Study Guide

An Ideal Husband

An Ideal Husband Summary

It all starts at a big, high-culture party. The wine is flowing, the lights are flattering, and the diamonds are twinkling. Sir Robert and Lady Gertrude Chiltern, rising star couple on the political scene, greet the Who's Who of 1890s London as they mill about delivering bon mots. The surprise main event is the arrival of Mrs. Cheveley. She's one of those women that gets talked about; she looks outrageous and radiates menacing charm. It turns out that both Lady Chiltern and Lord Goring, the dandified philosopher in the play, know this lady from days gone by. They're not fans. But Mrs. Cheveley doesn't care – she's not here for fun or friendship.

As everyone goes in to dinner, Mrs. Cheveley sits Sir Robert down and informs him that unless he reverses his public position on the Argentine Canal she's invested in, she will blackmail him. She has a letter proving that as a young man, he built his fortune on the sale of state secrets. She will happily show it to the press.

Sir Robert freaks out and agrees to do what she wants. When Lady Chiltern finds out about his change of heart – not knowing anything about the blackmail, or about Sir Robert's past missteps – she pressures him to go back on his promise to Mrs. Cheveley. She won't allow him to compromise his principles.

So Sir Robert is caught between a rock and a hard place. If he does what Mrs. Cheveley wants, he'll lose his wife. If he doesn't do what Mrs. Cheveley wants, he'll be exposed, losing his position – and probably his wife, too. Lord Goring thinks he should come clean to Lady Chiltern, but Sir Robert doesn't have the chance. Mrs. Cheveley calls to inquire about a brooch she lost at the party. Lady Chiltern doesn't have it. (Lord Goring does; he recognized and collected it the night of the party.) Irritated by Lady Chiltern, Mrs. Cheveley reveals Sir Robert's past: he built his fortune on a crime. Lady Chiltern attacks Sir Robert and says she can't love a dishonest man. He counterattacks that she should never have put him on a pedestal, that no man could survive her idealistic love.

Lord Goring now goes into rescue mode. At home getting ready for a party, he's visited by his father, Mrs. Cheveley, and Sir Robert – none of whom he expected. Only Lady Chiltern had written a letter on pink paper asking him to expect her. When Sir Robert arrives, pleading for help, he discovers Mrs. Cheveley there and accuses Lord Goring of siding with her. In reality, she has proposed marriage to Lord Goring in exchange for Sir Robert's incriminating letter. Lord Goring refuses – he's disgusted with her for seeking to destroy the love of a good couple.

When Mrs. Cheveley inadvertently reveals that she visited Lady Chiltern on account of a brooch, Lord Goring traps her. He knows she stole the brooch years ago and he will call the police unless she gives him the letter about Sir Robert. She does. But she has one more trick up her sleeve. She steals the pink letter (from Lady Chiltern to Lord Goring, announcing her visit) and promises to send it to Sir Robert as evidence of an affair.

Lord Goring visits the Chilterns to reveal that the Baron Arnheim letter (i.e., the letter Mrs. Cheveley threatened to use to expose Sir Robert) has been destroyed. Lord Goring also comes to propose to Mabel Chiltern, Sir Robert's younger sister. He warns Lady Chiltern that Sir Robert may receive a letter that incriminates her. Fearing ruin, Sir Robert is so relieved at his escape from the situation with Mrs. Cheveley that he proposes retreating from public life. Lady Chiltern eagerly agrees. When Lord Caversham (Lord Goring's father) arrives with the news that Sir Robert can have a place in the Cabinet (a government position), his resolve is tested. Sir Robert will reject the post.

Left alone with Lady Chiltern, Lord Goring begs her not to ask such a sacrifice of her husband. She should forgive him, and accept that her job is to support her husband no matter what. She agrees. When Sir Robert returns with the letter rejecting the appointment, she tears it up. They kiss and reconcile.

Lord Goring asks for Mabel's hand in marriage, and Sir Robert says no. He still thinks Lord Goring is involved with Mrs. Cheveley. Now Lady Chiltern must come forward and confess that it was she, not Mrs. Cheveley, whom Lord Goring expected at home last night. Everyone makes up, Mabel enters, and the couples promise to love each other in a realistic way, instead of idealizing each other.

