Jack: “You don’t think there is any chance of Gwendolen becoming like her mother in about a hundred and fifty years, do you, Algy?”

Algernon: “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.”

Jack: “Is that clever?”

Algernon: “It is perfectly phrased! and quite as true as any observation in civilized life should be.”

This exchange between Algernon and Jack in Act 1 occurs after Lady Bracknell has swept indignantly out of the house in response to Jack’s inability to produce any ancestry. In some ways it foreshadows the future, since Gwendolen really does resemble her mother in a number of ways. Like Lady Bracknell, she is somewhat ruthless and overbearing, and she demonstrates similar habits of speech and frames of mind, including a propensity to monomania (witness her obsession with the name “Ernest”) and a tendency to make absurd categorical pronouncements. If Gwendolen’s voice were turned up a few decibels, it might be indistinguishable from that of Lady Bracknell.

Algernon’s reply to Jack’s question is a perfect example of the Wildean epigram: a statement that briefly and elegantly turns some piece of received or conventional wisdom on its head. Another example is Algernon’s assertion that “The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!” Typically, the Wildean epigram consists of two elements: an outrageous statement followed by an explanation that is at once even more outrageous and at the same time true. Or, as in the quotation above, it can consist of an antithesis: “On the one hand A; on the other hand B.” When Algernon tells Jack his witticism is “perfectly phrased” and “quite as true as any observation in civilized life should be,” he is voicing the moral perspective of the Wildean dandy, who believes that nothing is more important than the beauty of form and that elegance rather than accuracy or truth should dictate what people say.