Last Updated on July 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 606
Algernon Moncrieff Welcomes His Friend John (Jack) Worthing to his London Home (Act 1): Algernon greets his friend, whose name he believes is Ernest. Ernest has come from his country estate to propose to Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen. However, Algernon will not consent to the union until Ernest explains an inscription on his cigarette case, which calls him “Uncle Jack.”
Algernon and Jack Confess to Having Created Fictitious Personas (Act 1): Jack reveals that he created Ernest as an alter ego, revealing that he is Jack in the country, guardian of his ward, Cecily, but regularly leaves for London, where he pretends to be Ernest, a flirtatious socialite. Algernon also admits to creating a fictitious persona, Bunbury, whom he visits in the country to get away from London. Both men acknowledge that their alter egos allow them to live double lives.
A Marriage Proposal Accepted, Then Quashed (Act 1): Gwendolen and her mother, Lady Bracknell, arrive to visit Algernon. Jack quietly proposes to Gwendolen, who accepts, saying she could never love a man who wasn’t called Ernest. Lady Bracknell finds them alone together and quickly interviews Jack to determine his suitability. She finds that Jack was adopted after being found in a handbag at Victoria Station and has no direct relations. Lady Bracknell refuses to allow Gwendolen to marry Jack. Gwendolen says she still loves Jack and he gives her his address in the country. Algernon secretly reads the address.
Cecily Loves Ernest (Act 2): Act 2 opens as Cecily studies with her governess, Miss Prism, on her Uncle Jack’s estate. Algernon arrives and pretends to be Ernest, Jack’s brother. Cecily, who has never met Ernest, falls in love with his secretive nature, and they become engaged. Like Gwendolen, she claims to only love men called Ernest.
Jack and Algernon’s Lies Are Exposed (Act 2): Jack has decided to give up his alter ego and arrives on his estate to declare the sudden death of Ernest. Algernon, however, is pretending to be Ernest, so Jack has to go along with his story for fear of revealing his own lies. Both men secretly plan to be officially christened as “Ernest” by the local vicar, Dr. Chusable. Gwendolen then arrives at the estate, having escaped from Lady Bracknell. She meets Cecily and they both declare to be engaged to men called Ernest. Jack’s and Algernon’s lies are revealed.
Algernon and Cecily’s Engagement Is Shared with Lady Bracknell (Act 3): Lady Bracknell arrives, having followed Gwendolen, and is shocked to find Algernon engaged to Cecily. She is easily won over, however, after hearing about Cecily’s trust fund. Jack refuses to give consent unless Lady Bracknell agrees to his marrying Gwendolen.
Jack’s Parentage Is Discovered (Act 3): Miss Prism enters and Lady Bracknell instantly recognizes her. Twenty-eight years ago, Miss Prism took Lady Bracknell’s baby nephew out in his pram, and he mysteriously vanished. Miss Prism admits that she had absentmindedly put a novel into the pram and the baby into her handbag, which she left at Victoria Station. Jack announces that he is the lost baby and therefore Algernon’s brother. Lady Bracknell accepts his and Gwendolen’s marriage in light of this new information.
Love Conquers All (Act 3): Gwendolen is confused as to her lover’s real name. Lady Bracknell says he would have been named after his father, General Moncrieff. Jack examines the army lists and finds that his father’s name was in fact Ernest. All the couples embrace, even Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble, who have had feelings for each other for the entire play.