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Importance of Being Ernest

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Summary
The play opens in the morning room of Algernon Moncrieff’s flat in London. His servant, Lane, is arranging tea and Algernon is in another room playing the piano. Algernon enters and asks Lane if he has heard him playing. Lane says he did not think it was polite to listen. Algernon tells him that is terrible because while he does not play accurately, he plays with wonderful expression.
It becomes apparent that Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell, is coming for tea. The discussion turns to marriage when Algernon asks Lane why servants always drink the champagne during dinner parties. Lane informs him that bachelors always have the best wine. Algernon asks if marriage is so demoralizing. Lane informs us that he was married once but only as the result of a misunderstanding, so he is not sure. Lane exits; Algernon comments that Lane’s views seem lax and the lower orders have no use if they will not set an example. He comments that Lane’s class seems to have a lack of moral responsibility.
Unexpectedly, Algernon’s friend Jack Worthing drops in. Jack resides most of the time in the countryside and is visiting town. Lane and Algernon are under the impression that Jack’s name is Ernest and refer to him as so. Jack is happy to learn that Lady Bracknell (Aunt Augusta) and her daughter Gwendolen are coming because he wants to propose marriage to Gwendolen. Algernon says that he will not be able to marry her because he flirts with her, which Aunt Augusta does not like. Furthermore, as Gwendolen’s first cousin he will refuse to offer his consent unless Jack settles a question for him.
He has found a cigarette case that Jack had forgotten upon his last visit. There is an inscription, which states: "From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack." Jack tries to pretend it is from an aunt. Eventually, he must admit that Cecily is his ward. To escape the country whenever he likes, he pretends to have a brother in the city named Ernest who continually needs help getting out of trouble. Algernon is amused by this and tells Jack that he is a “Bunburyist.” This is a term Algernon has coined for someone who creates a character that he must visit, thus allowing him an excuse to leave. Algernon himself has created a friend named Bunbury, who is frequently ill and in need of care.
Jack further explains that Cecily is the granddaughter of a man named Thomas Cardew, who has passed away. Cardew adopted Jack as a baby and now Cecily has been entrusted to Jack. Because he feels that he must be respectable around Cecily and always set a good example, he had to create Ernest so he would be able to escape and be himself whenever he wanted. Jack tries to assure Algernon that he is through with “Ernest,” but Algernon tells Jack that if he does marry he better keep Ernest around because he will need him more than ever.
Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen arrive. Jack is able to witness Algernon’s “Bunburying” when he tells his aunt that he will be unable to attend her dinner that evening because he must attend to his sick friend.
Algernon escorts Lady Bracknell into the music room, leaving Jack and Gwendolen alone. They confess their love for one another, and Cecily accepts Jacks marriage proposal. However, she says that she loves him particularly because his name is Earnest and that if here were named anything else, like Jack for example, she could not love him.
Lady Bracknell returns and Gwendolen informs her of the engagement. Lady Bracknell informs Gwendolen that she does not have the autonomy to engager herself; that is the job of her parents. She orders Gwendolen to leave in order to ask Jack some questions. She inquires about all aspects of Jack’s life and background and seems somewhat satisfied until she asks him who his parents are. Lady Bracknell is appalled to find out that Jack was found in a cloakroom in Victoria’s station and raised by Thomas Cardew-the man who found him. Lady Bracknell tells Jack she will not allow Gwendolen to marry him and leaves.
Jack is very upset and tells Algernon that he plans to kill Ernest and return to being Jack all of the time. In the meantime, Gwendolen returns and tells him that her mother will never allow the marriage but Jack will always have her undying love, no matter what.

