The Importance of Being Earnest By Oscar Wilde Summary and Analysis Act II: Part 1

Summary

Act II is set at Jack Worthing's country estate where Miss Prism is seated in the garden giving her student, Cecily Cardew, a lesson in German grammar. When Cecily expresses an interest in meeting Jack's wicked brother, Ernest, Miss Prism repeats Jack's opinion that his brother has a weak character. The governess knows what happens to people who have weak characters. In her younger days, Miss Prism wrote a three-volume novel, and she proclaims that fiction shows how good people end happily and bad people end unhappily.

The local reverend, Canon Chasuble, enters and flirts with Miss Prism. The two leave for a turn in the garden. While they are gone, Merriman, the butler, announces Mr. Ernest Worthing has just arrived with his luggage and is anxious to speak with Miss Cardew. Algernon comes in, pretending to be Jack's brother, Ernest. When Cecily says that Jack is coming to the country Monday afternoon, Algernon/Ernest announces that he will be leaving Monday morning. They will just miss each other. Algernon compliments her beauty, and they go inside just before Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble return.

Jack enters in mourning clothes because his brother Ernest is dead in Paris. Jack takes the opportunity to ask Dr. Chasuble to re-christen him that afternoon around 5 p.m. Cecily comes from the house and announces that Jack's brother Ernest is in the dining room. Oops. Ernest is supposed to be dead. Algernon comes out, and Jack is shocked. Algernon/Ernest vows to reform and lead a better life.

Jack is angry that Algernon could play such a trick. He orders the dogcart for Algernon to leave in. After Jack goes into the house, Algernon announces he is in love with Cecily. Algernon proclaims his undying affection while Cecily copies his words in her diary. Algernon asks Cecily to marry him, and she agrees. In fact, she agrees readily because she has made up an entire romantic story of their courtship and engagement. She has even written imaginary letters to herself from Ernest/Algernon. She tells Algernon that her dream has always been to marry someone named Ernest because the name inspires such confidence. So, like Jack, Algernon decides he must be re-christened Ernest.

Analysis

Act II expands on many of the motifs introduced in Act I, but adds new characters and targets for Wilde's satire. The setting changes to the country — a bucolic setting for getting away from the artificial trappings of society and entering the simplicity of nature — and Wilde examines religion as well as courtship and marriage in the context of Victorian attitudes. But even in the countryside, the characters cannot escape Victorian manners and correctness, as the name Ernest presents humorous complications.

Idleness, duty, and marriage are brought together in the conversations of several characters. Sighing bitterly, Miss Prism observes that people who live for pleasure are usually unmarried. Duty, duty, duty. Servant of the upper class, Prism sees responsibility tinted with obligation as the correct form in Victorian society. Cecily, however, exclaims to Miss Prism, "I suppose that is why he [Jack] often looks a little bored when we three are together." In subtitling his play A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, perhaps Wilde is showing that setting one's jaw in a strong position for living rigidly with duty is both shortsighted and tediously boring.

Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble also provide a comic touch to the subject of religious zeal and its relationship to Victorian morals. Religion is presented as dry, meaningless, and expensive. The minister explains to Jack that the sermons for all sacraments are interchangeable. They can be adapted to be joyful or distressing, depending on the occasion. Through these thoughts Wilde expresses the meaninglessness of religion and the obviously hackneyed, empty words of sermons. Jack's request for a christening is humorous when one considers that he is a grown man — christening is a rite usually appropriate for small babies.

Wilde humorously captures the absurdity of rigid Victorian values when he utilizes Miss Prism as his mouthpiece, a morally upright woman who has, nevertheless, written a melodramatic, romantic novel. Obviously, hypocrisy lurks beneath the strict, puritanical surface of the prim governess. The height of her absurdity over rigid morals comes when she hears that Ernest is dead in Paris after a life of "shameful debts and extravagance." As if to follow through on her duty to raise Cecily with rigid values, she says, "What a lesson for him! I trust he will profit by it."

