The Importance of Being Earnest

by

Oscar Wilde

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The Importance of Being Earnest: Foreshadowing 4 key examples

Definition of Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which authors hint at plot developments that don't actually occur until later in the story. Foreshadowing can be achieved directly or indirectly, by making... read full definition
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which authors hint at plot developments that don't actually occur until later in the story. Foreshadowing can be achieved... read full definition
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which authors hint at plot developments that don't actually occur until later in the... read full definition
Act 1, Part 2
Explanation and Analysis—Earnest vs. Ernest:

An ongoing source of irony in The Importance of Being Earnest is the relationship between the name "Ernest" and its homophone, the word "earnest." Throughout the play, both Gwendolen and Cecily express their desire to marry a man named Ernest, and in Act 1, Part 2, Gwendolen explains to Jack why Ernest is the only "safe" name for a husband:

Gwendolen: We live, as I hope you know, Mr. Worthing, in an age of ideals... and my ideal has always been to love someone of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence.

In Act 2, Part 2, Cecily tells Algernon her reasons for wishing to marry a man named Ernest, and they are remarkably similar to Gwendolen's:

Cecily: You must not laugh at me, darling, but it has always been a girlish dream of mine to love someone whose name was Ernest. [Algernon rises, Cecily also.] There is something in that name that seems to inspire absolute confidence. I pity any poor married woman whose husband is not named Ernest.

These scenes are both instances of dramatic irony. The name Ernest "inspires absolute confidence" in both women, who seem to believe that being named "Ernest" is equivalent to actually being "earnest." The audience, on the other hand, knows that Jack created the character of Ernest as a means to escape his responsibility and live a dandy's life in the city. Regardless of whether it is Jack or Algernon taking on the role, Ernest is always a symbol of deception rather than sincerity.

Cecily's confidence in the name Ernest is especially ironic, since all she knows of her guardian's brother is that he is always getting into trouble. As an individual, Ernest is neither safe nor trustworthy, which is why Cecily is attracted to him in the first place, but she still regards his name as a sign of his good character. This proclamation is also an instance of foreshadowing—at the end of the play, Lady Bracknell forbids Algernon from being baptized and prevents him from taking on the name of Ernest, which causes Cecily to end up as the "poor married woman" she earlier pitied.

Explanation and Analysis—Sisters:

In Act 1, Part 2, there's an instance of foreshadowing when Jack dismisses Algernon's suggestion that Gwendolen will be displeased to discover that Jack has a young and beautiful girl as his ward:

Jack: Cecily and Gwendolen are perfectly certain to be extremely great friends. I'll bet you anything you like that half an hour after they have met, they will be calling each other sister.

Algernon: Women only do that when they have called each other a lot of other things first.

This conversation foreshadows the encounter that eventually occurs between Cecily and Gwendolen in Act 2, Part 2. The two women are initially fond of each other, but once they learn that they are both engaged to Ernest Worthing, they begin to trade insults and snide remarks:

Gwendolen: Do you allude to me, Miss Cardew, as an entanglement? You are presumptuous. On an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one's mind. It becomes a pleasure.

Cecily: Do you suggest, Miss Fairfax, that I entrapped Ernest into an engagement? How dare you? This is no time for wearing the shallow mask of manners. When I see a spade I call it a spade.

Later on in Act 2, Part 2, when the women learn of Jack and Algernon's deception, they immediately become close allies:

Gwendolen: My poor wounded Cecily!

Cecily: My sweet wronged Gwendolen!

Gwendolen: [Slowly and seriously] You will call me sister, will you not?

Jack and Algernon's statements at the beginning of the play turn out to be remarkably accurate. As Jack anticipates, Gwendolen and Cecily do begin calling each other sister shortly after meeting, and, as Algernon predicts, they call each other plenty of other things first.

