JACK. You’re quite perfect, Miss Fairfax. GWENDOLEN. Oh! I hope I am not that. It would leave no room for developments, and I intend to develop in many directions. [Gwendolen and Jack sit down together in the corner.]
Gwendolen Fairfax makes her entrance by following her mother, Lady Bracknell, into her cousin Algernon’s apartment. She immediately starts flirting with Ernest Worthing, Algernon’s friend, who wants to marry her. Gwendolen serves notice of her ambitious approach to life as a social climber. Her self-interest will lead her to misread characters throughout the course of the play.
GWENDOLEN. Jack? . . . No, there is very little music in the name Jack, if any at all, indeed. It does not thrill. It produces absolutely no vibrations . . . I have known several Jacks, and they all, without exception, were more than usually plain. Besides, Jack is a notorious domesticity for John! And I pity any woman who is married to a man called John. She would probably never be allowed to know the entrancing pleasure of a single moment’s solitude. The only really safe name is Ernest.
Gwendolen assures Ernest Worthing that she loves his safe, solid name. Unaware that she addresses John Worthington also known as Jack, she disparages the names based on her stereotypes. Her characterizations of Johns and Jacks as homebodies creates a humorous contrast with the fictional Ernest who sees himself as a reprobate man about town. Her attitude creates a comic quandary for Jack while satirizing romantic ideals.
JACK. My own one, I have never loved any one in the world but you. GWENDOLEN. Yes, but men often propose for practice. I know my brother Gerald does. All my girl-friends tell me so. What wonderfully blue eyes you have, Ernest! They are quite, quite, blue. I hope you will always look at me just like that, especially when there are other people present.
Gwendolen shows herself to be a practiced flirt as she responds to Jack’s declaration of love. She admits to encouraging the public spectacle of Jack’s adoration, using a witticism to turn her self-centeredness into a source of charm. Her type of artifice appears similar to that of her cousin Algernon. Jack’s subterfuge, however, seems less innocent: He pretends to be Ernest, a fictional person, and even proposes marriage under this persona.
GWENDOLEN. Oh! It is strange he never mentioned to me that he had a ward. How secretive of him! He grows more interesting hourly. I am not sure, however, that the news inspires me with feelings of unmixed delight. [Rising and going to her.] I am very fond of you, Cecily; I have liked you ever since I met you! But I am bound to state that now that I know that you are Mr. Worthing’s ward, I cannot help expressing a wish you were—well, just a little older than you seem to be—and not quite so very alluring in appearance.
Gwendolen responds to Cecily’s statement that she lives as Mr. Worthing’s ward. Like Algernon—and the audience—Gwendolen feels suspicious about Jack’s intentions in regard to his ward. She confronts Cecily as a competitor, by expressing her wish that Cecily should be older and less attractive.
CECILY [Very politely, rising]. I am afraid you must be under some misconception. Ernest proposed to me exactly ten minutes ago. [Shows diary.] GWENDOLEN [Examines diary through her lorgnettte carefully]. It is certainly very curious, for he asked me to be his wife yesterday afternoon at 5.30. If you would care to verify the incident, pray do so. [Produces diary of her own.] I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train. I am so sorry, dear Cecily, if it is any disappointment to you, but I am afraid I have the prior claim.
Gwendolen and Cecily quarrel over which one of them has the legitimate engagement to Ernest Worthing, using their diaries like legal documentation to back up their claims. The dialogue portrays the rivalry between two practiced competitors in the game of courtship. Gwendolen’s speech reveals that she, like Cecily, constructs her own reality in her diary and makes her life appear sensational.
GWENDOLEN. . . . Mr. Worthing, what explanation can you offer to me for pretending to have a brother? Was it in order that you might have an opportunity of coming up to town to see me as often as possible? JACK. Can you doubt it, Miss Fairfax? GWENDOLEN. I have the gravest doubts upon the subject. But I intend to crush them. This is not the moment for German skepticism.
Gwendolen puts the words she wants to hear into Jack’s mouth because she eagerly wants to move on to the marriage. Her response to Jack’s rhetorical question reveals that she doesn’t really believe Jack. But she feels fine pretending to believe him, especially now that she has seen his country estate and her cousin Algernon has secured the fortune of Jack’s ward. Gwendolen operates as a realist about romance.