The Importance of Being Earnest

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Ernest Symbol Icon
Similar to Bunbury, Ernest represents deception, fiction, and escapism, but also idealism. While Algernon and Jack attempt to masquerade as the real Ernest, he is just as fictional as Algernon’s Bunbury. Similarly Jack uses the mischievous antics of his brother Ernest to escape to the city, just as Algernon uses Bunbury as an excuse to escape to the country. Even so, Gwendolen and Cecily hold up Ernest as an ideal name, as well as husband. Both women not only fantasize about marrying a man named Ernest, they say it is a name that “inspires absolute confidence.” Their idealism is reflected in these “girlish dream[s]” and definitive assertions.

Ernest Quotes in The Importance of Being Earnest

The The Importance of Being Earnest quotes below all refer to the symbol of Ernest. 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

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." 

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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. 

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. 

Act 3, Part 2 Quotes

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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Ernest Symbol Timeline in The Importance of Being Earnest

The timeline below shows where the symbol Ernest 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 Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
...of the inscription, Algernon produces a business card from the case with the name “Mr. Ernest Worthing” printed on it and insists that he has only every known his friend as... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
...excuses, Jack reluctantly confesses that his name is actually Jack and that he goes by “Ernest” in town and “Jack” in the country. (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
Hypocrisy, Folly, and Victorian Morality  Theme Icon
...let loose and enjoy himself, so he pretends to have an unruly younger brother named “Ernest,” whose antics in the city compel him to rush off to London frequently. (full context)
Act 1, Part 2
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
...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,”... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
The Pursuit of Marriage  Theme Icon
Cash, Class, and Character Theme Icon
...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.” (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
Men and Women in Love  Theme Icon
...is a young and beautiful girl of eighteen holding an intense fascination with Jack’s brother, “Ernest.” (full context)
Act 2, Part 1
Hypocrisy, Folly, and Victorian Morality  Theme Icon
...with them. Prism remarks that Mr. Worthing is an upstanding man whose “unfortunate” younger brother “Ernest” causes many “troubles in his life.” Cecily wishes that “Ernest” would visit them, suggesting that... (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... (full context)
Hypocrisy, Folly, and Victorian Morality  Theme Icon
Men and Women in Love  Theme Icon
...dandy, greets his “little cousin” 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... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
Hypocrisy, Folly, and Victorian Morality  Theme Icon
...in mourning clothes, surprising Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble. Jack tells them that his brother “Ernest” has just died abroad in Paris of a “severe chill.” While Dr. Chasuble offers his... (full context)
Act 2, Part 2
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
...greets Algernon coldly, furious that Algernon has showed up at his country estate, masquerading as “Ernest” and shocked that he has been talking to Cecily about “Bunbury.” At Cecily’s prompting, Jack... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
...to leave. Algernon insists that that he is staying for week, but Jack asserts that “Ernest” has been called back to town and instructs Merriman to order a dog-cart to take... (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
...their engagement confirmed, Cecily confesses that she has always dreamed of marrying a man named “Ernest” because it inspires “absolute confidence.” When Algernon asks if she could love a man with... (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
...visitor to the house, but shows concern when she learns that Cecily is actually Mr. Ernest Worthing’s young and beautiful ward. Cecily corrects her, informing Gwendolen that Jack Worthing is her... (full context)
Cash, Class, and Character Theme Icon
Believing that they are both engaged to “Ernest,” Cecily and Gwendolen’s jealousies play out over the course of a tea service. Gwendolen refuses... (full context)
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
Men and Women in Love  Theme Icon
...denies this. Yet Cecily takes great pleasure in pointing out that Gwendolen’s betrothed is not “Ernest,” but her guardian Uncle Jack. Cecily goes to Algernon’s side and declares that he is... (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
...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 all. Cecily and Gwendolen, distraught... (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
...in town or country. They also debate about who will ultimately take the name of “Ernest” at their upcoming christenings with Dr. Chasuble. Jack asserts that he should take the name... (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
...enter from the garden, Cecily demands to know why Algernon pretended to be Jack’s brother, “Ernest.” Algernon replies that he masqueraded as “Ernest” so that he could meet her. Cecily finds... (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
...suspects Algernon of being “untruthful,” listing the crimes his friend has perpetrated while masquerading as “Ernest.” Jack will not consent to Cecily’s marriage, until Lady Bracknell consents to Gwendolen’s. (full context)
Act 3, Part 2
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
...that he has been telling the truth the entire time: his name is in fact Ernest, but also John, and he does have a troublesome younger brother, Algernon. Jack turns to... (full context)