“Nothing will induce me to part with Bunbury, and if you ever get married, which seems to me extremely problematic, you will be very glad to know Bunbury. A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it.”




Algernon speaks these lines in Act 1, replying to Jack’s announcement that he plans to kill off his imaginary brother and his suggestion that Algernon do the same with Bunbury. Jack has just denied being what Algernon called “a Bunburyist,” that is, someone who leads a double life or otherwise engages in an elaborate deception that allows him to misbehave and seem virtuous at the same time. Jack thinks that once he is married to Gwendolen he will no longer need the ruse of the irresponsible brother because he will be happy, and he won’t want to disappear. Algernon counters with the suggestion that it is the married man who needs Bunbury most of all.

On one level, this exchange merely continues the long-running marriage gag, which treats the whole Victorian notion of “married bliss” with a kind of gallows humor. However, it also initiates the play’s darker subtext. What Algernon suggests is that all husbands in Victorian society lead double lives. In Wilde’s view, Jack’s refusal to acknowledge that he is “a Bunburyist” is what differentiates him from Algernon from a purely moral perspective. Jack’s refusal to admit what he is makes him a hypocrite. Later, when Jack is forced to confess that Ernest was a fiction, and that in reality he has no brother, he makes a speech about the pain involved in being forced to speak the truth. When, at the end, he discovers that he really has been both Ernest and John all along, he tells Gwendolen 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.” Gwendolen forgives him, she says, because she feels he is “sure to change.” She is probably right. Jack hasn’t been telling the truth all along, and he wasn’t telling the truth when he implied that his invented brother was a ruse for getting away to see her. In fact, Jack’s desire to get away from Hertfordshire has been motivated by a desire to do things that conflict with “a very high moral tone.” Algernon and Gwendolen are likely right: before too long, Jack will feel the call of Bunbury again.