ALGERNON. But I thought you said that . . . Miss Cardew was a little too much interested in your poor brother Ernest? Won’t she feel his loss a good deal? JACK. Oh, that is all right. Cecily is not a silly romantic girl, I am glad to say. She has got a capital appetite, goes on long walks, and pays no attention at all to her lessons. ALGERNON. I would rather like to see Cecily. JACK. I will take very good care you never do. She is excessively pretty, and she is only just eighteen[.]
Cecily Cardew enters the play long before she makes her appearance on stage. Her guardian Jack describes her while confiding his secrets to Algernon Moncrieff. Jack decides that his alter ego as a younger brother Ernest has to end. Jack seems to be dangling Cecily like bait, and the audience suspects how Algernon will respond. As Jack will no longer have use for Ernest, Algernon sees an opportunity to assume Ernest’s identity and embody Cecily’s fantasies.
CECILY [Coming over very slowly]. But I don’t like German. It isn’t at all a becoming language. I know perfectly well that I look plain after my German lesson.
Cecily makes her first appearance onstage in a rose garden, the appropriate romantic setting of sentimental melodramas. Cecily should be studying with Miss Prism, her tutor. She complains vociferously about her German lessons. References to the German language and sensibility as representing respectability recur throughout the play. Cecily’s preoccupation with her appearance over substance satirize this connection while giving insight into her youth and self-absorption.
ALGERNON. My letters! But my own sweet Cecily, I have never written you any letters. CECILY. You need hardly remind me of that, Ernest. I remember only too well that I was forced to write your letters for you. I wrote always three times a week, and sometimes oftener.
Cecily addresses Algernon, who masquerades as Ernest Worthing, Jack Worthing’s fictional younger brother. Algernon knows Cecily feels fascinated by Ernest. Cecily confesses that she’s secretly in love with Ernest—in fact, she’s constructed an entire fictional world around this romance. Her self-deception makes the opportunity easier for Algernon to exploit her fantasy but harder to wiggle out of the lie.
CECILY. You must not laugh at me, darling, but it had always been a girlish dream of mine to love some one whose name was Ernest. [Algernon rises, Cecily also.] There is something in that name that seems to inspire absolute confidence. I pity any poor married woman whose husband is not called Ernest.
Cecily continues to confide her romantic dreams to Algernon, revealing that she, like Gwendolen, feels attracted to the name Ernest. Her speech makes the audience wonder if Cecily and Gwendolen have been reading the same sentimental novel. As with Gwendolen, Cecily’s fixation on the name comically complicates the plot, since no such person as Ernest Worthing actually exists.
CECILY. Algy, would you wait for me till I was thirty-five? ALGERNON. Of course I could, Cecily. You know I could. CECILY. Yes, I felt it instinctively, but I couldn’t wait all that time. I hate waiting even five minutes for anybody. It always makes me rather cross. I am not punctual, myself, I know, but I do like punctuality in others, and waiting, even to be married, is quite out of the question. ALGERNON. Then what is to be done, Cecily? CECILY: I don’t know, Mr. Moncrieff.
Cecily consults Algernon about the new requirement set down by her guardian, Jack: She can’t be married without Jack’s permission until she reaches the age of thirty-five. Algernon’s willingness to wait years confirms Cecily’s suspicion of his ambivalence about marriage. Soon after Cecily admits she doesn’t know what will happen next, Lady Bracknell’s final revelations take over the play and sort out the plot, including the future of Algernon and Cecily.