The Importance of Being Earnest: Act 1 - Summary & Analysis

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ACT I

Summary

      The play, opens in the morning room of Algernon Moncrieff's flat in the fashionable Mayfair section of London's West End. As the curtain rises, Algernon's butler, Lane, is onstage laying out afternoon tea while Algernon, offstage, plays the piano badly. Before long, the music stops and Algernon enters talking about his playing, but Lane says ironically that he didn't feel it was "polite" to listen. Algernon briefly defends his musicianship, then turns to the matter of Lane's preparations for tea. Algernon asks particularly about some cucumber sandwiches he has ordered for Lady Bracknell, his aunt, who is expected for tea along with her daughter, Gwendolen Fairfax, Algernon's cousin. Lane produces the cucumber sandwiches, which Algernon begins to munch absentmindedly, casually remarking on an extremely inaccurate entry he has noticed in the household books. He speculates aloud on why it is that champagne in bachelors' homes always gets drunk by the servants. There follows some philosophical chat about the nature of marriage and the married state. Then Algernon dismisses Lane and soliloquizes briefly on the moral duty of the servant class. Lane reenters and announces the arrival of Mr. Ernest Worthing, the play's protagonist, who shortly will come to be known as Jack. Algernon greets Jack with evident enthusiasm, asking whether business or pleasure has brought him to town. Jack says pleasure. He notices the elaborate tea service and asks whom Algernon expects, when Algernon tells him Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen will be coming by, Jack is delighted. He confesses that he has come to town for the express purpose of proposing to Gwendolen. A brief debate follows as to whether this purpose constitutes "business" or "pleasure," and in the course of it, Jack reaches for one of the cucumber sandwiches. Algernon reprimands him, saying that they have been ordered expressly for his aunt. Jack points out that Algernon has been eating them the whole time they've been talking. Algernon argues that it's appropriate for him to eat the sandwiches since Lady Bracknell is his aunt and suggests that Jack help himself to the bread and butter, which has been ordered for Gwendolen. When Jack begins eating the bread and butter a bit too enthusiastically, Algernon accuses Jack of behaving as though he were already married to Gwendolen. He reminds Jack he isn't yet engaged to her and says he doubts he ever will be. Surprised, Jack asks what Algernon means. Algernon reminds Jack that Gwendolen is his first cousin and tells him that before he gives his consent to the union, Jack "will have to clear up the whole question of Cecily." Jack professes bewilderment and says he doesn't know anyone named Cecily. By way of explanation, Algernon asks Lane to find "that cigarette case Mr. Worthing left in the smoking room the last time he dined here." The cigarette case, when it arrives, causes Jack some consternation and Algernon much glee. Jack seems to have forgotten that the case bears an inscription from "little Cecily" to "her dear uncle Jack." Algernon forces Jack to explain what the inscription means, and Jack admits his name isn't really Ernest at all it's Jack. Algernon pretends to be incensed and disbelieving. He points out that Jack has always introduced himself as Ernest, that he answers to the name Ernest, that he even looks as though his name were Ernest. He pulls out one of Jack's visiting cards and shows him the name and address on it, saying he intends to keep the card as proof that Jack's name is Ernest. With some embarrassment, Jack explains that his name is "Ernest in town and Jack in the country."

      Algernon is still unsatisfied. He tells Jack he has always suspected him of being "a confirmed and secret Bunburyist," a term he refuses to define until Jack explains why heroes by two completely different names, and he comments that the explanation is "improbable." Jack protests that his explanation is not importable. He says the old gentleman who adopted him as a boy, Mr. Thomas Cardew, in his will made him guardian to his granddaughter, Miss Cecily Cardew, who lives on Jack's country estate with her governess, Miss Prism, and addresses Jack as her uncle out of respect. Algernon slips in questions about the location of Jack's estate, but Jack refuses to answer and continues with his explanation.

      Jack says that anyone placed in the position of legal guardian must have moral views about everything, and since the utmost morality doesn't bring great happiness, he has always pretended to have a troublesome younger brother named Ernest who lives at the Albany Hotel and who frequently gets in trouble. This false brother gives Jack an excuse to go to town whenever he wants to.

      Algernon counters by telling Jack a secret of his own. Just as Jack has invented a younger brother so as to be able to escape to London, Algernon has invented a friend called Bunbury, a permanent invalid whose sudden and frequent relapses afford him a chance to get away to the country whenever he wants. Bunbury's illness, for instance, will allow Algernon to have dinner with Jack that evening, despite the fact that he has been committed, for over a week, to dining at Lady Bracknell's. Algernon wants to explain the rules of "Bunburying" to Jack, but Jack denies being a "Bunburyist." He says if Gwendolen accepts his marriage proposal he plans to kill off his imaginary brother, and that he's thinking of doing so in any case because Cecily is taking too much interest in Ernest. Jack suggests that Algernon do the same with Bunbury. while the two men argue about the uses and merits of a married man's "knowing Bunbury," Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen are announced.

