Act I - Part 2:
Lane introduces Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen. Algernon express horror that there are no cucumber sandwiches. He tells Lady Bracknell that he will be unable to attend her dinner tonight, as Bunbury is ill. He promises to be present to arrange music at her reception next Saturday. He goes with her into the music room. Jack confesses his feelings to Gwendolen and she admits that she likes him most especially because she has always wanted to marry someone named Ernest. Jack is happy, but he asks her if she would still love him if his name were not Ernest, for example, if it were Jack. She would not, she maintains. He proposes to her, and she accepts.
Lady Bracknell comes in, and Gwendolen informs her of their engagement. Lady Bracknell says that only she or her father can engage Gwendolen, and orders her to wait in the carriage. After she leaves, Lady Bracknell interrogates Jack, asking about his habits, his income, his background, and so on. He admits that he was an orphan, found in a handbag on a train. She is aghast at this disclosure and says she will not allow her daughter to marry him. She leaves and Algernon enters.
Jack tells Algernon what happened, and also says he will "kill off" his brother Ernest later in the week. Algernon expresses interest in meeting Cecily, but Jack does not want this to happen, as she is young and pretty. He has no doubt, however, that she and Gwendolen will become good friends. They debate what to do tonight and settle on doing nothing. Lane introduces Gwendolen, who has re-entered the house. She tells Algernon to turn his back, and expresses her fear to Jack that her mother will not let them marry. She asks for his address in the country, and Algernon slyly writes this down and checks a train timetable. She promises to write Jack daily when he returns to the countryside, and Jack escorts her out. Lane comes in, and Algernon tells him he will be going Bunburying tomorrow. Jack returns, glowing over Gwendolen, but Algernon expresses some anxiety over Bunbury. Jack warns him that Bunbury will only get him in trouble.
The main conflict of the play, Lady Bracknell's snobbery about Jack's disreputable background, is presented in this act. The conventional parental blockade to love maintains our interest in the plot, but the secondary conflict is far more original and engaging: Gwendolen will only marry someone named Ernest, which she believes Jack's real name to be. Jack's warning to Algernon that Bunbury will get him into trouble some day is a projection of his own anxieties--he has already gotten himself into a mess with his own dual identity.
While the play is a farce, and we are not expected to take the relationships too seriously, it is possible to examine Gwendolen's desire to marry someone named Ernest. She calls it her "ideal," and this word resounds with Wilde's aesthetic philosophy. He believes art should strive to attain an ideal beauty and not mirror a dull reality. In the same sense, Gwendolen's idea of marriageand most people's revolves around an ideal romance that does not exist. The many epigrammatic critiques of marriage in the play demonstrate the cruel reality of marriage. Romance, Wilde shows, is the only kind of art most people can practice; it is the one field in which they can project ideals, as artists do. Marriage, however, frequently falls short of its ideal, whereas art--at least good art--can survive in the rarified atmosphere of the ideal.
Lady Bracknell is a remarkable comic creation, the paragon of the Victorian lady who stresses good breeding above all else. But she is far from a flat stereotype. Wilde gives her some of his wittiest lines to bring out her quirky way of seeing the world, for example one of her most famous pronouncements: "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness." But these lines are always linked to her character; when Jack informs her that he was found in a handbag on the Brighton line, she replies "The line is immaterial." That he was found in a handbag on a train is enough of a black mark on his record, and even the word "immaterial" reminds us that it is Jack's very lack of a material (substantial, or money-related) background that disturbs her so greatly.
When Jack and Algernon debate what do at night, we get a glimpse into their social options: ballet, theater, restaurants. They live the life of Victorian dandies, indulging in art and pleasure. Algernon states that "It is awfully hard work doing nothing. However, I don't mind hard work where there is no definite object of mind." He swiftly diagnoses the "problem" of the leisure class, that maintaining their idleness is "work" itself. This renders leisure similar to art (which, it is clear, does require hard work). Neither should have a point, no "definite object of mind." Prefacing his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray with a series of maxims about art, Wilde ends with "All art is quite useless." He does not suggest that art has no place in society--quite the contrary--but argues that it should not be used as a social tool. In this view, Wilde pitted himself against more traditional writers like Charles Dickens, a man who used his art to galvanize reform for England's oppressed working class. Jack and Algernon, then, are two social aesthetes who recognize that their lives, like art, are "quite useless" and have little effect on reality. If anything, they appreciate their lives as works of art, playgrounds which they can manipulate to their pleasing. Their creation of alter egos makes them virtual playwrights, authors of not only their own destinies, but of fictional lives.