JACK. My dear fellow, there is nothing improbable about my explanation at all. In fact it’s perfectly ordinary. Old Mr. Thomas Cardew, who adopted me when I was a little boy, made me in his will guardian to his grand-daughter, Miss Cecily Cardew.
Jack, masquerading as Ernest, speaks to Algernon Moncrieff, who has asked him to explain the engraved dedication from Cecily in his cigarette case. Algernon has debunked Jack’s various evasions including not knowing anyone named Cecily and having an aunt named Cecily. Here, Jack finally tells Algernon the truth: Cecily is his ward. Jack delivers his explanation, full of improbable twists and turns, as an ordinary scenario. Much of the play’s comedy comes from stretching coincidences to the point of farce. The play also satirizes the Victorian audience’s expectations of melodramatic plot lines and their usual endings.
MISS PRISM. Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily. I wrote one myself in earlier days. CECILY. Did you really, Miss Prism? How wonderfully clever you are! I hope it did not end happily? I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much. MISS PRISM. The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.
Cecily and her governess, Miss Prism, discuss the romance novels of the time, wildly popular with women readers. The dialogue reveals that both women have melodramatic imaginations. Miss Prism’s confession lays out the first clue to her role in the play’s absurdly melodramatic plot. Miss Prism defines fiction as happy endings for good characters and justice for the bad. By Miss Prism’s standards, the ending of the play will not be fiction, since good and bad people are not rewarded according to their just deserts.
ALGERNON. Darling! And when was the engagement actually settled? CECILY. On the 14th of February last. Worn out by your entire ignorance of my existence, I determined to end the matter one way or the other, and after a long struggle with myself I accepted you under this dear old tree here. The next day I bought this little ring in your name, and this is the little bangle with the true lover’s knot I promised you always to wear.
Cecily explains to Algernon the details of her engagement to Ernest, which has taken place entirely in her imagination. She thinks Algernon is Ernest, the fictional wayward brother of Jack, Cecily’s guardian. Cecily, unaware that Jack invented Ernest to hide his own reprobate behavior, has fallen in love with Ernest. Algernon, who has learned from Jack of Cecily’s interest in Ernest, masquerades as Ernest so that Cecily will fall in love with him. The plot builds so melodramatically as to ridicule the genre.
MISS PRISM. On the morning of the day you mention, a day that is for ever branded on my memory, I prepared as usual to take the baby out in its perambulator. I had also with me a somewhat old, but capacious hand-bag in which I had intended to place the manuscript of a work of fiction that I had written during my few unoccupied hours. In a moment of mental abstraction, for which I never can forgive myself, I deposited the manuscript in the basinette, and placed the baby in the hand-bag.
Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess, explains how she came to lose an infant under her care. Wilde uses the melodramatic plot device of mistaken identity but with an ironic twist. Miss Prism substitutes her manuscript for a human baby, which shows she thinks of herself as having given birth to a work of literature. The audience already knows that Jack had been found in a hand-bag, so Miss Prism’s statement serves as a strong clue that Jack’s true parentage will soon be revealed.
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