Summary of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest is written by Oscar Wilde and was first performed on February 14, 1895 in London. It is a farcical comedy based on the story of Algernon Moncrieff, a young man who usually try to escape the cumbersome social obligations by one or the other way. It is divided in three Acts.

Summary

ACT I

The first Act of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is set in London flat of Algernon Moncrieff. At the beginning, the audiences are introduced with Algernon Moncrieff. He is a young man in his thirties. He is shown preparing for the arrival of his Aunt Lady Bracknell and her daughter, Gwendolen. At that time, he is informed of the arrival of his friend, Ernest Worthing. Mr. Worthing was in love with Gwendolen and now he had come there to propose her marriage. Algernon who was a carefree young lad and believed in free life, laughs at the idea of marriage. When Mr. Worthing expresses his firm resolve to get married with Gwendolyn, Algernon objects to this proposal. His objection was due to the fact that Worthing has a cigarette case with an inscrioption ‘From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack.’ In this matter, Algernon wanted to know why Mr. Worthing was referred as ‘Jack’ instead of Ernest. Now Algernon insists that Mr. Worthing should explain everything to Algernon if he wanted to marry with Gwendolen. Caught in such a difficult situation, Mr. Worthing admits of leading a double life. In the country, he was known by the name of Jack or John, which was, in fact, his real name and in London he was known as Ernest. Before his death, his father had assigned him the responsibility of looking after Cecily, a young and beautiful girl. For the benefit of Cecily, he was leading a serious life of Jack in the country. He had told Cecily that he had a younger brother, named Ernest who leads a wayward life in city and usually needs Jack to help him to come out of the mess. Actually, Mr. Worthing had no any brother. But he had created an imaginary brother in order to escape from the boring and serious country life and experience the exciting city life in London. So whenever he wanted he used to come to London on the pretext of meeting his spoilt younger brother, Ernest.

When Algernon heard this story, he was amused. He told Mr. Worthing that he himself had invented an invalid friend, named Bunbury, who lived in the country. Whenever Algernon wanted to avoid any of the social obligations of his Aunt, he used to escape from it by saying that he was required to visit Bunbury. Then Algernon enquired more about Cecily and Mr. Worthing’s country address. But Mr. Worthing refused to tell anything more about it.

At this moment, Lady Bracknell and her daughter, Gwendolen appear on the scene. As was earlier decided, Algernon took his aunt out of the room allowing Mr. Ernest Worthing to propose Gwendolen. She readily accepted his proposal as she was fascinated by his name ‘Ernest’. She also added that she had always thought of marrying a man with a name of Ernest. When Mr. Worthing came to know about her intense liking for the name of ‘Ernest’, he immediately resolved to get rechristened as ‘Ernest.’ When the lovers were talking about their love, Lady Bracknell arrived there and discovered their love for each other. But before giving her consent, it was necessary for her to interrogate her would-be son-in-law properly. That is why she ordered Gwendolen to proceed towards the carriage. Then she asked Mr. Worthing about his parents. He told her that he didn’t know anything about his real parents because as a baby he was found in a handbag on Victoria Station. When Lady Bracknell discovered that he was an orphan, she firmly declined him to marry her daughter. She even forbade him to have any contact with her daughter in future.

When Lady Bracknell left the scene, Gwendolen reappeared there and promised him of her firm resolve to get married none other than him. As now her mother was against their union, Gwendolen was required to visit his country home. Therefore, she asked Mr. Worthing his country address. When he told her that he lived at Manot House in Woolton, Hertfordshire, this address was overheard by Algernon. As his interest was aroused by Mr. Worthing’s pretty and wealthy ward Cecily, he noted down it on the sleeve and declared that he was going ‘Bunburying’ immediately.

