The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a play about two men both pretending to be a fictitious person named Earnest.  Jack, while masquerading as ‘Earnest,’ is visiting at a lady’s home, that of Gwendolyn, to ask for her hand in marriage.  Her cousin is his good friend Algernon, the only person aware of his ruse.  After he asks Gwendolyn to marry him, she accepts but leaves Jack in a humorously awkward position.

Jack.  Darling!  You don’t know how happy you’ve made me.

Gwendolyn.  My own Earnest!

Jack.  But you don’t really mean to say that you couldn’t love me if my name wasn’t Earnest?

Gwendolyn.  But your name is Earnest.

Jack.  Yes, I know it is.  But supposing it was something else?  Do you mean to say you couldn’t love me then?

Gwendolyn.  [Glibly.]  Ah! that is clearly a metaphysical speculation, and like most metaphysical speculations has very little reference at all to the actual facts of real life, as we know them.

Jack.  Personally, darling, to speak quite candidly, I don’t much care about the name of Earnest . . . I don’t think the name suits me at all.

Gwendolyn.  It suits you perfectly.  It is a divine name.  It has a music of its own.  It produces vibrations.

Jack.  Well, really, Gwendolyn, I must say that I think there are lots of other much nicer names.  I think Jack, for instance, a charming name.

Gwendolyn.  Jack? . . . No, there is very little music in the name Jack, if any at all, indeed.  It does not thrill.  It produces absolutely no vibrations . . . I have known several Jacks, and they all, without exception, were more than usually plain.  Besides, Jack is a notorious domesticity for John!  And I pity any woman who is married to a man called John.  She would probably never be allowed to know the entrancing pleasure of a single moment’s solitude.  The only really safe name is Earnest.

 

The story becomes more complicated when Jack returns to his home in the country after his request to marry Gwendolyn is turned down by her mother because he has no knowledge of his family; he was found in a suitcase in a train station.  In the country, he goes by the name Jack and pretends his brother is Earnest.  Algernon shows up at his home and introduces himself to Jack’s niece, Cecily, as Earnest and promptly falls in love with her and proposes to her.  Cecily and Algernon have a similar debate over the virtues of the name ‘Earnest.’ She accepts his proposal, but then Jack arrives and enters into an argument with Algernon during which Gwendolyn arrives and meets Cecily.  At this point Gwendolyn and Cecily realize they are both engaged to ‘Earnest’ and confront the men.  The women forgive the men for their ruse, but then Gwendolyn’s mother arrives on the scene and, hearing of Algernon’s proposal, questions Jack on Cecily’s worthiness as a wife.  She finds Cecily to be acceptable, but Jack insists that he won’t consent to that marriage unless she allows him to marry Gwendolyn.  At this point, the housekeeper is mentioned, and Gwendolyn’s mother, who already knows her, asks that she be brought forward.  The housekeeper had lost a baby years ago whose father was Algernon’s father, and Gwendolyn’s mother wants to know what happened to it.  It turns out that that baby was Jack, who had been lost, and that he and Algernon are brothers after all.

These two men pretend to be people they are not in an attempt to win over women with whom they have fallen in love.  Jack, in particular, builds an elaborate story around Earnest that makes him sound very proper, very wealthy and thus quite suitable as a husband for Gwendolyn.  Again, the mechanism of a dual personality character is used to make a commentary on society; in this case, it is utilized to point out the absurdity of what is expected of a proper gentleman to make him seem a suitable spouse.  This may have resonated in Wilde’s mind because of his own secret homosexual affair with Lord Alfred Douglas.

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