The Importance of Being Ernest is a play written by Oscar Wilde. It is Wilde’s most popular play.
Algernon, an aristocratic young Londoner, pretends to have a friend named Bunbury. Bunbury loves the country and is frequently in ill health: Whenever Algernon wants to avoid an unwelcome social obligation, he makes an ostensible visit to his “sick friend”. He calls this practice ‘Bunburying’.
Algernon’s best friend Ernest Worthing lives in the country but makes frequent visits to London. When his friend leaves his silver cigarette case in Algernon’s morning room, Algernon finds inception on it: “From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her clear uncle Jack.”
Algernon’s friend goes by the name of Jack while he lives in the country. Jack pretends to have a brother by the name of Ernest. Ernest is supposed to reside in London. Jack gives the impression that Ernest requires frequent attention. When Jack is in London, he assumes the name of Ernest. Jack is also a ‘Bunburyist’.
Jack wants to marry Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen, but he cannot do so for two reasons. First, Gwendolen seems to love him merely for his name, Ernest, which she thinks to be the most beautiful name in the world. Second, Gwendlen’s mother, the terrifying Lady Brachnell, does not approve of Mr. Worthing. She is horrified to learn that Jack was adopted as a baby after being discovered in a handbag at a railway station.
Jack’s description of Cecily appeals to Algernon and Algernon is keen to meet her. Jack opposes this. One day Algernon comes to Jack’s house. Algernon pretends to be Ernest because Cecily has imagined herself to be in love with Ernest. Cecily falls for Algernon who is disguised as Ernest.
Jack meanwhile, decides to do away with Bunburying and returns to his country estate with the news that his brother Ernest has reportedly died in Paris. He (Jack) is forced to abandon this claim by the presence of “Ernest”. Algernon threatens to expose Jack’s double life if the latter does not play along.
Gwendolen runs away from London and her mother to be with her lower. When Gwendolen and Cecily meet for the first time each insists that she is the one engaged to Ernest. Lady Bracknell arrives in pursuit of her daughter Gwendolen. She refuses to allow Jack’s marriage with Gwendolen (remember Jack pretends that his name is Ernest): Jack does not agree to grant permission to Cecily to marry Algernon who also pretends that his name is Ernest.
The situation is saved by the appearance of Cecily’s governess, Miss Prism. As she and Lady Bracknell recognise each other with horror it is revealed that, when working many years previously as a nursemaid for Lady Bracknell’s sister, Prism had inadvertently lost a baby boy in a handbag. When Jack produces the identical handbag, it becomes clear that he is Lady Bracknell’s nephew and Algernon’s older brother.
With Jack’s identity proven, only one thing now stood in the way of the young couple’s happiness: Gwendolen insistence that she could only love a man named Ernest. The question is what is Jack’s real first name? Lady Bracknell informs him that he was named after his father, a general, but cannot remember the general’s name.
Jack looks eagerly in a military reference book and declares that the name is in fact Ernest after all. He has all along been telling the truth inadvertently.
The happy couple namely Gwendolen and Jack, Cecily and Algernon, Miss prism and the Reverend Canon Chasuble embrace one another. Lady Bracknell complains to Ernest, “My nephew, you seem to be displaying signs of triviality.” Ernest replies to Aunt Augusta, ”I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital importance of being Ernest.”