  • Act 1

    • The stage directions tell us we're in a large, brilliantly lit room in posh Grosvenor Square. It's a party.
    • It's Lady Chiltern's house, so she greets the guests. She's 27, beautiful, and deathly serious.
    • The Chilterns are clearly very well off: there's a big chandelier, an antique French tapestry depicting "The Triumph of Love," and a string quartet in the next room. Not bad.
    • Mrs. Marchmont and Lady Basildon are chatting on a sofa about boring parties. Then go into the music-room, joined by the Vicomte de Nanjac. He's wearing a fancy tie.
    • Mason, Robert Chiltern's butler, is announcing guests.
    • Lord Caversham arrives. He's an old aristocrat and politician. Lord Caversham asks if his troublemaker son, Lord Goring, is here yet. Lady Chiltern says no.
    • Mabel Chiltern (Lady Chiltern's sister-in-law) joins the conversation. She's probably in her late teens or early twenties, and a natural beauty complete with apple cheeks and rosebud lips, that sort of thing.
    • Lord Caversham thinks his son's a slacker, but Mabel begs to differ (she likes him).
    • Lord Goring rides horses, goes to the opera, eats out a lot, and is really into what he wears. He's actually very busy with all that stuff.
    • Lord Caversham thinks Mabel's adorable.
    • Two new ladies arrive on the scene: Lady Markby and Mrs. Cheveley.
    • Lady Markby is a nice middle-aged woman with good lace, say the stage directions.
    • But the real dish is Mrs. Cheveley. She is Done Up. Tall and thin, with bright red hair, bright red lips, and dressed in heliotrope with diamonds. Heliotrope? Think bright purple.
    • Lady Markby introduces this fascinating lady to our hostess, Lady Chiltern. Uh-oh, we smell a fight. Turns out they went to school together and were totally not BFFs.
    • Mrs. Cheveley drops a hint…she's looking forward to meeting Lady Chiltern's husband, whom she's heard a lot about in Vienna. Lady Chiltern is none too cool with that and says they couldn't possibly have anything in common. She leaves the conversation.
    • The Vicomte de Nanjac approaches Mrs. Cheveley, whom he knew in Berlin. They have a little flirt.
    • Sir Robert Chiltern enters and the stage directions give a lot of time to his looks. Your mom would dig this guy – he's 40 but looks younger; he's confident and successful and respected in the House of Commons. His face doesn't quite agree with itself, though; it has a poet's eyes but a businessman's jaw. We sense some inner conflict coming…
    • This dreamboat greets Lady Markby and requests an introduction to Mrs. Cheveley, whose reputation has preceded her. Sir Robert and Mrs. Cheveley proceed to have a banter-fest that covers women, philosophy, modern literature, science, and women again. (This happens a lot in Wilde's plays.)
    • Mrs. Cheveley confesses that she's in London to ask a favor of him. When she mentions a common acquaintance – Baron Arnheim – Sir Robert reacts with a start. It's not a name he wants to hear.
    • Lord Goring enters, announced by the butler, Mason. The stage directions tell us he is thirty-four but says he's younger. He is a dandy, meaning he pretends that the most important things in life are dressing well, socializing, and being witty.
    • Sir Robert introduces Lord Goring to Mrs. Cheveley. Sure enough, they already know each other. Mrs. Cheveley teases Lord Goring about his perpetual bachelorhood. He kind of hopes she won't be staying long.
    • Mrs. Cheveley exits with Sir Robert, and Lord Goring is freed to talk to Mabel. They flirt. Mabel likes his bad boy image.
    • Lord Goring inquires who on earth invited this Mrs.-Cheveley-in-heliotrope. It was Lady Markby, says Mabel, why?
