ALGERNON. You are one of the most advanced Bunburyists I know. JACK. What on earth do you mean? ALGERNON. You have invented a very useful younger brother called Ernest, in order that you may be able to come up to town as often as you like. I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose. Bunbury is perfectly invaluable.
Algernon explains to Jack why they both qualify as Bunburyists—people who have assumed false identities. Although Jack resents this accusation, Algernon does not intend his words as an insult. In fact, Algernon feels amused to discover the subterfuge of his outwardly earnest friend. The false identities assumed by Algernon and Jack drive the plot of the play. Both men use their alternative personas to deceive others, to gratify their own desires, and to make themselves look moral, which turns them from mere pretenders into hypocrites.
CHASUBLE. Dear Mr. Worthing, I trust this garb of woe does not betoken some terrible calamity? JACK. My brother. MISS PRISM. More shameful debts and extravagance? CHASUBLE. Still leading his life of pleasure? JACK [Shaking his head]. Dead! CHASUBLE. Your brother Ernest dead? JACK. Quite dead. MISS PRISM. What a lesson for him! I trust he will profit by it. CHASUBLE. Mr. Worthing, I offer you my sincere condolence. You have at least the consolation of knowing that you were always the most generous and forgiving of brothers.
Jack Worthing tells Doctor Chasuble and Miss Prism about the death of his brother Ernest, and they express conventional condolences, including comments on the evil ways of the deceased. Their hypocritical piety appears even more ridiculous by the audience’s awareness that Ernest does not actually exist. Jack himself falls into hypocrisy not only because he invents a brother but also because he uses his fictional brother to make himself look generous and forgiving. Later developments in the play will undermine Miss Prism’s self-righteousness.
JACK. Nothing will induce me to take his hand. I think his coming down here disgraceful. He knows perfectly well why. CECILY. Uncle Jack, do be nice. There is some good in every one. Ernest has just been telling me about his poor invalid friend Mr. Bunbury whom he goes to visit so often. And surely there must be much good in one who is kind to an invalid, and leaves the pleasures of London to sit by a bed of pain.
Jack Worthing confronts his friend Algernon, who masquerades as Ernest Worthing, a fictional younger brother Jack invented as an alter ego and recently killed off. Algernon pretends to be Ernest in order to approach Cecily, Jack’s ward, a woman fascinated by her guardian’s romantically evil brother. Algernon piles hypocrisy upon pretense by assigning to the fictional Ernest the same fictional invalid friend that he himself uses. Cecily is taken in by a con artist inventing fictional virtues.