The Importance of Being Earnest

by: Oscar Wilde

John Worthing, J.P.

ALGERNON. How are you, my dear Ernest? What brings you up to town? JACK. Oh, pleasure, pleasure! What else should bring one anywhere? Eating as usual, I see, Algy!

The play’s list of characters gives Jack’s formal name of John Worthing with his respectable title, Justice of the Peace, and the script refers to him as Jack. However, he makes his stage entrance as Ernest, being ushered into the apartment of Algernon Moncrieff. Jack acts somewhat like Algernon, as if he’s part of Algernon’s circle, but he makes a rude comment about Algernon’s eating and acts somewhat too familiar with Algernon’s nickname.

JACK. Your consent! ALGERNON. My dear fellow, Gwendolen is my first cousin. And before I allow you to marry her, you will have to clear up the whole question of Cecily. [Rings bell.] JACK. Cecily! What on earth do you mean? What do you mean, Algy, by Cecily! I don’t know any one of the name of Cecily.

After Jack announces his intention to marry Gwendolen, Algernon refuses to consent to the marriage. Here, Algernon brings up the name of Cecily, and Jack vehemently denies knowing any such person, raising suspicion. Jack will eventually come up with an innocent explanation for Cecily, but the audience won’t necessarily believe him.

JACK. It isn’t Ernest; it’s Jack. ALGERNON. You have always told me it was Ernest. I have introduced you to every one as Ernest. You answer to the name of Ernest. You look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life. It is perfectly absurd your saying that your name isn’t Ernest. It’s on your cards.

Jack confides his real name to Algernon, only to have Algernon refuse to believe him. Algernon’s description reveals the difference between how other people see Jack and how he sees himself. The repetition of the name Ernest reminds the audience that Jack has entered society, even tried to enter Algernon’s family, under false pretenses.

JACK. When one is placed in the position of guardian, one has to adopt a very high moral tone on all subjects. It’s one’s duty to do so. And as a high moral tone can hardly be said to conduce very much to either one’s health or one’s happiness, in order to get up to town I have always pretended to have a younger brother of the name of Ernest, who lives in the Albany, and gets into the most dreadful scrapes. That, my dear Algy, is the whole truth pure and simple.

Here, Jack explains to Algernon why he calls himself by two different names. Jack’s reasoning reveals the depths of his deception and hypocrisy: He invented a younger brother as a cover for his own departures from virtue, using filial loyalty to justify his falsehood. The play leaves to the audience’s imagination exactly what Jack gets into as Ernest, but the plot gives hints such as Ernest picking up expensive restaurant tabs for Algernon.

JACK. Not a Bunburyist at all. If Gwendolen accepts me, I am going to kill my brother, indeed I think I’ll kill him in any case. Cecily is a little too much interested in him. It is rather a bore. So I am going to get rid of Ernest. And I strongly advise you to do the same with Mr. . . . with your invalid friend who has the absurd name.

Jack disputes Algernon’s claim that he lives as a hypocrite with a false identity, by confiding his plans to kill off his fictional younger brother. Without realizing what he’s done, Jack gives Algernon vital information: Cecily, Jack’s beautiful young ward, feels interested in Ernest. Jack’s speech also makes Algernon realize he has very little time to act on the information.

JACK. The late Mr. Thomas Cardew, an old gentleman of a very charitable and kindly disposition, found me, and gave me the name of Worthing, because he happened to have a first-class ticket for Worthing in his pocket at the time. Worthing is a place in Sussex. It is a seaside resort.

Jack explains to Lady Bracknell the circumstances surrounding his birth. Although the details seem ridiculously melodramatic, he delivers the speech seriously, even adding useless information about the city of Worthing. He pedantically explains his last name while using a false first name. Although Jack’s benefactor made Jack wealthy, Jack’s dubious origins make him completely unsuitable for marriage to the aristocratic Gwendolen.

ALGERNON. By the way, did you tell Gwendolen the truth about your being Ernest in town, and Jack in the country? JACK [In a very patronising manner]. My dear fellow, the truth isn’t quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girl. What extraordinary ideas you have about the way to behave to a woman!

Algernon confronts Jack about deceiving Gwendolen, Algernon’s cousin. Jack’s dismissive attitude reveals him as a person with no sense of honor, completely unaware of how aristocrats like Algernon and Gwendolen despise his contemptible pretenses. Having confessed his double identity to Algernon, Jack now feels free to continue his deception. He is truly a cad.

JACK [Slowly and hesitatingly]. Gwendolen—Cecily—it is very painful for me to be forced to speak the truth. It is the first time in my life that I have ever been reduced to such a painful position, and I am really quite inexperienced in doing anything of the kind. However, I will tell you quite frankly that I have no brother Ernest. I have no brother at all. I never had a brother in my life, and I certainly have not the smallest intention of ever having one in the future.

Jack admits at last that Ernest never existed. His admission proves that Algernon has also been lying, since he has been pretending to be a fictional person. The double revelation leaves Cecily and Gwendolen in the position of being engaged to the same fictional person. Jack’s admission also foreshadows the final resolution of the plot.

JACK. It pains me very much to have to speak frankly to you, Lady Bracknell, about your nephew, but the fact is that I do not approve at all of his moral character. I suspect him of being untruthful. [Algernon and Cecily look at him in indignant amazement.]

Jack refuses to allow Algernon to marry his ward, Cecily, on the grounds of Algernon’s poor moral character. Algernon and Cecily react with indignation because Jack already admitted to being fraudulent himself. Jack punishes Algernon for exposing the fake Ernest, still not acknowledging his own fault in inventing Ernest in the first place.

JACK. Algy’s elder brother! Then I have a brother after all. I knew I had a brother! I always said I had a brother! Cecily,—how could you have ever doubted that I had a brother? [Seizes hold of Algernon.] Dr. Chasuble, my unfortunate brother. Miss Prism, my unfortunate brother. Gwendolen, my unfortunate brother. Algy, you young scoundrel, you will have to treat me with more respect in the future. You have never behaved to me like a brother in all your life.

Jack responds exuberantly to Lady Bracknell’s revelation that he and Algernon are long-lost brothers. Due to an absurdly improbable series of plot twists, Jack regains his place among the aristocracy. He celebrates by rubbing Algernon’s nose in this new reality, introducing “Algy” to all the others as his unfortunate brother. The audience understands that Algernon, Gwendolen, and Lady Bracknell do not necessarily feel fortunate in finding this long-lost relation.