      Lady Bracknell comes onstage gossiping about a friend whose husband has died recently. Seating herself, she asks for one of the cucumber sandwiches Algernon has promised her. However, no cucumber sandwiches are in sight-Algernon, without realizing what he was doing, has devoured every last one. He gazes at the empty plate in horror and asks Lane sharply why there are no cucumber sandwiches. Quickly sizing up the situation, Lane explains blandly that he couldn't find cucumbers at the market that morning. Algernon dismisses Lane with obvious, and feigned, displeasure. Lady Bracknell is not concerned, and she chatters about the nice married woman she's planning to have Algernon take in to dinner that evening. Regretfully, Algernon tells Lady Bracknell that due to the illness of his friend Bunbury, he'll be unable to come to dinner after all. Lady Bracknell expresses her irritation about Bunbury's "shilly-shallying" over the question of whether he'll live or die. To appease her, and to give Jack a chance to propose to Gwendolen, Algernon offers to go over the musical program for an upcoming reception with her and takes her into the music room.

      Alone with Gwendolen, Jack awkwardly stammers out his admiration, and Gwendolen takes charge. She lets Jack know right away that she shares his feelings, and Jack is delighted. However, he is somewhat dismayed to learn that a good part of Gwendolen's attraction to him is due to what she believes is his name - Ernest. Gwendolen is fixated on the name Ernest, which she feels has "a music of its own" and "inspires absolute confidence." Gwendolen makes clear that she would not consider marrying a man who was not named Ernest.

      Lady Bracknell returns to the room, and Gwendolen tells her she is engaged to Jack. Lady Bracknell then interviews Jack to determine Jack's eligibility as a possible son-in-law. Jack seems to be giving all the right answers, until Lady Bracknell inquires into his family background. Jack explains that he has no idea who his parents were, and that he was found, by the man who adopted him, in a handbag in the cloakroom at Victoria Station. Lady Bracknell is scandalized. She forbids him from marrying Gwendolen and leaves the house angrily.

      Algernon enters, and Jack reviews the results of his interview with Lady Bracknell, explaining that as far as Gwendolen is concerned the two of them are engaged. Algernon asks mischievously whether Jack has told her the truth about being "Ernest in town, and Jack in the country," and Jack scoffs at the idea. He says he plans to kill off Ernest by the end of the week by having him catch a severe chill in Paris. Algernon asks whether Jack has told Gwendolen about his ward, Cecily, and again Jack scoffs at the question. He claims Cecily and Gwendolen will surely become friends and "will be calling each other sister".

      Gwendolen re-enters and asks to speak privately with Jack. She tells him how the story of his childhood has stirred her and declares her undying love, whatever happens. She asks Jack for his address in the country and Algernon listens in, jotting it down on his cuff. Jack exits with Gwendolen to show her to her carriage, and Lane comes in with some bills, which Algernon promptly tears up. He tells Lane he plans to go "Bunburying" the next day and asks him to layout "all the Bunbury suits." Jack returns, praising Gwendolen, and the curtain falls on Algernon laughing and looking at his shirt cuff.

Critical Analysis

      The opening scene of The Importance of Being Earnest establishes a highly stylized, unrealistic world in which no one talks the way ordinary people talk and very little seems to matter to anyone. Algernon and Lane, as well as most other characters in the play, are both literary constructs, that is, literary devices created solely to say particular things at particular moments. They have almost no life or significance apart from the way they talk. Their language is sharp, brittle, and full of elegant witticisms and mild, ironic pronouncements. Lane's first line, for example, regarding Algernon's piano playing, is an insult couched in polite, elegant language, we can see the play's lack of realism in the way Algernon and Lane behave over Lane's inaccurate entry in the household books. Lane has entered considerably more wine than was actually drunk to cover the fact that he himself has been drinking huge amounts of expensive champagne on the sly. Algernon shows no more concern over the stealing than Lane does over its having been discovered, and both men seem to take for granted that servants steal from their masters, in the world of the play, the deception is simply an expected daily nuisance.

