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The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde
Summary

Act II, Part One

Summary Act II, Part One

The moral status of Jack’s fictional brother Ernest has undergone a change between Acts I and II. At Algernon’s flat in Half Moon Street, Algernon called Ernest merely “profligate.” Jack explained that Ernest got into “scrapes,” or mischief. In the garden of the Manor House, where Miss Prism’s moral viewpoint holds sway, Jack’s brother graduates to “unfortunate,” which Miss Prism uses as a euphemism for “immoral,” “bad,” and downright “wicked,” the latter an adjective Cecily seems particularly to relish. Indeed, when the descriptions of Ernest reach this low point, he becomes all the more appealing to Cecily. The idea of wickedness fascinates Cecily, and she yearns to meet a “really wicked” person. This open interest in the idea of immorality is part of Cecily’s charm and what makes her a suitable love interest for Algernon. Cecily is no dandy: she doesn’t speak in epigrams and paradoxes, and, in fact, she’s the only character who doesn’t talk like a character in The Importance of Being Earnest. She’s a moral eccentric. She hopes Jack’s brother hasn’t been “pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time,” since that would be hypocrisy.

The difference between hypocrisy and mere fiction, or “Bunburying,” begins to emerge when Jack enters and declares that Ernest is dead. He is dressed in full Victorian mourning regalia, a very elaborate affair, creating the play’s most pungent visual gag. Jack has gone overboard in carrying out the deception of his double life, and his behavior highlights the essential difference between hypocrisy and “Bunburying.” Algernon imposes on Cecily by pretending to be someone he’s not, but he is still less malicious than Jack. First, Algernon scarcely knows Cecily, and second, he isn’t actually leading a double life. Algernon has created a fictional friend, but he does not actually pretend to be that friend. When he finally does take on a second identity, it is in the company of near-strangers. Jack, however, not only lies to the people closest to him, but he lies elaborately, becoming, for all his amiability, a lowlife. Jack has a fundamental charmlessness to his attitude toward other people. In a theater production, his deception is compounded: the audience watches an actor pretending to be someone pretending. Jack’s pretense seems almost never-ending.