Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
In the entire Wilde canon, no play better exemplifies the author’s art-for-art’s-sake stand than The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. The play is completely trivial, revolving around the fact that Jack Worthing, who loves Gwendolen Fairfax, cannot marry her, initially because Algernon Moncrieff, her cousin, refuses to sanction the marriage until Worthing resolves the mystery of Cecily, about whom Algernon knows because of an inscription on Worthing’s cigarette case.
Worthing reveals that Mr. Cardew, who adopted him after he had been found in a handbag in the parcel room at Victoria Station, appointed him guardian of Cardew’s granddaughter, Cecily Cardew, who always knew him as Uncle Jack. For Cecily’s benefit, Jack has maintained an air of moral restraint in her presence. To escape from this atmosphere, he has assumed, during his frequent visits to London, the name and generally reprobate behavior of an imaginary brother named Ernest. Worthing’s love for Gwendolen is complicated by the fact that Gwendolen cannot love any man who is not named Ernest.
In an often bewildering plot, in which identities are often difficult to follow, Lady Bracknell refuses to acknowledge Jack’s engagement to Gwendolen because she learns that Jack was found as an infant in a handbag in Victoria Station. Meanwhile, both Jack and Algernon are individually consorting with Dr. Chasuble to have their names changed to “Ernest.” Algernon, too, is in...
(The entire section is 615 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Algernon Moncrieff, nephew of the aristocratic Lady Bracknell, is compelled by necessity to live a more or less double life to avoid being completely at the mercy of his Aunt Augusta. To escape from her dull dinner parties, he invents a wholly fictitious friend named Bunbury, whose precarious state of health requires Algernon’s absence from London whenever his aunt summons him to attendance.
Algernon’s friend, Jack Worthing, is forced into a similar subterfuge for quite a different reason. He has under his care a young ward named Cecily Cardew, who lives at Jack’s country estate in Hertfordshire under the care of a stern governess, Miss Prism. Jack thinks it necessary to preserve a high moral tone in the presence of Cecily and her governess. To escape from this restraint, he invents an imaginary brother named Ernest, who is supposed to be quite a reprobate and whose name and general mode of behavior Jack assumes during his frequent trips to London.
To complicate matters, Jack falls in love with Gwendolen Fairfax, the daughter of Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell. Gwendolen returns his love, but in particular she falls in love with his name, Ernest, of which she is very fond. When Lady Bracknell learns of his intentions toward Gwendolen, she naturally wants to know something of his family history, but he can supply nothing more definite than the fact that he was found in a leather bag at the Victoria Railway Station, and that he was raised by a benefactor. Given that his parentage is unknown, Lady Bracknell refuses to consider his marriage to her daughter.
Jack realizes that the time has come to put an end to Ernest. He even goes so far as to appear at the manor house in Hertfordshire in deep mourning for his brother Ernest. His friend Algernon, “Bunburying” as usual, precedes him, however, posing as Ernest. Cecily takes an immediate interest in this supposed brother of her guardian. When Jack and Algernon come face to face, Jack...
(The entire section is 810 words.)