The Importance of Being Earnest: Act 2 (Part 2)
Algernon and Cecily enter, hand in hand, and approach Jack. Algernon, in character as Jack’s imaginary brother Ernest, apologizes to Jack for all the trouble he has caused him, and vows to lead a better life in the future. Jack, furious that Algernon has made it impossible for him to kill off Ernest, refuses to shake Algernon’s offered hand. Cecily thinks that Jack’s attitude is due to his long-standing resentment of his brother. She rebukes Jack for his ungracious behavior, saying there is good in everyone, and that “Ernest” has shown kindness in visiting his invalid friend, Bunbury. She says she will never forgive Jack if he does not shake hands with his brother. Jack does so, unwillingly.
Everyone leaves the two “brothers,” Jack and Algernon, to talk. Jack tells Algernon to leave, but Algernon refuses to leave as long as Jack is in mourning, as to do so would be “unfriendly.” Angrily, Jack exits into the house. Algernon, left alone, confesses that he is in love with Cecily. Cecily returns, and Algernon tells her that Jack is sending him away. Algernon tells Cecily that to him, she is “absolute perfection.” She records his compliments in her diary, saying that she hopes he will order a copy when it is published. He tells her that he loves her, and asks her to marry him. Cecily replies that she has already considered them to be engaged for the past three months. She fell in love with his reputation as the wicked Ernest. She bought a ring and a bangle with a lover’s knot, imagining that it was from him. She shows him a box of love letters that she has written in his name. She even broke off their engagement at one point, as “It would hardly have been a really serious engagement if it hadn’t been broken off at least once.” She confesses that it has always been her dream to love someone with the name of Ernest, as the name inspires “absolute confidence.” Algernon asks if she could still love him if his name were not Ernest. Cecily says she could not. Algernon rushes off in search of Dr. Chasuble in order to be christened Ernest. Cecily decides that she must enter his proposal in her diary.
Gwendolen arrives, having decided to pay Jack a surprise visit at his country home. Gwendolen examines Cecily, and is alarmed to discover that such a young and pretty girl lives with Jack. Cecily introduces herself as “Mr. Worthing’s ward,” which leads Gwendolen to assume that she is the ward of Ernest Worthing, the false name under which Jack has wooed Gwendolen. When Gwendolen mentions her fiancé, Mr. Ernest Worthing, Cecily explains that it is not Mr. Ernest Worthing who is her guardian, but his elder brother Jack. Gwendolen asks Cecily if she is sure, and Cecily says she is: in fact, she is due to marry Ernest Worthing. Gwendolen says there must be some mistake, as she herself is engaged to marry Ernest Worthing. Cecily insists that Ernest proposed to her ten minutes ago, and produces her diary to prove it. Gwendolen counters that Ernest proposed to her yesterday afternoon at five-thirty, and also produces her diary as proof. Gwendolen concludes that she has the prior claim. Cecily suggests that since proposing to Gwendolen, Ernest has changed his mind. Gwendolen vows to rescue Ernest from whatever foolish promise he has been entrapped into. The two women enter into a superficially polite but malicious argument.
Merriman appears with the tea. The women are shamed by his presence into an even more exaggerated politeness, and they turn their attention to such innocuous topics as the garden. When Gwendolen superciliously informs Cecily that sugar is no longer fashionable, Cecily furiously puts four lumps into Gwendolen’s tea. When Gwendolen asks for bread and butter, Cecily gives her an enormous slice of cake. When Merriman exits, the pretence at politeness breaks down. Gwendolen is about to storm out when Jack comes in. Gwendolen greets him fondly as Ernest, and then asks if he is engaged to be married to Cecily. Jack says that he is not. Cecily says that the cause of the misunderstanding is now clear: this man is her guardian, Mr. John (or Jack) Worthing. Algernon enters, and Cecily explains that this is Ernest. Cecily asks Algernon if he is engaged to marry Gwendolen. Algernon says he is not, and kisses Cecily. Gwendolen explains that Cecily has been deceived: the man who is embracing her is her cousin, Algernon. The two women break away from the men and run to each other, as if for protection. They challenge the men to reveal their real names: Algernon and John (or Jack). The women, furious at the deception practiced upon them, embrace one another as sisters. Gwendolen asks Jack where Ernest Worthing is, as both she and Cecily are engaged to marry him. Jack reluctantly explains that he has no brother. Gwendolen tells Cecily that neither of them is engaged to marry anyone, and they go into the house together.
