The Importance of Being Earnest – Plot Overview

Jack Worthing, the play’s protagonist, is
a pillar of the community in Hertfordshire, where he is guardian
to Cecily Cardew, the pretty, eighteen-year-old granddaughter of
the late Thomas Cardew, who found and adopted Jack when he was a
baby. In Hertfordshire, Jack has responsibilities: he is a major
landowner and justice of the peace, with tenants, farmers, and a
number of servants and other employees all dependent on him. For
years, he has also pretended to have an irresponsible black-sheep
brother named Ernest who leads a scandalous life in pursuit of pleasure
and is always getting into trouble of a sort that requires Jack
to rush grimly off to his assistance. In fact, Ernest is merely
Jack’s alibi, a phantom that allows him to disappear for days at
a time and do as he likes. No one but Jack knows that he himself
is Ernest. Ernest is the name Jack goes by in London, which is where
he really goes on these occasions—probably to pursue the very sort
of behavior he pretends to disapprove of in his imaginary brother.
Jack is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax, the cousin of
his best friend, Algernon Moncrieff. When the play opens, Algernon,
who knows Jack as Ernest, has begun to suspect something, having found
an inscription inside Jack’s cigarette case addressed to “Uncle Jack”
from someone who refers to herself as “little Cecily.” Algernon
suspects that Jack may be leading a double life, a practice he seems
to regard as commonplace and indispensable to modern life. He calls
a person who leads a double life a “Bunburyist,” after a nonexistent
friend he pretends to have, a chronic invalid named Bunbury, to
whose deathbed he is forever being summoned whenever he wants to
get out of some tiresome social obligation.
At the beginning of Act I, Jack drops in unexpectedly
on Algernon and announces that he intends to propose to Gwendolen. Algernon
confronts him with the cigarette case and forces him to come clean,
demanding to know who “Jack” and “Cecily” are. Jack confesses that
his name isn’t really Ernest and that Cecily is his ward, a responsibility
imposed on him by his adoptive father’s will. Jack also tells Algernon
about his fictional brother. Jack says he’s been thinking of killing
off this fake brother, since Cecily has been showing too active
an interest in him. Without meaning to, Jack describes Cecily in
terms that catch Algernon’s attention and make him even more interested
in her than he is already.
Gwendolen and her mother, Lady Bracknell, arrive, which
gives Jack an opportunity to propose to Gwendolen. Jack is delighted
to discover that Gwendolen returns his affections, but he is alarmed
to learn that Gwendolen is fixated on the name Ernest, which she
says “inspires absolute confidence.” Gwendolen makes clear that
she would not consider marrying a man who was not named
Lady Bracknell interviews Jack to determine his eligibility
as a possible son-in-law, and during this interview she asks about
his family background. When 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 the match between Jack and Gwendolen and sweeps out
of the house.
In Act II, Algernon shows up at Jack’s country
estate posing as Jack’s brother Ernest. Meanwhile, Jack, having
decided that Ernest has outlived his usefulness, arrives home in
deep mourning, full of a story about Ernest having died suddenly
in Paris. He is enraged to find Algernon there masquerading as Ernest
but has to go along with the charade. If he doesn’t, his own lies
and deceptions will be revealed.
While Jack changes out of his mourning clothes, Algernon,
who has fallen hopelessly in love with Cecily, asks her to marry
him. He is surprised to discover that Cecily already considers that
they are engaged, and he is charmed when she reveals that her fascination with
“Uncle Jack’s brother” led her to invent an elaborate romance between
herself and him several months ago. Algernon is less enchanted to
learn that part of Cecily’s interest in him derives from the name
Ernest, which, unconsciously echoing Gwendolen, she says “inspires
absolute confidence.”
Algernon goes off in search of Dr. Chasuble, the local
rector, to see about getting himself christened Ernest. Meanwhile,
Gwendolen arrives, having decided to pay Jack an unexpected visit.
