The Importance of Being Earnest: Act 2 - Summary & Analysis

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ACT II

Summary

      In the garden of The Manor House, Jack's country estate in Hertfordshire, Miss Prism is trying to interest Cecily in her German lesson. Cecily would prefer to water the flowers, but Miss Prism reminds Cecily that Jack encourages Cecily to improve herself in every way. Cecily expresses some slight irritation with the fact that her uncle Jack is so serious, and Miss Prism reminds her of his constant concern over his troublesome brother Ernest. Cecily, who has begun writing in her diary, says she wishes Jack would allow Ernest to visit them sometime. She suggests that she and Miss Prism might positively influence him, but Miss Prism doesn't approve of the notion of trying to turn "bad people into good people." She tells Cecily to put away her diary and to rely on her memory instead. Cecily points out that memory is usually inaccurate and also responsible for excessively long, three-volume novels. Miss Prism tells her not to criticize those long novels, as she once wrote one herself.

      Dr. Chasuble, the local vicar, enters. Cecily tells Dr. Chasuble teasingly that Miss Prism has a headache and should take a walk with him, obviously aware of an unspoken attraction between Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism. Miss Prism reproaches Cecily gently for fibbing, but she decides to take Cecily's advice, and she and Dr. Chasuble go off together. The butler, Merriman, then enters and announces to Cecily that Mr. Ernest Worthing has just driven over from the station with his luggage. Merriman presents Cecily with a visiting card, which is the one Algernon took from Jack in Act I.

      The visiting Mr. Ernest Worthing is actually Algernon, masquerading as Jack's non-existent brother, who enters dressed to the nines and greets Cecily as his "little cousin." when Cecily tells him Jack won't be back until Monday, Algernon pretends surprise and disappointment. Cecily tells Algernon that Jack has gone to town to buy Ernest some traveling clothes, as he plans on sending him to Australia as a last resort. Algernon proposes another plan: he thinks Cecily should reform him. Cecily says she doesn’t have time. Algernon decides to reform himself that afternoon, adding that he is hungry, and he and Cecily flirt with each other as they head into the house to find sustenance.

      Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble return from their walk, also flirting mildly. They are surprised when Jack enters from the back of the garden dressed in full Victorian mourning regalia. Jack greets Miss Prism with an air of tragedy and explains he has returned earlier than expected owing to the death of Ernest. Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble express surprise, shock, and condolences, and Miss Prism makes a few moralistic pronouncements.

      Jack’s story matches the one he and Algernon cooked up the previous evening: that Ernest passed away in Paris from a "severe chill." Dr. Chasuble suggests that he might mention the sad news in next Sunday's service and begins talking about his upcoming sermon. Jack remembers the problem of Gwendolen and his name, and he asks Dr. Chasuble about the possibility of being christened Ernest. They make arrangements for a ceremony that afternoon. As Dr. Chasuble prepares to leave, Cecily emerges from the house with the news that "uncle Jack's brother" has turned up and is in the dining room.

      When Algernon appears in the doorway, Jack is furious, not only because Algernon is there, but also because he is disguised as Jack's own invented, and now presumably dead, brother. Cecily takes Jack's anger as part of the long-standing ill feeling between the two brothers and insists that Jack shake hands with Algernon, who has evidently been telling her about his good offices toward his poor friend Bunbury. Jack is apoplectic at the idea of Algernon talking to Cecily about Bunbury, but he can do nothing. He cannot expose Algernon without revealing his own deceptions and hypocrisy, and so he has to go along with the charade.

