The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

The Importance of Being Earnest book cover
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What happens in The Importance of Being Earnest?

Algernon Moncrieff receives his friend Jack Worthing, whom he knows as Ernest. Jack wants to marry Gwendolen Fairfax, Algy's cousin, but he refuses to approve of the marriage until Jack explains why the name "Cecily" is engraved on his cigarette case. Jack tells him that Cecily Cardew is his ward and that she lives at his estate in the country.

  • It's soon revealed that Jack has invented a brother named Ernest whose identity he assumes in the city so that he can enjoy himself without his friends and family in the country knowing. Algernon himself employs a similar ruse: he has invented a chronically ill friend called Bunbury, whom he visits in the country whenever his creditors come calling. 
  • The next time Algernon goes Bunburying, he visits Cecily, claiming to be Jack's brother Ernest. Algernon and Cecily quickly fall in love, but their union is complicated by Gwendolen's arrival. Both women think they're engaged to the same Ernest. Naturally, this leads to some confusion.
  • Cecily's tutor, Miss Prism, reveals that she was Jack's nurse and that one day she accidentally left him in her handbag at Victoria Station, where he was found by Mr. Cardew. Miss Prism says that Jack's real name is Ernest, which pleases Gwendolen. With the confusion cleared up, Algernon changes his name to Ernest, and the happy couples marry.

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Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In the entire Wilde canon, no play better exemplifies the author’s art-for-art’s-sake stand than The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. The play is completely trivial, revolving around the fact that Jack Worthing, who loves Gwendolen Fairfax, cannot marry her, initially because Algernon Moncrieff, her cousin, refuses to sanction the marriage until Worthing resolves the mystery of Cecily, about whom Algernon knows because of an inscription on Worthing’s cigarette case.

Worthing reveals that Mr. Cardew, who adopted him after he had been found in a handbag in the parcel room at Victoria Station, appointed him guardian of Cardew’s granddaughter, Cecily Cardew, who always knew him as Uncle Jack. For Cecily’s benefit, Jack has maintained an air of moral restraint in her presence. To escape from this atmosphere, he has assumed, during his frequent visits to London, the name and generally reprobate behavior of an imaginary brother named Ernest. Worthing’s love for Gwendolen is complicated by the fact that Gwendolen cannot love any man who is not named Ernest.

In an often bewildering plot, in which identities are often difficult to follow, Lady Bracknell refuses to acknowledge Jack’s engagement to Gwendolen because she learns that Jack was found as an infant in a handbag in Victoria Station. Meanwhile, both Jack and Algernon are individually consorting with Dr. Chasuble to have their names changed to “Ernest.” Algernon, too, is in love—with Cecily, who has also revealed a desire to love someone named Ernest.

In the course of the play, the name of Cecily’s tutor, Miss Prism, is introduced. Lady Bracknell knows the name and insists that Miss Prism be brought to her. It is revealed that, years before, Miss Prism had been nurse to a family to which Lady Bracknell was connected. One day, Miss Prism, in a state of confusion, thoughtlessly placed the manuscript of a book that she had written in the bassinet of the baby in her care and absent-mindedly placed the baby in the handbag that should have held the manuscript.

She deposited the handbag in the parcel room of Victoria Station, and the baby was never restored to its rightful family. Jack, now thinking that Miss Prism is his mother, embraces her, but Lady Bracknell reveals that Jack’s mother was really her sister, Algernon’s mother, Mrs. Moncrieff. Algernon and Jack are brothers, but better still, Jack’s real name is Ernest. The play ends with Algernon and Cecily and Jack/Ernest and Gwendolen poised on the brink of happy lives together, in what is really a mock-Dickensian ending.

The...

(The entire section is 2,148 words.)