The Importance of Being Earnest Summary

The Importance of Being Earnest is a play by Oscar Wilde in which friends Jack and Algernon's double-lives interfere with their romantic pursuits.

  • Jack has invented a brother named Ernest, whose identity he assumes while in the city.
  • Jack is courting his friend Algernon's cousin Gwendolen, but her guardian, Lady Bracknell, rejects the match because of Jack's unknown parentage.
  • Algernon visits Jack's estate claiming to be the infamous Ernest in order to court Jack's ward, Cecily.
  • Jack and Algernon's duplicity is revealed, but Cecily and Gwendolen forgive them.
  • Cecily's tutor reveals that Jack is actually Lady Bracknell's long-lost nephew, Ernest, and the couples happily marry.

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 810

Algernon Moncrieff, nephew of the aristocratic Lady Bracknell, is compelled by necessity to live a more or less double life to avoid being completely at the mercy of his Aunt Augusta. To escape from her dull dinner parties, he invents a wholly fictitious friend named Bunbury, whose precarious state of health requires Algernon’s absence from London whenever his aunt summons him to attendance.

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Algernon’s friend, Jack Worthing, is forced into a similar subterfuge for quite a different reason. He has under his care a young ward named Cecily Cardew, who lives at Jack’s country estate in Hertfordshire under the care of a stern governess, Miss Prism. Jack thinks it necessary to preserve a high moral tone in the presence of Cecily and her governess. To escape from this restraint, he invents an imaginary brother named Ernest, who is supposed to be quite a reprobate and whose name and general mode of behavior Jack assumes during his frequent trips to London.

To complicate matters, Jack falls in love with Gwendolen Fairfax, the daughter of Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell. Gwendolen returns his love, but in particular she falls in love with his name, Ernest, of which she is very fond. When Lady Bracknell learns of his intentions toward Gwendolen, she naturally wants to know something of his family history, but he can supply nothing more definite than the fact that he was found in a leather bag at the Victoria Railway Station, and that he was raised by a benefactor. Given that his parentage is unknown, Lady Bracknell refuses to consider his marriage to her daughter.

Jack realizes that the time has come to put an end to Ernest. He even goes so far as to appear at the manor house in Hertfordshire in deep mourning for his brother Ernest. His friend Algernon, “Bunburying” as usual, precedes him, however, posing as Ernest. Cecily takes an immediate interest in this supposed brother of her guardian. When Jack and Algernon come face to face, Jack promptly announces that his brother Ernest was unexpectedly called back to London and is leaving at once. Algernon, however, having fallen in love with Cecily, refuses to leave. Cecily, in turn, confesses that it has always been her dream to love someone named Ernest.

Algernon, realizing that his hopes of marrying Cecily depend on his name, decides to have himself rechristened Ernest. For that purpose, he calls on the local clergyman, the Reverend Canon Chasuble, but Jack precedes him with a like request. Dr. Chasuble thus has an engagement for two christenings at five-thirty that afternoon.

Gwendolen arrives at the manor house in search of Jack. Because both Gwendolen and Cecily believe that they are in love with the same man, the nonexistent Ernest, their initial politeness to each other soon gives way to open warfare. When Jack and Algernon appear together, the real identities of the two pretenders are established. Both girls are furious. At first Jack and Algernon upbraid each other for their mutual duplicity, but they finally settle down to tea and console themselves with muffins. Cecily and Gwendolen at last decide to forgive their suitors, after Algernon admits that the purpose of his deception was to meet Cecily, and Jack maintains that his imaginary brother was his excuse to go to London to see Gwendolen. Both girls agree that in matters of grave importance—such as marriage—style and not sincerity is the vital thing.

Lady Bracknell, arriving in search of her daughter, discovers her nephew engaged to Cecily. Afraid that the girl, like her guardian, may possibly have only railway station antecedents, Lady Bracknell demands to know Cecily’s origin. She is informed that Cecily is the granddaughter of a very wealthy man and the heiress to 130,000 pounds. When Lady Bracknell willingly gives her consent to the marriage, Jack refuses to allow the match, pointing out that Cecily cannot marry without his consent until she comes of age, and that, according to her grandfather’s will, is when she turns thirty-five. However, he says he will give his consent the moment Lady Bracknell approves of his marriage to Gwendolen.

Lady Bracknell’s objection to Jack as a suitable husband for Gwendolen remains, but the mystery is cleared up to Lady Bracknell’s satisfaction when it is revealed that Miss Letitia Prism, Cecily’s governess, is the nurse who left Lord Bracknell’s house with a perambulator containing a male infant that she placed in a leather handbag and left in the cloakroom of the Victoria Station. The infant is the son of Lady Bracknell’s sister, a circumstance that makes Jack Algernon’s older brother. Jack’s Christian name turns out to be Ernest. The Reverend Chasuble is relieved of his two christenings that afternoon, and Gwendolen is happy that she is actually going to marry a man named Ernest.

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