* The setting is the garden in the Manor House – Jack’s country estate. It’s July. A table full of books is set up beneath a yew tree in the rose garden. Miss Prism is sitting at the table while Cecily is in the back, watering the flowers. * Miss Prism calls to Cecily to stop doing such a mundane task as watering the flowers because she needs to do her German grammar lesson. * Cecily argues that she doesn’t want to because she knows she looks plain after her German lesson. * Miss Prism retorts that Uncle Jack is only looking out for Cecily’s education. * Cecily complains that Uncle Jack is so serious. * Miss Prism defends him as the pinnacle of "duty and responsibility" (II.5). She adds that he’s even helping out that unfortunately troublesome younger brother of his. * This piques Cecily’s interest and she wishes aloud that Uncle Jack would bring Ernest by sometime so that Miss Prism could reform him. * She begins writing in her diary, where she keeps all the "wonderful secrets of [her] life" (II.10). At this, Miss Prism comments that she was once a writer herself. * She wrote a three-volume novel (the bane of Cecily’s existence) back in the day. Miss Prism tells Cecily to work on her lesson. * But the perfect excuse to ignore the lesson is just arriving – Dr. Chasuble. At the sight of him, Miss Prism blushes and stands. * They’re so obviously crushing on each other that Cecily finds it easy to persuade them to take a walk together. * While they’re out, Merriman the butler tells Cecily that a Mr. Ernest Worthing has just arrived. * Cecily is overjoyed to finally be able to meet the infamous Ernest, but she’s scared at the same time. * Algernon enters, disguised as Ernest. He greets his "cousin," Cici. They talk about how "wicked" he is, with Cecily making comments about how he should reform himself. * Charmingly, Algernon/Ernest asks Cecily to try to reform him that very afternoon. * As they’re flirting and Ernest is finding every way possible to compliment Cecily, like asking for a pink rose for his button-hole "because you are like a pink rose, cousin Cecily" (II.75). * Algernon learns that Jack plans to send Ernest to Australia. * As Cecily’s putting a flower into his buttonhole, Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble return, discussing the moral advantages and disadvantages of marriage. They’re so wrapped up in each other that they don’t realize that Cecily is not where they left her. * Before they can send out a search party, Jack arrives home, dressed in a black suit of mourning. * When they ask him about it, Jack announces that he’s returned early because his brother Ernest is dead. He died last night in Paris of a "severe chill." * When Dr. Chasuble offers to perform a funeral ceremony for Ernest, Jack suddenly remembers something. He asks Dr. Chasuble if he can be christened. After some questions, Dr. Chasuble relents and they arrange for Jack to come by at half-past five that evening. * Cecily comes from the house to meet her Uncle Jack with the happy news that his brother Ernest arrived just recently and is now in the dining-room. * Jack is completely confused. * Dr. Chasuble – trying to smooth over the awkward situation – says that these are good tidings indeed (that Ernest is alive and all). The mystery is solved when Jack sees Algernon sitting at the table. * Jack refuses to shake hands with Algernon. We learn from Cecily that Ernest has been telling her about his poor friend, Mr. Bunbury. * Finally, Cecily declares she will never speak to Uncle Jack again if he doesn’t shake hands with Ernest. Jack gives in reluctantly and Miss Prism praises Cecily for her wonderful act of kindness today. They leave Jack and Ernest together. * Furiously, Jack tells Algy to leave at once. But he’s interrupted when Merriman comes in to reveal that Mr. Ernest’s luggage has been put in the bedroom next to Jack’s. * Jack tells Merriman that unfortunately Ernest’s dog-cart has arrived to take him away; he’s been called back to town. * While Jack rants at Algernon, Algernon talks about how pretty Cecily is. Jack declares the dog-cart is here and leaves, just in time to miss Algy’s comment that he has fallen in love with Cecily. * Cecily appears with a watering can in her hand. She and Ernest/Algernon exchange glances. She pleads with Merriman to let Ernest stay for another five minutes. * Algernon informs her that Jack is sending him away and compliments her beauty. Flattered, Cecily begins copying his words down in her diary, but refuses to let him look at it. * When the dog-cart comes again, Ernest tells it to come again next week. * Without ceremony, he asks Cecily to marry him. She responds amusedly