The Importance of Being Earnest: Act 1 (Part 2)

Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen greet Algernon. Lady Bracknell gossips about an aristocratic lady who seems rejuvenated since her husband died. She asks why there are no cucumber sandwiches. Algernon has absent-mindedly eaten them all himself, though Lane rescues him from having to admit this by claiming that there were no cucumbers at the market. Lady Bracknell tells Algernon that at dinner that evening she plans to sit him next to a woman who is devoted to her husband. Algernon replies that unfortunately he will not be able to dine with her, as he has to tend to Bunbury, who is ill again. Lady Bracknell says that Bunbury should decide once and for all whether he is going to live or die instead of “shilly-shallying with the question.” Algernon placates her by arranging the musical program for her reception on Saturday. He takes her into the next room, giving Jack a chance to propose to Gwendolen.
Alone with Gwendolen, Jack nervously confesses his admiration for her. She says that even before she met him, she always knew that she was destined to love him, chiefly because he is called (as she believes) Ernest: “my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence.” Jack is delighted that Gwendolen returns his affection, but unnerved by the importance she places on the name of Ernest. He asks her if she means that she could not love him if his name were not Ernest. Her answer suggests that she could not. Jack proposes, and Gwendolen accepts.
Lady Bracknell re-enters the room, and Gwendolen tells her that she is engaged to Jack. Lady Bracknell assures Gwendolen that she is not engaged to anyone until her parents inform her of the fact. She sends Gwendolen out while she interrogates Jack about his suitability as a husband for her daughter.
The interview begins well for Jack. Lady Bracknell is impressed by his claim to know nothing, as “I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.” She is satisfied with his income, but disappointed that his town house is on the unfashionable side of its square. Then she asks about his parents, a subject on which Jack cannot satisfy her. He explains that he has no idea who his parents were. He was found abandoned as a baby in a handbag at Victoria railway station in London by the man who was to adopt him, Mr. Thomas Cardew. Lady Bracknell is shocked, and says that Jack can hardly expect her to allow her daughter “to marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel.” She tells Jack that to have any hope of marrying Gwendolen, he will have to find at least one parent by the end of the social season, and sweeps out.
Jack, in angry mood, tells Algernon the outcome of his interview with Lady Bracknell. He says that Gwendolen assumes they are engaged, but that Lady Bracknell is behaving unbearably. Algernon wants to know whether Jack has told Gwendolen “the truth about your being Ernest in town, and Jack in the country.” Jack replies that the truth is not something that one tells to a sweet, refined girl like Gwendolen. He adds that he has decided to get rid of Ernest by having him die of a chill in Paris by the end of the week. Algernon asks Jack if he has told Gwendolen about his ward, Cecily, but Jack impatiently dismisses the question, saying that the two girls are sure to be great friends.
Gwendolen re-enters and asks Algernon to turn his back so that she can speak privately to Jack. She tells Jack that she fear they may never marry, due to her mother’s disapproval. She adds that she has heard the story of Jack’s origin and finds it very romantic, and swears her undying devotion to him. She asks Jack for his address in the country (it turns out to be in Hertfordshire and not Shropshire, as he previously told Algernon). As Jack tells her his address, Algernon smiles to himself and writes it on his shirt cuff, then picks up the Railway Guide. Jack leaves the room to see Gwendolen off.
Lane brings Algernon his letters. They appear to be bills, as Algernon tears them up. Then he tells Lane that tomorrow he is going “Bunburying” in the country. He looks at his shirt cuff and smiles.
Analysis of Act 1 (part 2)
In line with the principles of the Aesthetic movement, the characters in the play are highly artificial. They speak and act in a stylized, unrealistic way, and they focus on style, rather than substance, as when, for instance, Gwendolen cares more about the name of her betrothed than the inner man (“my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest”). Thus, when Lady Bracknell pronounces, “A girl with a simple, unspoiled nature, like Gwendolen, can hardly be expected to reside in the country,” the notion of “nature” meaning the inner character or essence of a person, has already been heavily subverted. Contrary to Lady Bracknell’s claim, Gwendolen’s nature is not simple. The other connotation of “nature,” the innocent, unspoiled countryside of literary and artistic tradition, has also been subverted. After all, the country is a place from which Jack creates a fictional other life for himself and where Algernon escapes to avoid his responsibilities by “Bunburying.” As a result of all this, Lady Bracknell’s words come over as ironic, though she is quite unaware of any irony and means everything she says to be taken at face value. In the world of the play, the nature that is found in the countryside is no longer simple, if it ever was. Both man’s inner nature and the external nature of the countryside have been complicated by the artifice of man. Thus Wilde, as befits an author dedicated to the ideals of the Aesthetic movement, undermines traditional preconceptions about what is “natural.”
