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The Importance of Being Earnest

by Oscar Wilde

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What are some examples of irony in Act 2 of "The Importance of Being Earnest"?

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Act 2 of "The Importance of Being Earnest" presents several instances of irony. Examples include Cecily's diary being ironically referred to as a public document, the pun on the name "Ernest" which signifies genuineness but is used under deceit, and Cecily's assertion on being candid when expressing unpleasant sentiments. The humor in this act is derived from situational irony, with characters expressing views that are contrary to general expectations or behaving in ways that contradict their true circumstances.

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Act 2, like all of The Importance of Being Earnest, contains many examples of irony. I will cite a few of these and discuss how they contribute to the humor of the play.

One early example is when Cecily is telling Algernon about her diary. She tells him she can't read the diary because "it is simply a very young girl's record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication." This is an example of verbal irony because Cecily describes her diary, which is a document people use to record their private, secret thoughts, as something Algernon cannot see because it is "meant for publication." This is the opposite of what we expect to hear about diaries in general, and also opposite of what we expect Cecily to say given the beginning of her statement. Both Cecily and Gwendolen use their diaries as "proof" of their engagements, so they are ironically referred to as public documents at other points in the play.

Cecily also talks to Algernon about his name, which he claims is "Ernest." Cecily tells him, as Gwendolen tells Jack in Act 1, that she has a dream of marrying a man named Ernest. She says, "There is something in the name that seems to inspire confidence." This is ironic because both men are pretending to be named Ernest, creating the pun on the word "earnest," which means genuine. Both women love the name Ernest and believe that the men are sincerely named that, but the men are, of course, lying. This is an example of both verbal and dramatic irony.

Cecily later tells Gwendolen that she should tell her (Cecily) how she feels, even if it is unpleasant. Cecily claims, "whenever one has anything unpleasant to say, one should always be quite candid." This is verbal irony because the first part of the sentence sounds like it will end in the opposite way that it actually does; we would think people would keep unpleasant sentiments to themselves.

These are just a few of the many examples of verbal and dramatic irony in Earnest. The irony, along with hyperbole and epigrams, are the core of Wilde's satirical style in this comedy of manners.

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In Act 2 of The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde gains most of his humor through situational irony, that is, things that are the opposite of what is expected. At the beginning of the scene, Miss Prism scorns "this modern mania for turning bad people into good people at a moment's notice." This is ironic in two respects: first, most people would favor a sinner's reformation and second, true reformation rarely happens instantaneously.

Next Cecily admonishes Algy, who is pretending to be Ernest, "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." Again, the irony works on two levels: first, the usual way a hypocrite acts is to pretend to be good while really being wicked, and second, Algy actually is pretending here, although Cecily doesn't know it. That is dramatic irony, where the audience knows something a character doesn't.

When Algy says that good looks "are a snare that every sensible man would like to be caught in," his remark is ironic in that a snare, by definition, takes one against one's will.

Miss Prism, upon learning that Ernest is dead, says, "What a lesson for him! I trust he will profit by it." Her remark is humorously ironic since dead men cannot profit from life's lessons.

Jack's unthinking reply to Cecily, "I haven't got a brother!" is ironic in that without realizing it he denies the lie that he has worked so hard to perpetrate, and when he tells the literal truth, Cecily won't accept it, mistaking his answer for a figurative disowning of his brother.

Cecily's long explanation of her fantasy romance with Ernest to Algernon, who is pretending to be Ernest, is highly ironic as Algy learns about things in "his" past that he has done from a woman he has only just met. Gwendolen's description of her father's role is ironic because it exchanges the expected role in society of men with that of women: "The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man."

The conversation between Gwendolyn and Cecily about their engagements is hilariously ironic since each of them believes the other woman is speaking of the same man when they are really only speaking of the same imaginary character who is being played by two different men.

The tea war is ironic since taking tea is usually a genteel occasion, but here it becomes aggressive, yet cloaked in exaggerated civility.

In Act 2, Wilde takes the audience on a wild ironic ride, careening from one unexpected twist to another. 

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