The play opens in Algernon Moncrieff’s luxurious and artistically furnished flat (apartment) in London, England. Algernon is playing the piano in the next room while Lane, his butler, is arranging tea on the table. Algernon enters and asks Lane if he heard his playing, but Lane says that he did not think it “polite” to listen. Algernon asks Lane if he has prepared the cucumber sandwiches for Lady Bracknell, who is about to visit with her daughter, Gwendolen Fairfax, Algernon’s cousin. Lane hands the sandwiches to Algernon, who begins to eat them.
Algernon has noticed an irregularity in the household accounts regarding the amount of champagne that has been drunk, and he realizes that the servants must have been drinking it. He asks Lane why the champagne in bachelor households is always drunk by the servants. Lane says that it is due to its excellent quality, unlike the champagne in married households, which is inferior. The two men philosophically discuss the married state.
Jack Worthing arrives at Algernon’s apartment. He is announced under the name by which he is known in town, Ernest Worthing. Algernon greets him enthusiastically and asks whether business or pleasure brings him to town. Jack says pleasure. Algernon questions Jack about his supposed country estate in Shropshire, but Jack replies evasively. When Algernon mentions that Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen are coming to tea, Jack reveals that he has come to town to propose to Gwendolen. Algernon defines this as business, not pleasure.
Jack reaches out to take a cucumber sandwich, but Algernon stops him, pointing out that they are for Lady Bracknell. Jack counters that Algernon himself has been eating them, but Algernon says he is allowed to, as Lady Bracknell is his aunt. Algernon suggests that Jack eat the bread and butter, which has been ordered for Gwendolen. As Jack begins to eat the bread and butter rather too greedily, Algernon tells Jack that he is behaving as if he were already married to Gwendolen, which he probably never will be, since he (Algernon) will not consent to the marriage until Jack has cleared up the question of Cecily. Jack says he knows no one by the name of Cecily. Algernon produces a cigarette case that Jack left behind when he last dined with Algernon. The inscription inside says it is a present from Cecily to her uncle Jack. Algernon concludes that the case cannot possibly belong to Jack (whom Algernon knows as Ernest).
Algernon forces Jack to reveal that his name is not really Ernest, but Jack. Algernon is amazed, as he believes that Jack is “the most earnest-looking person” he ever saw. He produces one of Jack’s visiting cards and shows him the name and address on it, saying he intends to keep it as proof that Jack’s name is Ernest. Jack says that he calls himself Ernest in town and Jack in the country. Algernon delightedly pronounces Jack to be “a confirmed and secret Bunburyist,” though he refuses to say what this means until Jack has explained himself. Jack explains that he was adopted as a little boy by a Mr. Thomas Cardew, who made him guardian to his granddaughter, Cecily Cardew, who lives at Jack’s country house with her governess, Miss Prism. As a guardian, Jack is expected to adopt a “very high moral tone on all subjects,” which is not a recipe for happiness. Therefore, Jack pretends to have a younger brother called Ernest, who lives at the Albany Hotel and gets into all kinds of trouble. This gives him an excuse to come to town whenever he wishes (and, the implication is, to behave badly there under the identity of the fake brother, Ernest).
Algernon again pronounces Jack to be a Bunburyist. He explains that just as Jack has invented a younger brother called Ernest who enables him to come to town as often as he wants, so he, Algernon, has invented an invalid friend called Bunbury, whose frequent health crises give Algernon an excuse to go to the country as often as he wants. He adds that Bunbury’s most recent relapse has enabled him to get out of an existing arrangement to dine with Lady Bracknell that evening, so that he can dine with Jack instead. He wants to explain the rules of Bunburying to Jack, but Jack refuses to admit to being a Bunburyist and says that he plans to kill off Ernest, as Cecily has become too interested in him. Algernon warns Jack that if he does marry, he will find that he needs a Bunbury all the more.
Lane announces the arrival of Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen.
Analysis of Act 1 (part 1)
From the very beginning, the world of the play is established as a place where artifice, fiction, and deception have precedence over any kind of reality. Algernon is heard playing the piano with “wonderful expression.” This act of artistic creation is not, however, an outpouring of his own feelings, but just an act put on for effect: “sentiment is my forte.” The theme of deception is continued in the episode in which the servants are revealed to be drinking Algernon’s champagne and concocting false entries in the household accounts, a deception that Algernon seems to accept as a normal part of life.
