I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.
When Miss Prism sees Lady Bracknell, she begins behaving in a frightened and furtive manner. Lady Bracknell asks her severely about the whereabouts of a certain baby that Miss Prism was supposed to have taken for a walk twenty-eight years ago. Lady Bracknell proceeds to recount the circumstances of the baby’s disappearance: Miss Prism left a certain house in Grosvenor Square with a baby carriage containing a male infant and never returned, the carriage was found some weeks later in Bayswater containing “a three-volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality,” and the baby in question was never found. Miss Prism confesses apologetically that she doesn’t know what happened to the baby. She explains that on the day in question she left the house with both the baby and a handbag containing a novel she had been working on, but that at some point she must have absentmindedly confused the two, placing the manuscript in the carriage and the baby in the handbag.
Now Jack joins the discussion, pressing Miss Prism for further details: where did she leave the handbag? Which railway station? What line? Jack excuses himself and hurries offstage, returning a moment or two later with a handbag. He presents the handbag to Miss Prism and asks her if she can identify it. Miss Prism looks the handbag over carefully before acknowledging that it is the handbag she mislaid. She expresses delight at having it back after so many years. Jack, under the impression that he has discovered his true parentage, throws his arms melodramatically around Miss Prism with a cry of “Mother!” Miss Prism, shocked, reminds Jack that she is unmarried. Jack, misunderstanding her point, launches into a sentimental speech about forgiveness and redemption through suffering and society’s double standard about male and female transgression. With great dignity, Miss Prism gestures toward Lady Bracknell as the proper source of information about Jack’s history and identity. Lady Bracknell explains that Jack is the son of her poor sister, which makes him Algernon’s older brother.
The revelation removes all obstacles to Jack’s union with Gwendolen, but the problem of Jack’s name remains. Gwendolen points out that they don’t know his true name. Though Lady Bracknell is sure that as the elder son he was named after his father, no one can recall what General Moncrieff’s first name was. Fortunately, Jack’s bookshelves contain recent military records, and he pulls down and consults the appropriate volume. Jack’s father’s Christian names turn out to have been “Ernest John.” For all these years, Jack has unwittingly been telling the truth: his name is Ernest, it is also John, and he does indeed have an unprincipled younger brother—Algernon. Somewhat taken aback by this turn of events, Jack turns to Gwendolen and asks if she can forgive him for the fact that he’s been telling the truth his entire life. She tells him she can forgive him, as she feels he is sure to change. They embrace, as do Algernon and Cecily and Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble, and Jack acknowledges that he has discovered “the vital Importance of Being Earnest.”
In Victorian England, Lady Bracknell’s sudden start at the mention of Miss Prism’s name would have been a signal to the audience that a wild coincidence and recognition scene was approaching. Victorian melodrama was full of such coincidences and recognition scenes, in which true identities were revealed and long-lost family members were reunited. Wilde was playing with genre here, making fun of the very form in which he’d been so successful in recent years. In these plays, the revelation of identity was often predicated on a long-kept secret that involved a woman who had committed a transgression in the past. The title character in Lady Windermere’s Fan, for instance, discovers that a woman with a dubious past is her own mother. Wilde draws out the recognition scene in The Importance of Being Earnest, not only having Jack go to absurd lengths to identify the handbag Miss Prism lost, but also having Miss Prism entirely miss the implications of the handbag’s reappearance: if the bag has been found, the baby has been found as well. Miss Prism’s final comment on the whole incident is to express delight at being reunited with the handbag as it’s been “a great inconvenience being without it all these years.”
In the recognition scene, the image of the missing baby carriage containing the manuscript of a not-very-good novel allows Wilde to mock yet another social element of his time. On one level, Wilde is lampooning the kind of popular fiction that was considered respectable and acceptable for women to read—a trenchant observation from a writer whose own novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, had been reviled as “immoral.” Beyond this, however, he’s also crystallizing the theme of life as a work of art. In proposing the substitution of the baby for the manuscript and the manuscript for the baby, he connects, in a light-hearted way, the fiction that is the fruit of Miss Prism’s imagination and the fiction that Jack’s own life has been up to this point.
Jack’s discovery that his life has not been a fiction, that he has indeed been both “Ernest” and “earnest” during the years he thought he was deceiving his friends and family, amounts to a complex moral paradox based on an elaborate pun. For years he has been a liar, but at the same time he spoke the truth: he really was being both “earnest” (sincere) and “Ernest.” In a way, Jack has become his own fiction, and his real life has become the deception. His apology to Gwendolen and his observation that it is “a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth” is both a characteristic Wildean inversion of conventional morality and a last jibe at the hypocrisy of Victorian society.