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Act 2, Part 1
Explanation and Analysis—The Novel and the Handbag:

A conversation between Cecily and Miss Prism in Act 2, Part 1 foreshadows the revelation that occurs at the end of the play:

Miss Prism: Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily. I wrote one myself in earlier days.

Cecily: Did you really, Miss Prism? How wonderfully clever you are! I hope it did not end happily? I don't like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.

Miss Prism: The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.

Cecily: I suppose so. But it seems very unfair. And was your novel ever published?

Miss Prism: Alas! no. The manuscript unfortunately was abandoned. I use the word in the sense of lost or mislaid.

Miss Prism makes sure to specify that she did not abandon the pursuit of novel-writing—she actually physically lost the manuscript. At the time, this seems like an odd detail to emphasize, but the comment makes sense later on in the play, when Miss Prism reveals that, having confused her manuscript for a baby she was tending, she placed the former in a perambulator and the latter in a handbag.

Just as this earlier moment of foreshadowing pays off, it leads into a moment of dramatic irony. From the moment Miss Prism mentions the handbag, the audience, who learned earlier in the play that Jack was found in a handbag when he was a baby, immediately knows that he is the infant Miss Prism abandoned. In Act 3, Part 2, Jack presses Miss Prism for more information:

Jack: [Who has been listening attentively]. But where did you deposit the hand-bag?

Miss Prism: Do not ask me, Mr. Worthing.

Jack: Miss Prism, this is a matter of no small importance to me. I insist on knowing where you deposited the hand-bag that contained that infant.

Miss Prism: I left it in the cloak-room of one of the larger railway stations in London.

Jack: What railway station?

Miss Prism: [Quite crushed]. Victoria. The Brighton line.

This exchange is especially ironic because it is not enough for Jack to know that the baby in a handbag was abandoned 28 years ago at a railway station (as if multiple babies were abandoned that same year under identical circumstances), he needs to know the exact name of the railway station. 

Miss Prism confirms that the handbag in which she placed the baby is the same handbag in which Jack was found, but her attitude in Act 3, Part 2, in keeping with the play's comical mood, is utterly absurd:

Miss Prism: The bag is undoubtedly mine. I am delighted to have it so unexpectedly restored to me. It has been a great inconvenience being without it all these years.

This line is ironic because Miss Prism, who for some reason seems to have gone 28 years without buying a replacement handbag, is more concerned about the bag than she is about the baby.

Miss Prism's statement that the good ended happily and the bad unhappily in her novel also foreshadows the end of the play, in which all four lovers end up happily united, with Lady Bracknell begrudgingly allowing the engagements to proceed. Cecily's comment that the ending of Miss Prism's novel seems rather unfair also foreshadows the fact that the "heroes" of the play go unpunished for all their deceit and immoral behavior.

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Explanation and Analysis—My Unfortunate Brother:

In Act 2, Part 1, there's an instance of foreshadowing when Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble question Jack about Ernest:

Miss Prism: More shameful debts and extravagance?

Chasuble: Still leading his life of pleasure?

From these questions, the audience can deduce that the image of Ernest that Jack has presented to the members of his household is that of an unscrupulous dandy who lives well beyond his means. This description happens to perfectly suit Algernon, who lives extravagantly and is deeply in debt. It's possible that Jack, either inadvertently or on purpose, actually based the character of Ernest on his mischievous friend.

These descriptions, in addition to Algernon's decision to disguise himself as Ernest, foreshadow the revelation in Act 3, Part 2 that Algernon has been Jack's brother all along:

Jack: Algy's elder brother! Then I have a brother after all. I knew I had a brother! I always said I had a brother! Cecily,—how could you have ever doubted that I had a brother. [Seizes hold of Algernon] Dr. Chasuble, my unfortunate brother. Miss Prism, my unfortunate brother. Gwendolen, my unfortunate brother. Algy, you young scoundrel, you will have to treat me with more respect in the future. You have never behaved to me like a brother in all your life.

Algernon: Well, not till to-day, old boy, I admit. I did my best, however, though I was out of practice.

