Illustration of Jack Worthing in a top hat and formal attire, and a concerned expression on his face

The Importance of Being Earnest

by Oscar Wilde

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Why does Jack pretend to be Ernest in the play The Importance of Being Earnest?

Jack goes by Earnest, his imaginary, pretend brother, whenever he goes to the city so that he can live without responsibilities. At home in the country, Jack must be a responsible, upstanding gentleman, but when he goes into the city as Ernest he can get away with uncivilized behavior and no one will know that it is him.

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Oscar Wilde's humorous play The Importance of Being Earnest mocks many of the social structures of Wilde's day. Wilde's farce (a work often characterized by ludicrous and absurd situations) continues to delight modern audiences.

In the play, Jack Worthing is a respectable, affluent gentleman living in the English countryside, Hertfordshire. He is a well-known pillar of the community and guardian of beautiful young Cecily Cardew. Because he is so well known around the small town, he must go to the city to have his good time. He creates a brother named Ernest and uses him as an excuse to go to the city for a visit. He develops a backstory for Ernest that depicts his brother as the opposite of Jack. Where Jack is caring and hardworking, Ernest leaves behind debts and scandal. This imaginary brother serves as an alibi for Jack because once life in the country gets to dull for him, he can run off to the city to check on his brother. In actuality, Jack’s the one running around London causing trouble and living a salacious lifestyle.

Jack explains, "Well, my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country..."

Oscar Wilde coins the action of creating a fictional friend to get out of social engagements as bunburying, a term created in the play by Jack’s friend Algernon Moncrieff. Algernon too has created an alibi to get out of having to spend time with his Aunt Augusta through an invented friend named Bunbury. Algernon reports that his friend, Mr. Bunbury, is sick whenever his aunt wants to schedule a visit. Algernon believes he has created the perfect plan: he gets to do whatever he wants and avoids time with his family.

Algernon explains his new term to Jack:

You have invented a very useful younger brother called Ernest, in order that you may be able to come up to town as often as you like. I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose. Bunbury is perfectly invaluable. If it wasn’t for Bunbury’s extraordinary bad health, for instance, I wouldn’t be able to dine with you at Willis’s to-night, for I have been really engaged to Aunt Augusta for more than a week.

The lengths to which the two men will go to to get out of their social duties create humor for the audience. As the two men lie to their friends and loved ones to have fun without fear of repercussion, Wilde argues the importance of being honest, even in hard situations.

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