The Importance of Being Earnest – Act I, Part Two

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.
(See Important Quotations Explained)

Summary
Lady Bracknell comes onstage gossiping about a friend
whose husband has died recently. Seating herself, she asks for one
of the cucumber sandwiches Algernon has promised her. However, no cucumber
sandwiches are in sight—Algernon, without realizing what he was
doing, has devoured every last one. He gazes at the empty plate
in horror and asks Lane sharply why there are no cucumber sandwiches.
Quickly sizing up the situation, Lane explains blandly that he couldn’t
find cucumbers at the market that morning. Algernon dismisses Lane
with obvious, and feigned, displeasure. Lady Bracknell is not concerned,
and she chatters about the nice married woman she’s planning to
have Algernon take in to dinner that evening. Regretfully, Algernon
tells Lady Bracknell that due to the illness of his friend Bunbury,
he’ll be unable to come to dinner after all. Lady Bracknell expresses
her irritation about Bunbury’s “shilly-shallying” over the question
of whether he’ll live or die. To appease her, and to give Jack a
chance to propose to Gwendolen, Algernon offers to go over the musical
program for an upcoming reception with her and takes her into the
music room.
Alone with Gwendolen, Jack awkwardly stammers out his
admiration, and Gwendolen takes charge. She lets Jack know right
away that she shares his feelings, and Jack is delighted. However,
he is somewhat dismayed to learn that a good part of Gwendolen’s attraction
to him is due to what she believes is his name—Ernest. Gwendolen
is fixated on the name Ernest, which she feels has “a music of its
own” and “inspires absolute confidence.” Gwendolen makes clear that
she would not consider marrying a man who was not named
Ernest.
Lady Bracknell returns to the room, and Gwendolen tells
her she is engaged to Jack. Lady Bracknell then interviews
Jack to determine Jack’s eligibility as a possible son-in-law. Jack
seems to be giving all the right answers, until Lady Bracknell inquires
into his family background. Jack explains that he has no idea who
his parents were, and that he was found, by the man who adopted him,
in a handbag in the cloakroom at Victoria Station. Lady Bracknell
is scandalized. She forbids him from marrying Gwendolen and leaves
the house angrily.
Algernon enters, and Jack reviews the results of his interview with
Lady Bracknell, explaining that as far as Gwendolen is concerned
the two of them are engaged. Algernon asks mischievously whether
Jack has told her the truth about being “Ernest in town, and Jack
in the country,” and Jack scoffs at the idea. He says he plans to
kill off Ernest by the end of the week by having him catch a severe
chill in Paris. Algernon asks whether Jack has told Gwendolen about
his ward, Cecily, and again Jack scoffs at the question. He claims
Cecily and Gwendolen will surely become friends and “will be calling
each other sister.”
Gwendolen reenters and asks to speak privately with Jack.
She tells him how the story of his childhood has stirred her and
declares her undying love, whatever happens. She asks Jack for his
address in the country and Algernon listens in, jotting it down
on his cuff. Jack exits with Gwendolen to show her to her carriage,
and Lane comes in with some bills, which Algernon promptly
tears up. He tells Lane he plans to go “Bunburying” the next day
and asks him to lay out “all the Bunbury suits.” Jack returns, praising
Gwendolen, and the curtain falls on Algernon laughing quietly and
looking at his shirt cuff.
Analysis
The scene in which Jack proposes to Gwendolen portrays
a reversal of Victorian assumptions about gender roles. Propriety
demanded that young women be weak and ineffectual, helpless vessels
of girlish admiration and passivity, while men were supposed to
be authoritative and competent. Here, however, Jack stammers ineffectually,
and Gwendolen takes the whole business of the marriage proposal
out of his hands. Wilde has some fun with the rigidity of Victorian
convention when he has Gwendolen backtrack and insist that Jack
start the whole proposal process over again, doing it properly.
The social commentary in this scene goes deeper than the Victorian
concern with propriety. In the figure of Gwendolen, a young woman
obsessed with the name Ernest, and not with actual earnestness itself,
Wilde satirizes Victorian society’s preoccupation with surface manifestations
of virtue and its willingness to detect virtue in the most superficial
displays of decent behavior. The Ernest/earnest joke is a send-up
of the whole concept of moral duty, which was the linchpin of Victorian
morality.
Wilde uses Lady Bracknell’s interview of Jack to make
fun of the values of London society, which put a higher premium
on social connections than on character or goodness. More disquieting
than the questions themselves is the order in which Lady Bracknell
asks them. Before she even gets to such matters as income and family,
she wants to know if Jack smokes, and she is pleased to hear that
he does, since she considers smoking an antidote to idleness. Such
trivial questions suggest the vacuity of London society, where more weighty
issues are of secondary importance. The questions about Jack’s family
background, however, reveal Lady Bracknell’s darker side. When Jack
admits he has “lost” both his parents, Lady Bracknell replies with
an elaborate pun: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded
as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” Like so
many of Lady Bracknell’s pronouncements, this one is funny because
it’s absurd. However, the statement also reflects a heartlessness
that’s very real and not funny at all. Lady Bracknell responded
in an equally callous way to Bunbury’s lingering illness when she
remarked, “I must say . . . that I think it is high time that
Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he was going to live or to
die. This shilly-shallying with the question is absurd.” In pronouncements
such as these, Lady Bracknell reveals an unsettling notion that
colored every aspect of Victorian life: poverty and misfortune are,
to some extent, an outcome of moral unworthiness.
In The Importance of Being Earnest,
conventional morality operates on two levels of hypocrisy. On one
level is the portrait Algernon paints of what he sees as conventional
married bliss, in which husband and wife appear faithful but either
one or the other is carrying on behind the other one’s back. He
tells Jack that, in a marriage, either husband or wife will certainly
want to know Bunbury, and that “in married life three is company
and two is none.” Confronted with a man who is “Ernest in town and Jack
in the country,” a conventional Victorian audience would probably
have seen some reference to heterosexual infidelity. However, Wilde’s
audience must also have been full of people to whom “Ernest in town
and Jack in the country” meant something quite different, something
that had to be buried far below the surface of the dialogue. When
Lady Bracknell says that “a cloakroom at a railway station might
serve to conceal a social indiscretion—has probably, indeed, been
used for that purpose before now,” a twenty-first-century reader
or audience member most likely will imagine another kind of life
that Victorian hypocrisy required one to hide: the secret life of
homosexuals, for which Wilde himself was condemned.

All women become like their mothers.
That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.
(See Important Quotations Explained)