The Victorian mania to exclude anyone and everyone who did not conform to social norms is touched on by Wilde's satire of reform movements. His words come from Miss Prism when she says, "I am not in favour of this modern mania for turning bad people into good people at a moment's notice." Wilde is referring here to the duty of the upper class to provide moral role models and convert those who are wicked to the "good" way of life. An endless number of societies existed for the reform of various causes. Algy gleefully utilizes the ruse of helplessness when he begs Cecily to reform him. However, she explains, "I'm afraid I've no time, this afternoon." Reform must have occurred quickly in 1890s' England. One of the clearest expressions of Wilde satirizing his upper-class audience members is in the words of the minister. Chasuble is discussing his sermons and mentions that he gave a charity sermon on behalf of the Society for the Prevention of Discontent Among the Upper Orders. This name is a parody of the long names of various societies that the wealthy dallied with in their quest for redemption.

The hidden and repressed sexual nature of Victorian society is emphasized in Act II. Cecily is fascinated by sin and wickedness — but from afar. She hopes Ernest looks like a "wicked person," although she is not sure what one looks like. She is particularly interested in the fact that the prim and proper Miss Prism has written a three-volume novel. Such novels were not deemed proper literature by Victorians, but were read in secret. Of course, the moral of the novel shows clearly that good people win, and bad people are punished. In fact, Miss Prism describes the conservative literary view of the day when she defines fiction as "the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily." As always, these rewards or punishments occur in a clear-cut manner and without exception — in novels.

Much worldlier than Cecily, the canon and Miss Prism flirt outrageously and make innuendoes about desire and lust. Where a headache is usually used as an excuse for a lack of sexual interest, Miss Prism uses it as a reason to go on a walk alone with the minister. The humorous cleric speaks in metaphors and often has to define what he means so that he will not be misunderstood. For example, he states, "Were I fortunate enough to be Miss Prism's pupil, I would hang upon her lips." His words elicit a glare from the prim Miss Prism. He continues to put his foot in his mouth by saying, "I spoke metaphorically. My metaphor was drawn from bees. Ahem!" Such an obvious allusion to the birds and the bees thinly veils a passionate inner life that must not be discussed. Miss Prism answers in kind, calling him "dear Doctor," which seems to be a flirtatious title. There is more than meets the eye here, and Wilde is clearly pointing out the sexual repression of his society and satirizing the societal concern for correct and proper appearances, regardless of what simmers under the surface.

The coded conversation between Miss Prism and Chasuble eventually turns to the discussion of the canon's celibacy, which becomes a joke throughout the act. When he defends the church's stand on celibacy, Miss Prism explains that remaining single is actually more of a temptation to women. To a Victorian audience, maturity, ripeness, and green are all coded words dealing with experience and naiveté. Suddenly, the canon realizes he has been saying things that might be interpreted as improper; he hastily covers up with, "I spoke horticulturally. My metaphor was drawn from fruits." All his veiled remarks reflect the cryptic nature of sexual experiences in the world of the 1890s. It is a world where adults do not discuss sex directly with their children or in polite society. No wonder Cecily is so fascinated by the subject of wickedness. In her society, young girls are protected from any knowledge of sex, and adults speak of it in obscure terms so as not to let out the big secret.

Class boundaries are also represented by the minister and Miss Prism. As the local canon, Chasuble is at Jack's beck and call and takes his orders from Jack and the local magistrate. If anyone needs a particular ceremony or sermon, the minister is ready to assist. While he is a scholarly man, Chasuble is still at the bottom of the social ladder in the countryside. Miss Prism must earn her living as a governess, and she too is a servant of the wealthy.

Cecily's schooling is a perfect opportunity for Wilde to comment on the grim, unimaginative education of England. Cecily is over protected lest her imagination run wild. Plain, guttural German is lauded, and Cecily feels plain after reciting it. "The Fall of the Rupee" is seen as "too sensational" for her to read. Political economy was a fast growing academic subject at the time — the province of male students, not young women. Grim, conservative, and unimaginative books are seen as the best way to educate the young. With this foundation, they learn not to question and not to change dramatically the society in which they live. Promoting the status quo is the goal of such learning — an idea that was an anathema to Wilde, hence his desire to satirize it.

