Summary

In the garden of The Manor House, Jack’s country estatein Hertfordshire, Miss Prism is trying to interest Cecily in herGerman lesson. Cecily would prefer to water the flowers, but MissPrism reminds Cecily that Jack encourages Cecily to improve herselfin every way. Cecily expresses some slight irritation with the factthat her Uncle Jack is so serious, and Miss Prism reminds her ofhis constant concern over his troublesome brother Ernest. Cecily,who has begun writing in her diary, says she wishes Jack would allowErnest to visit them sometime. She suggests that she and Miss Prismmight positively influence him, but Miss Prism doesn’t approve ofthe notion of trying to turn “bad people into good people.” Shetells Cecily to put away her diary and to rely on her memory instead. Cecilypoints out that memory is usually inaccurate and also responsiblefor excessively long, three-volume novels. Miss Prism tells her notto criticize those long novels, as she once wrote one herself.

Dr. Chasuble, the local vicar, enters. Cecily tells Dr.Chasuble teasingly that Miss Prism has a headache and should takea walk with him, obviously aware of an unspoken attraction betweenDr. Chasuble and Miss Prism. Miss Prism reproaches Cecily gentlyfor fibbing, but she decides to take Cecily’s advice, and she andDr. Chasuble go off together. The butler, Merriman, then entersand announces to Cecily that Mr. Ernest Worthing has just drivenover from the station with his luggage. Merriman presents Cecilywith a visiting card, which is the one Algernon took from Jack inAct I.

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The visiting Mr. Ernest Worthing is actually Algernon,masquerading as Jack’s nonexistent brother, who enters dressed tothe nines and greets Cecily as his “little cousin.” When Cecilytells him Jack won’t be back until Monday, Algernon pretends surpriseand disappointment. Cecily tells Algernon that Jack has gone totown to buy Ernest some traveling clothes, as he plans on sendinghim to Australia as a last resort. Algernon proposes another plan:he thinks Cecily should reform him. Cecily says she doesn’t havetime. Algernon decides to reform himself that afternoon, addingthat he is hungry, and he and Cecily flirt with each other as theyhead into the house to find sustenance.

Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble return from their walk, alsoflirting mildly. They are surprised when Jack enters from the backof the garden dressed in full Victorian mourning regalia. Jack greetsMiss Prism with an air of tragedy and explains he has returned earlier thanexpected owing to the death of Ernest. Miss Prism and Dr. Chasubleexpress surprise, shock, and condolences, and Miss Prism makes afew moralistic pronouncements.

Jack’s story matches the one he and Algernoncooked up the previous evening: that Ernest passed away in Parisfrom a “severe chill.” Dr. Chasuble suggests that he might mentionthe sad news in next Sunday’s service and begins talking about hisupcoming sermon. Jack remembers the problem of Gwendolen and his name,and he asks Dr. Chasuble about the possibility of being christenedErnest. They make arrangements for a ceremony that afternoon. AsDr. Chasuble prepares to leave, Cecily emerges from the house withthe news that “Uncle Jack’s brother” has turned up and is in thedining room.

Analysis

From the beginning of The Importance of BeingEarnest, books, fiction, and writing have played an importantrole in furthering our heroes’ own fictions and deceptions. Thewriting in Jack’s cigarette case exposes his secret identity, leadingAlgernon to develop suspicions about his other life. That life itselfis a fiction to the extent that Jack has always lied to Algernonabout what it entails. Jack has also been spinning fiction for thebenefit of his friends and family in the country, where everyonebelieves him to be a paragon of virtue, his brow permanently creasedwith anxiety and woe. The all-important “three-volume novel” inthe dour Miss Prism’s past suggests that Miss Prism herself hashad an alter ego at some point, or at least the capacity for tellingstories of her own. Miss Prism tells Cecily not to “speak slightinglyof” fiction and gives a definition of it: “The good ended happily,and the bad unhappily.” Even before this exchange, Cecily avoidsher schoolbooks. She would rather write than read and pulls outher diary, where she records her “wonderful secrets.” We might assumethat these are themselves fictions of a sort.

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Cecily’s schoolingis part of Miss Prism and Jack’s desire for Cecily to “improve in every way,” a sentiment that reeks of Victorian righteousnessand solemnity, and Cecily foregoes this attempt to pursue her ownwriting.


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