I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.
When Algernon appears in the doorway, Jack is furious, not only because Algernon is there, but also because he is disguised as Jack’s own invented, and now presumably dead, brother. Cecily takes Jack’s anger as part of the long-standing ill feeling between the two brothers and insists that Jack shake hands with Algernon, who has evidently been telling her about his good offices toward his poor friend Bunbury. Jack is apoplectic at the idea of Algernon talking to Cecily about Bunbury, but he can do nothing. He cannot expose Algernon without revealing his own deceptions and hypocrisy, and so he has to go along with the charade.
Jack wants Algernon to leave, but Algernon refuses as long as Jack is in mourning. As Jack goes off to change his clothes, Algernon soliloquizes briefly about being in love with Cecily. When she comes back to water the garden, he uses the opportunity to propose to her. He is surprised to discover that Cecily already considers herself engaged to him and charmed when she reveals that her sustained fascination with “Uncle Jack’s brother” had moved her, some months previously, to invent an elaborate romance between herself and Ernest. Cecily has created an entire relationship, complete with love letters (written by herself), a ring, a broken engagement, and a reconciliation, and chronicled it in her diary. Algernon is less enchanted with the news that part of Cecily’s interest in him derives from the name Ernest, which, echoing Gwendolen, Cecily says “inspires absolute confidence.”
Algernon goes off in search of Dr. Chasuble to see about getting himself christened Ernest. Meanwhile, Gwendolen arrives, having decided to pay an unexpected call at the Manor House. She is shown into the garden. Cecily, who has no idea who Gwendolen is or how she figures in Jack’s life, orders tea and attempts to play hostess, while Gwendolen, having no idea who Cecily is, initially takes her to be a visitor at the Manor House. She is disconcerted to hear that Cecily is “Mr. Worthing’s ward,” as Ernest has never mentioned having a ward, and she confesses to not being thrilled by the news or by the fact that Cecily is very young and beautiful. Cecily picks up on Gwendolen’s reference to “Ernest” and hastens to explain that her guardian is not Mr. Ernest Worthing but his brother Jack. Gwendolen asks if she’s sure, and Cecily reassures her, adding that, in fact, she is engaged to be married to Ernest Worthing. Gwendolen points out that this is impossible as she herself is engaged to Ernest Worthing. The tea party degenerates into a kind of catfight in which the two women insult one another with utmost civility.
Toward the climax of this confrontation, Jack and Algernon arrive, one after the other, each having separately made arrangements with Dr. Chasuble to be christened Ernest later that day. Each of the young ladies takes great pleasure in pointing out that the other has been deceived: Cecily informs Gwendolen that her fiancé is really named Jack and Gwendolen informs Cecily that hers is really called Algernon. Shocked and angry, the two women demand to know where Jack’s brother Ernest is, since both of them are engaged to be married to him, and Jack is forced to admit that he has no brother and that Ernest is a complete fiction. Both women are furious. They retire to the house arm in arm, calling each other “sister.” Alone, Jack and Algernon must sort out their differences. Each taunts the other with having been found out and they end up squabbling over muffins and teacake.
Jack’s confrontation with Algernon when Algernon appears unexpectedly at the Manor House pits the logic of dandyism against the logic of Victorian morality. Jack bristles protectively when Algernon tells Jack he thinks “Cecily is a darling.” He tells Algernon he doesn’t like him to talk about Cecily that way, but his concern pales against Algernon’s sense of outrage over the inappropriateness of Jack’s clothes. “It is perfectly childish to be in deep mourning for a man who is actually staying for a whole week with you in your house as a guest,” Algernon fumes. “I call it grotesque.” Jack ignores the insults and orders Algernon to leave on the next train, but Algernon then points out that it would be impolite of him to leave while Jack was in mourning. Jack is, of course, not really in mourning, and Algernon has derailed Jack’s elaborate deception. By commenting ironically on Jack’s mourning dress, Algernon is meeting fiction with fiction, buying time for his own agenda by playing into the ridiculous situation Jack has created for himself. Jack may be worried and outraged at Algernon’s interest in Cecily, but Algernon the dandy cares little for those concerns. Instead, he treats everything as part of an elaborate game.
Cecily proves herself as capable as Jack and Algernon at creating fictions when she discusses her made-up relationship with Ernest, and in many ways she resembles Gwendolen when she discusses her relationship and love in general. Cecily’s diary is the hard evidence of her own elaborate fiction, as are the letters she has written to herself in Ernest’s name and the ring with the true-lover’s knot she has promised herself always to wear. Like Gwendolen, Cecily has chosen to take charge of her own romantic life, even to the point of playing all the roles, and Algernon is left with very little to do in the way of wooing. When Cecily lays out the facts of her relationship with Ernest for the man she thinks is Ernest himself, she closely resembles Gwendolen. She makes a grand Gwendolen-like pronouncement or two and demonstrates a Gwendolen-like self-consciousness with regard to her diary. She wants to copy Algernon’s compliments into it and hopes he’ll order a copy when it is published. Even her explanation for having broken off the engagement at one point, “It would hardly have been a really serious engagement if it hadn’t been broken off at least once,” echoes Gwendolen’s need for gravitas and propriety. Her unexpected fascination with the name Ernest is the final link between her and Gwendolen. This fascination seems incongruous with what we’ve seen of Cecily thus far, but nonetheless, the revelation lends the play a symmetry and balance.