Book Review: The Importance of Being Earnest
I bought this book, along with several others, at ALDI a number of years ago. I thought it was a GREAT deal — I mean, the COMPLETE collection of Oscar Wilde’s work in one volume for an incredibly low price? What a bargain!
So I brought it home and put it on my shelf where it sat for all these years pretty much untouched. Yeah, I’m like that.
I picked up this book recently and am slowly going through it.
The Importance of Being Earnest is one of Wilde’s best known plays and one that I can finally check off my very, very long and ever-growing list of “Works I Should Have Read By Now But Haven’t”.
John “Jack” Worthing leads a double life. When he is in the country, he is known as Jack. When he wants to escape social obligations, he “visits” his good-for-nothing younger brother, Ernest, in London. While in London, he is known as Ernest.
Jack’s friend in London, Algernon Moncrieff, also leads a double life. When he wants to escape social obligations, he “visits” his invalid friend in the country, a man known as Bunbury.
While visiting Algernon, Jack is forced to confess to his double life when Algy asks him about a cigarette case he left behind the last time he was there. Algernon is puzzled by the inscription: “From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack.” Jack reveals that he has a ward, a young woman by the name of Cecily Cardew, who calls him “Uncle Jack”. Jack also tells Algernon he has had enough of “Ernest” and plans to kill him off.
Jack is in London to propose to Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax. She accepts his proposal, not least of all because of his name.
GWEDOLEN: We live, as I hope you know, Mr Worthing, in an age of ideals.The fact is constantly mentioned in the more expensive monthly magazines, and has reached the provincial pulpits, I am told; and my ideal has always been to love someone of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.
JACK: You really love me, Gwendolen?
JACK: Darling! You don’t know how happy you’ve made me.
GWENDOLEN: My own Ernest!
JACK: But you don’t really mean to say that you couldn’t love me if my name wasn’t Ernest?
GWENDOLEN: But your name is Ernest.
JACK: Yes, I know it is. But supposing it was something else? Do you mean to say you couldn’t love me then?
GWENDOLEN: Ah! that is clearly a metaphysical speculation and like most metaphysical speculations has very little reference at all to the actual facts of real life, as we know them.
JACK: Personally, darling, to speak quite candidly, I don’t much care about the name Ernest . . . I don’t think the name suits me at all.
GWENDOLEN: It suits you perfectly. It is a divine name. It has a music of its own. It produces vibrations.
JACK: Well, really, Gwendolen, I must say that I think there are lots of other much nicer names. I think Jack, for instance, a charming name.
GWENDOLEN: Jack? . . . No, there is very little music the name of Jack, if any at all indeed. It does not thrill. It produces absolutely no vibrations . . . I have known several Jacks, and they all, without exception, were more than usually plain. Besides, Jack is a notorious domesticity for John! And I pity any woman who is married to a man called John. She would probably never be allowed to know the entrancing pleasure of a single moment’s solitude. The only really safe name is Ernest.
Jack plans to get re-christened as soon as possible.
Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell, does not approve of the engagement at all, especially when she finds out that Jack/Ernest was (seemingly) abandoned as a baby and found in a “somewhat large, black leather hand-bag, with handles to it” by Mr Thomas Cardew who gave him the name Worthing because he happened to have a first-class ticket for Worthing in his pocket at the time.
Meanwhile, Algernon is curious to meet Cecily, and after procuring Jack’s country address, Algernon goes off “Bunburying”. He turns up pretending to be Ernest and finds out that Cecily has been in love with him ever since she found out Jack has a brother called Ernest. In fact, she has already written in her diary that they are engaged to be married. To make the engagement even more serious, it was broken off and mended again.
ALGERNON: You’ll never break off our engagement again, Cecily?
CECILY: I don’t think I could break it off now that I have actually met you. Besides, of course, there is the question of your name.
ALGERNON: Yes, of course.
CECILY: You must not laugh at me, darling, but it had always been a girlish dream of mine to love someone whose name was Ernest. There is something in that name that seems to inspire absolute confidence. I pity any poor married woman whose husband is not called Ernest.
ALGERNON: But, my dear child, do you mean to say you could not love me if I had some other name?
CECILY: But what name?
ALGERNON: Oh, any name you like — Algernon — for instance . . .
CECILY: But I don’t like the name of Algernon.
ALGERNON: Well, my own dear, sweet, loving little darling, I really can’t see why you should object to the name of Algernon. It is not at all a bad name. In fact, it is rather an aristocratic name. Half of the chaps who get into the bankruptcy court are called Algernon. But seriously, Cecily, if my name was Algy, couldn’t you love me?
CECILY: I might respect you, Ernest, I might admire your character, but I fear that I should not be able to give you my undivided attention.
Algernon, too, makes plans to get re-christened posthaste.
When Jack arrives home with the news that “Ernest” is dead, and Gwendolen also arrives to meet Cecily, and the two women find out that they are both engaged to “Ernest”, well, things get awkward and hilarious.
This is a must-read and I am only sorry that I waited till now to read it.