"The Importance of Being Earnest" Study Guide and Plot Summary

actress in Importance of Being Ernest

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The Importance of Being Earnest was written by playwright/novelist/poet and all-around literary genius, Oscar Wilde. It premiered in London in 1895 at St. James’s Theatre. Set in London and the English countryside during the late 19th century, The Importance of Being Earnest is both a whimsical romantic comedy as well as a sharp-witted satire of Victorian society.

Plot Summary of Act One

Algernon Moncrieff, the nephew of aristocrat Lady Bracknell, is a clever and cynical bachelor. His main pastimes include dining with friends and avoiding family gatherings. His friend “Ernest” Jack Worthing stops by for a visit. Algernon is preparing sandwiches for the arrival of his aunt (Lady Bracknell) and his cousin Gwendolen Fairfax.

“Ernest” (whose actual name is Jack) intends to propose to Gwendolen. Algernon says that he will not consent to their union until “Ernest” explains the recently discovered inscription on his cigarette case. It reads: “From Cecily, with her fondest love, to her dear Uncle Jack.”

“Ernest” explains that he has been leading a double life. He explains that his actual name is Jack Worthing. As an excuse to travel away from his dull country estate, Jack fabricated a delinquent brother named Ernest. His 18-year-old ward, Cecily Cardew believes that Jack is a dutiful guardian who is often called away to save his errant brother from a variety of troubles. “Ernest,” the imaginary brother is scorned, and Jack is praised for his brotherly devotion.

Having committed similar forms of deception, Algernon admits that he has invented his own non-existent “fall guys.” He has fabricated a person named Mr. Bunbury. Algernon has often pretended that Mr. Bunbury was a sickly friend in need of assistance, a clever means of dodging unwanted social engagements.

After these revelations, Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen arrive. Algernon’s aunt is refined and pompous. She represents the stuff aristocracy which has lost much of its power and influence during the Victorian Age.

Alone with Gwendolen, Jack proposes to her. Although she happily accepts, Lady Bracknell enters and claims there will be no engagement unless she approves of the suitor. Lady Bracknell asks Jack a series of questions (one of the most amusing parts of the show). When she inquires about his parents, Jack makes a stunning confession. He has “lost” both his parents. The identity of his parents is a complete mystery.

As a baby, Jack was found in a handbag. While collecting his parcels from a cloakroom in Victoria Station, a kind-hearted, wealthy man named Thomas Cardew discovered the infant in a handbag that was given to him by mistake. The man raised Jack as his own, and Jack has since grown into a successful investor and landowner. However, Lady Bracknell disapproves of Jack’s handbag heritage. She suggests that he finds “some relations as soon as possible,” otherwise there will be no engagement.

After Lady Bracknell leaves, Gwendolen reaffirms her devotion. She still believes that his name is Ernest, and she maintains an immense fondness for that name (which explains why Jack is sloth to reveal his true identity). Gwendolen promises to write, and perhaps even do something romantically impetuous.

Meanwhile, Algernon overhears the address of Jack’s secret country home. The audience can tell that Algernon has mischief (and a surprise visit to the country) on his mind.

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Bradford, Wade. ""The Importance of Being Earnest" Study Guide and Plot Summary." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/the-importance-of-being-earnest-overview-2713496. Bradford, Wade. (2020, August 29). "The Importance of Being Earnest" Study Guide and Plot Summary. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-importance-of-being-earnest-overview-2713496 Bradford, Wade. ""The Importance of Being Earnest" Study Guide and Plot Summary." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-importance-of-being-earnest-overview-2713496 (accessed May 31, 2023).