From the Manor House’s drawing room Cecily and Gwendolen watch the two men argue 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 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 this answer satisfactory. Gwendolen then asks Jack if he pretended to have a brother so that he could visit her in London often, to which Jack responds affirmatively. Gwendolen finds his explanation acceptable and both women appear on the verge of forgiving their suitors.
Though Jack and Algernon assert that they assumed “Ernest’s” identity so that they could pursue romances with Gwendolen and Cecily, all their actions building up to this point also suggest that they created alternative personas in order to escape to the places that would offer the most enjoyment and least responsibility. While Gwendolen and Cecily may find their lovers’ explanations satisfactory, Wilde has conditioned his audience to be skeptical of Jack and Algernon’s seemingly selfless statements.
But even though Algernon and Jack tell Cecily and Gwendolen exactly what they want to hear, both ladies insist that Algernon and Jack’s Christians names are “insuperable barrier[s]” to their respective unions. Jack and Algernon counter by saying that they are to be christened that afternoon.
Embracing their suitors, Gwendolen and Cecily praise Jack and Algernon for their “physical courage” and “self-sacrifice” when Lady Bracknell unexpectedly arrives. Having bribed Gwendolen’s maid into disclosing her whereabouts, Lady Bracknell has followed Gwendolen from town to prevent her from seeing Jack and is appalled to see the couple together.
Wilde uses the words “physical courage” and “self-sacrifice” to point out Jack and Algernon’s self-serving nature. Changing their names will please Gwendolen and Cecily’s aesthetic sensibilities, but will probably not change Jack and Algernon’s selfish and duplicitous ways.
Distracted by Algernon’s presence on the scene, Lady Bracknell asks him if this is the residence of his friend “Bunbury.” Forgetting that he had told his aunt that he would be at his ailing friend’s bedside, Algernon says no and then tries to quickly cover his faux pas by announcing “Bunbury’s” death. Lady Bracknell is relieved that “Bunbury” has finally made up his mind to die.
“Bunbury’s” sudden demise at Algernon’s hands parallels Jack’s attempts to do away with “Ernest,” as well as reinforces the capricious quality of Algernon’s exploits with “Bunbury.” Just as Algernon could call up Bunbury’s illnesses in an instant, he can kill him off in seconds, too.
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 immediately inquires into Cecily’ background, snidely asking whether she is “connected with any of the larger railways stations in London.”
Jack obligingly offers information about Cecily, conveying to Lady Bracknell that her relations are respectably recorded, her three residences are well regarded, and that she is the heiress to a great fortune. Even though Lady Bracknell suspects that Cecily’s relations are dubiously recorded, the news of her wealth entices Lady Bracknell to stay at Jack’s manor, instead of rushing off with Gwendolen back to London. After learning that Cecily stands to inherit even more money when she comes of age and pleased with the “social possibilities in her profile,” Lady Bracknell proposes that the wedding should take place as soon as possible, even though she is against “mercenary marriages,” like her own to Lord Bracknell.
Paralleling Lady Bracknell’s inquiry into Jack’s background, Jack breaks down Cecily’s profile into cash, class, and character. While Cecily’s relations are not quite aristocratic, Cecily’s net worth more than makes up for this lack of noble blood lines. Lady Bracknell’s quicksilver change of opinion about Cecily displays her hypocritical and money-grubbing nature. Though opposed to “mercenary marriages,” Lady Bracknell reveals that she is in fact the product of one and is more than ready to work Algernon into an advantageous and wealthy match, as well.
Jack, realizing that he can use his position as Cecily’s guardian to persuade Lady Bracknell into permitting his marriage to Gwendolen, refuses to consent to Cecily and Algernon’s engagement. He explains to Lady Bracknell that he cannot approve of the match because he 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.
Jack challenges Lady Bracknell’s authority as master of matrimony by questioning Algernon’s character. In contrast to Lady Bracknell’s evaluation of family background, Jack bases his assessment of Algernon on his behavior, which is selfish and deceitful. Refusing his consent on the grounds that Algernon is dishonest, Jack turns the tables on Lady Bracknell and her worldviews.
Refusing to give her consent, 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 that he will return to the vestry, where Miss Prism is waiting.
Though Jack stands up to Lady Bracknell, she maintains control over Gwendolen’s marriageability. That Jack and Algernon give up their scheme to get christened shows their defeat to Lady Bracknell.