that they’ve been engaged for months. * She confides her past fantasies to him, as they’re written in her diary. Apparently, Ernest proposed on Valentine’s day but they’d broken it off a month later. Now they’re back together, which she can prove with the many love letters from him that she has saved (and written herself). * Ernest kisses her for being so forgiving. * Then she confides that it’s always been a "girlish dream of mine to love someone whose name was Ernest" (II.233). * Distraught, he asks her if she could love him under any other name…say…Algernon, for instance. * Cecily finds it a rather aristocratic name, but no, she wouldn’t be able to love him then. * At that declaration, Ernest/Algernon promptly begins asking her about the rector and whether or not he performs christenings. * Algernon leaves to find Dr. Chasuble about a very important matter. As he leaves, Cecily comments that she likes his hair so much. * Soon, Merriman enters to tell Cecily that a Miss Fairfax has arrived to see Mr. Worthing. * Cecily invites Miss Fairfax to sit with her until Uncle Jack comes out. * They’re both such charming girls that when they meet, they declare they’ll be best friends and call each other immediately by their first names. * They talk for a little while before Gwendolen works up the balls to ask Cecily if she can inspect her. * Gwendolen, peering through her glasses, finds Cecily rather too attractive and loudly wishes that she were a bit older and more decidedly more dowdy. She asks about Cici’s relations and finds out that Mr. Worthing is Cecily’s guardian. * Now that’s problematic, Gwendolen says, since Ernest never mentioned it to her. * When Cecily hears the name Ernest, she quickly explains the situation. * It’s not Ernest Worthing who is my guardian, she says sweetly, but his older brother, Jack. * That’s a relief to Gwendolen, who suddenly becomes polite again. * Cecily proudly declares that she’s going to be Ernest Worthing’s wife. * Gwendolen rises to her feet. Excuse me? You’re mistaken. Ernest proposed to me yesterday. Cecily retorts that he must’ve changed his mind because he just proposed to her ten minutes ago. The two women eye each other coldly before Gwendolen announces – alluding to Cecily’s rude manners – that they obviously move in different social circles. * Right before they can start clawing at each other, Merriman comes by to arrange their tea things. The girls bite back their acidic words in his presence. * As Merriman serves them, they glare at each other but chitchat in cordial tones. However, their small talk bristles with little insults, mostly about the superiority of urban life (from Gwendolen) vs. the superiority of country life (from Cecily). * When Cecily serves Gwendolen tea, she serves it in the opposite manner that Gwendolen requests – giving her lots of sugar in her tea and cake instead of bread & butter. *
Chapter Two: * Thank goodness, Jack arrives just in time to break up their fight. * When Gwendolen jumps on him and asks if he’s to be married to Cecily, Jack laughs it off and kisses Gwendolen. * The truth comes out. Cecily replies that he’s not Ernest Worthing; that’s Uncle Jack. * At the unglamorous name, Gwendolen recoils in disgust. * Right on cue, Algernon enters and Cecily goes through the same routine with him. When he confirms he’s not to be married to Gwendolen, she allows him to kiss her. * This time it’s Gwendolen's turn to clear up the confusion. She reveals that he’s not Ernest Worthing; it’s Algernon Moncrieff, her cousin. * Cecily backs away when she hears "Algernon." * The two women embrace each other in distress, while the men hang their heads in shame. * They finally ask Jack who Ernest is and he is forced to admit that Ernest doesn’t exist. * When both girls realize with horror that neither of them are engaged to anyone, they agree to go into the house where the men won’t dare to follow them. With scornful looks, they leave. * Infuriated and frustrated, the two men turn on each other for the horrible results of their Bunburying. * Both blame each other for deceiving the girls. They argue for a while and Algernon sits down agitatedly and begins to eat the muffins left by the ladies. * Jack comments that it’s heartless for him to eat so calmly when they’re in such a state and begins fighting with him over the muffins. * In the midst of their squabbling, each discovers that the other has a christening to attend that evening to be named Ernest. Their christenings are scheduled only fifteen minutes apart! * Both try to dissuade each other from doing so, without success. * The act ends with both guys still munching muffins and bickering with each other.

