Lady Bracknell and her daughter, Gwendolen, arrive. She is expecting her nephew, Algernon, at a dinner party that evening, but Algy explains that he must go see his invalid friend, Bunbury, in the country. However, he promises to make arrangements for the music at her reception on Saturday. They exchange small talk about various members of the upper class, and Lady Bracknell exclaims at the lack of cucumber sandwiches. The butler, Lane, lies beautifully, explaining there were no cucumbers in the market.
In an effort to leave Jack alone with Gwendolen, Algernon takes Lady Bracknell into another room to discuss music. Meanwhile, Jack proposes to Gwendolen; unfortunately, she explains that her ideal is to marry someone named Ernest and that Jack has no music or vibration to it. Nevertheless, she accepts his proposal, and Jack decides to arrange a private christening so that he can become Ernest. Lady Bracknell returns and, seeing Jack on bended knee, demands an explanation. Denying the engagement, she sends Gwendolen to the carriage.
Lady Bracknell interrogates Jack to determine his suitability. When Jack explains that he was found in a handbag abandoned in a railway station, Lady Bracknell is shocked. Jack goes on to explain that Mr. Thomas Cardew found him in Victoria Station and named him "Worthing" for the destination of his train ticket. Lady Bracknell announces that Gwendolen cannot "marry into a cloakroom, and form an alliance with a parcel." She advises Jack to find some relations. She bids him good morning and majestically sweeps out as Algernon plays the wedding march from the next room. Turning his thoughts to Cecily, Jack decides to kill off his "brother" Ernest with a severe chill in Paris because Cecily Cardew, his ward, is far too interested in the wicked Ernest, and as her guardian, Jack feels it his duty to protect her from inappropriate marriage suitors.
Gwendolen returns and tells Jack they can never marry, but she will always love him, and she will try to change her mother's mind. She asks for his country address so that she can write him daily and, as he dictates the address, Algernon furtively writes it on his own shirt cuff because he is curious about Cecily Cardew.
The action and satire in Act I is heightened with the arrival of Lady Bracknell. She is an aristocratic Victorian and Algernon's aunt. Arrogant, opinionated, and conservative, Lady Bracknell is the epitome of the Victorian upper-class dowager. Wilde uses Lady Bracknell to continue his satire of Victorian attitudes about marriage. Marriage is a process of careful selection and planning by parents. Social status, lineage, and wealth combine to make marriage a business proposition that unites power. Lady Bracknell will tell Gwendolen when and to whom she will be engaged, and Gwendolen has nothing to say about it. In fact, love is not a factor in marriage nor is the opinion of the children. Lady Bracknell cross-examines Jack, commenting on his wealth and politics. When she hears Jack has "lost" his parents, she exclaims at his "carelessness." Discovering he is the accident of an unknown line of ancestors, she suggests he produce at least one parent — no matter how he does it — to strengthen his marriage prospects. Absurdly, Jack says he can produce the handbag, and it should satisfy her need for a parent. As for other examples of Wilde's opinions on marriage, Lady Bracknell mentions a recently widowed Lady Harbury who looks 20 years younger since her husband died, and now she lives for pleasure instead of duty. Wilde is mocking Victorian attitudes toward marriage and asking why bloodlines and wealth should be more important than love. Once again marriage is a duty, not a pleasure.
As for education, the proper Victorian believed schooling should continue the status quo, and "fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square." A proper education is later echoed in the readings Miss Prism gives to Cecily Cardew, Jack's ward. Any revolution or change in thinking at any time is anathema to Lady Bracknell and the conservative upper class. Politics should be in the hands of the "right people." To the Victorian upper class, proper behavior, such as knowing who your parents are, keeps the standards where they should be. They feared that contempt for those things could lead to "the worst excesses of the French Revolution. And I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to?" French aristocrats were executed, and Lady Bracknell would prefer to keep her head. Through the farcical Lady Bracknell, Wilde is once again criticizing a society where the upper class is determined to keep attitudes and power in the hands of the few; the radical idea that people should be taught to actually think and question is scary to those in power.
Wilde appears to be commenting on the traditional Victorian concept of family, also, where the restrictive bonds of duty smother initiative, imagination, and freedom. In Jack's case, Lady Bracknell feels family can be acquired, much like a luxurious home or expensive carriage. When Jack is critical of Lady Bracknell, instead of coming to his aunt's defense, Algernon says, "Relations are simply a tedious pack of people who haven't got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die." Both Jack and Algernon can escape to the country and change into different identities, escaping the duties of family. Jack would like to know his true identity, and Gwendolen would like to break away from her mother's conservative opinions. Wilde seems to foresee the phrase, dysfunctional families.
