The Importance of Being Earnest

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a.k.a. Ernest / Mr. Ernest Worthing / Uncle Jack / John Worthing, J.P. / Ernest John. The protagonist of the play, Jack seems like a respectable young man, but leads a double life as a clever dandy. He goes by “Ernest” in town and “Jack” in the country. Meanwhile, he pretends to have a brother also named “Ernest” whose mischief frequently calls him back to town. The adopted son of Mr. Thomas Cardew, Jack is not only heir to a fortune, but also guardian to Cardew’s granddaughter, Cecily. Jack’s engagement to Gwendolen Fairfax is endangered after a comedy of errors leads her to uncover Cecily’s existence and Jack’s true identity. The "J.P." initials after his name stand for “Justice of the Peace.”

Jack Quotes in The Importance of Being Earnest

The The Importance of Being Earnest quotes below are all either spoken by Jack or refer to Jack. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dover Publications edition of The Importance of Being Earnest published in 1990.
Act 1, Part 1 Quotes

Jack: I am in love with Gwendolen. I have come up to town expressly to propose to her.

Algernon: I thought you had come up for pleasure?...I call that business.

Related Characters: Jack (speaker), Algernon Moncrieff (speaker), Gwendolen Fairfax
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

Jack visits Algernon shortly before Lady Bracknell, Algernon's aunt, and Gwendolen, Algernon's cousin, stop by for tea. He does so with the intent to have a moment alone with Gwendolen in order to propose to her. 

In this quote, Algernon quips that he calls a marriage proposal "business" due to the complicated marriage arrangements between members of the aristocratic class during Victorian England. Marriages, frequently arranged between families to preserve what were essentially sociopolitical ties, were often more akin to business contracts than to unions of love. This exchange is exemplary of the relationship between Jack and Algernon. Jack is more sincere and responsible than Algernon, and Algernon is more often careless, condescending, and flippant. Jack is also much more of a romantic, and was adopted into the aristocratic class—he does not have a recorded pedigree (that he yet knows of) and therefore feels less pressure to seek out a marriage for reasons other than love. However, Gwendolen's aunt does expect her to marry a fellow member of the aristocracy, and definitely views marriage as more of a business arrangement rather than a sign of love. It is due to this expectation that Jack's lack of a pedigree will come to be a problem. 

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I have introduced you to everyone as Ernest. You answer to the name of Ernest. You look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest looking person I ever saw in my life. It is perfectly absurd your saying that your name isn't Ernest.

Related Characters: Algernon Moncrieff (speaker), Jack
Related Symbols: Ernest
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

Jack reveals to Algernon that he goes by the name of Ernest in the city, and the name of Jack in the country. In this quote, Algernon relies heavily on the homophones of "Ernest," the name, and "earnest," the adjective connoting one who is honest and sincere to a fault, to tease Jack about his two identities of Ernest and Jack. Jack is older than Algernon and often acts as if he is more responsible, so Algernon is gleeful to find his friend caught in a lie, particularly one in which he pretends to be someone whose name sounds the same as a word that means "honest." The extent of this glee can be discerned by the number of times that Algernon repeats the name, digging deeper into Jack's feelings of shame. Wilde uses the wordplay of Ernest/earnest throughout the play to question the role of true sincerity in Victorian England, a society that prided itself on a strict code of conduct, stringent morals, and a "stiff upper lip." 

Jack: When one is placed in the position of guardian, one has to adopt a very high moral tone…And as a high moral tone can hardly be said to conduce very much to either one’s health or one’s happiness if carried to excess, in order to get up to town I have always pretended to have a younger borther of the anem of Ernest…who gets into the most dreadful scrapes. The, my dear Algy, is the whole truth pure and simple.

Algernon: The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility.

Related Characters: Jack (speaker), Algernon Moncrieff (speaker)
Related Symbols: Town and Country , Orphans and Wards
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

Further explaining the extent of his two identities, Jack reveals to Algernon that he is the guardian of a ward named Cecily, who lives in the country and refers to him as her "Uncle Jack." 

In this quote, Jack explains to Algernon that as a guardian, he must maintain a "high moral tone." In order to enjoy the antics of bachelorhood in the city, he invented a younger brother named Ernest, so that the repercussions of his actions would not be traced to Jack the serious guardian. Like Algernon's condemnation of Lane's marriage views, the tension between Jack's beliefs and his actions reveal the hypocrisy of the young and wealthy. Both young men do whatever they please, and get away with it, because they have the influence and means to ensure that their less-than-proper antics are not linked to their upper-class identities—and indeed, their hypocrisy is seen as almost entirely comic.