Chapter 3: * Gwendolen and Cecily are seeking sanctuary in the morning room at the Manor House. They peer out the window in curiosity at the two men. * The girls notice that the men haven’t followed them into the house and are eating muffins. They’re worried that the guys don’t seem to be noticing them at all. * A moment later, when the two guys start walking towards the house, the women are affronted and agree to give them the silent treatment. * But that soon falls apart. Cecily breaks her silence to ask Algernon why he pretended to be Jack’s brother. He answers candidly – to "have an opportunity of meeting you" (III.15). Cecily melts. * Then it’s Gwendolen’s turn. She asks Jack why he pretended to have a brother. Before he can answer, she suggests that it was possibly so that he could have an excuse to come up to town to see her as often as possible. He confirms it. * Satisfied, the girls confide to forgive the men. But there’s a still a problem. The girls confront the guys in loud unison: "Your Christian names are still an insuperable barrier. That is all!" (III.29) * In other words, the girls can’t possibly marry them if their names aren’t Ernest. * In response, the men answer in unison: "Our Christian names! Is that all? But we are going to be christened this afternoon" (III.30). * Seeing that their beloveds are brave enough to endure such a harrowing ordeal as a christening for their sake, rush into their lovers’ arms. * Merriman enters, sees all the hugging going on, and coughs loudly. He announces the arrival of Lady Bracknell. The startled couples separate. * Lady Bracknell loses no time in asking Gwendolen just what she’s doing. At the news that she’s engaged to Jack, Lady Bracknell turns her wrath on him. She orders that all communication between them must stop immediately and ignores his protests. * Then she turns to Algernon and asks if this is where Bunbury resides. Caught by surprise, Algernon answers no, then stutters that Bunbury is actually dead. He died by exploding. Lady Bracknell is appalled by his method of death, considering it a "revolutionary outrage" (III.54) but is glad that the matter is settled. * On to business. Lady Bracknell asks Jack who is that young person holding Algernon’s hand so inappropriately. * When she learns Algernon is engaged to Cecily, she comments that there must be something in the air here that is particularly exciting. Because the number of engagements here "seems to me considerably above the proper average that statistics have laid down for our guidance" (III.61). * Slyly, she asks if Miss Cardew has any relations to the railway stations in London. * Jack is fuming, but coldly answers no and recites Cecily’s proper parents, plus their address. He assures her that she can find the same information in the Court Guides. And he lists off all the documentation he has of Cecily – including birth certificates, baptism records, incidents of illness and vaccinations. * Lady Bracknell brushes them off, telling Gwendolen it’s time to leave. * As they exit, she asks offhand if Miss Cardew has any amount of fortune. * Oh, Jack answers, just a hundred and thirty thousand pounds. * Lady Bracknell freezes. Suddenly, Cecily looks much more attractive to her. With Cecily’s eager cooperation, Lady Bracknell inspects her profile and declares she has "distinct social possibilities" (III.75). Finally, she gives her consent. She even allows Cecily to call her Aunt Augusta. * But Jack has other ideas. As Cecily’s legal guardian, he refuses to give consent for her to marry Algernon. When Lady Bracknell, insulted, asks what could possibly be wrong with Algernon, Jack reveals that Algernon has lied – deceiving his whole family into thinking he was the nonexistent younger brother, Ernest. * On top of that, Jack continues, he not only drank an entire bottle of his best wine, but also ate every single muffin at tea. Jack stands by his verdict; he won’t give Algernon consent to marry Cecily. * Lady Bracknell, however, has hope. After learning Cecily is eighteen, Lady Bracknell says it won’t be long before she comes of age and she can make her own decisions. * But Jack interrupts, saying her grandfather’s will dictates she won’t come of age until she’s thirty-five. * Although Lady Bracknell doesn’t think the wait is that bad, Cecily is impatient and declares she can't wait that long. * Finally, Jack deigns to negotiate: if Lady Bracknell will give consent for him to marry Gwendolen, he’ll consent to let Algernon marry Cecily. * Lady Bracknell flatly refuses and tells Gwendolen to get ready to go. They’ve already missed five trains back to town. * Dr. Chasuble enters at this crucial moment to announce that everything is ready for the christenings. Lady Bracknell will not hear of such nonsense. * Jack sadly agrees to call off the christenings, because there’s no point now. Nobody is getting married. * This news saddens Dr. Chasuble, but he’s glad to have some free time this evening. He’s heard that Miss Prism has been waiting for him in the vestry. * Lady Bracknell starts at the name. Apparently they have a history. * Jack tries to explain that Miss Prism is Cecily’s esteemed governess. But this has no impact on Lady Bracknell. She orders Chasuble to send for Miss Prism at once. * At the sight of the stern Lady Bracknell, Miss Prism stops dead in her tracks, and turns around with the intention of running away. * Prism! Lady Bracknell spits. Miss Prism approaches humbly. * Lady Bracknell recites Prism’s crime: Twenty-eight years ago, Miss Prism left Lord Bracknell’s house with a perambulator (read: a baby stroller) containing a male child. * Both of them disappeared without a trace. Weeks later, the police found the perambulator in Bayswater with an especially sappy three-volume novel inside. But the baby was gone. * Prism, Lady Bracknell screeches, where is that baby? * Shamed, Miss Prism confesses. She doesn’t know where the child is, but she tells what happened the best she can. On that fateful day, she not only had the baby in the perambulator with her, but the prized three-volume novel she had written, contained in an old hang-bag. * Later that day, she got confused and accidentally put the book into the perambulator and the baby into the handbag. * Jack, who’s been listening intently, asks where she sent the handbag. Miss Prism confesses she deposited it at a cloakroom in Victoria Station (presumably to be sent to a potential publisher), the Brighton line. * At this news, Jack runs up to his room, leaving the others baffled. It sounds like things are being frantically thrown around. * After some time, Jack returns with a black leather handbag. He asks Miss Prism to inspect it and decide whether or not it’s the one she owned. After a few moments, Miss Prism declares that it is indeed hers. She points to the lock, which is engraved with her initials, as proof. * Jack smiles and reveals that he was the baby inside the handbag. Then he impulsively hugs Miss Prism, screaming in joy, "Mother!" (III.148) * But Miss Prism recoils, saying that she is not married. How could he dare insinuate such a thing? But Jack is in a generous mood and forgives her, only to hug her again. * Stunned, Miss Prism detaches herself and points to Lady Bracknell. That woman, she says, can tell you who you really are. * Lady Bracknell delivers the stunning news. "You are the son of my poor sister, Mrs. Moncrieff, and consequently Algernon’s elder brother" (III.153). * Jack is beside himself with joy, glad because this means that he had been telling the truth all these years; he does indeed have a younger brother. He grabs Algy and goes around the room, introducing each and every person to his "unfortunate brother," Algernon. * Gwendolen finally asks the question that’s been on our minds. What is Jack’s real name? He must remember that his marriage depends on it. * Jack turns to Lady Bracknell for the answer. She answers that he was indeed christened, and – as befits the eldest son – was named after his father. But, unfortunately, she cannot remember the General’s name. * Neither can Algy, because their father died when he was a baby. * But Jack has an idea. His father’s name would appear in the Army Lists, wouldn’t it. * Jack turns to the bookcase and tears out volumes until he finds the Army List he wants. He flips through the ‘M’s until he finds the Moncrieff entry. He reads out the Christian name: Ernest John. * He shuts the book and turns to Gwendolen with the suspenseful news that his name really is Ernest. He hasn’t been lying after all. * Lady Bracknell now remembers that the General’s name was Ernest. She knew she had a reason for disliking that name. * This clears the way for a love-fest. Gwendolen rushes into Jack’s arms. Dr. Chasuble (Frederick!) embraces Miss Prism (Laetitia!). Algernon sweeps Cecily off her feet. * There’s general chaotic joy. * When Lady Bracknell tries to put a damper on things by saying Jack is "displaying signs of triviality" (III.180), Jack replies suavely that, on the contrary, "I’ve now realised for the first time in my life the vital importance of being earnest."

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