The Importance of Being Earnest

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Orphans and Wards Symbol Analysis

Orphans and Wards Symbol Icon
Both Jack and Cecily are orphans. Jack’s lack of family relations makes it difficult for him to marry Gwendolen and settle into a traditional family arrangement. While Cecily’s ancestry is officially documented in books, she becomes an orphan, or ward when her grandfather dies. Her parents aren’t even mentioned. Cecily’s parental figures, Jack and Miss Prism, at best, are only mildly attentive to her needs. Jack and Cecily’s status as orphans highlight the place of love and imagination in the creation of family bonds. Both Jack and Cecily invent fictional relationships in order to forge real connections with the other characters. Jack creates a brother “Ernest” so that he can more easily court Gwendolen in town, while Cecily imagines a romance with “Ernest,” which ends up developing into a real engagement with Algernon. While characters like Lady Bracknell place heavy emphasis on the importance of family ties in society, Jack and Cecily don't have such social connections, instead relying on love and imagination to form relationships with others.

Orphans and Wards Quotes in The Importance of Being Earnest

The The Importance of Being Earnest quotes below all refer to the symbol of Orphans and Wards. 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: 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. 

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Act 1, Part 2 Quotes

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. 

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Orphans and Wards Symbol Timeline in The Importance of Being Earnest

The timeline below shows where the symbol Orphans and Wards appears in The Importance of Being Earnest. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1, Part 2
The Pursuit of Marriage  Theme Icon
Cash, Class, and Character Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Act 2, 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
...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 guardian. “Ernest” is actually Jack’s... (full context)