In Algernon's response, he quips that the truth to Jack's story cannot possibly be as simple as he makes it sound. Jack's two identities mean that he must maintain addresses in both the city and the country, and ensure that no one finds out the truth. Such a feat would not be possible if Jack was not adopted by a wealthy and connected family at birth. However, Algernon also notes that the drama regarding the prospect of people finding out is what keeps life interesting, and it is the same drama that makes works of fiction like novels or plays intriguing to watch and read. Here, Wilde characteristically winks at the audience to comment on the very nature and dramatic tension of his own work. 

Act 1, Part 2 Quotes

Even before I met you I was far from indifferent to you…my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence.

Related Characters: Gwendolen Fairfax (speaker), Jack
Related Symbols: Ernest
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

When Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell finally arrive for tea, Algernon invents a reason to pull Lady Bracknell into the next room in order to give Jack and Gwendolen private time for the proposal. In this quote, Gwendolen reciprocates Jack's declarations of love. The irony in this quote is of course that Jack's name is not really Ernest—Ernest is the caddish brother that Jack has invented in order to get up to whatever he pleases in the city. Thus, Jack is suddenly forced to wonder if Gwendolen loves him for who he truly is, or if she only loves him because his name is Ernest. Wilde uses Gwen's ridiculous whim of loving someone by the name of Ernest to parody the various reasons why members of the Victorian upper class got married—usually because of wealth or family ties (i.e., one's name). Here, Wilde uses the notion of loving someone simply because they were given a certain name at birth to comment on how this method of choosing a partner may be just as wise as choosing a partner based on what family they were born into. 

To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune…to lose both seems like carelessness.

Related Characters: Lady Bracknell (speaker), Jack
Related Symbols: Orphans and Wards
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

After walking in on Jack proposing to Gwendolen, Lady Bracknell sends Algernon and Gwendolen out of the room in order to interrogate Jack as to his suitability as a husband for her daughter. 

In this quote, Lady Bracknell is appalled when Jack states he has "lost" both of his parents. As a baby, Jack was found in a handbag in a cloak room in Victoria station and adopted by a wealthy aristocrat, Mr. Thomas Cardew. As the epitome of high Victorian society, Lady Bracknell directly associates someone's birth and familial pedigree with their character. Therefore, she immediately characterizes Jack as someone who is "careless" because of his lack of recorded parentage, even though this is, of course, not his fault. Throughout the play, Lady Bracknell continues to make similarly ridiculous statements that she herself takes utterly seriously. Wilde uses the character of Lady Bracknell to represent Victorian elitists who held themselves and the people around them to what they believed to be high moral standards—the irony being that these moral standards were both created and fulfilled only to impress the high society around them. 

You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter—a girl brought up with the utmost care—to marry into a cloak-room and form an alliance with a parcel.

Related Characters: Lady Bracknell (speaker), Jack, Gwendolen Fairfax, Lord Bracknell
Related Symbols: Jack’s Handbag, The Coatroom at Victoria Station and The Brighton Line
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

As Lady Bracknell further presses Jack about his history, he admits that he was found by his adopted father in a cloak room at Victoria Station. Though already wealthy and aristocratic, Lady Bracknell is always seeking out ways in which her family can climb higher on the social ladder. One of the quickest ways of gaining socioeconomic capital was for a son or daughter to marry into a family of equal or higher social status. Thus, Lady Bracknell clearly hopes to marry Gwendolen into a highly esteemed family—not to "form an alliance with a parcel." To Lady Bracknell, someone's character is directly related to their birth. Jack, therefore, is in her eyes not a product of the wealthy Cardews, with whom he was raised, but of a handbag and the Brighton line at Victoria station. 

Act 3, Part 1 Quotes

Your Christian names are still an insuperable barrier. That is all!

