The Importance of Being Earnest – Act II, Part One

Summary
In the garden of The Manor House, Jack’s country estate
in Hertfordshire, Miss Prism is trying to interest Cecily in her
German lesson. Cecily would prefer to water the flowers, but Miss
Prism reminds Cecily that Jack encourages Cecily to improve herself
in every way. Cecily expresses some slight irritation with the fact
that her Uncle Jack is so serious, and Miss Prism reminds her of
his constant concern over his troublesome brother Ernest. Cecily,
who has begun writing in her diary, says she wishes Jack would allow
Ernest to visit them sometime. She suggests that she and Miss Prism
might positively influence him, but Miss Prism doesn’t approve of
the notion of trying to turn “bad people into good people.” She
tells Cecily to put away her diary and to rely on her memory instead. Cecily
points out that memory is usually inaccurate and also responsible
for excessively long, three-volume novels. Miss Prism tells her not
to 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 take
a walk with him, obviously aware of an unspoken attraction between
Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism. Miss Prism reproaches Cecily gently
for fibbing, but she decides to take Cecily’s advice, and she and
Dr. Chasuble go off together. The butler, Merriman, then enters
and announces to Cecily that Mr. Ernest Worthing has just driven
over from the station with his luggage. Merriman presents Cecily
with a visiting card, which is the one Algernon took from Jack in
Act I.
The visiting Mr. Ernest Worthing is actually Algernon,
masquerading as Jack’s nonexistent brother, who enters dressed to
the nines and greets Cecily as his “little cousin.” When Cecily
tells him Jack won’t be back until Monday, Algernon pretends surprise
and disappointment. Cecily tells Algernon that Jack has gone to
town to buy Ernest some traveling clothes, as he plans on sending
him to Australia as a last resort. Algernon proposes another plan:
he thinks Cecily should reform him. Cecily says she doesn’t have
time. Algernon decides to reform himself that afternoon, adding
that he is hungry, and he and Cecily flirt with each other as they
head into the house to find sustenance.
Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble return from their walk, also
flirting mildly. They are surprised when Jack enters from the back
of the garden dressed in full Victorian mourning regalia. Jack greets
Miss Prism with an air of tragedy and explains he has returned earlier than
expected owing to the death of Ernest. Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble
express surprise, shock, and condolences, and Miss Prism makes a
few moralistic pronouncements.
Jack’s story matches the one he and Algernon
cooked up the previous evening: that Ernest passed away in Paris
from a “severe chill.” Dr. Chasuble suggests that he might mention
the sad news in next Sunday’s service and begins talking about his
upcoming sermon. Jack remembers the problem of Gwendolen and his name,
and he asks Dr. Chasuble about the possibility of being christened
Ernest. They make arrangements for a ceremony that afternoon. As
Dr. Chasuble prepares to leave, Cecily emerges from the house with
the news that “Uncle Jack’s brother” has turned up and is in the
dining room.
Analysis
From the beginning of The Importance of Being
Earnest, books, fiction, and writing have played an important
role in furthering our heroes’ own fictions and deceptions. The
writing in Jack’s cigarette case exposes his secret identity, leading
Algernon to develop suspicions about his other life. That life itself
is a fiction to the extent that Jack has always lied to Algernon
about what it entails. Jack has also been spinning fiction for the
benefit of his friends and family in the country, where everyone
believes him to be a paragon of virtue, his brow permanently creased
with anxiety and woe. The all-important “three-volume novel” in
the dour Miss Prism’s past suggests that Miss Prism herself has
had an alter ego at some point, or at least the capacity for telling
stories of her own. Miss Prism tells Cecily not to “speak slightingly
of” fiction and gives a definition of it: “The good ended happily,
and the bad unhappily.” Even before this exchange, Cecily avoids
her schoolbooks. She would rather write than read and pulls out
her diary, where she records her “wonderful secrets.” We might assume
that these are themselves fictions of a sort. Cecily’s schooling
is part of Miss Prism and Jack’s desire for Cecily to “improve [herself]
in every way,” a sentiment that reeks of Victorian righteousness
and solemnity, and Cecily foregoes this attempt to pursue her own
writing.