    • Because he hasn't seen her in years. Mabel gets jealous.
    • The Vicomte de Nanjac interrupts with some nonsense about English ladies and good taste. Apparently on the prowl, he asks to escort Mabel in to the music room. She doesn't want to leave Lord Goring, but she does.
    • Lord Caversham swoops in on his son, Lord Goring, and lays into him. Lord Caversham says his good-for-nothing son dances all night, talks about nothing, and lives only for pleasure. Lord Goring cheerfully agrees with this assessment.
    • Leaving Dad for pretty Lady Basildon and Mrs. Marchmont, Lord Goring exchanges pleasantries about politics and marriage. The ladies complain about their husbands, who are so good they are boring. The wayward Lord Goring feigns shock.
    • The conversation turns to Mrs. Cheveley. She's insulted London society and offended the ladies. Mabel joins in the trash talk.
    • Lord Goring and Mabel go in to dinner. She fusses at him for ignoring her all evening. He tries to smooth her feathers.
    • Lady Basildon and Mrs. Marchmont complain about how hungry they are. In this play, women clearly can't eat without a man. Luckily the Vicomte de Nanjac comes to Lady Basildon's rescue, and a Mr. Montford saves Mrs. Marchmont.
    • With the octagon room cleared out, Mrs. Cheveley and Sir Robert come in for a chat. The siren makes her move.
    • She wants to talk about a venture of the Argentine Canal Company.
    • He doesn't. This Argentine thing is a moneymaking scam. He's looked into it. There's been no progress on the canal, nobody knows what's happened to the money raised so far, and the whole thing's going to fail.
    • But Mrs. Cheveley has invested in it. Big time.
    • Sir Robert asks why the heck Mrs. Cheveley would you do that.
    • Mrs. Cheveley responds that it's because her dear friend Baron Arnheim has advised her to do so.
    • Sir Robert doesn't like the second mention of this name. He tries to distract Mrs. Cheveley with some paintings.
    • She's having none of it.
    • Sir Robert advises her to get out of this Argentine Canal deal, because the House of Commons (the legislative body in Parliament – kind of like our Senate) will shut the whole thing down once he delivers his report tomorrow.
    • But Mrs. Cheveley says that Sir Robert shouldn't do it, for his own good. She lays it out: withdraw this negative report and promote the Argentine Canal. Or else.
    • Sir Robert can't believe she's serious. There's no way he'll do this.
    • But she'll pay him.
    • Sir Robert tells her to leave immediately.
    • Mrs. Cheveley traps him with her fan and drops the bomb. She knows that as a young man, Sir Robert made his fortune by selling a state secret to a Stock Exchange speculator. She has a letter proving it. A letter addressed to Baron Arnheim.
    • Uh-oh. This is bad for Sir Robert.
    • Mrs. Cheveley generously offers to barter this letter for Sir Robert's public support of the Argentine scheme. She points out that the moral climate in England is such that politicians like him have to be perfect. Scandals used to be fun but now they are deadly. If the public finds out Sir Robert built his fortune and career on an unethical act – selling state secrets – he is done.
    • She wants an answer now, or she's going straight to the newspapers. Those vultures will looooove this.
    • At this point Sir Robert is pretty much ready to be sick. Could he give her money instead?
    • No way, she says. Make a speech supporting the Argentine Canal, and she will give him the letter. She makes to leave. No time to think about it.
