The Importance of Being Earnest – Act III, Part One

Cecily and Gwendolen have retreated to the drawing room
of the Manor House to get away from Algernon and Jack. They are
eager to forgive the men and be reconciled. When Algernon and Jack
enter from the garden, Cecily and Gwendolen confront them about
their motives. Cecily asks Algernon why he pretended to be Jack’s brother,
and Algernon says it was in order to meet her. Gwendolen asks Jack
if he pretended to have a brother so as to be able to come to London
to see her as often as possible, and he asks if she can doubt it.
Gwendolen says she has the gravest doubts but intends to crush them.
Cecily and Gwendolen are on the verge of forgiving Algernon and
Jack when they remember that neither of them is any longer engaged
to a man called Ernest. Algernon and Jack explain that each has
made arrangements to be rechristened Ernest before the day is out,
and the young women, bowled over by men’s “physical courage” and
capacity for “self-sacrifice,” are won over.
As the couples embrace, Lady Bracknell enters, having
bribed Gwendolen’s maid for information about her destination. On
seeing Algernon, she asks whether this house is the house where
his friend Bunbury resides. Algernon, forgetting momentarily that
he is supposed to be at his friend’s bedside, says no, but quickly
tries to cover himself and blurts that Bunbury is dead. He and Lady
Bracknell briefly discuss Bunbury’s sudden demise. Jack then introduces
Cecily to Lady Bracknell, and Algernon announces their engagement. Lady
Bracknell asks about Cecily’s background, asking first, rather acidly,
whether she is “connected with any of the larger railway stations
in London.” Jack obligingly volunteers information about Cecily,
answering Lady Bracknell’s presumptuous questions with a withering
irony that goes over Lady Bracknell’s head. Her interest is greatly
piqued when she learns that Cecily is actually worth a great deal
of money and stands to inherit even more when she comes of age.
Jack refuses to give his consent to Cecily’s marriage
to Algernon until Lady Bracknell grants her consent to his union
with Gwendolen, but Lady Bracknell refuses. She summons Gwendolen
to her side and prepares to depart. Before they can leave, however,
Dr. Chasuble arrives to announce that everything is ready for the
christenings. Jack explains that he and Algernon no longer need
the christenings immediately and suggests that the ceremonies be
postponed. The rector prepares to withdraw, explaining that Miss
Prism is waiting for him back at the rectory. At the sound of Miss
Prism’s name, Lady Bracknell starts. She asks a number of incisive
questions about Miss Prism then demands that she be sent for. Miss
Prism herself arrives at that moment.
Gwendolen’s and Cecily’s conversation at the beginning
of Act III reveals exactly how eager they are to forgive Jack and
Algernon, even to the point of bestowing on the men shame and repentance
the men don’t actually feel. Gwendolen and Cecily observe Jack and Algernon
through the window of the morning room that looks out on the garden,
where the two men are squabbling over the refreshments that have
been laid out for tea. Gwendolen’s opening line, “The fact that
they did not follow us at once into the house . . . seems to me
to show that they have some sense of shame left,” indicates how
eager she is for a reconciliation and anxious to find any reason
at all to effect one. Her eagerness also reveals how willing she is
to deceive herself about Jack. The fact that the men don’t follow the
women into the house is morally neutral, but Gwendolen projects
onto it a moral interpretation: the men did not follow them, therefore
they must be ashamed of themselves. We know, however, that they
are not the least bit ashamed. The men think merely that they are
in trouble, a circumstance Algernon, but not Jack, seems to relish.
Cecily underscores the irony of Gwendolen’s inane logic when she
echoes Gwendolen’s sentiments, remarking, “They have been
eating muffins. That looks like repentance.” Both women want to believe
the men are truly sorry for what they’ve done.
The two couples have symmetrical conflicts and seem to
have nearly symmetrical reconciliations, but an essential difference
sets the two reconciliations apart: Algernon tells the truth about
his deception, but Jack does not. When Cecily asks Algernon why
he deceived her, he tells her he did it in order to have the opportunity
of meeting her, and this is the truth. Algernon really didn’t have
any other reason for pretending to be Ernest. Jack, however, is
another story. Gwendolen doesn’t ask Jack directly why he deceived
her, and instead frames the answer she wants from him in the form
of a question. She asks if he pretended to have a brother in order
to come to town to see her. Jack asks if she can doubt it, and
Gwendolen declares she will “crush” the doubts she has. Gwendolen
is right to have those doubts. Jack’s reasons for inventing Ernest
and then impersonating him were many, but getting away to see Gwendolen wasn’t
one of them. Jack could easily have courted Gwendolen as himself,
and being Ernest to her was merely the result of having met her
through Algernon. Despite the apparent uniformity of the two romances,
only the relationship between Cecily and Algernon is now on truthful
Just before Lady Bracknell begins her inquiry into Cecily’s
background, she makes a complicated pun that underscores
the elaborate underpinnings of the joke of Victoria Station being
Jack’s ancestral home. In Act I she exclaimed indignantly on the
idea of allowing the well-bred Gwendolen “to marry into a cloakroom,
and form an alliance with a parcel.” Now she asks whether Cecily
is “at all connected with any of the larger railway stations in
London.” The word connection was commonly used
to refer to a person’s social milieu (his or her friends and associates)
as well as to family background. Lady Bracknell is making a joke
on the fact that a railway station is as far back as Jack can trace
his identity. The word connection also refers to
transport: a connection was where a person could transfer from one
railway line to another. The joke is even more involved than that.
When Lady Bracknell says, “I had no idea that there were any families
or persons whose origin was a Terminus,” she is punning on the fact
that in England, in Wilde’s day as well as now, a “terminus” is
the last stop on a railway line, and the first stop is
its “origin.” In calling Victoria Station Jack’s family’s “origin,”
Lady Bracknell is getting off a very good line indeed, one that
manages to be, like the joke in the title of the play, both pun
and paradox.