Related Characters: Gwendolen Fairfax (speaker), Cecily Cardew (speaker), Jack, Algernon Moncrieff
Related Symbols: Ernest
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

Despite the their first tense conversation, Gwendolen and Cecily become fast friends when they discover that they have both been duped by men who claim to have the name "Ernest." Gwendolen has always wanted to love someone by the name of Ernest, while Cecily has fallen in love with the idea of the rebellious Ernest who lives in the city. When Gwendolen discovers that her Ernest's real name is Jack, and Cecily discovers that Algernon is Jack's friend, not his crazy brother Ernest, the girls both call off their engagements. Just like Lady Bracknell's dismissal of Jack because of his lack of a proper lineage, so Gwendolen and Cecily have their own seemingly random stipulation for a potential partner—the "Christian" name of Ernest—and they initially refuse to settle otherwise. This quote is spoken simultaneously by both women to comment on how quickly two women can become fast friends when they discover they have been manipulated by men, and to underscore the improbable and comic melodrama the action of the play has come to at this point. 

Mr. Worthing, is Miss Cardew at all connected with any of the larger railway stations in London? I merely desire information. Until yesterday I had no idea that there were any families or persons whose origin was a Terminus.

Related Characters: Lady Bracknell (speaker), Jack, Cecily Cardew
Related Symbols: The Coatroom at Victoria Station and The Brighton Line
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

When Lady Bracknell discovers that Algernon is engaged to Cecily, she demands to know her lineage. Since Algernon is her nephew, anyone that he marries is associated with her, too, and she does not want to mar her social capital with relatives who marry below their stature. Lady Bracknell speaks extremely condescendingly to everyone around her, as her status and social-climbing sensibilities mean that she is constantly trying to impress people with her aristocracy and wealth. Wilde writes many witty, self-defeating lines for Lady Bracknell, as she is the character who most obviously parodies the worst tendencies of the aristocratic class in Victorian society. Her question as to whether Cecily is associated with any of the "larger railway stations" is very dry satire regarding what Lady Bracknell previously learned about Jack being found in the cloakroom as a baby. For Lady Bracknell, allowing anyone in her family to marry into such appalling lineage would be "the end"—hence her scathing comment about someone whose "origin," or lineage, is a "Terminus," or a train terminal. 

Act 3, Part 2 Quotes

Unmarried! I do not deny that is a serious blow. But after all, who has the right to cast a stone against one who has suffered? Cannot repentance wipe out an act of folly? Why should there be one law for men and another for women?

Related Characters: Jack (speaker), Miss Prism
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

When Jack finds out that the handbag he was found in in Victoria Station was Miss Prism's, he jumps to the conclusion that she is his mother. She denies his assumption by stating that she is unmarried. Without waiting for further information, Jack jumps to yet another conclusion: that Miss Prism gave birth to him out of wedlock, and continued to deny her maternal connection to him in order to avoid the stigma of being an unwed mother (which was quite significant in the Victorian era). However, what she means to actually say is that she, a highly moral woman, could not possibly be his mother because she is unmarried, and would never have a child out of wedlock. In this quote, Jack attempts to gallantly defend the woman he believes to be his mother, and in doing so, puts forth a progressive argument for equality between the sexes—explicitly pointing out the double standard that forgives men for having extramarital affairs, but condemns women for doing the same. The irony of this statement, of course, is that Jack does not think that his actions warrant the same repentance as do those of an unmarried woman with a child.  

Gwendolen, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.

Related Characters: Jack (speaker), Gwendolen Fairfax
Related Symbols: Ernest
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

When Jack finds his birth father's name in the Army list, he realizes that he has indeed been truthful when calling himself Ernest in the city—he is actually named Ernest Moncrieff Jr. In this quote, Jack is responding to Gwendolen's delight at discovering that Jack's name really is Ernest, as she believed it to be when she fell in love with him. Jack, however, is almost disappointed at the fact that he is really named Ernest, because he felt very clever in creating the identity of a sinful brother who lived in the city. As men of wealth and leisure, Algernon and Jack essentially do and say whatever they like without fear of repercussions, particularly thanks to their double identities in the city and country. Jack is shocked to realize that, when he believed himself to be lying in the city, he was really telling the truth in both the city and country—in aristocratic society he is technically the son of Ernest Moncrieff and is, by christening, Ernest Moncrieff Jr., while in the country he is John Worthing, the adopted son of Thomas Cardew. Regardless of his location or identity, or whether or not he was aware of it, Jack has been telling the truth all along—he is both Ernest and the most earnest of the characters. 

I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.