    • He agrees.
    • The crowd comes in from dinner and Lady Markby asks Mrs. Cheveley if she has enjoyed herself. Oh yes, she has. Sir Robert Chiltern is very interesting. And Lady Chiltern, says Mrs. Markby, has the highest principles. Which make for boring dinner parties.
    • Lady Markby leaves on Lord Caversham's arm.
    • Approaching Lady Chiltern, Mrs. Cheveley complements her house, party, and husband. Then she shares the news: Sir Robert will make a speech supporting the Argentine Canal.
    • Lady Chiltern can't believe that this is true.
    • But it's all settled, counters Mrs. Cheveley. She explains that it's a secret until tomorrow, though…so Lady Chiltern can't tell.
    • Sir Robert comes in to get rid of her. Mrs. Cheveley says goodbye to Lord Goring and goes out with Sir Robert. Lady Chiltern looks on with worry.
    • Mabel and Lord Goring tease each other and sit down on the sofa, where Mabel finds a diamond brooch.
    • Lord Goring seems to recognize it – he knows it can be worn as a bracelet. He asks her not to mention that he's keeping it but to let him know if someone asks for it.
    • Mabel leaves and Lady Chiltern enters. The topic of Mrs. Cheveley naturally comes up.
    • Lady Chiltern tells Lord Goring that Mrs. Cheveley wants Sir Robert to support to Argentine Canal. They both agree it is impossible for someone as morally sound as Sir Robert to do such a thing.
    • Sir Robert comes in and wants Lord Goring to stay. He can't – more parties await.
    • The husband and wife are left alone. He flatters her, saying she's beautiful. She's not biting, and asks him what's going on with the Argentine thing.
    • Lady Chiltern says that Sir Robert shouldn't trust this Mrs. Cheveley. As a young girl she was manipulative, dishonest, and a thief. And people don't change.
    • Sir Robert begs his wife not to judge others entirely on their past.
    • Lady Chiltern takes a hard line, claiming that the past makes the man.
    • Sir Robert is naturally a little uncomfortable with this statement.
    • Lady Chiltern can't believe he's going to support something she just heard him describe as a total fraud.
    • Sir Robert prevaricates (i.e., does a little shuffle around the truth). He was wrong, the report was biased. And besides, private and public life are two different things.
    • No, she says. A man should be perfect in both.
    • Sir Robert draws a line. He's made his decision and he doesn't want to talk about it.
    • Lady Chiltern senses something, and asks if he's telling her the whole truth.
    • Again, he evades, and gives her some platitudes about the complexity of truth and the necessity of compromise in politics.
    • She can't believe what she's hearing. Her principled husband talking compromise? What happened?
    • In her opinion, Sir Robert always stood apart from others, above others, above reproach. That's why she loves him. She worships him. And that love is threatened by what he's about to do. Is there some dark secret he's not telling her? Because if there is, she's out of the relationship.
    • He lies: nope, nothing she doesn't already know.
    • Lady Chiltern, relieved, asks him to write Mrs. Cheveley and take it all back. In fact, she's pretty pushy about it.
    • Sir Robert sends off the letter, and Lady Chiltern gets all lovey-dovey. She's saved him from shame and horror and she'll love him forever because he'll always deserve it.
    • She kisses him and exits.
    • Sir Robert sits alone with his head in his hands. He asks Mason to put out the lights.
    • The only thing illuminated is the tapestry of the Triumph of Love.
    • End of Act 1.
  • Act 2

