"The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, Act II

Jack and Algernon are two bachelors who use false identities to get what they want—and get into trouble—in this comedy by Oscar Wilde. Read the full text here.

Here are links to our lists for the play: Act I, Act II, Act III

Here is a link to our lists for A Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

Activities for this list:

definitions & notes only words
  1. utilitarian
    having a useful function
    Surely such a utilitarian occupation as the watering of flowers is rather Moulton’s duty than yours? Especially at a moment when intellectual pleasures await you. Your German grammar is on the table. Pray open it at page fifteen. We will repeat yesterday’s lesson.
    Wilde was known for preferring beautiful things to utilitarian ones. Here, the playwright mocks both preferences. Cecily prefers doing something useful to promote beauty rather than learning something useless that makes her feel ugly. In these words, Miss Prism unintentionally supports the view that learning German is useless and ugly: despite calling it an intellectual pleasure, she contrasts it with the useful watering of beautiful flowers and focuses on the repetition of grammar lessons.
  2. demeanor
    the way a person behaves toward other people
    Your guardian enjoys the best of health, and his gravity of demeanour is especially to be commended in one so comparatively young as he is.
  3. idle
    silly or trivial
    Idle merriment and triviality would be out of place in his conversation.
    This statement by Miss Prism shows how little she knows her employer and how good Jack/Ernest Worthing is at leading the double life. "Idle" also means "lacking a sense of restraint or responsibility"--which describes Jack half the time when he is in town as Ernest; and it means "not having a job"--aside from being Cecily's guardian, Jack doesn't seem to have anything else stopping him from pursuing the merriment that he pays for through incomes from investments and lands.
  4. vacillating
    uncertain in purpose or action
    I do not think that even I could produce any effect on a character that according to his own brother’s admission is irretrievably weak and vacillating.
  5. debonair
    having a cheerful, lively, and self-confident air
    [Enter Algernon, very gay and debonair.]
    "Debonair" also means "having a sophisticated charm"--in contrast to the restricted country life of Cecily, Algernon could seem more worldly, refined, or appealing. Having heard of his wicked ways, Cecily is frightened in an excited way to finally meet the person she's been writing about in her diary.
  6. hypocrisy
    pretending to have qualities or beliefs that you do not have
    I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.
  7. quixotic
    not sensible about practical matters
    It is rather Quixotic of you.
    "Quixotic" is an eponymous adjective based on the Spanish novelist Cervantes' character Don Quixote, who is so intrigued by the romance of noble deeds he'd read about that he sets out to do them, but as a middle-aged country gentleman rather than a trained knight, he fails miserably and comically. In saying these words to Algernon, Cecily is telling him that she thinks his suggestion to reform himself for her is romantic but unrealistic.
  8. misanthrope
    someone who dislikes people in general
    A misanthrope I can understand—a womanthrope, never!
  9. neologism
    a newly invented word or phrase
    Believe me, I do not deserve so neologistic a phrase.
    In Greek, "neo" means "new" and "logos" means "word"--Dr. Chasuble, as a scholar, shudders at Miss Prism's invention of the word "womanthrope" but he could also be shuddering at the declaration that he should get married. This is suggested by his last name, which is actually a real word that means "a long sleeveless vestment worn by a priest when celebrating Mass."
  10. precept
    a doctrine that is taught
    The precept as well as the practice of the Primitive Church was distinctly against matrimony.
  11. persistent
    stubbornly unyielding
    And you do not seem to realise, dear Doctor, that by persistently remaining single, a man converts himself into a permanent public temptation.
  12. condolence
    an expression of sympathy with another's grief
    Mr. Worthing, I offer you my sincere condolence.
  13. susceptible
    yielding readily to or capable of
    I myself am peculiarly susceptible to draughts.
    Dr. Chasuble means that he, like Ernest who supposedly died of a severe chill, is susceptible to a current of air ("draught" is the British spelling of "draft"). Wilde is punning on "draught" to suggest Dr. Chasuble is also susceptible to "a serving of drink, usually alcoholic, drawn from a keg." This is evident by the previous line that "none of us are perfect." Another pun, although rather meaningless, could be on the British recognition of "draughts" as the game of checkers.
