How do the cigarette case and tea ceremony in Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" help situate the comedy?

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In act 1 of Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest, Algernon Moncrief's best friend, Ernest Worthing, is the owner of a soon-to-be-infamous engraved cigarette case. The case makes its appearance after Ernest accidentally leaves the object behind at Algernon's house.

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In act 1 of Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest, Algernon Moncrief's best friend, Ernest Worthing, is the owner of a soon-to-be-infamous engraved cigarette case. The case makes its appearance after Ernest accidentally leaves the object behind at Algernon's house.

This event helps situate the comedy because the cigarette case, which Ernest assures Algernon is "his" (Ernest's) cigarette case, is engraved with the message,

From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack.

Algernon is now aware that his friend Ernest must be leading a double life. However, in his sarcastic, "Wildean" fashion, Algernon plays a game of questions and answers in order to compel his friend to confess the truth.

But why does your aunt call you her uncle? . . . There is no objection, I admit, to an aunt being a small aunt, but why an aunt, no matter what her size may be, should call her own nephew her uncle, I can't quite make out. Besides, your name isn't Jack at all; it is Ernest.

In typical Wilde style, the phrases, axioms, and paradoxes in the dialogue make a regular conversation turn quite humorous. It all ends with the confession by Ernest that he is " 'Ernest' in the city, and 'Jack' in the country," which fascinates Algernon—a fellow "double lifer."

The tea scene occurs shortly after the cigarette case event.

Lady Bracknell, the ultra snobbish aunt of Algernon, had been invited to tea. This very sophisticated ceremony would have included her favorite cucumber sandwiches.

However, prior to the the cigarette case discovery, Algernon and Ernest/Jack had been helping themselves to the cucumber sandwiches, bread, and butter that had been specifically set aside for Lady Bracknell and her daughter, Gwendolen.

When the time comes to start tea, Algernon and his butler, Lane, concoct the lie that there were no cucumbers in the market, not even for "ready money." This is followed by yet another humorous exchange of paradoxes and ironies that also help situate the comedy. After all, tea ceremonies are expected to run without flaws in upper class societies. What Algernon and Jack did was not only selfish, but a total social faux pas. Wilde, the king of comedies of manners, uses dialogue to twist the situation and make it laughable.

[Algernon.] I am greatly distressed, Aunt Augusta, about there being
no cucumbers, not even for ready money.

[Lady Bracknell.] It really makes no matter, Algernon. I had some
crumpets with Lady Harbury, who seems to me to be living entirely
for pleasure now.

[Algernon.] I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief.

Notice how the tea ceremony, and the lack of the fancy cucumber sandwiches, moves the conversation away from the social faux pas and into the ironic transformation of this Lady Harbury, whose state of grief has left her mysteriously hedonistic, even going back to having youthful blond hair, after her husband dies. Irony and sarcasm in dialogues are staples in Wilde's comedies.

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Both the incident with Jack's cigarette case and Algernon's tea with Aunt Augusta help to establish their two characters, specifically that they have each created a fictitious persona that allows them to break with social convention without harming their reputations as gentlemen.

When Algernon confronts Jack about the cigarette case from "Little Cecily," Jack is ultimately compelled to admit that his name is not Ernest at all (as he's always told Algernon), but Jack. Jack also says that he created a brother named Ernest so that he could come to town and behave badly without damaging Jack's reputation. Algernon reveals that he has created an imaginary invalid friend named Bunbury, whom he claims to have to visit whenever he wants to get out of social engagements that he finds tiresome, like his aunt's upcoming dinner party. Much of the comedy of the play is derived from the fact that Jack has invented Ernest. Algernon sneaks to Jack's residence in the country (where he houses his excessively pretty ward, Cecily, who is only just eighteen) pretending, in fact, to be Ernest in order to gain admittance to the house in Jack's absence.

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Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" is what is sometimes called a "drawing room comedy", set against the backdrop of the social interactions of the upper classes. Many elements of the play serve to signal the socioeconomic status of the characters.

First, one should note that the term "tea ceremony" refers to a uniquely Japanese practice which does not really have an English counterpart. Rather than being a "ceremony", afternoon tea is a meal, albeit one surrounded with social conventions. It is usually served in the afternoon, especially on days when the partakers would plan to have a late dinner. The foods being served represent the traditional sandwiches and sweets that constituted an upper class tea during this period, as did having a butler present to do the actual serving. This shows that Algernon despite his extreme modernity is actually in many ways a conventional member of the British upper classes. 

The cigarette case is to a certain degree merely a plot device, but it also shows Jack to be a "modern" young man, as smoking cigarettes was considered very fashionable (and even daring) in the period. Its being made of engraved silver also suggests wealth. 

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