    • Lord Goring and Sir Robert are in Sir Robert's morning room. Lord Goring, dressed to the nines, is chilling in an armchair; Sir Robert is pacing up and down nervously.
    • Sir Robert has just confessed his conundrum to Lord Goring.
    • Lord Goring thinks he should have told Lady Chiltern the truth right away. You can't hide things from your own wife, he says, because they'll always sniff it out.
    • Impossible, says Sir Robert. She would have left him.
    • Lord Goring can't believe Lady Chiltern's so perfect herself, and proposes to have a get-real talk with her. Sir Robert's pretty sure it won't make a dent.
    • Lord Goring thinks Sir Robert should have come clean years ago.
    • Easy for someone else to say, says Sir Robert. Confessing fraud doesn't exactly reel in a girl like Lady Chiltern.
    • Okay, says Lord Goring, he has a point. But most people would judge his action – selling state secrets – pretty harshly.
    • While they were doing the same thing themselves, explodes Sir Robert. He was young; he was poor; he was ambitious. He made a mistake. Should it ruin him forever? Is that fair? Besides, wealth is the only god this century worships, and the only way to get power.
    • Lord Goring still can't wrap his head around it. Why did Sir Robert do it?
    • He was coached by Baron Arnheim, who preached the philosophy of power and gospel of gold. The Baron invited the young Sir Robert to his home, showed off his bling, and said only wealth could bring power.
    • Lord Goring, surprisingly serious in the scene, calls this philosophy shallow.
    • Sir Robert defends it. After all, wealth is what gave him the power – the freedom – that has made his life so meaningful. The Baron gave him the chance of a lifetime. When state documents passed through his hands that could make the Baron some money, Sir Robert informed him. The Baron made three-quarters of a million pounds on the deal; he gave Sir Robert 110,000. Sir Robert went into the House immediately and continued to grow his fortune. He's always had luck with money.
    • And no regrets? asks Lord Goring.
    • Sir Robert says no. He simply fought with the weapons of the times. And won.
    • After a long pause, Sir Robert confesses he's paid a lot of guilt money over the years. He's donated twice the bribe amount to public charities over the years.
    • In the first joke of the scene, Lord Goring feigns shock. To public charities! Then he's done a lot of damage after all.
    • Lightening up a little, Lord Goring promises to help Sir Robert however he can. He doesn't think a public confession would help things. Nowadays a politician needs morality on his side. Nope, what he has to do is tell Lady Chiltern.
    • Oh god, says Sir Robert, not that. Can't he get something on Mrs. Cheveley? Lord Goring knew her before.
    • It turns out that Lord Goring was engaged to Mrs. Cheveley. For three days. It didn't work out. By the way, has Sir Robert tried to bribe her? Money used to work wonders on her.
    • Alas, not this time. She wouldn't bite. Sir Robert fears that public humiliation is in his future.
    • Lord Goring melodramatically strikes the table and the scene goes a little Batman and Robin. There's got to be a way to stop her! We've just got to find her weak spot!
    • Sir Robert decides to write to Vienna to get dirt on her. He wonders why Baron Arnheim was in her power.
    • Smirking, Lord Goring has an idea.
    • Sir Robert seems to cheer up, but Lord Goring is less optimistic. He knows the woman and she is T-U-F-F.
    • Lady Chiltern enters. She's just come from the Women's Liberal Association, where she enjoyed the part when they clapped for her husband.
    • Lord Goring thinks they should have clapped for her super-cute hat.
    • Au contrair, Lord Goring, says Lady Chiltern. We liberal ladies are serious; we debate Factor Acts, Female Inspectors, the Eight Hour's Bill, the Parliamentary Franchise.
    • Another hat joke from Lord Goring, and Lady Chiltern exits.
    • Sir Robert thanks Lord Goring for listening and letting him unload the truth. Lord Goring quips that he always gets rid of the truth as soon as possible.
    • Lady Chiltern comes in as Sir Robert is going out. She cautions him not to work too hard. He exits and she sits down with Lord Goring for a little chat.
    • It's about Mrs. Cheveley. Lady Chiltern made Sir Robert take back his terrible promise about the Argentine scheme. It would have been a black spot on his record. And Sir Robert should be above other men. Right?
