At the very outset it must be pointed out that the appeal of The Importance of Being Earnest lies chiefly in its, dialogue which is distinguished by an abudance of wit and humour. There is undoubtedly little action in the play but whatever of it there is has been developed in a perfectly logical manner. Once we recognize that absurdity is the keynote of the play, we shall find no fault with the way the plot develops. The plot is certainly flimsy but it is closely-knit and skilfully constructed. For various reasons, this play is superior to the other plays written by Wilde, but one reason for its superiority is its excellent craftsmanship.
The Love-Affair of Jack and Gwendolen in Act I
There are two major love-affairs, and one minor love-affair in The Importance of Being Earnest. Act I initiates one of the two major love-affairs, namely that of lack and Gwendolen. Jack has been visiting London under the assumed name of Ernest and it is by this name that he is known to Gwendolen. When the play opens, Jack is on another of his visits to London, and this time he proposes marriage to Gwendolen who readily accepts the proposal. Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell, however rejects Jack as a possible son-in-law after cross-examining him and being told that Jack’s parentage is unknown.
A hint of the second major love-affair is dropped to us when Algernon, in response to his persistent questioning of Jack, learns that Jack has a ward by the name of Cecily, a very pretty girl of eighteen years of age, who is living with him at his country home under the charge of a governess by the name of Miss Prism. Algernon becomes very inquisitive about Cecily and expresses to Jack his desire to see her, but Jack replies that he will take very good care to see that Algernon does not meet Cecily who is excessively pretty and only eighteen. However, Algernon takes down Jack’s country address when Jack tells it to Gwendolen, and Algernon overhears it. Algernon’s taking down Jack’s country address is an indication that he will find an opportunity to meet Cecily. Our feeling in this respect is confirmed when Algernon tells his servant to pack his luggage because he will be leaving London for the countryside on the following day. He calls this visit to the country as part of his “Bunburying”.
The Mutual Interest of Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble in Each Other
In Act II it is the love-affair between Algernon and Cecily which is initiated and which develops, but the other major love-affair, as also the minor love-affair (the one between Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble, the Rector), also develop simultaneously. In the beginning of Act II we are introduced to Cecily, Miss Prism, and Dr. Chasuble. Cecily has perceived Miss Prism’s emotional interest in Dr. Chasuble and the Rector’s emotional interest in Miss Prism. The mutual interest of Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble in each other is confirmed by their taking a walk together, and Miss Prism’s suggesting to the Rector that he should get married in order to relieve his loneliness.
Cecily’s Engagement to Jack
Algernon now appears at Jack’s country house and introduces himself to Cecily as Jack’s younger brother by the name of Ernest who is supposed to be a rather wicked fellow and who therefore often gets into difficulties. But just then Jack returns home from his visit to London and, not knowing that Algernon is already there under the assumed name of Ernest, says that his younger brother has died. This situation is very funny, indeed. On being told that his younger brother by the name of Ernest is in the house, and very much alive, Jack feels very annoyed with Algernon and would like Algernon to go away but Algernon who has already fallen in love with Cecily has no intention to leave. Finding an opportunity to be alone with Cecily, Algernon proposes marriage to her, and she promptly responds to the proposal, saying that she has already been engaged to him for the last three months because she bad fallen in love with him as soon as her guardian had mentioned him to her.
The Deception Practised By the Two Men
The two major love-affairs are now brought into a close relationship with each other when Gwendolen unexpectedly arrives at Jack’s country house in order to meet the man whom she knows under the name of Ernest. There is a misunderstanding in the minds of both Cecily and Gwendolen because they think that it is the same man called Ernest who has proposed marriage to both of them. The misunderstanding is, however, soon cleared, but both the girls feel annoyed with their respective lovers for having deceived them with regard to the name Ernest.
