’s innocent – Gwendolen might say ignorant. She waters the plants, writes in her diary, and waits for the day that Ernest will come and propose.

Cecily and Fiction

Cecily may hate German diction, but she loves stories. She gets so excited when Miss Prism reveals that she has written a three-volume novel. And Cecily describes Algernon’s desires to reform himself as "Quixotic," indicating that she’s read the novel by Cervantes in which a man with delusions of grandeur has numerous adventures. Like Algernon, Cecily loves a good bit of fiction – and her favorite writer is herself.

In her diary, she makes long entries recording romantic events that are entirely fictional. We love this one:


Worn out by your entire ignorance of my existence, I determined to end the matter one way or the other, and after a long struggle with myself I accepted you under this dear old tree here. The next day I bought this little ring in your name, and this is the little bangle with the true lover's knot I promised you always to wear.


Did I give you this? It's very pretty, isn't it? (II.215-216)

The comedy is in all the intricate details – the tree, the ring, the bangle with the true lover’s knot – and the fact that Algernon doesn’t quietly send for a straightjacket. In the fantastical comic world of The Importance of Being Earnest, Algy just rolls with it. Interestingly enough, Algernon takes Cecily's eccentric behavior as yet another sign that she is the girl for him.

Not As Sweet As She Looks

Cecily may be younger, less fashionable, and less sophisticated than Gwendolen, but she can give as good as she gets. Check this out:


Are there many interesting walks in the vicinity, Miss Cardew?


Oh! yes! a great many. From the top of one of the hills quite close one can see five counties.


Five counties! I don't think I should like that; I hate crowds.


[Sweetly] I suppose that is why you live in town? [Gwendolen bites her lip, and beats her foot nervously with her parasol.]


[Looking round] Quite a well-kept garden this is, Miss Cardew.


So glad you like it, Miss Fairfax.


I had no idea there were any flowers in the country.


Oh, flowers are as common here, Miss Fairfax, as people are in London. (II.299-306)

Gwen got schooled. The girls are superficially civil here because the butler, Merriman, is setting up the tea. Neither Gwendolen nor Cecily can commence the scratching and hair-pulling in front of him. But Cecily proves that, though she may have been raised in the country, she’s primed to enter London society as Algernon’s wife. She’s quick-witted and determined, and with the guidance of her new sister-in-law, Gwendolen, she’ll be formidable. In time, we can almost see her taking on Lady Bracknell.


The Importance of Being Earnest Theme of Society and Class

The Importance of Being Earnest reveals the differences between the behavior of the upper class and that of the lower class. Members of the upper class display a great deal of pride and pretense, feeling that they are inherently entitled to their wealth and higher social position. They are so preoccupied with maintaining the status quo that they quickly squash any signs of rebellion. In this play, Wilde satirizes the arrogance and hypocrisy of the aristocracy. The lower classes in Earnest are less pretentious and more humble, but equally good at making jokes.