Gwendolen is shown into the garden, where Cecily orders tea and
attempts to play hostess. Cecily has no idea how Gwendolen figures
into Jack’s life, and Gwendolen, for her part, has no idea who Cecily
is. Gwendolen initially thinks Cecily is a visitor to the Manor
House and is disconcerted to learn that Cecily is “Mr. Worthing’s
ward.” She notes that Ernest has never mentioned having a ward,
and Cecily explains that it is not Ernest Worthing
who is her guardian but his brother Jack and, in fact, that 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 war of manners.
Jack and Algernon arrive toward the climax of this confrontation,
each having separately made arrangements with Dr. Chasuble to be
christened Ernest later that day. Each of the young ladies points
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. The two women demand to know where
Jack’s brother Ernest is, since both of them are engaged to be married
to him. Jack is forced to admit that he has no brother and that
Ernest is a complete fiction. Both women are shocked and furious,
and they retire to the house arm in arm.
Act III takes place in the drawing room of the Manor House, where
Cecily and Gwendolen have retired. When Jack and Algernon enter
from the garden, the two women confront them. Cecily asks Algernon
why he pretended to be her guardian’s brother. Algernon tells her
he did it in order to meet her. Gwendolen asks Jack whether he pretended
to have a brother in order to come into London to see her as often
as possible, and she interprets his evasive reply as an affirmation.
The women are somewhat appeased but still concerned over the issue
of the name. However, when Jack and Algernon tell Gwendolen and
Cecily that they have both made arrangements to be christened Ernest
that afternoon, all is forgiven and the two pairs of lovers embrace.
At this moment, Lady Bracknell’s arrival is announced.
Lady Bracknell has followed Gwendolen from London, having bribed
Gwendolen’s maid to reveal her destination. She demands to know
what is going on. Gwendolen again informs Lady Bracknell of her
engagement to Jack, and Lady Bracknell reiterates that a union between
them is out of the question. Algernon tells Lady Bracknell of his
engagement to Cecily, prompting her to inspect Cecily and inquire
into her social connections, which she does in a routine and patronizing
manner that infuriates Jack. He replies to all her questions with
a mixture of civility and sarcasm, withholding until the
last possible moment the information that Cecily is actually worth
a great deal of money and stands to inherit still more when she comes
of age. At this, Lady Bracknell becomes genuinely interested.
Jack informs Lady Bracknell that, as Cecily’s legal guardian,
he refuses to give his consent to her union with Algernon. Lady
Bracknell suggests that the two young people simply wait until Cecily comes
of age, and Jack points out that under the terms of her grandfather’s
will, Cecily does not legally come of age until she is thirty-five.
Lady Bracknell asks Jack to reconsider, and he points out that the
matter is entirely in her own hands. As soon as she consents to his
marriage to Gwendolen, Cecily can have his consent to marry Algernon.
However, Lady Bracknell refuses to entertain the notion. She and
Gwendolen are on the point of leaving when Dr. Chasuble arrives
and happens to mention Cecily’s governess, Miss Prism. At this,
Lady Bracknell starts and asks that Miss Prism be sent for.
When the governess arrives and catches sight of Lady Bracknell, she
begins to look guilty and furtive. Lady Bracknell accuses her of having
left her sister’s house twenty-eight years before with a baby and
never returned. She demands to know where the baby is. Miss Prism
confesses she doesn’t know, explaining that she lost the baby, having
absentmindedly placed it in a handbag in which she had meant to
place the manuscript for a novel she had written. Jack asks what
happened to the bag, and Miss Prism says she left it in the cloakroom
of a railway station. Jack presses her for further details and goes
racing offstage, returning a few moments later with a large handbag.
When Miss Prism confirms that the bag is hers, Jack throws himself
on her with a cry of “Mother!” It takes a while before the situation
is sorted out, but before too long we understand that Jack is not
the illegitimate child of Miss Prism but the legitimate child of
Lady Bracknell’s sister and, therefore, Algernon’s older brother.
Furthermore, Jack had been originally christened “Ernest John.”
All these years Jack has unwittingly been telling the truth: Ernest is his
name, as is Jack, and he does have an unprincipled younger brother—Algernon.
Again the couples embrace, Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble follow suit,
and Jack acknowledges that he now understands “the vital Importance
of Being Earnest.”