Merriman's humor is a foil — or opposite — for Jack's seriousness. Even his name indicates his hidden humor. During the argument about Algernon taking a dogcart back to London, Merriman good-humoredly goes along with Cecily and Jack in the tugging to and fro of Algernon. While he does not express approval or disapproval, he accommodates his upper-class employers and carefully rehearses his facial expressions to show nothing, but through this deliberate rehearsal, Wilde is showing what an artificial, rehearsed society the upper class inhabits. Merriman's job is to orchestrate comings and goings and keep the house running smoothly; he's a proper English servant who knows his place. Similarly, Miss Prism chastises Cecily for watering flowers — a servant's job. By presenting these vignettes — subtle, carefully constructed literary sketches — within the context of a farce, Wilde pokes fun at the Victorian concept that everyone has his duty, and each knows his place.

In Act II, Wilde also exposes the vacuity of the Victorian obsession with appearance. Algernon declares to Cecily that he would never let Jack pick his clothing because, "He has no taste in neckties at all." Clothing is appearance, and appearance is everything. When Algernon travels to the country for just a few short days, he brings "three portmanteaus, a dressing-case, two hat boxes, and a large luncheon-basket." Once again, trifling subjects command excessive attention.

Cecily keeps a diary of her girlish fancies, and they are much more interesting than reality. Because her education is so dry and boring, she lives an interesting fantasy life, which comprises her own secret and self-directed education. She, like Algernon, seems to be interested in immediate gratification, and she puts him in his place when she first meets him. When he calls her "little cousin Cecily," she counters with, "You are under some strange mistake. I am not little. In fact, I believe I am more than usually tall for my age." Algernon is totally taken aback by her forwardness. Wilde here is hinting at a new and more assertive woman.

Wilde also begins an attack on the concepts of romance and courtship in Act II. Gwendolen and Jack have already demonstrated that proposals must be made correctly, especially if anyone is nearby. Now, Cecily and Algernon present a mockery of conventional courtship and romance. As always, appearance is everything. Cecily's diary is a particularly useful tool to symbolize the deceptive character of romance and courtship. When Miss Prism tells Cecily that memory is all one needs to remember one's life, Cecily replies, "Yes, but it usually chronicles the things that have never happened, and couldn't possibly have happened." False memory is what provides for the romance in Miss Prism's three-volume novel. Young girls' heads are filled with romance and naïve ideas about marriage; the true nature of courtship in Victorian, upper-class society is a business deal, according to Wilde, where financial security and family names are traded for wives. Wilde shows this clearly when Algernon proposes to Cecily and tells her he loves her. He is a bit confused when she explains that they have already been engaged for three months, starting last February 14 — at least that is how she recorded her fantasy in her diary. In fact, she even mentions where, when and how their engagement took place. Furthermore, she has letters written by Ernest that purport his love and chronicle the breaking off of the engagement. (No engagement is serious if it is not broken off at least once and then forgiven.) Comically, she mentions in passing that Ernest has beautiful words but that they are "badly spelled." Through this comment, Wilde highlights the superficial Victorian approach to courtship and marriage by having Cecily criticize the spelling in a love letter. To emphasize this absurdity, Algernon comments on the weather in the same breath as their engagement.

Glossary

"As a man sows, so let him reap." This is a verse from the Bible, Galatians 6:7, meaning that actions determine fate.

three-volume novels Lending libraries circulated novels in three parts so that three different readers could be reading at the same time. This practice ended in the late 1800s.

Mudie a lending library.

egeria chastity. Egeri, a nymph, gave wise laws to Numa Pompilius of Rome that were used for the vestal virgins.

Evensong a Sunday evening religious service.

womanthrope a humorous word made up by Miss Prism for a person who hates women.

sententiously full of, or fond of using, maxims, proverbs and so on, especially in a way that is ponderously trite and moralizing.

the Primitive Church the pre-Reformation Catholic Church, whose priest remained celibate.

canonical practice church law.

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