The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest Summary and Analysis of Act II, Scene 1

Act II - Part 1:

In the garden at Jack's country house, Miss Prism and Cecily discuss Jack's serious nature; Miss Prism believes it is due to his anxiety over his brother. Dr. Chasuble enters the garden. He and Miss Prism leave for a walk together. Merriman, their butler, announces the arrival of Ernest Worthing. Cecily, excited to meet Jack's brother, tells Merriman to bring him to her. Algernon enters, pretending to be Ernest. He and Cecily briefly discuss his "wicked" reputation. When he learns that Jack will be back Monday afternoon, Algernon announces that he must leave Monday morning. Cecily also discloses that Jack has decided to send Ernest to Australia. He flirts with Cecily and they exit into the house.

Miss Prism and Chasuble return. She urges him to get married, especially to a mature lady. Jack enters the garden, dressed in black. He tells Miss Prism he has returned earlier than expected, and explains that he is dressed in black for his brother, who died in Paris last night. Chasuble suggests he will discuss it in his sermon next Sunday, and Jack asks him if he would christen him this afternoon. He agrees, and Cecily emerges from the house. She tells him his brother is in the dining room; Jack says he doesn't have a brother. She tells him not to disown his own brother, and runs into the house and brings out Algernon.

Jack refuses to shake Algernon's hand, but Cecily says that "Ernest" has been telling him about his friend Bunbury, and that someone who takes care of an invalid must have some good in him. Under pressure from Cecily, Jack shakes his hand. Everyone but Jack and Algernon leaves. Merriman enters and says he has put up Ernest in the room next to Jack's. Jack orders the dogcart, as Ernest has been called back to town. Merriman leaves. Jack tells Algernon he must leave, while Algernon expresses an interest in Cecily.


Cecily explicitly states the major theme of the play to Algernon: "I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy." Of course, Wilde's main interest is in those who pretend to be good but are really wicked all the time. His claim is that everyone in Victorian society wears some kind of social mask; while his happens to revolve around his sexual orientation, others are constantly engaged in varying games of deception that are no less hypocritical. Even those who are seemingly pure--Gwendolen and Cecily--are attracted by the purportedly "wicked," disreputable backgrounds of Jack and Algernon, and care less about who they really are.

The plot thickens in this scene: Jack needs to get the fake "Ernest" out of the house before he is christened in the early evening. The fact that names play such a big role in the plot is another manifestation of the theme of social masking. A name is only a label; the infant does not choose his own name, and in this respect is at the mercy of his family. Likewise, the unsuspecting infant also inherits his family's money and is destined from birth to be a prince or a pauper. In the same way, people are forced into labeled expectations of society; Cecily, for instance, must learn to behave like a lady, much as Lady Bracknell insists others accord to the conventions of Victorian society. It is precisely these societal restraints that Algernon rebels against; he cannot stand letting others label him, so he creates his own mischievous persona in Bunbury.

As before, we see the characters treat solemn matters with carefree abandon. "Ernest's" (Algernon's) death and amazing resurrection is hardly given a second thought, but the characters obsess over small problems instead. Wilde himself described the play as holding the philosophy that "we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality." The play's original subtitle was "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People," and Wilde also directed his actors before the play's first production to deliver their lines with full-blown sincerity. This seriocomic tone of sincerity not only keeps the laughs coming as the characters trivialize or solemnize the solemn and trivial, respectively, but further develops one of Wilde's major themes: despite the fact that everyone whole-heartedly believes that he or she leads an earnest life, they may just be earnestly flouting convention, like Algernon.

This scene also begins to hint that Miss Prism wants to marry Chasuble. They are a more rational counterpoint to the rash romances of the younger couples. While Miss Prism also mocks many of marriage's effects, she also seems to care genuinely about Chasuble, they share an interest in scholarly pursuits, and she is not interested in him solely because of a supposedly "wicked" background. Miss Prism suggests a solution to the problems of so many marriages: one should marry only when one has gained some maturity.