      A central purpose of the scene between Algernon and Lane is to lay the foundation for the joke about the cucumber sandwiches, an incident that marks the first appearance of food as a source of conflict as well as
a substitute for other appetites. Algernon has ordered some cucumber sandwiches especially for Lady Bracknell, but during the scene with Lane, he absentmindedly eats all the sandwiches himself. In this particular scene, food substitutes for the idea of sex. Algernon's insatiable appetite, his preoccupation with food, and his habit of want only indulging himself politely suggest other forms of voraciousness and wanton self-indulgence. This idea becomes apparent in the early exchange between Algernon and Jack over the question of whether Jack should eat cucumber sandwiches or bread and butter. Here, Algernon interprets eating as a form of social, even sexual, presumption. Algernon can eat the cucumber sandwiches because he's Lady Bracknell's blood relation, but Jack, who hardly knows Lady Bracknell, should stay away from them, when Jack demonstrates too much enthusiasm for the bread and butter, Algernon reproaches him for behaving as though he were "married to 'Gwendolen' already," as though he had touched her in an aggressive or salacious manner.

      Though Jack's double life is amusing and light in many ways, his deception also suggests he has a darker, more sinister side, and to this extent his actions reveal the vast separation between private and public life in upper-middle-class Victorian England. Algernon suspects Jack of leading a double life when the play opens, and he goads him, asking where he has been. He asks Jack pointed questions about his house in Shropshire, knowing fully well that Jack's country estate is not in Shropshire, although this seems to be what Jack has always claimed. Algernon does not let on that he knows Jack is lying, and he lets Jack get deeper and deeper into his lie. The idea of a man not knowing where his best friend lives is absurd, of course, and this sort of unrealism gives The Importance of Being Earnest its reputation as a piece of light, superficial comedy. In fact, Jack's deception is more sinister than Algernon's rather innocent "Bunburying," and he ultimately misrepresents the truth to all those closest to him. Jack is in many ways the Victorian Everyman, and the picture he paints about social mores and expectations is, beneath the surface, a damning one.

      The scene in which Jack proposes to Gwendolen portrays a reversal of Victorian assumptions about gender roles. Propriety demanded that young women be weak and ineffectual, helpless vessels of girlish admiration and passivity, while men are supposed to be authoritative and competent. Here, however, Jack stammers ineffectually, and Gwendolen takes the whole business of the marriage proposal out of his hands. Wilde has some fun with the rigidity of Victorian convention when he has Gwendolen backtrack and insist that Jack start the A hole proposal process over again, doing it properly. The social commentary in this scene goes deeper than the Victorian concern with propriety. In the figure of Gwendolen, a young woman obsessed with the name Earnest, and not with actual earnestness itself, Wilde satirizes Victorian society's preoccupation with surface manifestations of virtue and its willingness to detect virtue in the most superficial displays of decent behaviour. The Ernest/earnest joke is a send-up of the whole concept of moral duty, which was the linchpin of Victorian morality.

      Wilde uses Lady Bracknell's interview of Jack to make fun of the values of London society, which put a higher premium on social connections than on character or goodness. More disquieting than the questions themselves is the order in which Lady Bracknell asks them. Before she even gets to such matters as income and family, she wants to know if Jack smokes, and she is pleased to hear that he does, since she considers smoking an antidote to idleness. Such trivial questions suggest the vacuity of London society, where more weighty issues are of secondary importance. The questions about Jack's family background, however, reveal Lady Bracknell's darker side, when Jack admits he has "lost" both his parents, Lady Bracknell replies with an elaborate pun: "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness." Like so many of Lady Bracknell's pronouncements, this one is funny because it's absurd. However, the statement also reflects a heartlessness that's very real and not funny at all. Lady Bracknell responded in an equally callous way to Bunbury's lingering illness when she remarked. "I must say.....that I think it is high time that Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he was going to live or to die. This shilly-shallying with the question is absurd." in pronouncements such as these, Lady Bracknell reveals an unsettling notion that coloured every aspect of Victorian life: poverty and misfortune are, to some extent, an outcome of moral unworthiness. In The Importance of Being Earnest, conventional morality operates on two levels of hypocrisy. On one level is the portrait Algernon paints of what he sees as conventional married bliss, in which husband and wife appear faithful but either one or the other is carrying on behind the other one's back. He tells Jack that, in a marriage, either husband or wife will certainly want to know Bunbury, and that in married life three is company and two is none. Confronted with a man who is "Ernest in town and Jack in the country," a conventional Victorian audience would probably have seen some reference to heterosexual infidelity. However, Wilde's audience must also have been full of people to whom "Ernest in town and Jack in the country" meant something quite different, something that had to be buried far below the surface of the dialogue, when Lady Bracknell says that "a cloakroom at a railway station might serve to conceal a social indiscretion - has probably, indeed, been used for that purpose before now," a twenty-first-century reader or audience member most likely will imagine another kind of life that Victorian hypocrisy required one to hide: the secret life of homosexuals, for which Wilde himself was condemned. All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does.

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