Summary and Analysis
Act II: Part 2
While Algernon rushes out to make christening arrangements, Cecily writes Ernest's proposal in her diary. She is interrupted by Merriman announcing The Honorable Gwendolen Fairfax to see Jack; unfortunately, Jack is at the rectory. Cecily asks her in, and they introduce themselves. Gwendolen did not know Jack had a ward, and she wishes Cecily were older and less beautiful.
Both announce that they are engaged to Ernest Worthing. When they compare diaries, they decide that Gwendolen was asked first; however, Cecily says that since then, he has obviously changed his mind and proposed to Cecily. Merriman and a footman enter with tea, which stops their argument. They discuss geography and flowers in a civilized manner while the servants are present. However, during the tea ceremony, Cecily deliberately gives Gwendolen sugar in her tea when Gwendolen did not want sugar and tea cake when Gwendolen expressly asked for bread and butter. The situation is very tense and strained.
Jack arrives, and Gwendolen calls him Ernest; he kisses Gwendolen who demands an explanation of the situation. Cecily explains that this is not Ernest but her guardian, Jack Worthing. Algernon comes in, and Cecily calls him Ernest. Gwendolen explains that he is her cousin, Algernon Moncrieff. The ladies then console each other because the men have played a monstrous trick on them. Jack sheepishly admits that he has no brother Ernest and has never had a brother of any kind. Both ladies announce that they are not engaged to anyone and leave to go into the house.
Act II explores the personalities of Cecily Cardew and Gwendolen Fairfax. Both women have in common their singled-minded persistence in pursuing a husband named Ernest. They have strong opinions, are able to deal with unexpected situations, and are connected in many instances by dialogue that is repetitive and parallel. However, they also have many differences.
Cecily Cardew is passionate about her desires and her goals, but she is also overly protected in the country setting. She is being brought up far away from the temptations and social life of the city, protected until her coming out. Her goal is to marry a solid Victorian husband with the trustworthy name of Ernest. When she meets Algernon, she is sure she has found him.
Gwendolen Fairfax is a big-city, sophisticated woman in sharp contrast to Cecily Cardew. Gwendolen has ideas of her own. Like her mother, Gwendolen is determined. Gwendolen knows what she wants. She comes to the country to pursue her Ernest, thinking she will rescue him. She tells Cecily, "If the poor fellow has been entrapped into any foolish promise, I shall consider it my duty to rescue him at once, and with a firm hand." Whatever her opinion, she states it very clearly. With her lorgnette, she views her world with the shortsightedness instilled in her by her Victorian mother — like mother, like daughter. However, this daughter occasionally chafes at the restraints placed on her by her class and time period. Humorously, Wilde displays Gwendolen's shortsightedness when he mentions her diary. Gwendolen's thoughts generally consist of observations about herself. She is totally self-absorbed, like most of the characters in Wilde's play.
Wilde links Cecily and Gwendolen very cleverly by using parallel conversations and by repeating bits and pieces of sentences. They both discuss liking and disliking each other with exactly the same words. Likewise, they both discuss marrying Ernest with the same phrases. Gwendolen says, "My first impressions of people are never wrong," and later counters with, "My first impressions of people are invariably right." Their artificial speech and comments on trivial subjects are part of polite conversation. Jack and Algernon are also linked with parallel lines that display the similarities in their situations. Jack says, "You won't be able to run down to the country quite so often as you used to do, dear Algy. And a very good thing too." Algernon parallels this line with "You won't be able to disappear to London quite so frequently as your wicked custom was. And not a bad thing either." The parallel words and lines are used almost like a minuet, where each partner circles around the other turning one way and then the other. Wilde has choreographed the lines to present a stylized, artificial milieu that exaggerates the art of manners and social discourse.