The Solution of the Mystery of Jack’s Parentage
In Act III the difficulty that had arisen in connection with the name Ernest is removed when the two girls decide to forgive their lovers. But another complication now arises. Lady Bracknell too arrives at Jack’s country house, having come to know that her daughter Gwendolen had fled from London in order to meet her lover Jack. Lady Bracknell has no objection to her nephew Algernon marrying Cecily, but she persists in her objection to Jack as her would-be son-in-law and does not agree to Gwendolen’s marrying Jack. At this, Jack declares that, as Cecily’s guardian, he will not agree to Cecily’s marrying Algernon unless Lady Bracknell first agrees to her daughter Gwendolen’s marrying Jack. Lady Bracknell, however, is in no mood to give her consent to Gwendolen’s marriage to Jack. Just then Dr. Chasuble appears and happens to mention the name of Miss Prism. The mention of Miss Prism startles Lady Bracknell, and she demands that Miss Prism be summoned to her presence. On being questioned by Lady Bracknell, Miss Prism gives an account of how she bad, twentyeight years ago, committed the blunder of putting a baby in a hand-bag which she had deposited in a railway cloak-room instead of putting the baby in the perambulator. This baby was no other than Jack. The mystery of Jack’s parentage is thus solved, and it is found that Jack is Lady Bracknell’s own nephew and the elder brother of Algernon. Lady Bracknell now can have no objection to her daughter’s marrying Jack.
The Interweaving of the Plots
The interweaving between the two main love-affairs is thus perfect. Algernon could not marry Cecily unless Lady Bracknell permitted Gwendolen to marry Jack ; and Lady Bracknell permits Gwendolen’s marriage to Jack only when it is discovered that Jack is Lady Bracknell’s own nephew. The subsidiary love-affair, the one between Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism, is also brought into a close relationship. with the two major love-affairs because Miss Prism, who is Cecily’s governess, was at one time serving as a nurse in Lady Bracknell’s household and was looking after Lady Bracknell’s nephew, Jack or Ernest. Not only that, it is Dr. Chasuble who comes and mentions the name of Miss Prism which arouses Lady Bracknell’s curiosity and makes her summon Miss Prism to her presence. Wilde’s craftsmanship is thus evident in the inter-connection and inter-dependence of the two main plots, and the close connection of the subsidiary plot with the two main plots.
The Parallelisms in the Play
An important aspect of the construction of this play is the use of parallelism. Jack has invented a very useful younger brother called Ernest, in order that he might be able to go to London as often as he likes in order to meet Gwendolen and also for a change to relieve the monotony of his life at his country residence. In the same way Algernon has invented a valuable permanent invalid called Bunbury in order that he might be able to go down into the country whenever he pleases in order to escape from the social whirl of London and especially from the boring dinner-parties of his aunt, Lady Bracknell. This is one example of parallelism. Another example is to be found in the reaction of Gwendolen and Cecily to the name “Ernest”. Both girls become almost rapturous over this name. Both find that this name is one which inspires absolute confidence. It had been Gwendolen’s ideal to marry someone by the name Ernest, and it had been the girlish dream of Cecily to do the same. Yet another example of parallelism -is that both Gwendolen and Cecily maintain diaries, though for different reasons. Gwendolen keeps her diary with her on bet railway journeys in order to be able to read something sensational, while Cecily records in her diary what she calls “the wonderful secrets” of her life as well as the words of praise of her beauty spoken by her admirer Algernon. Yet another example of parallelism is the readiness of both Jack and Algernon to acquire, the name of Ernest and to undergo the ceremony of christening or rechristening in order to do so, even though it is eventually found .unnecessary for either of them to undergo that ceremony.
Deceptions in the Play
The construction of the play rests also on a series of secrets and the disclosure of those secrets. Deception and deceit are the basis of most comedies, and The Importance of Being Earnest is no exception. Not only do Algernon and Jack deceive their beloveds with a false name, but Lady Bracknell also proves to be a tricky woman because it is by bribing Gwendolen’s maid-servant that she finds out where Gwendolen has gone. Miss Prism too is guilty of deception, because she has been hiding for nearly thirty years the secret of her misdeed in having placed the baby in a hand-bag. The wealth of the late Mr. Thomas Cardew is a secret which remains a mystery till the end. Nor is little Cecily above deceit, though of a petty kind, as when she tells Gwendolen that her engagement is to be announced in the local newspaper. Even the life of Lane, the, servant, is not above suspicion.
The Interest of the Dialogue
It is also noteworthy that every dramatic element in this play has been subordinated to dialogue. There are no doubt a number of comic situations such as Algernon’s continuing to eat muffins despite Jack’s protests, Jack’s return home in mourning clothes and his announcing the death of his supposed younger brother, the two girls thinking that they are engaged to the same person, Dr. Chasuble’s preparations for the two christening ceremonies, and so on. But it is the dialogue which is of supreme importance in this play. In connection with the dialogue it is necessary to point out that it is a judicious mixture of long and short speeches. There are many speeches consisting of no more than two to four lines, and there are a number of speeches consisting of as many as eight to twelve lines. Such a judicious mixture is also an important aspect of the construction of the play.