Gwendolen's middle name could be "absurdity." She trivializes serious ideas and imagines people and events that have never existed. Strangely, she chooses a husband based on his name. Wilde is asking if marrying for a person's name is any more intelligent, or absurd, than marrying based on wealth and parents. Wilde presents Gwendolen as a character who accepts the social order simply because it is defined from pulpits and popular magazines. Once again, Wilde is being critical of people who mouth the public sentiments and do not think for themselves. Gwendolen is also constantly saying words that are the opposite of what is known to be true, illustrating Wilde's idea that upper-class conversation is trivial and meaningless. She tells Jack, "the simplicity of your character makes you exquisitely incomprehensible to me." Instead of the young respecting their elders, Gwendolen laments, "Few parents nowadays pay any regard to what their children say to them. The old-fashioned respect for the young is fast dying out."
Jack's proposal itself is ludicrous. Gwendolen is only concerned that the form is correct. In fact, she fully intends to say yes only if his name is Ernest. When Jack mentions the word marriage, she protests that he has not even discussed it with her yet, and he must do so in the correct style. She asserts that her brother even practices proposing to get the form correct. Wilde is taking a subject — love and marriage — that should be filled with passion and depth and turning it into an exercise in form. This scene is a parody of love and romance, capturing the emptiness of Victorian values that rely on style, not substance.
Throughout Act I, Wilde's characters worship the trivial at the expense of the profound. He seems to be saying that the audience should take a long look at what their society deems valuable. Society is described in multiple contexts as clever people talking nonsense and triviality. In a dialogue between Jack and Algernon, Jack says, "I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can't go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left." When Algernon says, "We have," Jack wonders what they talk about. Algernon replies, "about the clever people, of course." Wilde continues satirizing the Victorian love of the trivial when he ends the act with Jack and Algernon observing that nobody ever talks anything but nonsense. Each of these conversations reprimands British society's concern for the superficial at the expense of deeper values.
What subjects should a society take seriously? Wilde obviously thought society should revere sympathy and compassion for others. But Lady Bracknell treats the very human concerns of death and illness with irreverence and flippancy. She tells Algernon, "It is high time that Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he was going to live or to die. This shilly-shallying with the question is absurd." Furthermore, she does not think a person's illnesses should be encouraged. Rather than being sympathetic, she hopes Mr. Bunbury will not have a relapse on Saturday, thus throwing a wrench in her party plans. Again, by having the farcical Lady Bracknell express these thoughts, Wilde conveys his desire for his audience to question their tendency to value social calendars at the expense of sympathy for others.
The subject of Cecily introduces a new kind of woman to the play. When Algy expresses some interest in Jack's ward, Jack explains that she is not at all like the usual young woman in society. "She has got a capital appetite, goes on long walks, and pays no attention at all to her lessons." Unlike most young Victorian women, Cecily is independent, strong, and can figure out what she wants. Her description intrigues Algy, and plans start simmering in his head.
Besides using the character of Algernon to comment on the values of Victorian society, Wilde also uses him to illuminate the lifestyle of the young dandy or aesthete. When Jack and Algernon discuss their evening plans, it is described as hard work: "Shall we go out for dinner? Go to the theatre? Go to the club? Go to the Empire?" When Algy asks what they should do, Jack says, "Nothing!" Algernon retorts, "It is awfully hard work doing nothing." To take little seriously, to not work, and to artfully cultivate the air of doing nothing were all poses of the aesthetes. Algernon also tears up bills that arrive, illustrating the casual attitude of dandies toward responsibilities.
As the play progresses, Wilde continues his epigrams and puns. One of his most memorable refers to the nature of men and women. Algernon explains, "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his." Perhaps Wilde feels that while women might not wish to become their mothers, men would be wise to cultivate some of the attitudes and values of females; perhaps this is a nod to homosexuality. Throughout the act, epigrams deliver Wilde's social commentary on families, men and women, marriage, status, and the values of the upper class. A common lament of the titled gentry is also satirically mentioned by Lady Bracknell when discussing Jack's wealth: "What between the duties expected of one during one's lifetime, and the duties exacted from one after one's death, land has ceased to be either a profit or a pleasure. It gives one position, and prevents one from keeping it up." The use of the word duties is a delicious pun also. It means both the duties a person is expected to do according to his position and taxes placed on estates by the government.
Grosvenor Square a very affluent area of London in the Mayfair district.
Belgrave Square another affluent London area in Belgravia.
Liberal Unionist a political group that voted against Home Rule for Ireland in 1886. Liberals were the conservative political group.
Tories members of the more conservative political circles. Lady Bracknell and other wealthy socialites would approve.
"only eighteen" Cecily is the precise age to "come out" as a Society debutante. During the Season, 18-year-olds were introduced as marriage material for suitable men.
The Empire a theatre in Leicester Square, London.
The Railway Guide an indispensable timetable of railway departures and arrivals, probably invented by Robert Diggles Kay in either 1838 or 1839.