    • Listen, says Lord Goring, success requires compromise. Ambition demands flexibility.
    • Lady Chiltern's hackles start to rise. She wonders what he means.
    • Well, frankly, she's a little judgmental. She's not forgiving. What if, he proposes – and this is totally, totally hypothetical – what if some public man like Lord Caversham, or Sir Robert, say, had written a compromising letter…
    • There's no way Sir Robert could do something that wrong, says Lady Chiltern.
    • Lord Goring believes anyone can do wrong. And he believes that we should all be able to forgive, and love. He makes an earnest offer to Lady Chiltern to come to him any time she is in trouble.
    • This kind of freaks her out. He's being so serious.
    • Thank goodness Mabel Chiltern arrives for some comic relief. She doesn't like this seriousness at all and asks Lord Goring to cut it out.
    • Mabel invites Lord Goring to ride horses with her tomorrow at 10 am. And doesn't he want to hear more about her adventures? On that note, Lord Goring leaves.
    • Mabel and Lady Chiltern have some girl talk time. Tommy Trafford has proposed to Mabel again – three times in 48 hours. The annoying thing is that it's never with a splash.
    • Lady Chiltern thinks Tommy would make a good match. He's a great secretary with a lot of promise.
    • Mabel is so not interested. That's OK for someone with character, but geniuses bore her to death.
    • Mabel goes out, and comes right back in. Guess who's come for a visit? Lady Chiltern's favorite people: Mrs. Markby and Mrs. Cheveley are led in by Mason.
    • Mrs. Cheveley is introduced to Mabel, who has to leave for rehearsal. It's a play benefiting the "Undeserving." Lord Goring is president.
    • How apt, says Mrs. Cheveley.
    • Mabel exits.
    • Lady Markby asks whether the Chilterns have found a diamond brooch Mrs. Cheveley lost. Lady Chiltern hasn't seen it, but offers to call the butler.
    • No matter, says Mrs. Cheveley. She must have dropped it at the opera. Lady Markby isn't surprised. There's so much jostle at all society events that she's surprised they don't end up naked every night.
    • Mason comes in. Mrs. Cheveley describes the brooch: snake-shaped, made of diamonds, with a large ruby on its head. Mason hasn't seen it.
    • Lady Markby hates losing things. She also hates her husband. She thinks the House of Commons is the worst thing for marriages since the education of women. She has a million other opinions that she squeezes in to this little scene before she leaves the two foes alone.
    • Then it's face-off time.
    • Lady Chiltern tells Mrs. Cheveley frankly that, if she'd known who she was, she wouldn't have invited her last night. When someone's done something terrible in the past, they'll probably do it again. And they don't deserve invitations to nice dinner parties.
    • Mrs. Cheveley is clearly getting a kick out the irony here.
    • Lady Chiltern reveals that she encouraged Sir Robert to write the letter rejecting Mrs. Cheveley's proposal. You're going to regret that, says Mrs. Cheveley. She adds that Sir Robert is just as low as she is.
    • Now Lady Chiltern's getting angry. She can't believe Mrs. Cheveley puts Robert in her league.
    • Speaking of the devil…Sir Robert enters.
    • Mrs. Cheveley reveals everything: this house was bought by fraud; Sir Robert's fortune was made in a dirty deal. If Sir Robert doesn't give the speech she wants him to, he's done.
    • Sir Robert rings the bell for Mason. Mrs. Cheveley looks both of the Chilterns in the face, then makes a proud exit.
    • When the couple is alone, the accusations start. Lady Chiltern is shocked and hysterical as she confronts Sir Robert with his past.
    • Sir Robert tries to calm her, wants to explain how it all happened.
    • She doesn't want him to touch her. She basically calls him a liar, prostitute, thief and slave, all in one breath. Her ideal image of him has been totally shattered.
    • That's the problem, says Sir Robert. She put him up on a pedestal. Men accept and love their wives, faults and all, but women need a man to be perfect.
    • Sir Robert continues that love means forgiveness. But apparently, Lady Chiltern is not big enough for that. She ruined his life last night when she made him retract his promise. Because she can't accept him, she has buried him.
    • Sir Robert leaves the room and Lady Chiltern is left alone in anguish. She cries alone.
  • Act 3

