The Importance of Being Earnest: Act 2 (Part 1)
The second act opens in the garden at Jack’s manor house in the country. Cecily is watering the flowers, but Miss Prism is trying to encourage her to pay attention to her German studies, especially as her guardian, Jack, is anxious that Cecily improve herself. Cecily thinks Jack is too serious, but Miss Prism reminds her that he is often anxious about his brother Ernest getting into trouble. Cecily says she wishes that Jack would bring Ernest home, as she and Miss Prism may have a good influence on him. Miss Prism is unconvinced.
Miss Prism tells Cecily to put away her diary, saying that she should rely on her memory. Cecily disagrees, believing that memory is responsible for all the three-volume novels sent to her by the lending library (“Mudie”). Miss Prism advises her not to dismiss the three-volume novel, as she wrote one herself once. The novel was never published, as the manuscript was mislaid.
Dr. Chasuble, the local vicar, enters. Cecily, who has noticed an attraction between him and Miss Prism, tells Dr. Chasuble that Miss Prism has a headache and would benefit from a walk with him in the park. Miss Prism at first denies that she has a headache, but then decides that she has, and that a walk would be beneficial. She tells an unwilling Cecily to read her political economy in her absence, and sets off into the garden with Dr. Chasuble.
Merriman, the butler, enters and tells Cecily that Ernest Worthing, her Uncle Jack’s brother, has arrived with his luggage. Merriman gives Cecily his visiting card, which is the same one that Algernon showed Jack in Act 1 and cited as proof that Jack’s name was Ernest.
“Ernest” enters; it is really Algernon, pretending to be Jack’s imaginary troublesome brother. Cecily tells him that Jack will not be back until Monday, and Algernon feigns disappointment. Cecily says that Jack plans to send Ernest to Australia. Algernon suggests an alternative plan: that Cecily should reform him. Cecily says that she does not have the time, and Algernon says he will reform himself that afternoon. He says that he is hungry, and Cecily invites him into the house to eat. They exit, flirting with each other.
Miss Prism enters with Dr. Chasuble. She is trying to convince him of the desirability of the married state when they are interrupted by the entrance of Jack, dressed in full mourning regalia. Using the story that he and Algernon concocted in Act 1, Jack announces that his brother Ernest has died of a chill in Paris. Dr. Chasuble suggests that he might incorporate the sad event into his sermon on Sunday. Jack, who wants to change his name to Ernest to maintain his deception of Gwendolen, asks Dr. Chasuble to christen him that afternoon. They set up an appointment for five-thirty.
Cecily re-enters and tells Jack that his brother Ernest is in the drawing room. Jack tries hard to keep control of the situation, but he is clearly wrong-footed.
Analysis of Act 2 (part 1)
The character of Cecily shows one of the effects of the unrelenting Victorian obsession with the appearance of virtue. She has become fascinated by wickedness, the side of humanity that is kept from her gaze by hypocrites like Jack, who pretends to be completely virtuous when at his country home and keeps his other life for the town. Cecily is primed to fall in love with Jack’s imaginary wicked brother, Ernest, long before she meets him. When “Ernest” turns up in the shape of Algernon, the two display an immediate connection, with Cecily reflecting Algernon’s wit and independent spirit. Cecily has grown into a moral rebel, inverting the conventional Victorian false morality when she says to “Ernest”/Algernon, “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.” Whereas many Victorian English people pretended to be virtuous while pursuing a secret other life because virtue was expected of them by society, Cecily wishes that “Ernest”/Algernon is genuinely wicked.
The theme of life as a work of art continues. Cecily prefers to write her diary rather than study German or political economy, the less creative subjects that she is supposed to learn in order to “improve” herself. Even the straight-laced Miss Prism has apparently written a three-volume novel, making her an artist of a sort.
Another theme that continues in this section is the creation of fictions, which can form part of the artifice of a person’s life. Cecily enthusiastically embraces her uncle Jack’s fiction of his wicked brother Ernest, and eagerly looks forward to meeting him. She creates the fiction of Miss Prism’s headache in order to bring her together with Dr. Chasuble. Algernon exploits Jack’s fiction of Ernest in order to meet Cecily, in whom he has developed an interest based on Jack’s reports of her intelligence. Dr. Chasuble is quick to incorporate the fiction of Ernest’s death into his sermon. Jack begs Dr. Chasuble to christen him Ernest in order to preserve the fiction he has created for Gwendolen. This fiction would be formalized by a certificate of baptism, one of many documents in the play that are not as reliable as society tends to assume.
A crisis is produced when two fictions collide: Jack’s claim that his imaginary brother Ernest has died, and Algernon’s appearance at Jack’s country manor in the character of Ernest. Clearly, Ernest cannot both be dead and have just arrived to stay at the manor; and Jack cannot be christened as Ernest if Algernon is Ernest. The crisis represents a challenge to Jack and Algernon’s habitual deceptions, and can be seen as a light-hearted warning against living a lie. Suspense is created around the question of how he will resolve this problem.
The confusion of identity is typical of the tradition of farce, of which The Importance of Being Earnest is an example. Farce is a genre of comedy that chiefly aims to entertain the audience. It depends for its effect on unlikely plot situations and coincidences, disguise, and mistaken identity. There is often verbal humor and sexual innuendo, and a fast-paced plot whose speed increases towards the end of the play. Development of well-rounded characters is subordinate to the demands of the plot. Other famous examples of farce are Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, and Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce.