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.
This section sets the tone for the rest of the play, which is very satirical. It is also the exposition. Wilde cleverly harnesses characterization and dialogue to convey the absurdities of Victorian London “society.” Wilde establishes, here, his major themes for the duration of the play: absurdity of society, marriage as a superficial contract, and his satirical wit. This play can be considered as a comedy of manners, because it uses an ironic tone while observing upper class society, whose members seem to value the wrong things. Because of this, the play is humorous
In the very beginning Wilde presents an interaction between Algernon, a man of status, and Lane, his manservant. Algernon asks Lane if he has heard him playing the piano. When Lane responds that he has not, Algernon thinks it a pity because he plays with “wonderful expression,” if not accurately. One can take this as an example of Wilde’s support of the Aesthetic movement, which valued art for art’s sake. This philosophy did not require art to instruct or handle political issues. Unconcerned with the accuracy of his music, and in appreciation of its artistic value, Algernon can, here, be viewed s an aesthete.
Algernon and Lane discuss the institution of marriage an, ironically, consider it demoralizing. This is unusual because Victorian society held marriage in high esteem. Consistently, throughout this play, Wilde will repeat this satirical view of marriage. Finally, in another surprising moment, Algernon states that he believes it is the job of the lower classes to set an example for the upper classes. This is interesting, because it re-situates the hierarchical nature of society, which assumes richer to be better.
Lacy Bracknell is an interesting character because she is of high society
and acts seemingly irrationally. Her decision to not allow Gwendolen to
marry Jack, based on his being found in a cloakroom as a baby, seems ridiculous.
She disregards love as a basis for marriage. Wilde uses her to display
the superficiality of the upper class. Interestingly, he also portrays
Gwendolen as shallow when she says that she could not love Ernest if he
had another name.
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