Oscar Wilde

The Importance of Being Earnest

  • This summary of The Importance of Being Earnest includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

The Importance of Being Earnest Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.

The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde, is a three-act satirical play first performed on February 14, 1895. The play satirizes Victorian values. There are four main characters: Jack, Gwendolen, Algernon, and Cecily. Cecily is Jack’s ward, whom Algernon wants to marry, and Gwendolen is Algernon’s cousin, whom Jack wants to marry. Cecily and Gwendolen both think that Jack and Algernon are a man named Ernest, who is Jack’s fictional and wayward brother. Confusion and comedy ensue as the characters try to earn their hearts’ desires.

Act One opens with Algernon and his friend Jack. Jack asks after Gwendolen, intent on marrying her even though neither Algernon nor Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell, approve of the match. (Algernon’s disapproval has more to do with his cynicism about marriage than with his friend.) During their exchange, the audience learns that not only has Jack made up a fictional brother called Ernest, whom he pretends to be whenever he’s in London, but that he was adopted by Thomas Cardew and that Thomas’ daughter, Cecily Cardew, is now Jack’s ward. While he cares for her, he finds her boring and often seeks to escape his country estate to entertain himself in the city. Knowing Cecily is pretty, Algernon wants to meet her, but Jack refuses because he knows his friend does not believe in marriage.

When Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen arrive, Algernon whisks his aunt away to give Jack/Ernest some time alone to speak with Gwendolen, who knows him only as Ernest. He proposes to Gwendolen and she accepts, but his joy is undercut when Gwendolen announces that she couldn’t possibly marry anyone who was named anything but Ernest. Jack/Ernest is determined to change his name officially so that Gwendolen will still want to marry him. Gwendolen tells her mother that she plans to marry Jack/Ernest, and Lady Bracknell dismisses Algernon and Gwendolen to interview Jack/Ernest. She is happy to learn that he is wealthy, but when she finds out that Thomas Cardew adopted him after finding him as a baby in a handbag at a train station, she tells him that without relatives, he cannot marry Gwendolen.

In Act Two, Cecily is sitting with her governess, Miss Prism, at Jack’s country estate. Desperate to escape from her studies, Cecily convinces Miss Prism to go on a walk with Dr. Chasuble, the local rector. Meanwhile, Algernon has traveled to the estate intent on meeting Cecily. When they meet, he tells her that he is Jack’s younger brother, Ernest. He proposes to her and she accepts. When Jack returns home to find Algernon there, he tries to get him to go back to London, but Algernon won’t leave. Having heard so much about Ernest (Jack’s fictional brother) before meeting Algernon/Ernest, Cecily informs him that she could only ever love and marry a man named Ernest. So, like Jack, Algernon decides that he will change his name, and both ask Dr. Chasuble to arrange to re-baptize them as Ernest.

Meanwhile Gwendolen travels to Jack’s country estate, seeking Jack/Ernest. When she finds Cecily, the two women, confused by Jack’s and Algernon’s both calling themselves Ernest, believe they are both engaged to marry the same man. When Jack and Ernest return, Gwendolen and Cecily confront them before leaving them alone out in the garden.

Act Three opens with the women forgiving both Jack and Algernon, but they remain adamant about marrying men named Ernest. The men argue about who will actually get to change his name to Ernest, since they decide they can’t both be called by the same name. At that point, Lady Bracknell arrives, angry that Gwendolen has left her to visit Jack’s home. However, her anger is tempered when she learns that her bankrupt nephew, Algernon, is in love with the wealthy Cecily. She agrees that they can marry, but Jack refuses to allow his ward to marry Algernon—unless, of course, Lady Bracknell allows him to marry Gwendolen.

There seems to be an impasse until Miss Prism enters, and is recognized by Lady Bracknell. Miss Prism, we learn, had been Algernon’s and Jack’s nanny, until she fled after losing baby Jack. So it is revealed that not only are Jack and Algernon brothers—thus providing Jack the relatives he needs in order to persuade Lady Bracknell to allow him to marry Gwendolen—but also that his given name is, in fact, Ernest.

Wilde’s play, like many of his other works, was wildly popular, and was considered by many of his contemporary critics to be his best work. Despite this, it only ran for 86 performances before he was imprisoned and exiled, though the play continued to run with smaller companies during this time. Since its opening performance, The Importance of Being Earnest has been revived numerous times, and has been adapted into films, operas, and radio and television performances.