ACT II

The second Act is set in Mr. Worthing’s country house. Here the audiences are introduced with Cecily and her governess, Miss Prism. Cecily was taking her lessons from her governess. At the arrival of Dr. Chasuble, Miss Prism left with him for a short walk. Now Cecily was all alone. At that time, Algernon arrived there and introduced himself as Ernest Worthing, the younger brother of Mr. Jack Worthing. As Cecily had never seen Ernest Worthing before, she believed in him and heartily welcomed him. Actually, she had heard much about the fascinating life Ernest lived in London. The name ‘Ernest’ had long been fired her young imagination and so she was very much pleased to meet him. She even told Algernon that she had been fantasizing about Earnest for quite some time, and had even imagined that she had engaged to him. Her interest in ‘Ernest’ made Algernon plan to meet Dr. Chasuble and get himself rechristened as ‘Ernest’.

When Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism returned from their walk, they met Jack Worthing who had just returned from London. He was dressed in black mourning clothes. As was decided earlier Jack was to return back home on Monday. However, he had come early because his brother, Ernest, had died in Paris. Dr. Chasuble left the place after promising Jack to christen him in the afternoon. Then there came Cecily and told Uncle Jack that his brother, Ernest has come there and was waiting in the dining room. Jack tried to tell her that he didn’t have a brother. But instead of listening to him, she ran into the house and came out with Algernon. When Jack saw him, he refused to shake hand with him. Cecily tried to pacify Uncle Jack by telling him that Ernest was a good person as he was taking care of his invalid friend, Bunbury. When everyone except Jack and Algernon left, Jack ordered Merriman to arrange for the dogcart, as Ernest wanted to leave for London immediately. Actually, Jack did not want Algernon to stay there anymore.

As soon as Algernon left to arrange for his baptism, there came Gwendolen in search of her lover. Cecily welcomed her on behalf of her Uncle. However, soon both the ladies started fighting thinking that both of them were engaged to one and the same man, Ernest Worthing. But when Algernon and Jack came on the scene together their misunderstanding is cleared. Now they understood that both of them were deceived by their respective lovers as none of them had the name, Ernest. This united the ladies against the men. Now the men were left thinking about the way to come out of this situation.

ACT III

The third Act takes the audience into the drawing room of Jack’s house. Lady Bracknell has arrived there following her daughter, Gwendolen. When she came to know that Algernon and Cecily are engaged, she was surprised. But she was doubtful about the Cecily’s suitability for her nephew, Algernon. But all her doubts are cleared when she was told that Cecily had a large fortune. She gave her consent to the marriage. However, Jack Worthing refused to allow Cecily to marry Algernon as Lady Bracknell was against his marriage with Gwendolen. Lady Bracknell was against Jack’s marriage with her daughter as he was an orphan and from social point of view it would have been improper to accept an orphan as a son-in-law.

The deadlock continued until the arrival of Miss Prism on the scene. Lady Bracknell instantly recognized Miss Prism who had been her family nursemaid. Now the audiences came to know that Miss Prism was the same nursemaid who, twenty eight years ago, had disappeared with a baby boy belonging to Lady Bracknell’s sister. Now Lady Bracknell anxiously asked Miss Prism about that boy. Miss Prism told her that after taking the baby boy for a walk in a perambulator, she absent-mindedly put the manuscript of a novel she was writing in the perambulator, and the baby in a handbag. Later she had left that handbag at Victoria Station. When Jack listened to this explanation, he brought there a handbag and showed it to Miss Prism. She recognized the handbag immediately. Then he told the gathering that he was the baby who was found in that handbag on Victoria Station twenty eight years ago. It means Jack was none other than the son of Lady Bracknell’s late sister. Now it turned out that he was Algernon’s older brother and so eligible to get married with Gwendolen.

But it was not the end of Jack’s problem. As Gwendolen had determined only to marry with a man having the name ‘Ernest’, the stalemate continued. So she wanted to know the real name of Jack. Then Lady Bracknell told Jack that as he was the first-born child of the family and as per the tradition, he might have been named after his father, General Moncrieff. This explanation led Jack to examine the army lists. There he came to know that his father’s name was

Ernest and hence his own name was also Ernest. This discovery made everybody happy. It led to the happy union Jack and Gwendolen, Algernon and Cecily, and Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism. When Lady Bracknell saw Jack Worthing, now Ernest, embracing Gwendolen, she remarked that his behaviour showed the signs of triviality. Thereupon Ernest remarked that it was for the first time in his life that he had realized “the vital Importance of being Earnest”. With this remark the play comes to an end.

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