The Importance of Being Earnest – Act III, Part Two

I’ve now realized for the first time
in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.
(See Important Quotations Explained)

Summary
When Miss Prism sees Lady Bracknell, she begins behaving
in a frightened and furtive manner. Lady Bracknell asks her severely about
the whereabouts of a certain baby that Miss Prism was supposed to
have taken for a walk twenty-eight years ago. Lady Bracknell proceeds
to recount the circumstances of the baby’s disappearance: Miss Prism
left a certain house in Grosvenor Square with a baby
carriage containing a male infant and never returned, the carriage
was found some weeks later in Bayswater containing “a three-volume
novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality,” and the baby
in question was never found. Miss Prism confesses apologetically
that she doesn’t know what happened to the baby. She explains that
on the day in question she left the house with both the baby and
a handbag containing a novel she had been working on, but that at
some point she must have absentmindedly confused the two, placing
the manuscript in the carriage and the baby in the handbag.
Now Jack joins the discussion, pressing Miss Prism for
further details: where did she leave the handbag? Which railway
station? What line? Jack excuses himself and hurries
offstage, returning a moment or two later with a handbag. He presents
the handbag to Miss Prism and asks her if she can identify it. Miss
Prism looks the handbag over carefully before acknowledging that
it is the handbag she mislaid. She expresses delight
at having it back after so many years. Jack, under the impression
that he has discovered his true parentage, throws his arms melodramatically
around Miss Prism with a cry of “Mother!” Miss Prism, shocked, reminds
Jack that she is unmarried. Jack, misunderstanding her point, launches
into a sentimental speech about forgiveness and redemption through
suffering and society’s double standard about male and female transgression. With
great dignity, Miss Prism gestures toward Lady Bracknell as the
proper source of information about Jack’s history and identity. Lady
Bracknell explains that Jack is the son of her poor sister, which makes
him Algernon’s older brother.
The revelation removes all obstacles to Jack’s union with
Gwendolen, but the problem of Jack’s name remains. Gwendolen points out
that they don’t know his true name. Though Lady Bracknell is sure
that as the elder son he was named after his father, no one can recall
what General Moncrieff’s first name was. Fortunately, Jack’s bookshelves
contain recent military records, and he pulls down and consults
the appropriate volume. Jack’s father’s Christian names turn out
to have been “Ernest John.” For all these years, Jack has unwittingly
been telling the truth: his name is Ernest, it
is also John, and he does indeed have an unprincipled younger brother—Algernon.
Somewhat taken aback by this turn of events, Jack turns to Gwendolen
and asks if she can forgive him for the fact that he’s been telling
the truth his entire life. She tells him she can forgive him, as she
feels he is sure to change. They embrace, as do Algernon and Cecily
and Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble, and Jack acknowledges that he has
discovered “the vital Importance of Being Earnest.”
Analysis
In Victorian England, Lady Bracknell’s sudden start at
the mention of Miss Prism’s name would have been a signal to the
audience that a wild coincidence and recognition scene was approaching.
Victorian melodrama was full of such coincidences and recognition scenes,
in which true identities were revealed and long-lost family members
were reunited. Wilde was playing with genre here, making fun of
the very form in which he’d been so successful in recent years. In
these plays, the revelation of identity was often predicated on
a long-kept secret that involved a woman who had committed a transgression
in the past. The title character in Lady Windermere’s Fan, for
instance, discovers that a woman with a dubious past is her own mother.
Wilde draws out the recognition scene in The Importance
of Being Earnest, not only having Jack go to absurd lengths
to identify the handbag Miss Prism lost, but also having Miss Prism
entirely miss the implications of the handbag’s reappearance: if
the bag has been found, the baby has been found as well. Miss Prism’s
final comment on the whole incident is to express delight at being
reunited with the handbag as it’s been “a great inconvenience being
without it all these years.”
In the recognition scene, the image of the missing
baby carriage containing the manuscript of a not-very-good novel
allows Wilde to mock yet another social element of his time. On
one level, Wilde is lampooning the kind of popular fiction that
was considered respectable and acceptable for women to read—a trenchant
observation from a writer whose own novel, The Picture of
Dorian Gray, had been reviled as “immoral.” Beyond this,
however, he’s also crystallizing the theme of life as a work of
art. In proposing the substitution of the baby for the manuscript
and the manuscript for the baby, he connects, in a light-hearted
way, the fiction that is the fruit of Miss Prism’s imagination and the
fiction that Jack’s own life has been up to this point.
Jack’s discovery that his life has not been
a fiction, that he has indeed been both “Ernest” and “earnest” during
the years he thought he was deceiving his friends and family, amounts
to a complex moral paradox based on an elaborate pun. For years
he has been a liar, but at the same time he spoke the truth: he
really was being both “earnest” (sincere) and “Ernest.” In a way,
Jack has become his own fiction, and his real life has become the deception.
His apology to Gwendolen and his observation that it is “a terrible
thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been
speaking nothing but the truth” is both a characteristic Wildean
inversion of conventional morality and a last jibe at the hypocrisy
of Victorian society.