This moment is ironic because, despite what Jack claims, Algernon has spent the entire play making fun of him, arguing with him, and needling him about his romantic life. In other words, he has behaved exactly like an irritating younger brother.

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Act 2, Part 2
Explanation and Analysis—Earnest vs. Ernest:

An ongoing source of irony in The Importance of Being Earnest is the relationship between the name "Ernest" and its homophone, the word "earnest." Throughout the play, both Gwendolen and Cecily express their desire to marry a man named Ernest, and in Act 1, Part 2, Gwendolen explains to Jack why Ernest is the only "safe" name for a husband:

Gwendolen: We live, as I hope you know, Mr. Worthing, in an age of ideals... and my ideal has always been to love someone of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence.

In Act 2, Part 2, Cecily tells Algernon her reasons for wishing to marry a man named Ernest, and they are remarkably similar to Gwendolen's:

Cecily: You must not laugh at me, darling, but it has always been a girlish dream of mine to love someone whose name was Ernest. [Algernon rises, Cecily also.] There is something in that name that seems to inspire absolute confidence. I pity any poor married woman whose husband is not named Ernest.

These scenes are both instances of dramatic irony. The name Ernest "inspires absolute confidence" in both women, who seem to believe that being named "Ernest" is equivalent to actually being "earnest." The audience, on the other hand, knows that Jack created the character of Ernest as a means to escape his responsibility and live a dandy's life in the city. Regardless of whether it is Jack or Algernon taking on the role, Ernest is always a symbol of deception rather than sincerity.

Cecily's confidence in the name Ernest is especially ironic, since all she knows of her guardian's brother is that he is always getting into trouble. As an individual, Ernest is neither safe nor trustworthy, which is why Cecily is attracted to him in the first place, but she still regards his name as a sign of his good character. This proclamation is also an instance of foreshadowing—at the end of the play, Lady Bracknell forbids Algernon from being baptized and prevents him from taking on the name of Ernest, which causes Cecily to end up as the "poor married woman" she earlier pitied.

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Explanation and Analysis—Sisters:

In Act 1, Part 2, there's an instance of foreshadowing when Jack dismisses Algernon's suggestion that Gwendolen will be displeased to discover that Jack has a young and beautiful girl as his ward:

Jack: Cecily and Gwendolen are perfectly certain to be extremely great friends. I'll bet you anything you like that half an hour after they have met, they will be calling each other sister.

Algernon: Women only do that when they have called each other a lot of other things first.

This conversation foreshadows the encounter that eventually occurs between Cecily and Gwendolen in Act 2, Part 2. The two women are initially fond of each other, but once they learn that they are both engaged to Ernest Worthing, they begin to trade insults and snide remarks:

Gwendolen: Do you allude to me, Miss Cardew, as an entanglement? You are presumptuous. On an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one's mind. It becomes a pleasure.

Cecily: Do you suggest, Miss Fairfax, that I entrapped Ernest into an engagement? How dare you? This is no time for wearing the shallow mask of manners. When I see a spade I call it a spade.

Later on in Act 2, Part 2, when the women learn of Jack and Algernon's deception, they immediately become close allies:

Gwendolen: My poor wounded Cecily!

Cecily: My sweet wronged Gwendolen!

Gwendolen: [Slowly and seriously] You will call me sister, will you not?

Jack and Algernon's statements at the beginning of the play turn out to be remarkably accurate. As Jack anticipates, Gwendolen and Cecily do begin calling each other sister shortly after meeting, and, as Algernon predicts, they call each other plenty of other things first.

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Act 3, Part 2
Explanation and Analysis—The Novel and the Handbag:

A conversation between Cecily and Miss Prism in Act 2, Part 1 foreshadows the revelation that occurs at the end of the play:

Miss Prism: Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily. I wrote one myself in earlier days.

Cecily: Did you really, Miss Prism? How wonderfully clever you are! I hope it did not end happily? I don't like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.