In Lady Bracknell’s interrogation of Jack, Wilde satirizes the conventions of upper-class Victorian English society. In an inversion of common-sense values, Lady Bracknell attaches great value to the trivial matter of whether Jack smokes; she is glad that he does, as “A man should always have an occupation of some kind.” This, along with her subsequent praise of ignorance as an “exotic fruit,” satirically comments on the idle and trivial lifestyle of the English upper-class male. Lady Bracknell, as ever, is innocent of any satirical or ironic intention; she genuinely believes the outrageous statements that she makes, which makes her a living parody of upper-class values.
Occasionally, Lady Bracknell’s views seem to be at one with Wilde’s authorial voice, such as her statement that it is fortunate for the upper classes that English education has no effect, as if it did, it would lead to “acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.” Her attitude to such a possibility is, however, at odds with that of the author. Lady Bracknell would be appalled if such events took place, since her character is as repressive as the tenacious English Victorian class system. But her views are discredited through her oppositional attitude to the young lovers. Wilde suggests that anyone with a greater sense of freedom and justice than Lady Bracknell may have viewed the prospect of revolution in Grosvenor Square with satisfaction. Just as it is the young lovers’ natural duty to resist Lady Bracknell’s tradition-bound tyranny, the author implies, a properly educated underclass would not tolerate the continuation of the unfair class system.
For the most part, Lady Bracknell is, as Jack says, “a monster, without being a myth, which is rather unfair.” Her appalled reaction to the news that Jack does not know who his parents were, but was found in a railway station, is emblematic of the Victorian upper-class obsession with pedigree and ‘good family.’ She is quite unconcerned with the human trauma of Jack’s childhood, showing a chilling heartlessness and lack of compassion that comments satirically on the inhumanity of class snobbery.
Within the traditions of romantic comedy, Gwendolen, as a young woman in love with the young romantic lead, Jack, is a sympathetic character. In this context, she stands in opposition to Lady Bracknell, who, in line with comedic convention, is a representative of a stuffy older generation who opposes the young lovers’ marriage for reasons other than those of the heart.  However, there is a darker side to Gwendolen that matches Jack’s darker side. In her obsession with style over substance (she is excessively attached to Jack’s false name of Ernest), she shows the potential of growing into a version of her mother. Both she and Lady Bracknell place an expectation on Jack that he cannot meet: Gwendolen insists that he really be called Ernest, and Lady Bracknell insists that he produce a parent. Both are superficial requirements to which the women attach extreme weight. In reply to Jack’s concerned question to Algernon, “You don’t think there is any chance of Gwendolen becoming like her mother in about a hundred and fifty years, do you, Algy?”, Algernon replies, “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy.”
The obsession with trivia and superficial matters in the play is satirized in the title, The Importance of Being Earnest. “Earnest” means serious, but the only things that the play’s characters are concerned about are trivial. In a society ruled by common sense, a man who made romantic overtures to a woman would be judged by the seriousness, or earnestness, of his intentions. In the world of the play, Jack is judged, not by his inner earnestness, but by whether or not his name is Ernest. This comments satirically upon the obsession of contemporary society with form and appearance.
In spite of all this, any conclusion by the reader that the author disapproves of such superficiality would be simplistic. Wilde’s Aesthetic stance, his devotion to elegance and beauty of form, and his contempt for moral lessons in art, mean that his authorial voice is most heard via the superficial wit and dandy, Algernon. Algernon’s life is a beautifully constructed series of elegant and harmless deceptions, the main purposes of which seem to be amusement and avoiding responsibility.
The difference between Algernon and Lady Bracknell is, however, significant. Algernon is aware of the fictions and deceptions that he creates, and never uses them to hurt or exclude others. In fact, his awareness that deception is a universal human activity makes him more humane and forgiving, as in his attitude to the servants’ stealing his champagne, and his amused indulgence of Jack’s deceptions. Lady Bracknell, on the other hand, is blind to the hypocrisy and falseness of the values that she embraces. She uses the forms and fictions of respectable society (such as the belief that pedigree is more important than intrinsic worthiness as a human being) to exclude and condemn others.
Critics have pointed out that Lady Bracknell embodies the Victorian tendency to equate poverty, sickness, and misfortune with moral unworthiness: she disapproves of Bunbury for “shilly-shallying” in ill health rather than recovering or dying; and she condemns Jack’s lack of parents as “carelessness,” as if it were his own fault that he was abandoned. Such attitudes enabled respectable Victorians to dismiss vast sections of society on the grounds that their misfortune was in some way their own fault. Wilde, whose instincts in art and life were humanitarian and compassionate, was certainly attacking Lady Bracknell’s conventional yet warped values.