Jack bitterly accuses Algernon of creating this terrible situation with his “Bunburying.” The two men taunt one another about being found out. Algernon begins to eat muffins for consolation. Jack again asks him to leave, but Algernon says he cannot, as he is due to be christened as Ernest at five forty-five. Jack says this is impossible, as he himself is due to be christened as Ernest at five-thirty. Jack says that he has more right to be christened Ernest than Algernon, as he believes he never was christened, whereas Algernon was. Algernon says this merely proves that his own constitution can stand it, and that being christened might make Jack unwell. The act ends with the two men continuing to squabble.
In this section of the play, the deceptions that Jack and Algernon have wrought come together and confront them. The two women, also, are not above creating deceptions or fictions. Cecily, like Gwendolen, has created such a complete imaginary relationship with Jack’s fictional brother Ernest, that when Algernon appears on the scene under his name, he finds that the courtship has happened without his even having to be present. Cecily informs him that she has considered herself engaged to him for the past three months, and even that at one point she broke off their engagement to add a degree of seriousness to the relationship.
The unreliability of written documentation is again shown in the two women’s comic reliance on their diary entries to ‘prove’ that they are engaged to Ernest. The absurdity is reinforced by the fact that “Ernest” himself is a fiction. The certainties that society takes for granted, identity and written documents, are revealed to be slippery in the extreme.
The squabble between Cecily and Gwendolen is a witty comedy of manners, satirizing the tendency of polite Victorian English society of concealing the most violent hatreds and jealousies under a cloak of politeness. Wilde makes a satirical jibe at the limited perspective of the English upper-class of his time when Gwendolen says Lady Bracknell has brought her up to be short-sighted: “it is part of her system.” Another satirical point is made when Gwendolen responds to Cecily’s claim to call a spade a spade (an idiom meaning frankness) by saying that she has never seen a spade. Gwendolen is saying that as an upper-class woman, she is not familiar with menial work, but the statement contains a satirical subtext implying that in polite society, nobody means what they say and (as in the case of Jack and Algernon) deception is the norm.
Algernon exemplifies the character of the dandy when he reduces the argument between himself and Algernon at the beginning of the section to a matter of dress. Because Jack has decked himself out in full mourning dress for his imaginary brother Ernest, Algernon refuses to leave Jack’s country house, as to do so would be to fail to support Jack in his grief. In this exchange, Algernon is exploiting Jack’s deception by choosing to take at face value the deception that Jack is practicing on Gwendolen. Because Algernon is only going along with Jack’s lie, the audience feels delight that Jack is beginning to receive his just deserts for fooling everyone.
As the dandy and the exemplar of the Aesthetic ideal, Algernon takes trivia (clothes, style, and elegance of manner) extremely seriously. His response to the unraveling of his deception is to remain cool, deliver an even greater number of witty epigrams, and to eat compulsively. Jack, in contrast, displays a seriousness and hostility to Algernon that comes over as unpleasant and overbearing. He also tries to escape responsibility for alienating the two women by blaming Algernon for appearing at his home as Ernest, quite ignoring his own role in deceiving Gwendolen, Cecily, and Algernon. It might be said, in this play celebrating trivia, that Jack gives seriousness a bad name. In response to Jack’s bitter reproaches for his “Bunburying,” Algernon counters, “Well, one must be serious about something, if one wants to have any amusement in life. I happen to be serious about Bunburying. What on earth you are serious about I haven’t got the remotest idea. About everything, I should fancy. You have such an absolutely trivial nature.”
This exchange between Jack and Algernon reflects the inversion in the play of the usual notions of seriousness and triviality. In the superficial society that Wilde portrays, people take trivial things (such as names and written documents) unreasonably seriously, whereas they simply fail to consider such weighty issues as the inner person. As so often with Wilde’s epigrams, there is also an undercurrent of truth in Algernon’s statement: in being so serious about his deceptions, Jack has rendered his own character slippery and superficial, in a rather dangerous and slightly sinister way.