  14. affliction
    a cause of great suffering and distress
    You would no doubt wish me to make some slight allusion to this tragic domestic affliction next Sunday.
  15. apprehension
    fearful expectation or anticipation
    You need have no apprehensions. Sprinkling is all that is necessary, or indeed I think advisable.
  16. melancholy
    characterized by or causing or expressing sadness
    [Cecily goes towards Jack; he kisses her brow in a melancholy manner.]
  17. reconciliation
    the reestablishment of cordial relations
    It’s pleasant, is it not, to see so perfect a reconciliation?
    A large part of the humor in this line is situational, since Jack and Algernon are not actually estranged brothers who need to reconcile, and Jack is shaking Algernon's hand only because Cecily is threatening to never speak to him again if he doesn't. There is also visual humor: while Dr. Chasuble talks about a perfect reconciliation, Jack is glaring at Algernon in a manner that is not in the least cordial ("diffusing warmth and friendliness).
  18. equanimity
    steadiness of mind under stress
    It is always painful to part from people whom one has known for a very brief space of time. The absence of old friends one can endure with equanimity.
  19. ignorance
    the lack of knowledge or education
    Worn out by your entire ignorance of my existence, I determined to end the matter one way or the other, and after a long struggle with myself I accepted you under this dear old tree here.
  20. impetuous
    characterized by undue haste and lack of thought
    What an impetuous boy he is!
    The definition of "impetuous" makes it sound like an insulting adjective. But Cecily does not intend it that way, since this line comes directly after Algernon kisses her and rushes off to see Dr. Chasuble and before these lines: "I like his hair so much. I must enter his proposal in my diary."
  21. effeminate
    having unsuitable feminine qualities
    And certainly once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not?
  22. arduous
    characterized by effort to the point of exhaustion
    My dear guardian, with the assistance of Miss Prism, has the arduous task of looking after me.
  23. alluring
    highly attractive and able to arouse hope or desire
    But I am bound to state that now that I know that you are Mr. Worthing’s ward, I cannot help expressing a wish you were—well, just a little older than you seem to be—and not quite so very alluring in appearance.
  24. candid
    openly straightforward and direct without secretiveness
    I think that whenever one has anything unpleasant to say, one should always be quite candid.
  25. anguish
    extreme distress of body or mind
    It would distress me more than I can tell you, dear Gwendolen, if it caused you any mental or physical anguish, but I feel bound to point out that since Ernest proposed to you he clearly has changed his mind.
  26. reproach
    disgrace or shame
    Whatever unfortunate entanglement my dear boy may have got into, I will never reproach him with it after we are married.
  27. presumptuous
    going beyond what is appropriate, permitted, or courteous
    You are presumptuous.
  28. chafe
    feel extreme irritation or anger
    [Enter Merriman, followed by the footman. He carries a salver, table cloth, and plate stand. Cecily is about to retort. The presence of the servants exercises a restraining influence, under which both girls chafe.]
  29. detestable
    offensive to the mind
    Gwendolen. [With elaborate politeness.] Thank you. [Aside.] Detestable girl! But I require tea!
  30. superciliously
    with a sneer; in an uncomplimentary sneering manner
    Gwendolen. [ Superciliously.] No, thank you. Sugar is not fashionable any more.
  31. machination
    a crafty and involved plot to achieve your ends
    To save my poor, innocent, trusting boy from the machinations of any other girl there are no lengths to which I would not go.
  32. invariably
    without change, in every case
    My first impressions of people are invariably right.
  33. scornful
    expressing extreme contempt
    [They retire into the house with scornful looks.]
  34. wretched
    morally reprehensible
    Well, the only small satisfaction I have in the whole of this wretched business is that your friend Bunbury is quite exploded.
    "Wretched" also means "very unhappy; full of misery"--both definitions fit the situation because Jack thinks that Algernon is morally reprehensible ("deserving severe criticism and censure") for pretending to be Ernest so that he could sneak into his country house and get closer to Cecily. Jack is also very unhappy that his lie about being Ernest had exploded in both their faces, which led to the scornful looks from both Gwendolen and Cecily.
  35. hospitality
    kindness in welcoming guests or strangers
    What ideas you have of hospitality!

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