Gwendolen: For me you have always had an irresistible fascination. Even before I met you I was far from indifferent to you. [Jack looks at her in amazement.] We live, as I hope you know, Mr. Worthing, in an age of ideals. The fact is constantly mentioned in the more expensive monthly magazines, and has reached the provincial pulpits, I am told; and my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you. (I.141)
Gwendolen’s "ideal" of loving the "name of Ernest" is not based on anything logical. Instead, her love of the name is aesthetic. As Jack amply proves, he is far from earnest and does not really deserve a name that means "honest."
Gwendolen: The story of your romantic origin, as related to me by mamma, with unpleasing comments, has naturally stirred the deeper fibres of my nature. (I.272)
Jack’s mysterious origins do not seem shady or even problematic to Gwendolen, but instead feed her fantasies of a hero with all the romantic mystery of a secret history. Of course, this secret past is not romantic for the more realistic Jack or Lady Bracknell, for whom it is an impediment toward marrying Gwendolen.
Cecily: I keep a diary in order to enter the wonderful secrets of my life. If I didn't write them down, I should probably forget all about them. (II.10)
Cecily revels in her secret, romantic life where she controls everything that happens. Unsatisfied with her mundane life, where she does nothing but study, Cecily makes up a series of romantic escapades featuring her secret lover "Ernest."
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. (II.13-15)
Miss Prism defines for us exactly what fictional romances mean—"the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily." This is how both Gwendolen and Cecily picture their lives ending, with happily-ever-afters. Also, the fact that Miss Prism wrote a romantic three-volume novel suggests that she was once an idealistic girl.
Cecily: You see, it [her diary] is simply a very young girl's record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication. When it appears in volume form I hope you will order a copy. But pray, Ernest, don't stop. I delight in taking down from dictation. I have reached "absolute perfection." You can go on. I am quite ready for more. (II.198)
As we previously established, Cecily’s diary is a storehouse for all of her fantasies. Before Algernon came along, they were just that—unattainable fantasies. But now that Algernon has taken on the identity of "Ernest," she is closer than ever to achieving her romanticized love.
Cecily: You must not laugh at me, darling, but it had always been a girlish dream of mine to love some one 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 called Ernest. (II.233)
Like Gwendolen, Cecily admits that "it had always been a girlish dream of mine to love someone whose name was Ernest." In fact, Cecily's next words echo verbatim Gwendolen’s whimsical wish for her own Ernest. That Cecily desires exactly the same thing as Gwendolen clues us into the fact that these two characters are foils. (See our "Character Roles" section for more.)
Cecily: [Very politely, rising] I am afraid you must be under some misconception. Ernest proposed to me exactly ten minutes ago. [Shows diary.]
Gwendolen: [Examines diary through her lorgnettte carefully] It is certainly very curious, for he asked me to be his wife yesterday afternoon at 5.30. If you would care to verify the incident, pray do so. [Produces diary of her own.] I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train. (II.289-290)
Since both men have indulged their lovers’ fantasies for an "Ernest," we see what started out as pure daydream becomes reality—and a highly disputed one at that. The way in which both women enter their proposal dates into their diaries shows that it is as unreal and whimsical to them as their previous romantic daydreams. Gwendolen puts it best when—referring to her diary—she says "one should always have something sensational to read."
Miss Prism: The plain facts of the case are these. On the morning of the day you [Lady Bracknell] mention, a day that is for ever branded on my memory, I prepared as usual to take the baby out in its perambulator. I had also with me a somewhat old, but capacious hand bag in which I had intended to place the manuscript of a work of fiction that I had written during my few unoccupied hours. In a moment of mental abstraction, for which I never can forgive myself, I deposited the manuscript in the basinette, and placed the baby in the hand bag. (III.127)
From what we know about Miss Prism’s three-volume novel (which Lady Bracknell has called a "manuscript…of more than usually revolting sentimentality" (III.126)) and her definition of fiction, we can speculate that it was a romantic daydream or hope of future stardom that caused her "moment of mental abstraction" and led to the disastrous mistake. Does Wilde use Miss Prism’s mistake as a warning?
Chasuble: [Looking up] It has stopped now. [The noise is redoubled.]
Lady Bracknell: I wish he would arrive at some conclusion.
Gwendolen: This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last. (III.141-143)
Gwendolen’s melodramatic love for suspense reveals how she takes her favorite scenes from novels and applies them to real life.