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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Student Question

What makes Algernon suspect Ernest’s identity in The Importance of Being Earnest?

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Algernon has two reasons for suspecting Ernest's identity, and they reveal his use of both deductive and inductive logic. First, Algy is in possession of Ernest's cigarette case, which Ernest left on a previous visit to Algy's home. Upon opening the cigarette case, Algy read the inscription "from little Cecily" that was addressed to "her dear Uncle Jack." Deductive reasoning uses valid premises to arrive at guaranteed conclusions. Algy's reasoning goes something like this: "If there is an inscription saying 'To' on a cigarette case, then the owner of that case is the person named in the inscription. The case is inscribed 'To Jack,' therefore the owner is Jack." So Algy knows that either this is not Ernest's cigarette case or "Ernest" is really Jack. Algy tests his theory by asking Ernest if the case is his, and Ernest responds that it certainly is. Therefore, since the first possible conclusion has been ruled out, the second conclusion is guaranteed to be true. 

Algy's second reason to suspect Ernest's identity exhibits inductive reasoning. In inductive reasoning, one reasons from examples to reach a possible conclusion. Algy knows that men sometimes create false stories that allow them to pursue some scheme that serves their own ends. He knows this because he is a man who does this. Algy has concocted a story about a sick friend named Bunbury that he uses as a ready excuse to go into the country when he wants to escape the responsibilities or boredom of city life. He calls this type of deception "Bunburying," and the person who engages in it is a "Bunburyist." Algy explains to Ernest (who he now knows is Jack) that he has "always suspected you of being a confirmed and secret Bunburyist." The reason Algy suspects Jack even apart from the evidence of the cigarette case is because of Algy's own example of the same behavior. Algy reasons that if he does it, other men must be doing it, too. To put the matter more colloquially, he suspects Ernest because "it takes one to know one." 

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