The Importance of Being Earnest – Act II, Part Two

I hope you have not been leading a double
life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time.
That would be hypocrisy.
(See Important Quotations Explained)

When Algernon appears in the doorway, Jack is furious,
not only because Algernon is there, but also because he is disguised
as Jack’s own invented, and now presumably dead, brother. Cecily
takes Jack’s anger as part of the long-standing ill feeling between
the two brothers and insists that Jack shake hands with Algernon,
who has evidently been telling her about his good offices toward
his poor friend Bunbury. Jack is apoplectic at the idea of Algernon
talking to Cecily about Bunbury, but he can do nothing. He cannot
expose Algernon without revealing his own deceptions and hypocrisy,
and so he has to go along with the charade.
Jack wants Algernon to leave, but Algernon refuses as
long as Jack is in mourning. As Jack goes off to change his clothes,
Algernon soliloquizes briefly about being in love with Cecily. When
she comes back to water the garden, he uses the opportunity to propose
to her. He is surprised to discover that Cecily already considers
herself engaged to him and charmed when she reveals that her sustained fascination
with “Uncle Jack’s brother” had moved her, some months previously,
to invent an elaborate romance between herself and Ernest. Cecily
has created an entire relationship, complete with love letters (written
by herself), a ring, a broken engagement, and a reconciliation,
and chronicled it in her diary. Algernon is less enchanted with
the news that part of Cecily’s interest in him derives from the
name Ernest, which, echoing Gwendolen, Cecily says “inspires absolute
Algernon goes off in search of Dr. Chasuble to see about
getting himself christened Ernest. Meanwhile, Gwendolen arrives,
having decided to pay an unexpected call at the Manor House. She
is shown into the garden. Cecily, who has no idea who Gwendolen
is or how she figures in Jack’s life, orders tea and attempts to
play hostess, while Gwendolen, having no idea who Cecily is, initially
takes her to be a visitor at the Manor House. She is disconcerted
to hear that Cecily is “Mr. Worthing’s ward,” as Ernest has never
mentioned having a ward, and she confesses to not being thrilled
by the news or by the fact that Cecily is very young and beautiful.
Cecily picks up on Gwendolen’s reference to “Ernest” and hastens
to explain that her guardian is not Mr. Ernest Worthing
but his brother Jack. Gwendolen asks if she’s sure, and Cecily reassures
her, adding that, in fact, she is engaged to be married to Ernest
Worthing. Gwendolen points out that this is impossible as she herself
is engaged to Ernest Worthing. The tea party degenerates into a
kind of catfight in which the two women insult one another with
utmost civility.
Toward the climax of this confrontation, Jack and Algernon arrive,
one after the other, each having separately made arrangements with
Dr. Chasuble to be christened Ernest later that day. Each of the
young ladies takes great pleasure in pointing out that the other
has been deceived: Cecily informs Gwendolen that her fiancé is really
named Jack and Gwendolen informs Cecily that hers is really called
Algernon. Shocked and angry, the two women demand to know where
Jack’s brother Ernest is, since both of them are engaged to be married
to him, and Jack is forced to admit that he has no brother and that
Ernest is a complete fiction. Both women are furious. They retire
to the house arm in arm, calling each other “sister.” Alone, Jack
and Algernon must sort out their differences. Each taunts the other
with having been found out and they end up squabbling over muffins
and teacake.
Jack’s confrontation with Algernon when Algernon appears
unexpectedly at the Manor House pits the logic of dandyism against
the logic of Victorian morality. Jack bristles protectively when
Algernon tells Jack he thinks “Cecily is a darling.” He tells Algernon
he doesn’t like him to talk about Cecily that way, but his concern
pales against Algernon’s sense of outrage over the inappropriateness
of Jack’s clothes. “It is perfectly childish to be in deep mourning
for a man who is actually staying for a whole week with you in your house
as a guest,” Algernon fumes. “I call it grotesque.” Jack ignores
the insults and orders Algernon to leave on the next train, but
Algernon then points out that it would be impolite of him to leave
while Jack was in mourning. Jack is, of course, not really in mourning,
and Algernon has derailed Jack’s elaborate deception. By commenting
ironically on Jack’s mourning dress, Algernon is meeting fiction
with fiction, buying time for his own agenda by playing into the
ridiculous situation Jack has created for himself. Jack may be worried
and outraged at Algernon’s interest in Cecily, but Algernon the
dandy cares little for those concerns. Instead, he treats everything
as part of an elaborate game.
Cecily proves herself as capable as Jack and Algernon
at creating fictions when she discusses her made-up relationship
with Ernest, and in many ways she resembles Gwendolen when she discusses
her relationship and love in general. Cecily’s diary is the hard
evidence of her own elaborate fiction, as are the letters she has
written to herself in Ernest’s name and the ring with the true-lover’s
knot she has promised herself always to wear. Like Gwendolen, Cecily
has chosen to take charge of her own romantic life, even to the
point of playing all the roles, and Algernon is left with very little
to do in the way of wooing. When Cecily lays out the facts of her
relationship with Ernest for the man she thinks is Ernest himself,
she closely resembles Gwendolen. She makes a grand Gwendolen-like
pronouncement or two and demonstrates a Gwendolen-like self-consciousness
with regard to her diary. She wants to copy Algernon’s compliments
into it and hopes he’ll order a copy when it is published. Even
her explanation for having broken off the engagement at one point,
“It would hardly have been a really serious engagement if it hadn’t
been broken off at least once,” echoes Gwendolen’s need for gravitas
and propriety. Her unexpected fascination with the name Ernest is
the final link between her and Gwendolen. This fascination seems incongruous
with what we’ve seen of Cecily thus far, but nonetheless, the revelation
lends the play a symmetry and balance.
The two major confrontations at the end of Act II, between
Cecily and Gwendolen and between Jack and Algernon, are both rooted in
the fictions all four characters have created, believed, or perpetuated.
Cecily and Gwendolen squabble over who has the right to consider
herself engaged to Ernest Worthing and seek to establish their respective
claims on him by appealing to their diaries, in which each recorded
the date of her engagement, as though the mere act of having written
something down makes it fact. Meanwhile, what they have recorded
is fundamentally untrue, since neither woman’s lover is the Ernest
he has pretended to be. Both women are fully in the right, but wrong
at the same time. Jack and Algernon, for their parts, bicker over
who is a better candidate to be christened with the name Ernest,
an argument that is just as absurd and fiction-based as the women’s.
Jack argues that he never was christened, so he
has a perfect right to be. Algernon counters by saying the fact
that he’s survived the experience indicates that his “constitution
can stand it.” He reminds Jack that Jack’s brother almost died this
week from a chill, as though this damns Jack’s own constitution—while,
of course, that brother is the fabricated Ernest. These confrontations
cannot and will not be decided, since their very subjects essentially
do not exist.