Lane announces the arrival of Lady Bracknell and Miss Gwendolen Fairfax. Gwendolen flirts with Jack, while Lady Bracknell gossips with Algernon about her recently widowed friend. Lady Bracknell asks for one of the cucumber sandwiches Algernon has promised her. Algernon, realizing that he has devoured every single sandwich, directs blame on Lane, asking him why there are no cucumber sandwiches. Lane takes it in stride reporting that there were no cucumbers available at the market, even for purchase on “ready money,” or credit.
Algernon’s consumption of all the cucumber sandwiches is characteristic of his excessive nature, dandyish lifestyle, and selfishness. Lane appears to help Algernon save face in front of Lady Bracknell. Yet his comment about the cucumbers is actually a subtle dig at Algernon’s reliance on credit, rather than real money. It suggests that Algernon is constantly living above his means and not minding his manners.
Lady Bracknell asks Algernon if he will be able to attend her dinner party on Saturday. He tells her he will not be able to attend on account of “Bunbury.” Lady Bracknell wishes that “Bunbury” would just choose to live or die, but Algernon distracts his aunt from sermonizing further by inviting her into the adjoining room to review the music program he has put together for her party.
Algernon’s excuse for missing dinner shows his deception in action. Lady Bracknell’s assessment that “Bunbury” is rather wishy-washy is ironic (and funny) because while life and death is not an easy or simple matter of choice, Algernon’s ready use of “Bunbury” most certainly is.
Algernon leads Lady Bracknell out of the parlor, allowing Jack and Gwendolen a moment alone. Jack declares his love for Gwendolen and she expresses her affection for him, announcing that it is her “ideal” to love someone named “Ernest” because the name inspires “absolute confidence.” When Worthing suggests that she might marry a “Jack,” she shows disdain and disgust because the name produces no “music,” “thrill,” or “vibrations.” “Ernest” is the only “safe” name. Jack, realizing Gwendolen’s earnest belief in “Ernest,” shows visible discomfort, but proposes anyway at his beloved’s urging.
Gwendolen is more in love with an idealized version of Jack—“Ernest.” While Gwendolen expresses affection towards Jack, her fascination with “Ernest” stems from her aesthetic tastes in music. Gwendolen also confuses the “safety,” security, and “confidence” that marriage could provide her with her fiancé’s name. By projecting these ideal qualities onto "Ernest", she actually creates her own illusion of love and marriage.
As Jack is down on one knee, proposing to Gwendolen, Lady Bracknell bursts on to the scene, appalled by the compromising position in which she has found Jack and her daughter. Though Gwendolen assertively announces her engagement to Jack, Lady Bracknell immediately shows disapproval of the match, declaring that she and Lord Bracknell will arrange their daughter’s engagement. Infuriated, Lady Bracknell ushers Gwendolen out of the room to their awaiting carriage and begins to interrogate her daughter’s suitor.
By showing her over-the-top outrage, Lady Bracknell establishes herself as the master of matrimony. Though she mentions that she and Lord Bracknell will decide Gwendolen’s engagement, his influence is minor in comparison to her tight grip on her daughter’s marriage plans. Lady Bracknell’s control and direction of the scene emphasize the powerful role she will play in the game of love.
Alone, Lady Bracknell asks Jack a series of questions relating to his wealth, residences, and family relations. Jack replies that he is bachelor of twenty-nine with a sizable income, a fashionable London townhouse in Belgrave Square, and property in the country, all of which appears to appease Lady Bracknell, until he is unable to name his family relations. Instead of describing his parents, Jack reveals to Lady Bracknell that he is an orphan. He was found tucked in a handbag in a cloak roam at the Victoria railway station on the Brighton line. Lady Bracknell finds this lineage to be an unacceptable pedigree—“the line is immaterial”—and forbids Jack from contacting her daughter, until he finds some respectable relations.
Lady Bracknell’s interrogation of Jack demonstrates the three “C”s: cash, class, and character. Endowed with riches, a fashionable address, and land, Jack appears like a suitable candidate, but his lack of proper family relations is an obstacle to Lady Bracknell’s consent. Wilde’s reference to a train “line,” instead of a family line emphasizes the (in Wilde's opinion, ridiculous) premium Lady Bracknell places on family ties. While Jack has a “line” to his credit, it is “immaterial” to Lady Bracknell precisely because it is not an exact lineage.
Lady Bracknell leaves in a huff and Algernon enters the parlor to ask Jack what happened. Jack explains that while Gwendolen accepted his proposal, her mother, acting like a monstrous “Gorgon,” refused on account that he has no family relations. As Algernon comforts his friend for having no relations, Jack decides to kill off his fictional brother “Ernest,” deciding that he will “die” in Paris of a “severe chill.”
Because Jack has no family he envisions one. He regards his prospective mother-in-law as a mythical beast, or “Gorgon.” Meanwhile he entertains thoughts of killing off “Ernest.” Jack’s creation and destruction of family ties in his imagination reflects his struggle to create a real family with Gwendolen.
The conversation transitions as Algernon plies Jack for information about Cecily. Unaware that his descriptions of Cecily are encouraging Algernon’s interest in her, Jack reveals that she is a young and beautiful girl of eighteen holding an intense fascination with Jack’s brother, “Ernest.”
Jack’s pretty portrait of Cecily invites Algernon to imagine an ideal love interest. Algernon’s curiosity in a woman he has never met mirrors Cecily’s soon-to-be-revealed obsession with Jack's made-up brother “Ernest,” a man that she has never met, and suggests that love takes root in the imagination rather than real life.
Gwendolen reenters and asks to speak with Jack privately. Algernon turns around but eavesdrops, anyway. She tells Jack that though their marriage may never be realized, on account of her mother’s disapproval, that she will always be devoted to him. So that she can write to him, Gwendolen asks Jack for his address in the country, which Algernon slyly writes down on his shirt cuff.
Gwendolen makes a bold move by returning to the flat to declare her love to Jack. Her initiative shows that despite her mother’s disapproval she is still an active agent in her and Jack’s love story. Yet her steadfastness will later be shown to be to a man named Ernest, not to Jack himself.
Jack sees Gwendolen out to her carriage and Algernon informs Lane that he will be going out “Bunburying” tomorrow. Jack returns and Algernon comments that he is “anxious” about his friend “Bunbury.” Jack cautions that if Algernon doesn’t “take care” “Bunbury” might get him into serious trouble.
In directing Algernon to “take care,” Jack shows his fundamental misunderstanding of deception. While lying requires careful attention to detail, it is actually a careless act. It is ironic that Jack takes such a high moral tone, when he has been pretending to be somebody he is not, all along.