These incidents set the scene for the central deception or fiction that drives the play. Through the plot device of the cigarette case, Jack is revealed to be not what he seems. Even Algernon, his best friend, has little idea of the reality of Jack’s life. It transpires that Jack is not really called Ernest, the name by which Algernon and everyone else in London knows him, but Jack (it is later revealed that even this is an informal version of his given name of John). The ruse of having the name of “Ernest in the town and Jack in the country” enables him to lead a double life without facing the consequences. He can not only escape to town whenever he wishes under the guise of helping Ernest out of trouble, but he can also place the blame for his bad behavior in town onto his fictional brother Ernest.
There are more deceptions. Jack has a ward (girl under his guardianship) called Cecily, of whom Algernon has never heard. Jack is trying to prevent Algernon meeting Cecily, presumably because he does not trust Algernon to behave honorably towards her. Although Jack claims to have a country estate in Shropshire, he replies evasively to Algernon’s questions about it, and then admits that it is not in Shropshire at all.
Algernon is delighted to uncover this secretive double life that Jack leads, partly because he leads one himself. He has invented an imaginary friend called Bunbury who enables him to escape to the country whenever he wishes, the implication being that this also enables him to escape his responsibilities.
The fact that the two leading characters have invented fictional characters to allow them to lead double lives may be interpreted as Wilde’s comment on the repression and hypocrisy of respectable Victorian English society. “Bunburying” becomes a euphemism for the activities that a Victorian man may want to hide from the prying eyes of the morally high-minded. Because the plot revolves around Jack and Algernon’s plans to marry, and because Jack intends to “kill” the morally suspect Ernest before his marriage, by implication these activities are sexual indiscretions.
The implied theme of sexual license is reinforced by the characters’ obsession with eating, an activity in which they indulge at every opportunity and which often carries undertones of illicitness. The clue lies in the notion of appetite, both for food and (implicitly) for sex. The illicitness of indulging one’s appetite is seen in the servants’ drinking Algernon’s champagne, in Jack’s trying to eat the cucumber sandwiches that were meant for Lady Bracknell before he is rebuked by Algernon, and in Jack’s rather too greedy appetite for the bread and butter that is meant for Gwendolen. Algernon responds to this last incident by remarking that Jack is behaving as if he were married to Gwendolen already, a remark that satirically acknowledges the Victorian convention that indulging one’s appetite is acceptable within marriage, but not before.
In the morally subversive world of the play, however, Algernon advises Jack to retain his fictional brother, as when he is married, “you will be very glad to know Bunbury.” Algernon adds that even if Jack is happy to dispense with Bunburying, his intended wife, Gwendolen, will be glad of him. Subverting the marriage-supporting cliché that two is company and three is a crowd, Algernon insists that “in married life three is company and two is none.”
Part of Wilde’s subversion of conventional mores is his insistence that style, not substance, and appearance, not reality, is what matters in life. This, of course, is the opposite of what is taught by conventional morality, religion, and most works of art and literature. Lane is superficially the perfectly polite and deferential servant, but connives in the servants’ stealing of the master’s champagne; Algernon appears to be Lady Bracknell’s dutiful nephew, but uses the fictional Bunbury to get out of dining with her; and Jack keeps up the appearance of being a morally upstanding guardian to Cecily by inventing the fictional Ernest. Indeed, Jack surpasses Algernon in the seriousness of his deception: while Algernon keeps Bunbury at a distance from himself, Jack actually pretends to be Ernest when in town, and, it later transpires, has wooed Gwendolen under this false name. There is a slightly sinister aspect to Jack that is lacking in Algernon. Whereas Jack refuses to admit that he is a Bunburyist, Algernon takes an innocent delight in his deception and talks about it openly with Jack. In his self-awareness, Algernon is closer to the figure of the artist who consciously creates a work of art and stands outside his creation, whereas Jack is bound up in his creation and in danger of becoming a victim to it.
