The Importance of Being Earnest Society and Class Quotes
How we cite our quotes: (Act.Line) Every time a character talks counts as one line, even if what they say turns into a long monologue.
Lady Bracknell [to Gwendolen]: Sit down immediately. Hesitation of any kind is a sign of mental decay in the young, of physical weakness in the old. (III.44)
In Lady Bracknell’s circle, the authority of elders is well-established in upholding social class. Because parents decide every aspect of their children’s lives, any disobedience on a child’s part can be read as a sign of rebellion—something that could destroy the aristocracy. Compare this with Jack’s reaction to Cecily’s indiscretions; he doesn’t freak out about them. He rarely orders her to let go of Algernon’s hand or commands her to go back to her lessons.
Lady Bracknell: Mr. Worthing, is Miss Cardew at all connected with any of the larger railway stations in London? I merely desire information. Until yesterday I had no idea that there were any families or persons whose origin was a Terminus. [Jack looks perfectly furious, but restrains himself.] (III.61)
As a noblewoman, Lady Bracknell insults Jack—mocking his lack of knowledge about his family—to highlight the difference in their social ranks. To her, Gwendolen’s marriage to Jack would result in a dead end—or a "terminus." In a clever pun, "terminus" also means a station or stop along a railroad line, so Lady Bracknell simultaneously insults Jack’s social origins.
Lady Bracknell: As a matter of form, Mr. Worthing, I had better ask you if Miss Cardew has any little fortune?
Jack: Oh! about a hundred and thirty thousand pounds in the Funds. That is all. Goodbye, Lady Bracknell. So pleased to have seen you.
Lady Bracknell: [Sitting down again] A moment, Mr. Worthing. A hundred and thirty thousand pounds! And in the Funds! Miss Cardew seems to me a most attractive young lady, now that I look at her. (III.69-71)
Jack’s substantial assets, which make Cecily akin to a millionaire, force Lady Bracknell to swallow her previous insults and consider Cecily as a match for her penniless, but aristocratic nephew, Algernon.