The Importance of Being Earnest
Act III, Part One
Cecily and Gwendolen have retreated to the drawing room of the Manor House to get away from Algernon and Jack. They are eager to forgive the men and be reconciled. When Algernon and Jack enter from the garden, Cecily and Gwendolen confront them about their motives. Cecily asks Algernon why he pretended to be Jack’s brother, and Algernon says it was in order to meet her. Gwendolen asks Jack if he pretended to have a brother so as to be able to come to London to see her as often as possible, and he asks if she can doubt it. Gwendolen says she has the gravest doubts but intends to crush them.
Cecily and Gwendolen are on the verge of forgiving Algernon and Jack when they remember that neither of them is any longer engaged to a man called Ernest. Algernon and Jack explain that each has made arrangements to be rechristened Ernest before the day is out, and the young women, bowled over by men’s “physical courage” and capacity for “self-sacrifice,” are won over.
As the couples embrace, Lady Bracknell enters, having bribed Gwendolen’s maid for information about her destination. On seeing Algernon, she asks whether this house is the house where his friend Bunbury resides. Algernon, forgetting momentarily that he is supposed to be at his friend’s bedside, says no, but quickly tries to cover himself and blurts that Bunbury is dead. He and Lady Bracknell briefly discuss Bunbury’s sudden demise. Jack then introduces Cecily to Lady Bracknell, and Algernon announces their engagement. Lady Bracknell asks about Cecily’s background, asking first, rather acidly, whether she is “connected with any of the larger railway stations in London.” Jack obligingly volunteers information about Cecily, answering Lady Bracknell’s presumptuous questions with a withering irony that goes over Lady Bracknell’s head. Her interest is greatly piqued when she learns that Cecily is actually worth a great deal of money and stands to inherit even more when she comes of age.
Jack refuses to give his consent to Cecily’s marriage to Algernon until Lady Bracknell grants her consent to his union with Gwendolen, but Lady Bracknell refuses. She summons Gwendolen to her side and prepares to depart. Before they can leave, however, Dr. Chasuble arrives to announce that everything is ready for the christenings. Jack explains that he and Algernon no longer need the christenings immediately and suggests that the ceremonies be postponed. The rector prepares to withdraw, explaining that Miss Prism is waiting for him back at the rectory. At the sound of Miss Prism’s name, Lady Bracknell starts. She asks a number of incisive questions about Miss Prism then demands that she be sent for. Miss Prism herself arrives at that moment.
Gwendolen’s and Cecily’s conversation at the beginning of Act III reveals exactly how eager they are to forgive Jack and Algernon, even to the point of bestowing on the men shame and repentance the men don’t actually feel. Gwendolen and Cecily observe Jack and Algernon through the window of the morning room that looks out on the garden, where the two men are squabbling over the refreshments that have been laid out for tea. Gwendolen’s opening line, “The fact that they did not follow us at once into the house . . . seems to me to show that they have some sense of shame left,” indicates how eager she is for a reconciliation and anxious to find any reason at all to effect one. Her eagerness also reveals how willing she is to deceive herself about Jack. The fact that the men don’t follow the women into the house is morally neutral, but Gwendolen projects onto it a moral interpretation: the men did not follow them, therefore they must be ashamed of themselves. We know, however, that they are not the least bit ashamed. The men think merely that they are in trouble, a circumstance Algernon, but not Jack, seems to relish. Cecily underscores the irony of Gwendolen’s inane logic when she echoes Gwendolen’s sentiments, remarking, “They have been eating muffins. That looks like repentance.” Both women want to believe the men are truly sorry for what they’ve done.
The two couples have symmetrical conflicts and seem to have nearly symmetrical reconciliations, but an essential difference sets the two reconciliations apart: Algernon tells the truth about his deception, but Jack does not. When Cecily asks Algernon why he deceived her, he tells her he did it in order to have the opportunity of meeting her, and this is the truth. Algernon really didn’t have any other reason for pretending to be Ernest. Jack, however, is another story. Gwendolen doesn’t ask Jack directly why he deceived her, and instead frames the answer she wants from him in the form of a question. She asks if he pretended to have a brother in order to come to town to see her. Jack asks if she can doubt it, and Gwendolen declares she will “crush” the doubts she has. Gwendolen is right to have those doubts. Jack’s reasons for inventing Ernest and then impersonating him were many, but getting away to see Gwendolen wasn’t one of them. Jack could easily have courted Gwendolen as himself, and being Ernest to her was merely the result of having met her through Algernon. Despite the apparent uniformity of the two romances, only the relationship between Cecily and Algernon is now on truthful ground.
Just before Lady Bracknell begins her inquiry into Cecily’s background, she makes a complicated pun that underscores the elaborate underpinnings of the joke of Victoria Station being Jack’s ancestral home. In Act I she exclaimed indignantly on the idea of allowing the well-bred Gwendolen “to marry into a cloakroom, and form an alliance with a parcel.” Now she asks whether Cecily is “at all connected with any of the larger railway stations in London.” The word connection was commonly used to refer to a person’s social milieu (his or her friends and associates) as well as to family background. Lady Bracknell is making a joke on the fact that a railway station is as far back as Jack can trace his identity. The word connection also refers to transport: a connection was where a person could transfer from one railway line to another. The joke is even more involved than that. When Lady Bracknell says, “I had no idea that there were any families or persons whose origin was a Terminus,” she is punning on the fact that in England, in Wilde’s day as well as now, a “terminus” is the last stop on a railway line, and the first stop is its “origin.” In calling Victoria Station Jack’s family’s “origin,” Lady Bracknell is getting off a very good line indeed, one that manages to be, like the joke in the title of the play, both pun and paradox.
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