The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde: Summary, Analysis & Criticism

Instructor: Debbie Notari
Oscar Wilde's play ''The Importance of Being Earnest'' is both humorous and lighthearted. Set in England and published in 1895, it is one of Wilde's best-loved works. In this lesson, we will learn about the plot of this famous play.

The Protagonist

Jack Worthing is the protagonist of The Importance of Being Earnest. When he was an infant, he was found at Victoria Station in a black handbag, apparently abandoned. The man who found him, Thomas Cardew, adopts Jack and raises him as his own, and Jack is the guardian of Thomas Cardew's 18-year-old niece, Cecily.

Jack became an upstanding citizen in his community, but little does anyone know, he lives a double life. He pretends to have a brother in London named 'Ernest,' a wild, unprincipled man. Jack visits London regularly to set his brother straight, so he says. In reality, Jack is living a double life in London, much wilder than anyone back home could imagine, and he actually calls himself 'Ernest' when he is in London. His double life allows him to have some breathing room from his moral responsibilities back home.

Algernon Learns the Truth

Algernon, Jack's close friend, finds a cigarette case with the inscription: ''From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack,'' that supposedly belongs to 'Ernest.' Algernon confronts Jack, who then admits his duplicity.

Jack explains himself by saying, ''When one is placed in the position of guardian, one has to adopt a very high moral tone on all subjects. It's one's duty to do so. And as a high moral tone can hardly be said to conduce very much to either one's health or one's happiness, in order to get up to town I have always pretended to have a younger brother of the name of Ernest, who lives in the Albany, and gets into the most dreadful scrapes'' (1.1). Algernon calls him a 'bunburyist,' or someone who pretends to be what he is not, but doesn't condemn him for it. However, Jack feels it is time to let his alias die, or so he thinks!

Gwendolen

Jack is in love with Gwendolen, Algernon's cousin, and decides to propose to her. He realizes that it would be good to tell her the truth about his identity, but then Gwendolen reveals that her ''ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest'' and that ''(t)here is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence'' (1.1). The two profess their love for each other, and then Jack ventures into the subject of ''what if my name isn't Ernest?'' Gwen firmly answers that ''the only really safe name is Ernest'' (1.1). The two agree to marry, but there is a problem: Gwendolen's mother, Lady Bracknell.

Lady Bracknell

Lady Bracknell, although strict and seemingly imposing, is a humorously fastidious woman who refuses to allow the couple to marry when she learns of Jack's mysterious background, namely that he was found in a black handbag. She believes it is very important to have strong family connections and status. Jack obviously falls short of her expectations of a spouse for her daughter.

Cecily and Algernon

In the meantime, from Jack and Algernon's previous conversation, Algernon is intrigued with Cecily, Jack's beautiful ward. He finds Jack's address and visits Cecily, under the guise of being 'Ernest,' and begins to court her. Cecily has imagined meeting 'Ernest' for some time and is already in love with him, which makes Algernon's job of winning her heart quite easy. Jack returns home, ready to admit the whole sham to Cecily only to find Algernon there, posing as 'Ernest.' In fact, Jack tells Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble that Ernest is dead, and then Cecily enters the room telling Jack that Ernest is visiting. Comically, Cecily, too, believes that the name 'Ernest' ''inspires absolute confidence'' (1.1).

The Dilemma

Both men have a problem: the women they love are obsessed with the name 'Ernest,' and neither of them really go by that name. They separately decide to visit the local rector, Dr. Chasuble, to see if they may legally change their names. Dr. Chasuble is sweet on Cecily's governess, Miss Prism, and so we see this additional layer to the story.

Miss Prism's Past

We find out that Miss Prism was actually the nurse of Lady Bracknell's missing nephew. One day, both the nurse and the baby disappeared. What actually happened was that Miss Prism was writing a novel, and she distractedly placed the infant in her black handbag instead of her novel. She left the baby at Victoria Station where he was found by none other than Thomas Cardew. As you have probably guessed by now, Jack was that baby.

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