The play’s emphasis on the importance of style over substance, and appearance over reality, is summed up by Algernon’s indignant response to Jack’s revelation that he is not, in fact, called Ernest. Algernon insists that Jack is “the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life.” In other words, Jack’s identity, as far as Algernon is concerned, springs from his adopted name. In this cynical, superficial society, the label is more important than the contents. Algernon also says that the name Ernest is on Algernon’s visiting cards, and calls this “proof” that Jack is genuinely Ernest. The relationship of written documentation (letters, certificates, and so on) to identity and reality is central to the play. Generally, it becomes obvious that written documentation, much as modern society relies upon it for ‘reliable’ information, is not in the least reliable and can represent a complete fiction, as, indeed, is the case with Jack’s visiting cards.
The slippery and unreliable relationship between appearance and reality, label and contents, can be understood in terms of the discipline of semiotics, or the study of signs. A sign is something that denotes or means something else, an entity that denotes another entity. The sign is split into two parts, the signifier and the signified. For example, the word “cat” is the signifier that denotes the actual animal that is referred to, the signified; a sentence such as “the cat sat on the mat” is a signifier that denotes that event, which is the signified. Not all signifiers are words: they may be gestures (such as the thumbs-up sign, which means that all is well), road signs, official documents (such as birth or marriage certificates), works of art or literature, or symbols (such as the flag which denotes a certain nation). The influential Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) believed that the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary. In other words, there is nothing inherent in an object that demands that it is called by a certain signifier; the signifier can have any meaning that people mutually agree upon. Jack can become Ernest simply by calling himself that; Algernon can present himself as a dutiful friend in his attentions to the fictional Bunbury.
In The Importance of Being Earnest, as Neil Sammells points out in his book, Wilde Style: The Plays and Prose of Oscar Wilde (Pearson Education Ltd., 2000), Wilde plays with this idea of the arbitrariness and slipperiness of signs. He shows how respectable Victorian society depended upon signs, in the form of documents like birth certificates and calling cards, in forming its attitudes to persons or events. Wilde also shows that such signs can bear no relation whatsoever to the truth, just as Jack’s visiting card is a lie, and Lane’s household accounts are a lie.
This world of slipperiness subverts conventional morals, enabling everyone to engage in deception and subterfuge as they create fictions around themselves. There is a satirical purpose, insofar as Wilde is drawing attention to the superficiality of contemporary society, and its embrace of fashion, style, appearance, and whim. Corruption has become the norm, and people succeed in life to the extent that they have perfected the art of glossing over their moral shortcomings, as have Jack and Algernon.
But it cannot be said that the author’s stance is one of disapproval of the world of fictions and deceptions. In many ways, the play is a celebration of style over substance. The characters have no rounded identity. They exist in order to deliver witty observations, which in themselves often reinforce the importance of superficiality and attack respectable institutions like marriage. For example, Lane subverts the Victorian terminology for planning to marry someone, having ‘an understanding’ with the person, by describing his own marriage as a “consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.” The important aspect of deception in Wilde’s works is this: the more aware a character is, the more he or she recognizes the fictions and acts of imagination or deception that he or she perpetrates. Algernon and Cecily, for example, are more aware of their fictions and deceptions than are Jack and Gwendolen; they stand outside them. They do not identify themselves wholly with them, or take them too seriously. In this respect, they are comparable to the artist, whose role it is to observe and create a work of beauty, ingenuity or imagination.
The ascendancy in this play and others by Wilde of style over substance and appearance over reality has led to his being identified with the literary and artistic movement known as the Aesthetic movement. The Aesthetic movement arose in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century. It is generally considered to be the British branch of the French Symbolist movement (otherwise known as Decadence) and shared many of the same notions. Followers of the Aesthetic movement held that the arts should provide refined sensuous pleasure, rather than convey moral or sentimental messages. Thus, art was not seen as moral or useful; it needed only to be beautiful. “Art for art’s sake” was a motto of the Aesthetic and Symbolist movements. Even an individual’s life was seen as a work of art, which could be deliberately created.
Wilde’s plays generally have at least one character that exemplifies the Aesthetic ideal and acts as a stand-in for Wilde himself. In The Importance of Being Earnest, that character is Algernon. Algernon lives surrounded by beautiful objects, takes delight in artistry and ingenuity, and makes witty and epigrammatic statements that sometimes have a profound or satirical undertone but which are always amusing.
The Aesthetic movement is considered to have ended with the 1895 libel case between Wilde and the Marquess of Queensberry.