      Jack wants Algernon to leave, but Algernon refuses as long as Jack is in mourning. As Jack goes off to change his clothes, Algernon soliloquizes briefly about being in love with Cecily, when she comes back to water the garden, he uses the opportunity to propose to her. He is surprised to discover that Cecily already considers herself engaged to him and charmed when she reveals that her sustained fascination with "uncle jack's brother" had moved her, some months previously, to invent an elaborate romance between herself and Ernest. Cecily has created an entire relationship, complete with love letters (written by herself), a ring, a broken engagement, and a reconciliation, and chronicled it in her diary. Algernon is less enchanted with the news that part of Cecily's interest in him derives from the name Ernest, which, echoing Gwendolen, Cecily says "inspires absolute confidence." Algernon goes off in search of Dr. Chasuble to see about getting himself christened Ernest. Meanwhile, Gwendolen arrives, having decided to pay an unexpected call at the Manor House. She is shown into the garden. Cecily, who has no idea who Gwendolen is or how she figures in Jack's life, orders tea and attempts to play hostess, while Gwendolen, having no idea who Cecily is, initially takes her to be a visitor at the Manor House. She is disconcerted to hear that Cecily is "Mr. Worthing's ward, as Ernest has never mentioned having a ward, and she confesses to not being thrilled by the news or by the fact that Cecily is very young and beautiful. Cecily picks up on Gwendolen's reference to "Ernest" and hastens to explain that her guardian is not Mr. Ernest worthing but his brother Jack. Gwendolen asks if she's sure, and Cecily reassures her, adding that, in fact, she is engaged to be married to Ernest Worthing. Gwendolen points out that this is impossible as she herself is engaged to Ernest Worthing. The tea party degenerates into a kind of catfight in which the two women insult one another with utmost civility.

      Toward the climax of this confrontation, Jack and Algernon arrive, one after the other each having separately made arrangements with Dr. Chasuble to be christened Ernest later that day. Each of the young ladies takes great pleasure in pointing out that the other has been deceived: Cecily informs Gwendolen that her fiance is really named Jack and Gwendolen informs Cecily that hers is really called Algenron. Shocked and angry, the two women demand to know where Jack's brother Ernest is, since both of them are engaged to be married to him, and Jack is forced to admit that he has no brother and that Ernest is a complete fiction. Both women are furious. They retire to the house arm in arm, calling each other "sister." Alone, Jack and Algernon must sort out their differences. Each taunts the other with having been found out and they end up squabbling over muffins and teacake.

Critical Analysis

      From the beginning of The Importance of Being Earnest, books, fiction, and writing have played an important role in furthering our heroes own fictions and deceptions. The writing in Jack's cigarette case exposes his secret identity, leading Algernon to develop suspicions about his other life. That life itself is a fiction to the extent that Jack has always lied to Algernon about what it entails. Jack has also been spinning fiction for the benefit of his friends and family in the country, where everyone believes him to be a paragon of virtue, his brow permanently creased with anxiety and woe. The all-important "three-volume novel" in the dour Miss Prism's past suggests that Miss Prism herself has had an alter ego at some point, or at least the capacity for telling stories of her own. Miss Prism tells Cecily not to "speak slightingly of" fiction and gives a definition of it: "The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily." Even before this exchange, Cecily avoids her school books. She would rather write than read and pulls out her diary, where she records her Wonderful secrets, we might assume that these are themselves fictions of a sort. Cecily's schooling is part of Miss Prism and Jack's desire for Cecily to "improve 'herself' in every way," a sentiment that reeks of Victorian righteousness and solemnity, and Cecily foregoes this attempt to pursue her own writing. The moral status of Jack's fictional brother Ernest has undergone a change between Acts I and II. At Algernon's flat in Half Moon street, Algernon called Ernest merely "profligate." Jack explained that Ernest got into "scrapes," or mischief. In the garden of the Manor House, where Miss Prism's moral viewpoint holds sway, Jack's brother graduates to "unfortunate," which Miss Prism uses as a euphemism for "immoral," "bad," and downright "wicked," the latter an adjective Cecily seems particularly to relish, indeed, when the descriptions of Ernest reach this low point, he becomes all the more appealing to Cecily. The idea of wickedness fascinates Cecily, and she yearns to meet a "really wicked" person. This open interest in the idea of immorality is part of Cecily's charm and what makes her a suitable love interest for Algernon. Cecily is no dandy: she doesn't speak in epigrams and paradoxes, and, in fact, she's the only character who doesn't talk like a character in The Importance of Being Earnest. She's a moral eccentric. She hopes Jack's brother hasn't been "pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time," since that would be hypocrisy.

