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The play opens in Algernon Moncrieffís home in London. Algernon and his manservant are discussing marriage. After Lane exits, Algernon remarks that it is the job of the lower classes to set an example.
Algernonís friend, Ernest Worthing, whose real name is Jack, stops in for a visit. It becomes apparent that Jack wants to marry Algernonís cousin Gwendolen. Algernon refuses to give consent because he has found a cigarette case that Jack previously left behind. The inscription reveals it is from a lady named Cecily to her Uncle Jack. Jack admits that he goes by the name Ernest in the city and Jack in the country. Cecily is his ward. To escape country life, he pretends that he has a brother, named Ernest, whom gets into trouble and needs his assistance. Algernon admits that he has the same habit, and he refers to it as Bunburying. He pretends to have an ill friend named Bunbury, whom he must visit, when he wishes to escape the country.
Lady Bracknell and her daughter Gwendolen arrive. Jack proposes to Gwendolen and she accepts, claiming also that she could not love him if his name were not Ernest, which she still believes it to be. However, upon questioning Jack, Lady Bracknell learns that he was found as an infant, abandoned at Victoria Station. She does not approve of this and will not consent to the marriage.
The remainder of the play takes place at Jackís house in the country. Act II commences with Miss Prism and Cecily doing lessons in the garden. They discuss Johnís poor, miserable, younger brother Ernest and wonder if he will visit. The lessons are interrupted when Dr. Chasuble, the reverend, takes Miss Prism for a walk-it becomes apparent that they admire one another. In the meantime, Algernon, claiming to be Jackís younger brother, arrives and meets Cecily. They banter back and forth and become fond of one another. They enter the house in search of something for Algernon to eat. Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble enter the garden. Jack unexpectedly appears (he was supposed to be out of town until Monday) and claims that his brother Ernest has died. He then asks if Dr, Chasuble will baptize him that afternoon and he agrees.
Cecily enters the garden and tells Jack that his brother has arrived for an unexpected visit. Jack claims not to have a brother, which Cecily mistakes as his anger at ďErnestísĒ troublesome ways and defends him by saying that he has promised to change, which he has promised her earlier. Algernon enters; Cecily, Miss Prism, and Dr. Chasuble exit. Algernon and Jack argue; Jack tells the butler, Merriman, to order Algernon a dog-cart so that he can leave immediately.
Later, while alone, Algernon and Cecily profess their love for one another, and Algernon asks her to marry him. She agrees, and tells him that she has been writing about their engagement for three months in her diary. She tells him that she could not love him if his name were not Ernest. He leaves to make plans to be baptized.
Gwendolen appears, and Cecily sits with her for tea. After talking for a bit they realize that they are both engaged to Ernest Worthing and become hostile. The men return and clear up the matter. However, they must reveal their identities. The women reconcile and exit the garden, angry.
Jack and Algernon finally go after Gwendolen and Cecily. They tell their loves that they only faked their identities so that they would be able to see them more. The women love this idea, but are still upset about the menís names. The men tell them that they have arranged to both be baptized as Ernest that very afternoon. Everyone reconciles.
All is well until Lady Bracknell arrives; she has gotten the address from Gwendolenís maid. She asks Algernon if this is the residence of Bunbury. He tells her that Bunbury has died. Lady Gwendolen still will not allow the marriage of Gwendolen to Jack. Jack says that if she will not allow their marriage then he, as Cecilyís guardian, will not allow the marriage of Cecily to Algernon.
Dr. Chasuble arrives for the christenings. Jack tells Chasuble that his services are no longer necessary. Dr. Chasuble mentions that he is returning to Miss Prism, and Lady Bracknell, recognizing her name and subsequent description, demands to see her. Miss Prism arrives and it is revealed that twenty-eight years ago she was in charge of the son of Lady Bracknellís sister-Mrs. Moncrieff, Algernonís mother. Miss Prism accidentally placed the baby in her hand-bag and a novel she had written in the carriage. She lost the baby in Victoria Station. Jack is delighted to hear this and retrieves the bag that he was left in twenty eight years ago in Victoria Station-it is the same one. He is Algernonís older brother. After reviewing army records they discover that his fatherís name, therefore as oldest son, his name, was Ernest John Worthing. He has been, the whole time, inadvertently, living the truth. He is now able to marry Gwendolen and gives consent for Algernon to marry Cecily. All ends well.