At the Manor House, Jack’s country estate, Miss Prism struggles to focus Cecily’s attention on her studies. Prism reminds Cecily that Mr. Worthing has placed particular emphasis on her German, but Cecily comments that Uncle Jack is so “serious” and “bored” when he is 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 they might be a “good influence” on him. Miss Prism believes that there’s no point in trying to make a bad person good.
Miss Prism and Cecily’s exchange demonstrates differing views on morality. Miss Prism has a rigid perspective of human nature, insisting that people are either good or bad and cannot change. Unlike Cecily, she does not consider that a person might change through good influences, or works. Miss Prism’s great expectations of others, like Jack, make her a mouthpiece for Victorian social mores, even if her moral standards are impossibly high.
Cecily begins writing in her diary, “things that never happened and couldn’t possibly happen,” but Miss Prism directs her to put it away, suggesting that Cecily should rely on her memory, instead. Cecily defends writing in her diary, pointing out that memory is responsible for sentimental three-volume novels. Slighted by this comment, Miss Prism reveals that she was the author of a three-volume-novel that was never published because the manuscript was lost.
Cecily precociously, yet insightfully, points out the blurry boundaries between fact and fiction. She points out that memory is not always factual and has the ability to be just as fictitious as a novel. A "three-volume novel" (usually sentimental novels popular in Victorian England, will become important later in the play.
The local reverend Dr. Chasuble arrives and Cecily suggests that he take Miss Prism on a walk to relieve her governesses’ “headache.” Cecily is clearly aware that there is an attraction between her governess and the vicar, who says that he would “hang upon [Miss Prism’s] lips.” Miss Prism scolds Cecily gently for fibbing and admonishes the minister, but goes off on a walk with Dr. Chausible anyways.
Dr. Chasuble’s line “hang upon her lips” speaks to the devotional state of love that the play’s male figures fall into. While Chasuble hangs upon Prism’s every word, the quote is a reminder that women’s words are influential, even if their position in society is not always strong.
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 cigarette case. The visitor is actually Algernon, masquerading as Jack’s fictional brother “Ernest.”
Algernon uses the tools of Jack’s deception—the business card and cigarette case—to assume “Ernest’s” identity. Algernon makes "real" this fictional persona, showing the fluid borders between between fact and fiction.
Algernon, dressed extravagantly like a 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 traveling clothes for “Ernest” to take with him to Australia. This news surprises and disappoints Algernon, who suggests that Cecily “reform” him instead. As Algernon flirts with Cecily, she invites him into the house to eat.
While Gwendolen idolizes “Ernest” because he is “ideal,” Cecily fantasizes about “Ernest” because he is “wicked.” That Algernon asks Cecily to “reform” him signals that their attraction is based on a fascination with behavior that bends the rules of conventional morality. That they interact without chaperones only further pushes past the boundaries of Victorian social customs.
Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble talk of marriage as they return from their walk. Prism suggests that Chasuble should marry because an unmarried man is a either a temptation, or a “womanthrope” (misogynist), but the vicar asserts that the Primitive Church doctrine he follows restricts marriage on the clergy.
Jack enters slowly dressed 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 condolences and begins to sermonize, Miss Prism makes a moralistic pronouncement: “As a man sows so let him reap.” Remembering he has to change his name for Gwendolen, Jack proceeds to ask Chasuble if he is available to christen him at 5:30 that day. Yet Cecily emerges from the house and tells Jack that his brother “Ernest” is here at the estate and has been telling her a great deal about his friend “Bunbury.”
Though Miss Prism’s biblical quote is directed at “Ernest’s” death, it speaks to Jack’s situation, as the harvest of his lying ways comes to fruition in the form of a real “Ernest.” Jack’s impending encounter with Algernon, impersonating “Ernest,” demonstrates the collision between fact and fiction. Jack, pretending to mourn his fictional brother, must confront a real-life “Ernest,” distorting the truth even more and blurring the contours of his double identity.