      The difference between hypocrisy and mere fiction, or "Bunburying," begins to emerge when Jack enters and declares that Ernest is dead. He is dressed in full Victorian mourning regalia, a very elaborate affair, creating the play's most pungent visual gag. Jack has gone overboard in carrying out the deception of his double life, and his behaviour highlights the essential difference between hypocrisy and "Bunburying." Algernon imposes on Cecily by pretending to be someone he's not; but he is still less malicious than Jack. First, Algernon scarcely knows Cecily, and second, he isn't actually leading a double life. Algernon has created a fictional friend, but he does not actually pretend to be that friend. When he finally does take on a second identity, it is in the company of near-strangers. Jack, however, not only lies to the people closest to him, but he lies elaborately, becoming, for all his amiability, a lowlife. Jack has a fundamental charmlessness to his attitude toward other people. In a theatre production, his deception is compounded: the audience watches an actor pretending to be someone pretending. Jack's pretense seems almost never-ending confrontation with Algernon when Algernon appears unexpectedly at the Manor House pits the logic of dandyism against the logic of Victorian morality. Jack bristles protectively when Algernon tells Jack he thinks "Cecily is a darling." He tells Algernon he doesn't like him to talk about Cecily that way, but his concern pales against Algernon's sense of outrage over the inappropriateness of Jack’s clothes. "It is perfectly childish to be in deep mourning for a man who is actually staying for a whole week with you in your house as a guest" Algernon fumes. "I call it grotesque." Jack ignores the insults and orders Algernon to leave on the next train but Algernon then points out that it would be impolite of him to leave while Jack was in mourning. Jack is, of course, not really in mourning, and Algernon has derailed Jack's elaborate deception. By commenting ironically on Jack's mourning dress, Algernon is meeting fiction with fiction, buying time for his own agenda by playing into the ridiculous situation Jack has created for himself. Jack may be worried and outraged at Algernon's interest in Cecily, but Algernon the dandy cares little for those concerns. Instead, he treats everything as part of an elaborate game.

      Cecily proves herself as capable as Jack and Algernon at creating fictions when she discusses her made-up relationship with Ernest, and in many ways she resembles Gwendolen when she discusses her relationship and love in general. Cecily's diary is the hard evidence of her own elaborate fiction, as are the letters she has written to herself in Ernest's name and the ring with the true-lover's knot she has promised herself always to wear. Like Gwendolen, Cecily has chosen to take charge of her own romantic life, even to the point of playing all the roles, and Algernon is left with very little to do in the way of wooing, when Cecily lays out the facts of her relationship with Ernest for the man she thinks is Ernest himself, she closely resembles Gwendolen. She makes a grand Gwendolen-like pronouncement on their love and demonstrates a Gwendolen-like self-consciousness with regard to her diary. She wants to copy Algernon's compliments into it and hopes he'll order a copy when it is published. Even her explanation for having broken off the engagement at one point, "It would hardly have been a really serious engagement if it hadn't been broken off at least once," echoes Gwendolen’s need for gravitas and propriety. Her unexpected fascination with the name Ernest is the final link between her and Gwendolen. This fascination seems incongruous with what we've seen of Cecily thus far, but nonetheless, the revelation lends the play a symmetry and balance. The two major confrontations at the end of Act II, between Cecily and Gwendolen and between Jack and Algernon, are both rooted in the fictions all four characters have created, believed, or perpetuated. Cecily and Gwendolen squabble over who has the right to consider herself engaged to Ernest Worthing and seek to establish their respective claims on him by appealing to their diaries, in which each recorded the date of her engagement, as though the mere act of having written something down makes it fact. Meanwhile, what they have recorded is fundamentally untrue, since neither woman's lover is the Ernest he has pretended to be. Both women are fully in the right, but wrong at the same time. Jack and Algernon, for their parts, bicker over who is a better candidate to be christened with the name Ernest, an argument that is just as absurd and fiction-based as the women's. Jack argues that he never was christened, so he has a perfect right to be. Algernon counters by saying the fact that he's survived the experience indicates that his "constitution can stand it. He reminds Jack that Jack's brother almost died this week from a chill, as though this damns Jack's own constitution—while, of course, that brother is the fabricated Ernest. These confrontations cannot and will not be decided, since their very subjects essentially do not exist.

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