Ernestness-- that is, a high-minded and serious devotion to duty and virtue-- was a quality advocated by such central Victorian figures as Arnold and Tennyson, but it was mocked as a trait of the rigidly moralistic middle class by other Victorians who found middle-class values self-serving and middle-class tastes dull.
In this satire, being earnest is made as superficial a trait as possible; it means simply having the name Earnest. The characters are motivated and controlled by a hollow and artificial set of social standards that have little substance but are used to maintain social distinctions and social class privileges. Against this rigid system of controls the young lovers pursue their dreams of romance. The play is structured as a series of verbal fencing matches in which showing the right form is as important as making one's point. The plot is nonsensical, a mere excuse for causing the lovers some temporary setbacks before the inevitable comic happy ending. The tone is brightly serious; none of the characters have any inkling that they are speaking absurdities. Even the self-indulgent Algernon is earnest in his self-indulgence.
ACT I. The opening act takes place at tea time in Algernon's fashionable London apartment. Algernon immediately establishes his role as an aesthetic by the "artistic" style of his room and by the sentimental style of his piano playing. He contrasts with his guest, Jack, who claims to be seeking pleasure but who is actually rather serious and plans to propose marriage to Algernon's cousin Gwendolen, who also comes to tea, along with her mother and Algernon's aunt, Lady Bracknell. Before the ladies arrive Algernon requires Jack to explain who Cecily is. She is Jack's ward, the granddaughter of his adoptive father, and she lives in Jack's country estate while he comes up to town on supposed visits to his nonexistent brother, Earnest. Thus he is called Jack in the country by Cecily and is known as Earnest in town by Algernon and Gwendolen. This confession leads Algernon to reveal that he has an imaginary friend, Burbury, whose recurrent illnesses provide excuses for Algernon to leave town whenever he wants to get away from his relatives, particularly from his aunt. At this point Lady Bracknel and Gwendolen arrive. After some chitchat about the newly windowed Lady Hanbury, whose "hair has turned quite gold from grief," Algernon gets Lady Bracknell to leave the room so that Jack/Earnest can propose to Gwendolen. This he does in proper form, on his knees, and she accepts. They are interrupted by the return of Lady Bracknell, who disapproves of the marriage on the grounds that Jack/Earnest has no proper family, having been left as an infant in a handbag at a railway station. Admonishing Jack to obtain some proper parents, she hurries Gwendolen away. But Gwendolen sneaks back for a moment to pledge eternal love to Jack/Earnest and to get his country address. Algernon overhears and makes a note of the address, having developed some curiosity to meet Jack/Earnest's hidden ward, Cecily.
ACT 2. The second act takes place in the garden of Jack/Earnest's country house. At the opening, his ward Cecily is resisting the lessons of her governess, Miss Prism. Cecily keeps a diary of her fantasy life, and Miss Prism admits that she once wrote a novel, though it was lost and never published. The local clergyman, Dr. Chausible, enters, and it becomes obvious that Miss Prism aspires to marry him. When these two have moved off to take a walk Cecily is surprised by the unexpected arrival of Algernon, who pretends to be Jack's younger brother, the ne'er-do-well Earnest. He finds her charming and she sees him as the fulfillment of her romantic dreams. Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble return from their walk. Jack enters mourning dress and announces the death of his (invented) brother Earnest. In the midst of expressions of sympathy Cecily comes out of the house to announce that the supposedly dead Earnest is in the dining room. Algernon, still pretending to be Earnest is in the dining room. Algernon, still pretending to be Earnest, emerges from the house and dares Jack, through meaningful looks, to reveal the truth that there is no Earnest. Jack orders a cart to take Algernon/Earnest back to the train station for his return to town, but he refuses to go, saying that he has fallen in love with Cecily. She returns to the scene and they cancel the order for the cart. In the subsequent love scene Cecily reveals that she has been conducting an imaginary courtship with Earnest in her diary ever since learning of his existence from Jack. She declares that she could marry only a man who was named Earnest. Algernon rushes of to arrange to be newly christened with that name. In his absence Gwendolen Fairfax arrives, intending to visit her fiancee, Earnest (really Jack). In a scene of high comic tension, both Gwendolen and Cecily claim to be engaged to Earnest. As they have tea together and make icily candid remarks, Jack returns, followed closely by Algernon. The truth comes out that neither of these men is named Earnest. The two deceived young women, now that they realize that their fiancées are two different men, joining together in sympathy and outrage at the deception. They retreat into the house, leaving Jack to blame Algernon for the debacle while Algernon consoles himself by eating muffins.
ACT 3. The final act follows without any lapse. The two young women are inside, looking out at their rejected suitors and hoping they will come in to be reconciled, although the women vow to each other that they will be cold. When Jack and Algernon do enter, there are mutual recriminations, but the final point of conflict is that neither man is really named Earnest, a name both women insist on as the only acceptable name for a husband. Jack and Algernon both volunteer to be christened with that name, causing an outburst of admiration from Gwendolen and Cecily. Just as the lovers have been reconciled, Lady Bracknell arrives, having followed her daughter Gwendolen to prevent mischief. Cecily is introduced to her as Algernon's betrothed, but Lady Bracknell rejects the engagement until she hears that Cecily is heiress to a substantial fortune. Lady Brcknell persists, however, in objecting to Jack as a son-in-law on the ground that he lacks family status. Jack makes a countermove, denying permission for his ward Cecily to marry Algernon. During the impasse Miss Prism comes in. By the wildest of coincidences, Miss Prism turns out to be the absent-minded nurse who had misplaced Jack as an infant, putting the manuscript for her novel in the baby carriage and the baby into her handbag, which she left in the railway station. As it turns out, Jack is the nephew of Lady Bracknell and Algernon's brother. Therefore, he is of good family and can marry his cousin Gwendolen. And his original name was Earnest. The play ends with multiple embraces: Earnest and Gwendolen, Algernon and Cecily, and even Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism. Earnest's final line is the title of the play.
Any outline of this comedy's silly plot misses its essence-- the witty word play that reveals the disparity between the artificial social customs of English aristocratic society and this group's mercenary values and shallow family relationships. Everything is evaluated according to its style, its conformity to fashion.
Oscar Wilde's satire was aimed against the aristocracy, a class on the brink of ruin, clinging absurdly to its artificial forms and standards. Satire and irony do not advocate a program of change, however. It merely shows up what is wrong.
Begin the Begin