Related Characters: Jack (speaker)
Related Symbols: Ernest
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

It is only in the very last line of the play that the title of the work is spoken. Wilde's characteristic wit and wordplay, particularly on the interplay between the name "Ernest" and the word "earnest," endures until the very end of the drama. Though the word is written out as "Earnest," to an audience member watching the production, it is not clear whether Jack is saying "Ernest" the name or "earnest" the word, which means to be sincere and truthful.

Jack's own wit as a character likely means that he, too, is intending to make this pun, showing that he now understands the importance of being Ernest—his true Christian name and the name of his birth father—and earnest—being honest and confessing the truth to Gwendolen, meaning that he now knows who his family is.

In Wilde's play, which provides a scathing critique of Victorian society and romance through painfully polite yet daringly clever dialogue, all the lovers end up together, and in class-affirming unions as well. Of course, in Wilde's experience, this rarely ever happens—usually unions for love were scorned in favor of arranged marriages. Thus, if the happy engagements between Algernon/Cecily and Gwendolen/Jack feel too good to be true, that is because for Wilde (and the rest of Victorian society who first saw the play), they are—marriages for both love and class were rarely made at the time. But, as Miss Prism declared must be the case in fiction, the "good ended happily"—once Jack and Algernon tell the truth, they are rewarded with their loves. 

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Jack Character Timeline in The Importance of Being Earnest

