The Importance of Being Earnest: Act 3 - Summary & Analysis

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Act III

Summary

      Cecily and Gwendolen have retreated to the drawing room of the Manor House to get away from Algernon and Jack. They are eager to forgive the men and be reconciled, when Algernon and Jack enter from the garden, Cecily and Gwendolen confront them about their motives. Cecily asks Algernon why he pretended to be Jack's brother, and Algernon says it was in order to meet her. Gwendolen asks Jack if he pretended to have a brother so as to be able to come to London to see her as often as possible, and he asks if she can doubt it. Gwendolen says she has the gravest doubts but intends to crush them.

      Cecily and Gwendolen are on the verge of forgiving Algernon and Jack when they remember that neither of them is any longer engaged to a man called Ernest. Algernon and Jack explain that each has made arrangements to be re-christened Ernest before the day is out, and the young women, bowled over by men's "physical courage" and capacity for "self-sacrifice," are won over.

      As the couples embrace, Lady Bracknell enters, having bribed Gwendolen's maid for information about her destination, on seeing Algernon, she asks whether this house is the house where his friend Bunbury resides. Algernon, forgetting momentarily that he is supposed to be at his friend's bedside, says no, but quickly tries to cover himself and blurts that Bunbury is dead. He and Lady Bracknell briefly discuss Bunbury's sudden demise. Jack then introduces Cecily to Lady Bracknell, and Algernon announces their engagement. Lady Bracknell asks about Cecily's background, asking first, rather acidly, whether she is connected with any of the larger railway stations in London. Jack obligingly volunteers information about Cecily, answering Lady Bracknell's presumptuous questions with a withering irony that goes over Lady Bracknell's head. Her interest is greatly piqued when she learns that Cecily is actually worth a great deal of money and stands to inherit even more when she comes of age.

      Jack refuses to give his consent to Cecily's marriage to Algernon until Lady Bracknell grants her consent to his union with Gwendolen, but Lady Bracknell refuses. She summons Gwendolen to her side and prepares to depart. Before they can leave, however, Dr. Chasuble arrives to announce that everything is ready for the christenings. Jack explains that he and Algernon no longer need the christenings immediately and suggests that the ceremonies be postponed. The rector prepares to withdraw, explaining that Miss Prism is waiting for him back at the rectory. At the sound of Miss Prism's name, Lady Bracknell starts. She asks a number of incisive questions about Miss Prism then demands that she be sent for. Miss Prism herself arrives at that moment.

      When Miss Prism sees Lady Bracknell, she begins behaving in a frightened and furtive manner. Lady Bracknell asks her severely about the whereabouts of a certain baby that Miss Prism was supposed to have taken for a walk twenty-eight years ago. Lady Bracknell proceeds to recount the circumstances of the baby's disappearance: Miss Prism left a certain house in Grosvenor Square with a baby carriage containing a male infant and never returned, the carriage was found some weeks later in Bayswater containing "a three-volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality," and the baby in question was never found. Miss Prism confesses apologetically that she doesn't know what happened to the baby. She explains that on the day in question she left the house with both the baby and a handbag containing a novel she had been working on, but that at some point she must have absentmindedly confused the two, placing the manuscript in the carriage and the baby in the handbag.

      Now Jack joins the discussion, pressing Miss Prism for further details: where did she leave the handbag? Which railway station? What line? Jack excuses himself and hurries offstage, returning a moment or two later with a handbag. He presents the handbag to Miss Prism and asks her if she can identify it. Miss Prism looks the handbag over carefully before acknowledging that it is the handbag she mislaid. She expresses delight at having it back after so many years. Jack, under the impression that he has discovered his true parentage, throws his arms melodramatically around Miss Prism with a cry of Mother! Miss Prism, shocked, reminds Jack that she is unmarried. Jack, misunderstanding her point, launches into a sentimental speech about forgiveness and redemption through suffering and society's double standard about male and female transgression. With great dignity, Miss Prism gestures toward Lady Bracknell as the proper source of information about Jack's history and identity. Lady Bracknell explains that Jack is the son of her poor sister, which makes him Algernon's older brother.

      The revelation removes all obstacles to Jack's union with Gwendolen, but the problem of Jack's name remains. Gwendolen points out that they don't know his true name. Though Lady Bracknell is sure that as the elder son he was named after his father, no one can recall what General Moncrieff's first name was. Fortunately, Jack's bookshelves contain recent military records, and he pulls down and consults the appropriate volume, jack’s father’s Christian names turn out to have been "Ernest John." For all these years, Jack has unwittingly been telling the truth: his name is Ernest, it is also John, and he does indeed have an unprincipled younger brother Algernon. Somewhat taken aback by this turn of events, Jack turns to Gwendolen and asks if she can forgive him for the fact that he's been telling the truth his entire life. She tells him she can forgive him, as she feels he is sure to change. They embrace, as do Algernon and Cecily and Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble, and Jack acknowledges that he has discovered "the vital Importance of Being Earnest."

