Analysis of Gwendolen and Cecily in "The Importance of Being Earnest"

A Romantic Comedy by Oscar Wilde

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Bradford, Wade. "Analysis of Gwendolen and Cecily in "The Importance of Being Earnest"." ThoughtCo, Jun. 18, 2017, thoughtco.com/gwendolen-cecily-importance-of-being-earnest-2713195. Bradford, Wade. (2017, June 18). Analysis of Gwendolen and Cecily in "The Importance of Being Earnest". Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/gwendolen-cecily-importance-of-being-earnest-2713195 Bradford, Wade. "Analysis of Gwendolen and Cecily in "The Importance of Being Earnest"." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/gwendolen-cecily-importance-of-being-earnest-2713195 (accessed September 21, 2017).
Cast of The Importance of Being Earnest
Gwendolyn and Cecily and an Earnest for each!. David M. Benett

Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew are the two female leads in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Both women provide the main source of conflict in this romantic comedy; they are the objects of affection. During Acts One and Two, the women are deceived by the well-meaning male characters, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff. However, during the beginning of Act Three, all is easily forgiven.

Gwendolen and Cecily are hopelessly in love, at least by Victorian standards, with their male counterparts. Cecily is described as “a sweet simple, innocent girl.” Gwendolen is depicted as “a brilliant, clever, thoroughly experienced lady.” (These claims come from Jack and Algernon respectively). Despite these supposed contrasts, it seems that the women in Oscar Wilde’s play possess more similarities than differences. Both women are:

  • Intent on marrying a man named Ernest.
  • Eager to embrace one another as sisters.
  • Quick to become rivals pitted against each other.

Gwendolen Fairfax: Aristocratic Socialite

Gwendolen is the daughter of the pompous Lady Bracknell. She is also the cousin of the whimsical bachelor Angernon. Most importantly, she is the love of Jack Worthing’s life. The only problem: Gwendolen believes that Jack’s real name is Ernest. ("Ernest" is the invented name Jack has been using whenever he sneaks away from his country estate).

As a member of high society, Gwendolen exhibits fashion and a working knowledge of the latest trends in magazines. During her first lines during Act One, she exhibits self-confidence. Check out her dialogue:

First line: I am always smart! 

Second line: I intend to develop in many directions.

Sixth line: In fact, I am never wrong.

Her inflated self-appraisal makes her seem foolish at times, especially when she reveals her devotion to the name Ernest. Even before meeting Jack, she claims that the name Ernest “inspires absolute confidence.” The audience might chuckle at this, in part because Gwendolen is quite wrong about her beloved. Her fallible judgments are humorously displayed in Act Two when she meets Cecily for the first time  and she declares:

GWENDOLEN: Cecily Cardew? What a very sweet name! Something tells me that we are going to be great friends. I like you already more than I can say. My first impressions of people are never wrong.

Moments later, when she suspects that Cecily is trying to steal her fiancé, Gwendolen changes her tune:

GWENDOLEN: From the moment I saw you I distrusted you. I felt that you were false and deceitful. I am never deceived in such matters. My first impressions of people are invariably right.

Gwendolen’s strengths include her ability to forgive. It does not take long for her to reconcile with Cecily, nor does much time pass before she forgives Jack’s deceptive ways. She may be quick to anger, but she also rushes to absolve. In the end, she makes Jack (AKA Ernest) a very happy man.

Cecily Cardew: Hopeless Romantic?

When the audience first meets Cecily she is watering the flower garden, even though she should be studying German grammar. This signifies Cecily’s love of nature and her disdain for the tedious socio-academic expectations of society. (Or maybe she just likes to water flowers.)

Cecily delights in bringing people together. She senses that the matronly Miss Prism and the pious Dr. Chausible are fond of each other, so Cecily plays the role of matchmaker, urging them to take walks together. Also, she hopes to “cure” Jack’s brother of wickedness so that there will be harmony between the siblings.

Similar to Gwendolen, Miss Cecily has a “girlish dream” of marrying a man named Ernest. So, when Algernon poses as Ernest, Jack’s fictional brother, Cecily happily records his words of adoration in her diary.

She confesses that she has imagined that they are engaged, years before they even met.

Some critics have suggested that Cecily is the most realistic of all characters, in part because she does not speak in epigrams as frequently as the others. However, it could be argued that Cecily is just another outrageous romantic, prone to flights of fancy, just as all of the other wonderfully silly sophisticated characters in Oscar Wilde’s play.