The timeline below shows where the character Jack appears in The Importance of Being Earnest. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1, Part 1
The Pursuit of Marriage  Theme Icon
Cash, Class, and Character Theme Icon
Lane announces the arrival of Algernon’s friend, Mr. Ernest Worthing (Jack) who has been away in the country. Seeing the tea service, Jack asks Algernon... (full context)
The Pursuit of Marriage  Theme Icon
Hypocrisy, Folly, and Victorian Morality  Theme Icon
Jack attempts to take one of the cucumber sandwiches set out for tea, but Algernon insists... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
Jack initially denies the existence of Cecily, but Algernon instructs Lane to bring out the cigarette... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
Irked, Jack says that Cecily is his aunt. Algernon goads his friend further, gradually building up contradictions... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
Jack’s confession confirms Algernon’s suspicion that his friend is a practiced “Bunburyist.” Algernon demands to know... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
Hypocrisy, Folly, and Victorian Morality  Theme Icon
Jack confides in Algernon that Mr. Thomas Cardew adopted him as a young boy. At the... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
Hypocrisy, Folly, and Victorian Morality  Theme Icon
...are a ready excuse for Algernon whenever he chooses to go into the country. While Jack finds “Bunbury” to be an “absurd name,” Algernon cautions his friend against doing away with... (full context)
Act 1, Part 2
Cash, Class, and Character Theme Icon
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... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
The Pursuit of Marriage  Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
Men and Women in Love  Theme Icon
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... (full context)
The Pursuit of Marriage  Theme Icon
Men and Women in Love  Theme Icon
As Jack is down on one knee, proposing to Gwendolen, Lady Bracknell bursts on to the scene,... (full context)
The Pursuit of Marriage  Theme Icon
Cash, Class, and Character Theme Icon
Alone, Lady Bracknell asks Jack a series of questions relating to his wealth, residences, and family relations. Jack replies that... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
Men and Women in Love  Theme Icon
The conversation transitions as Algernon plies Jack for information about Cecily. Unaware that his descriptions of Cecily are encouraging Algernon’s interest in... (full context)
Men and Women in Love  Theme Icon
Gwendolen reenters and asks to speak with Jack privately. Algernon turns around but eavesdrops, anyway. She tells Jack that though their marriage may... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
Hypocrisy, Folly, and Victorian Morality  Theme Icon
Jack sees Gwendolen out to her carriage and Algernon informs Lane that he will be going... (full context)
Act 2, Part 1
Hypocrisy, Folly, and Victorian Morality  Theme Icon
At the Manor House, Jack’s country estate, Miss Prism struggles to focus Cecily’s attention on her studies. Prism reminds Cecily... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
When Cecily is alone in the garden, Merriman announces the arrival of Mr. Ernest Worthing and presents his business card. It is the same card that Jack stored in his... (full context)
Hypocrisy, Folly, and Victorian Morality  Theme Icon
Men and Women in Love  Theme Icon
...Cecily, who is excited to finally meet her “wicked cousin Ernest.” She tells Algernon that Jack will not be back until Monday because he is buying traveling clothes for “Ernest” to... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
Hypocrisy, Folly, and Victorian Morality  Theme Icon
Jack enters slowly dressed in mourning clothes, surprising Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble. Jack tells them... (full context)
Act 2, Part 2
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
Jack greets Algernon coldly, furious that Algernon has showed up at his country estate, masquerading as... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
Outraged, Jack tells Algernon that he has to leave. Algernon insists that that he is staying for... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
Men and Women in Love  Theme Icon
Jack goes to change and Cecily comes out to the garden. Before departing, Algernon declares his... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
The Pursuit of Marriage  Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
Men and Women in Love  Theme Icon
...at the manor house to Cecily. The two women, unaware of each other’s connections to Jack or Algernon, greet each other in the garden. Gwendolen assumes that Cecily is a visitor... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
Men and Women in Love  Theme Icon
As tensions come to a head, Jack and Algernon arrive, one after the other, having separately made appointments with Dr. Chasuble to... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
The Pursuit of Marriage  Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
Men and Women in Love  Theme Icon
...been fooled, Gwendolen and Cecily embrace each other and demand to know the whereabouts of Jack’s brother and their fiancé, “Ernest.” Jack confesses that he does not have a brother at... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
The Pursuit of Marriage  Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
Men and Women in Love  Theme Icon
Realizing that they have ruined their chances of getting married, Algernon and Jack argue about their failed “Bunburying” schemes, which prohibit them from further excursions in town or... (full context)
Act 3, Part 1
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
The Pursuit of Marriage  Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
Hypocrisy, Folly, and Victorian Morality  Theme Icon
Men and Women in Love  Theme Icon
...from a window; the women eagerly await the men to enter. Gwendolen intends to give Jack and Algernon the silent treatment, but when the two men enter from the garden, Cecily... (full context)
The Pursuit of Marriage  Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
Men and Women in Love  Theme Icon
But even though Algernon and Jack tell Cecily and Gwendolen exactly what they want to hear, both ladies insist that Algernon... (full context)
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
Hypocrisy, Folly, and Victorian Morality  Theme Icon
Men and Women in Love  Theme Icon
Embracing their suitors, Gwendolen and Cecily praise Jack and Algernon for their “physical courage” and “self-sacrifice” when Lady Bracknell unexpectedly arrives. Having bribed... (full context)
Cash, Class, and Character Theme Icon
Seeing Cecily holding hands with Algernon piques Lady Bracknell’s interest. Jack explains that Cecily is his ward, and Algernon announces her as his fiancée. Lady Bracknell... (full context)
The Pursuit of Marriage  Theme Icon
Cash, Class, and Character Theme Icon
Hypocrisy, Folly, and Victorian Morality  Theme Icon
Jack obligingly offers information about Cecily, conveying to Lady Bracknell that her relations are respectably recorded,... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
The Pursuit of Marriage  Theme Icon
Cash, Class, and Character Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
Hypocrisy, Folly, and Victorian Morality  Theme Icon
Men and Women in Love  Theme Icon
Jack, realizing that he can use his position as Cecily’s guardian to persuade Lady Bracknell into... (full context)
The Pursuit of Marriage  Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
Men and Women in Love  Theme Icon
...Lady Bracknell is about to leave with Gwendolen when Dr. Chasuble arrives, prepared to christen Jack and Algernon. Jack explains that the ceremony is no longer necessary and Dr. Chasuble says... (full context)
Act 3, Part 2
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
Upon hearing this detail, Jack feverishly asks Miss Prism about where she left the handbag. Whimpering, she admits to having... (full context)
Hypocrisy, Folly, and Victorian Morality  Theme Icon
Miss Prism recoils, reminding Jack that she is unmarried. Jack misconstrues her point, launching into a speech about forgiveness and... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
The Pursuit of Marriage  Theme Icon
Cash, Class, and Character Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
Without fanfare, Lady Bracknell explains that Jack is the son of her poor dead sister, Mrs. Moncrief, which also makes him Algernon’s... (full context)
The Pursuit of Marriage  Theme Icon
Cash, Class, and Character Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
Men and Women in Love  Theme Icon
But the mystery of Jack’s true name remains, as his present name remains an “irrevocable” obstacle to Gwendolen’s consent. Lady... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
The Pursuit of Marriage  Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
Men and Women in Love  Theme Icon
Jack realizes that he has been telling the truth the entire time: his name is in... (full context)