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The Importance of Being Earnest Summary and Analysis

by Oscar Wilde

Act II, Scene 2

Act II - Part 2:

Cecily enters the garden to water the flowers, and Algernon tells her that Jack has ordered him to leave. Merriman tells him the dogcart is ready, but Cecily says it can wait. Algernon compliments Cecily to her great delight, then tells Merriman on his reappearance that the dogcart can come back next week. He asks Cecily to marry him, and she points out that they have been engaged for three months. Cecily claims that ever since she heard of Jack's wicked brother Ernest, she has loved him. She shows him the box of letters he "wrote" to her (which she really wrote to herself). She admits that she loves him because his name is Ernest; upon promptin she says that she doubts she would be able to love him were his name Algernon. He says he needs to see Chasuble quickly about "christening...I mean on most important business," then leaves.

Merriman announces that Gwendolen has asked to see Mr. Worthing (Jack). Cecily informs him that he has gone off to see Chasuble some time ago, but invites her in. Gwendolen immediately takes to Cecily, but is put off when she learns that Cecily is Mr. Worthing's ward. She wishes Cecily were not so young and alluring, as "Ernest," despite his moral nature, is still susceptible to temptation. Cecily tells her that she is not Ernest's ward, but his brother Jack's. Rather, she is going to marry Ernest. They compare diary entries. Gwendolen feels she has the prior claim, because Ernest asked to marry her yesterday. The girls argue and insult each other.

Merriman enters with another servant to set out tea. Cecily and Gwendolen assume coldly polite manners, while continuing to insult each other by passing the wrong tea-things. Merriman and the servant leave, and the women launch full-blown verbal attacks. Jack enters the garden, and he and Gwendolen kiss. She asks if he is engaged to Cecily; he laughs and denies it. Cecily says she knew there was a misunderstanding, as the man before them is her Uncle Jack. As Gwendolen goes into shock, Algernon enters, and Cecily calls him Ernest and they kiss. She asks if he is married to Gwendolen; he denies it. Gwendolen says that his name is Algernon. Cecily is shocked, and she and Gwendolen hold each other for protection and make up. They ask Jack to explain. He confesses he has no brother Ernest, nor any brother at all. The women retire to the house.

Jack is angry at Algernon for what his Bunburying has gotten them into, and for deceiving Cecily. Algernon thinks that Jack has deceived Gwendolen. They both simply want to marry the women that they love, although the possibility of that is beginning to seem unlikely. They bicker greedily over the muffins that have been laid out, and it is revealed that they have both arranged for Chasuble to christen them "Ernest" later that evening. Jack repeatedly tells Algernon to go, but he refuses.

Analysis:

This scene provides the strongest demonstration of Wilde's view of marriage as a sham and a device used purely for social advancement. Cecily's acceptance of Algernon's proposal is anything but an act of true love; she had accepted before she even met him, solely on the basis of his wicked reputation. Ironically, she has "arranged" her own marriage. But with 21st-century hindsight, we can sympathize with her decision. While the men in the play are free to wander about, inventing fictional personae to unburden their responsibilities, the women are far more restricted. Cecily, like Jack and Algernon, has created a character--that of Jack's brother Ernest--and she has taken the motif of the character-as-author a step further by literally writing correspondence between herself and "Ernest."

As one might expect, Cecily holds the same feelings for the name Ernest as Gwendolen: both believe it inspires "absolute confidence." The name, sounding like "earnest," seems to show only uprightness and honesty. Of course, this is the great irony of the play; as Jack and Algernon have both falsified the name. The significance of names is made more ridiculous when Gwendolen says she likes Cecily's name and can tell immediately they will be great friends; we can already sense the conflict that will arise over the confusion of their respective Ernests. Gwendolen later says she knew from the start that she disliked Cecily; the belief in names as a signifier of a person's worth is ill-founded.

Wilde relies less on epigrams in this scene but utilizes more classic comic devices. Repetition of dialogue and action is the main tool. Certain phrases, such as Cecily's idea of Earnest as a name that inspires "absolute confidence," echo prior phrases (Gwendolen's same words), and Algernon's slip when he says he must be christened repeats Jack's earlier words. When Algernon asks Cecily if she would still love him were his name not Ernest, it mirrors Jack's previous question to Gwendolen. The dialogue when all four characters are present and revelations are made relies most heavily on repetition, as the two couples mimic each other almost perfectly, and even speak in unison. Wilde also uses visual contrasts to produce humor; Cecily and Gwendolen sit and rise several times as they speak to show their various agitated states, and Algernon and Jack wrestle over the muffins. While most of The Importance of Being Earnest, with its biting social critiques, comes straight from the tradition of the comedy of manners, these hyperkinetic, blunt devices of repetition and contrast are more in line with the genre of French farce.

Still, it is foremost a comedy of manners, and the characters' postured manners are where Wilde creates most of his humor. As Wilde points out in his stage directions, the "presence of servants exercises a restraining influence, under which both girls chafe." Reminded of their social standing, the arguing girls put on all the cold airs of noblesse oblige Wilde has ridiculed throughout (though previously Cecily indignantly states: "This is no time for the shallow mask of manners!") Even Jack and Algernon's fight over the muffins reminds us of how absurd the idle rich can be. Rather than focus on the "Ernest" problem at hand, both men, especially Algernon, are slavishly reduced to their insatiable hedonism (as Algernon was with the cucumber sandwiches). Once again, they trivialize the solemn and solemnize the trivial.

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