In his fashionable London flat, Algernon plays the piano from an adjoining room offstage while his butler Lane sets the parlor on stage for tea. While Algernon absentmindedly munches on cucumber sandwiches, prepared for Aunt Augusta (Lady Bracknell) and cousin Gwendolen’s visit, he remarks on an inaccurate entry in the household books. Wondering why eight bottles of champagne have been consumed, he asks Lane why it is that servants drink so much champagne in bachelor’s homes. Lane replies that top tier champagne is rare in married households, implying that servants drink fine wine instead when they work for married couples.
Even though The Importance of Being Earnest begins in the apartment of a single man, marriage becomes its primary concern quite quickly. Lane’s comment juxtaposes Algernon’s lavish bachelor lifestyle, characterized by the overconsumption of champagne and cucumber sandwiches, against the more conservative lifestyle of a married couple. Though Algernon’s lifestyle is overindulgent and excessive, like that of dandy, the prospect of marriage and a tamer life looms in the background.
This discussion leads Lane and Algernon to philosophize about marriage. Lane remarks that he has only been married once as a consequence of a “misunderstanding between [himself] and a young person.” Algernon sends Lane away to get some more sandwiches and comments to himself that Lane’s views on marriage are rather “lax,” considering that the “lower orders” should set a “good example” for the upper classes.
Algernon’s shock at Lane’s “lax” marriage views conveys the hypocrisy of his aristocratic class. While Lane’s morality appears less firm—as he refers to marriage as a past “misunderstanding” rather than a long-term commitment—Algernon is the more hedonistic character. He easily blames his servant for not being a “good example” when he himself is not.
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 whom he is expecting. Upon learning that Algernon is waiting his aunt and cousin Gwendolen to arrive, Jack reveals that he has come to London to propose to Gwendolen, whom he has been courting. Algernon comments that proposals are a matter of “business,” not “pleasure.”
Algernon’s comment on proposals speaks to the business-like nature of marriage in the Victorian world. Marriage was not always simply a matter of the heart, or “pleasure” but an economic exchange between families who aligned their wealth, power, and prestige through marriage.
Jack attempts to take one of the cucumber sandwiches set out for tea, but Algernon insists that they are reserved for Lady Bracknell, and then eats one himself. Algernon offers Jack some bread and butter, instead, since he ordered them expressly for Gwendolen. When Algernon notices Jack eating rather voraciously, he remarks that it seems as if Jack were already married and warns that he may never be wed. Alarmed, Jack asks what he means. At this point Algernon confronts his friend about a woman named Cecily.
Algernon and Jack’s voracious appetites reflect their extravagant airs and excessive lifestyles as dandies. Algernon cannot allow his friend to eat a single sandwich; he must eat them all. Overeating is also a nervous habit that Algernon leverages when he has to confront his friend on a contentious topic—infidelity. In effect, Algernon’s denial of food to his friend is far less impolite than the accusation he is about to make.
Jack initially denies the existence of Cecily, but Algernon instructs Lane to bring out the cigarette case that Jack left at their last dinner party. To Jack’s annoyance, Algernon discloses that he has read the private inscription inside the case. In order to coax his friend into revealing the meaning 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 “Ernest.”
The appearance of the cigarette case and business cards show that Algernon is on to Jack’s secret, but unwilling to let on that he knows about his friend’s double life. While Algernon’s presentation of the business cards seem to show his faith in the veracity of Jake’s fake identity, he only feigns this belief, instead hoping that the presentation of the cigarette case will compel his friend to tell the truth.
Irked, Jack says that Cecily is his aunt. Algernon goads his friend further, gradually building up contradictions against Jack by asking why the case’s inscription reads: “From little Cecily with her fondest love to her Uncle Jack.” Running out of reasonable excuses, Jack reluctantly confesses that his name is actually Jack and that he goes by “Ernest” in town and “Jack” in the country.
Jack’s confession confirms Algernon’s suspicion that his friend is a practiced “Bunburyist.” Algernon demands to know why Jack goes by one name in town and the other in the country.
Though the meaning of “Bunburyist,” is not entirely clear, Algernon’s use of the term suggests that he too might be well practiced in the art of deception.
Jack confides in Algernon that Mr. Thomas Cardew adopted him as a young boy. At the time of Cardew’s passing, he left Jack his fortune and made him guardian to his granddaughter, Miss Cecily Cardew, who lives on a country estate. Jack explains that he leads a double life because his responsibilities to Cecily requires him to set a “high moral tone” when he is with her in the country. In the city, Jack can 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.
Jack’s explanation establishes the symbolic role of town and country. Because Jack must set a good example for his ward in the country, it represents a place that is morally strict, prudish, even repressive. Because Jack is able to indulge in the pleasures of city life, town represents a place where the rules are looser and less strict. That Jack’s unruly alter ego “Ernest” resides in the city emphasizes the urban world’s wildness.
Algernon reveals that he has also invented an invalid friend named “Bunbury,” whose maladies 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 a fictional figure, like “Bunbury,” once he is married.