Miss Prism: The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.

Cecily: I suppose so. But it seems very unfair. And was your novel ever published?

Miss Prism: Alas! no. The manuscript unfortunately was abandoned. I use the word in the sense of lost or mislaid.

Miss Prism makes sure to specify that she did not abandon the pursuit of novel-writing—she actually physically lost the manuscript. At the time, this seems like an odd detail to emphasize, but the comment makes sense later on in the play, when Miss Prism reveals that, having confused her manuscript for a baby she was tending, she placed the former in a perambulator and the latter in a handbag.

Just as this earlier moment of foreshadowing pays off, it leads into a moment of dramatic irony. From the moment Miss Prism mentions the handbag, the audience, who learned earlier in the play that Jack was found in a handbag when he was a baby, immediately knows that he is the infant Miss Prism abandoned. In Act 3, Part 2, Jack presses Miss Prism for more information:

Jack: [Who has been listening attentively]. But where did you deposit the hand-bag?

Miss Prism: Do not ask me, Mr. Worthing.

Jack: Miss Prism, this is a matter of no small importance to me. I insist on knowing where you deposited the hand-bag that contained that infant.

Miss Prism: I left it in the cloak-room of one of the larger railway stations in London.

Jack: What railway station?

Miss Prism: [Quite crushed]. Victoria. The Brighton line.

This exchange is especially ironic because it is not enough for Jack to know that the baby in a handbag was abandoned 28 years ago at a railway station (as if multiple babies were abandoned that same year under identical circumstances), he needs to know the exact name of the railway station. 

Miss Prism confirms that the handbag in which she placed the baby is the same handbag in which Jack was found, but her attitude in Act 3, Part 2, in keeping with the play's comical mood, is utterly absurd:

Miss Prism: The bag is undoubtedly mine. I am delighted to have it so unexpectedly restored to me. It has been a great inconvenience being without it all these years.

This line is ironic because Miss Prism, who for some reason seems to have gone 28 years without buying a replacement handbag, is more concerned about the bag than she is about the baby.

Miss Prism's statement that the good ended happily and the bad unhappily in her novel also foreshadows the end of the play, in which all four lovers end up happily united, with Lady Bracknell begrudgingly allowing the engagements to proceed. Cecily's comment that the ending of Miss Prism's novel seems rather unfair also foreshadows the fact that the "heroes" of the play go unpunished for all their deceit and immoral behavior.

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Explanation and Analysis—My Unfortunate Brother:

In Act 2, Part 1, there's an instance of foreshadowing when Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble question Jack about Ernest:

Miss Prism: More shameful debts and extravagance?

Chasuble: Still leading his life of pleasure?

From these questions, the audience can deduce that the image of Ernest that Jack has presented to the members of his household is that of an unscrupulous dandy who lives well beyond his means. This description happens to perfectly suit Algernon, who lives extravagantly and is deeply in debt. It's possible that Jack, either inadvertently or on purpose, actually based the character of Ernest on his mischievous friend.

These descriptions, in addition to Algernon's decision to disguise himself as Ernest, foreshadow the revelation in Act 3, Part 2 that Algernon has been Jack's brother all along:

Jack: Algy's elder brother! Then I have a brother after all. I knew I had a brother! I always said I had a brother! Cecily,—how could you have ever doubted that I had a brother. [Seizes hold of Algernon] Dr. Chasuble, my unfortunate brother. Miss Prism, my unfortunate brother. Gwendolen, my unfortunate brother. Algy, you young scoundrel, you will have to treat me with more respect in the future. You have never behaved to me like a brother in all your life.

Algernon: Well, not till to-day, old boy, I admit. I did my best, however, though I was out of practice.

This moment is ironic because, despite what Jack claims, Algernon has spent the entire play making fun of him, arguing with him, and needling him about his romantic life. In other words, he has behaved exactly like an irritating younger brother.

Unlock with LitCharts A+