The culmination of Wilde's commentary on Victorian social rituals is the tea ceremony with Cecily and Gwendolen. This witty exchange of conversation is representative of Victorian social ritual where proposals, social calls, and parties are all carefully orchestrated. Because it is conducted under obvious duress, the tea becomes a ridiculous event. Throughout the tea pouring and the cake cutting, Cecily and Gwendolen are mindful of their manners in front of the servants. Even their anger is civilized. Once the servants leave they discover they are engaged to the same man, and the conversation heats up considerably. The servants, however, provide a calming influence, and the women must simply glare at each other across the table. Their sarcasm is revealed in Wilde's stage directions. When Cecily makes a satirical comment about Gwendolen living in town because she does not like crowds — indicating that she has few friends and little social life — Gwendolen bites her lip and beats her foot nervously. Cecily is instructed to make this comment "sweetly." For her own part, Gwendolen calls Cecily a detestable girl, but her comment is made in an aside to the audience.
For their part, the servants continue to serve as an opportunity for Wilde to comment on the all-knowing-but-seldom-commenting lower class. Merriman's function is to announce people and events, warn of the approach of Lady Bracknell with a discrete cough, and watch the happenings with amusement but without registering this with his face or manners. He carries to the tea ceremony all the traditional hardware: a salver, a tablecloth and a plate stand. Wilde says in his directions, "The presence of the servants exercises a restraining influence..." The women know they must not bicker in front of the hired help, and the servants understand that their very proximity will play a role in the outcome. Merriman asserts his mistress's role when he asks Cecily if he should lay the tea "as usual." Cecily answers, "sternly, in a calm voice, 'Yes, as usual.'" Mistress and servant are acknowledging her role as the lady of the house. Wilde seems to be asking what the British upper class would do without the stern but calming influence of its servants.
Several motifs that have been mentioned earlier are continued in this scene. Religion is once again referred to as a matter of form and format. The significance of a person's baptism is not even a matter for concern when Jack and Algernon get the canon to agree to baptize them. A person's rebirth is only a matter of a name on a piece of paper. It is a means to an end because it will get both men what they want: Cecily and Gwendolen.
Reform comes to mean the possibility that dissenters can be taught to see the error of their ways and conform to the status quo. Cecily's education is grooming her to be a member of the upper class, mindlessly repeating its virtues. She offers to reform Algernon, acting with forward zeal. She plans to turn Algernon into the perfect Ernest, a man who will be like other men and propose correctly, protect and support her financially, and stop his single life on the town.
Conventional Victorian values and behavior are often the subjects of bantering among the characters in this scene. Gwendolen is pleased that "outside the family circle" her father is unknown. Certainly idle gossip about the wealthy should not be a matter of public discussion. The appearance of Victorian family life is for the man to be part of the domestic setting, but, as always, Wilde is saying that this appearance is the ideal while the reality is quite different.
Truth and deception also continue to be a part of Wilde's country world. Gwendolen passionately comments on Jack's honest and upright nature. "He is the very soul of truth and honour. Disloyalty would be as impossible to him as deception." Of course, the audience knows that her Ernest has lied about himself throughout the course of their courtship. Algernon also engages in deception in this scene when he acknowledges that his trip to Jack's estate has been the most wonderful bunburying trip of his life. What began as trivial has become an engagement. Both men accuse each other of deceiving the women in their lives, and Jack says that Algernon cannot marry Cecily because he has been deceptive to her. Alternatively, Algernon accuses Jack of engaging in deception toward his cousin, Gwendolen. By the end of the scene, it seems that marriage plans will not materialize for either of them anytime soon. Their deception as Ernests is definitely over, and now they must figure out how to pick up the pieces. The hypocrisy of Victorian virtues, paid lip service in public but invariably denied in private lives, is aptly represented by Jack and Algernon's behavior.
effeminate having the qualities generally attributed to women, such as weakness, timidity, delicacy and so on; unmanly; not virile.
the Morning Post a newspaper read by the upper class because of its reporting on engagements, marriages and social gossip.
lorgnette a pair of eyeglasses attached to a handle.
"a restraining influence" the presence of servants that causes the principal characters to be careful in their speech.
machinations an artful or secret plot or scheme.