Critical Analysis

      Gwendolen's and Cecily's conversation at the beginning of Act III reveals exactly how eager they are to forgive Jack and Algernon, even to the point of bestowing on the men shame and repentance the men don't actually feel. Gwendolen and Cecily observe Jack and Algernon through the window of the morning room that looks out on the garden, where the two men are squabbling over the refreshments that have been laid out for tea. Gwendolen's opening line, "The fact that they did not follow us at once into the house.....seems to me to show that they have some sense of shame left," indicates how eager she is for a reconciliation and anxious to find any reason at all to effect one. Her eagerness also reveals how willing she is to deceive herself about Jack. The fact that the men don't follow the women into the house is morally neutral, but Gwendolen projects onto it a moral interpretation: the men did not follow them, therefore they must be ashamed of themselves, we know, however, that they are not the least bit ashamed. The men think merely that they are in trouble, a circumstance Algernon, but not Jack, seems to relish. Cecily underscores the irony of Gwendolen's inane logic when she echoes Gwendolen's sentiments, remarking. "They have been eating muffins. That looks like repentance."

      Both women want to believe the men are truly sorry for what they've done. The two couples have symmetrical conflicts and seem to have nearly symmetrical reconciliations, but an essential difference sets the two reconciliations apart: Algernon tells the truth about his deception, but Jack does not. When Cecily asks Algernon why he deceived her, he tells her he did it in order to have the opportunity of meeting her, and this is the truth. Algernon really didn't have any other reason for pretending to be Ernest. Jack, however, is another story. Gwendolen doesn't ask Jack directly why he deceived her, and instead frames the answer she wants from him in the form of a question, she asks if he pretended to have a brother in order to come to town to see her. Jack asks if she can doubt it, and Gwendolen declares she will "crush" the doubts she has. Gwendolen is right to have those doubts. Jack's reasons for inventing Ernest and lheivirnpersonating him were many, but getting away to see Gwendolen wasn't one of them. Jack could easily have courted Gwendolen as himself, and being Ernest to her was merely the result of having met her through Algernon. Despite the apparent uniformity of the two romances, only the relationship between Cecily and Algernon is now on truthful ground, just before Lady Bracknell begins her inquiry into Cecily's background, she makes a complicated pun that underscores the elaborate underpinnings of the joke of Victoria Station being Jack's ancestral home. In Act I she exclaimed indignantly on the idea of allowing the well-bred Gwendolen "to marry into a cloakroom, and form an alliance with a parcel." Now she asks whether Cecily is "at all connected with any of the larger railway stations in London." The word connection was commonly used to refer to a person's social milieu (his or her friends and associates) as well as to family background. Lady Bracknell is making a joke on the fact that a railway station is as far back as Jack can trace his identity. The word connection also refers to transport: a connection was where a person could transfer from one railway line to another. The joke is even more involved than that, when Lady Bracknell says, "I had no idea that there were any families or persons whose origin was a Terminus," she is punning on the fact that in England, in Wilde’s day as well as now, a "terminus" is the last stop on a railway line, and the first stop is its "origin." in calling Victoria Station Jack's family's "origin," Lady Bracknell is getting off a very good line indeed, one that manages to be, like the joke in the title of the play, both pun and paradox.

      In Victorian England, Lady Bracknell's sudden start at the mention of Miss Prism's name would have been a signal to the audience that a wild coincidence and recognition scene was approaching. Victorian melodrama was full of such coincidences and recognition scenes, in which true identities were revealed and long-lost family members were reunited. Wilde was playing with genre here, making fun of the very form in which he'd been so successful in recent years. In these plays, the revelation of identity was often predicated on a long-kept secret that involved a woman who had committed a transgression in the past. The title character, in Lady Windermere's Fan for instance, discovers that a woman with a dubious past is her own mother. Wilde draws out the recognition scene in The Importance of Being Earnest, not only having Jack go to absurd lengths to identify the handbag Miss Prism lost, but also having Miss Prism entirely miss the implications of the handbag's reappearance: if the bag has been found, the baby has been found as well. Miss Prism's final comment on the whole incident is to express delight at being reunited with the handbag as it's been "a great inconvenience being without it all these years."

      In the recognition scene, the image of the missing baby carriage containing the manuscript of a not very good novel allows Wilde to mock yet another social element of his time. On one level, Wilde is lampooning the kind of popular fiction that was considered respectable and acceptable for women to read—a trenchant observation from a writer whose own novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, had been reviled as "immoral." Beyond this, however, he's also crystallizing the theme of life as a work of art. In proposing the substitution of the baby for the manuscript and the manuscript for the baby, he connects, in a light-hearted way, the fiction that is the fruit of Miss Prism's imagination and the fiction that Jack's own life has been up to this point.

      Jack's discovery that his life has not been a fiction, that he has indeed been both "Ernest" and "earnest" during the years he thought he was deceiving his friends and family, amounts to a complex moral paradox based on an elaborate pun. For years he has been a liar, but at the same time he spoke the truth: he really was being both "earnest" (sincere) and "Ernest." In a way, Jack has become his own fiction, and his real life has become the deception. His apology to Gwendolen and his observation that it is "a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth" is both a characteristic Wildean inversion of conventional morality and a last jibe at the hypocrisy of Victorian society.

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