    • We're in the library of Lord Goring's house; it's a neoclassical room with a roaring fireplace. There are lots of doors: one on the right leading into the hall; one on the left leading into the smoking-room; and a pair of folding doors at the back of the library that lead into the drawing-room.
    • Phipps, Lord Goring's butler, is arranging newspapers on the writing-table. He is an ideal Butler because no one ever knows what he is thinking.
    • Lord Goring comes enters. He's dressed to go out for the evening. He's wearing a silk hat, an Inverness cape, and white gloves. He's also carrying a Louis XIV cane (all of which were Oscar Wilde's personal accessories). The stage directions call him the first well-dressed philosopher in the history of thought.
    • Lord Goring asks Phipps for the second flower to put in his buttonhole. But adds that it makes him look too old, and too serious.
    • Phipps responds dryly that the florist has had a death in her family, perhaps influencing the seriousness of this buttonhole.
    • Lord Goring observes that the lower classes continually have deaths in the family.
    • Yep, says Phipps, they're pretty lucky that way.
    • The joke surprises Lord Goring. Phipps is totally cool.
    • Three letters have come for Lord Goring, one of which is on pink paper. Phipps goes out, and Lord Goring has a monologue revealing its content.
    • The letter is from Lady Chiltern and it says: "I want you. I trust you. I am coming to you." It's almost ten o'clock, so now Lord Goring can't go out.
    • He strategizes about what he'll tell her. To stand by her husband.
    • Phipps enters, announcing Lord Goring's father, Lord Caversham. Doh! His dad has such terrible timing.
    • Lord Caversham comes in riled up. He takes off his cloak, takes the best chair, and complains about drafts in the room.
    • Lord Goring protests that it's a little late in the evening to have a serious conversation.
    • Cut out the funny business, says Dad. Then he lays out everything: Lord Goring needs to get married. The boy is thirty-four and is wasting his life. And there is a draft in here.
    • Lord Goring agrees – his father is likely to catch his death with this kind of cold. He tells daddy dearest to leave; they can get in touch tomorrow.
    • Lord Caversham's not falling for it. He's on a mission. But Lord Goring successfully ushers his cantankerous old dad into the smoking room so he can talk to Phipps.
    • There's a lady coming to see him and Phipps should put her in the drawing room. And he shouldn't let in anyone else.
    • Got it, sir, says Phipps. The doorbell rings.
    • Lord Goring, chillest guy ever, is starting to sweat. He goes into the smoking room to talk to his impatient Dad.
    • Harold the footman shows in Mrs. Cheveley. The stage directions describe her as Lamia-like – a snakelike demon in green and silver. She avoids giving her name. Under Phipps direction she goes into the drawing room. She's surprised that Lord Goring seems to expect her.
    • Looking into the drawing room, Mrs. Cheveley calls it drab. She wants to flip it.
    • Mrs. Cheveley is in the mood for candles. While Phipps goes in the drawing room to light them, she has a little snoop in the library. She finds the pink letter from Lady Chiltern. Oh heck yes, a love note!
    • But Phipps comes in before she can steal it.
    • Mrs. Cheveley goes into the drawing room, then peeps back out. She wants to steal that letter. Lord Goring and Lord Caversham are emerging from the smoking room, so she has to retreat.
    • Lord Caversham wants Lord Goring married. Now. And to a woman chosen by himself.
    • Lord Goring protests. Then goes outside. He comes back in, flabbergasted, with Sir Robert.
    • Sir Robert's surprised to find Lord Goring at home, since his servants just said he was out. But he's glad. Lady Chiltern knows everything. He wishes he were dead. What should he do?
    • The inquiries in Vienna didn't turn up any good dirt. Sir Robert is desperate. For Lord Goring's friendship, and for a drink.
    • Lord Goring rings for Phipps and gives him instructions. Don't let the lady in after all.
    • Too late, says Phipps, she's already in the drawing room.
    • OK, OK, Lord Goring can deal with his. First he talks to Sir Robert. Hasn't Lady Chiltern ever done something she's regretted? Something that had to be pardoned?
    • Never, replies Sir Robert. She's totally faultless. And they don't have children so if she leaves him, he has no one. But there's something more he has to share.
    • Enter Phipps with the drink. Lord Goring uses the interruption to try to get rid of Sir Robert.
    • No dice. Sir Robert has something to say – but is distracted by a chair falling in the next room. Who is in there, eavesdropping this whole time?
    • Um, nobody. (Lord Goring still thinks Lady Chiltern's in there. It would look really bad for her to be visiting him this late.)
    • Sir Robert pushes his way through and looks in the drawing room. He starts trashing the lady.
    • Lord Goring's a little shocked. Talking that way to his own wife, when she loves him so much.
    • What? Sir Robert thinks Lord Goring is crazy, and that he (Lord Goring) is sleeping with Mrs. Cheveley.
    • Lord Goring protests. He'll explain everything – but –
    • Sir Robert rushes out.
    • And here comes Mrs. Cheveley, sauntering to the door. She's loving it.
    • Lord Goring can't believe it. What is she doing there?
    • She's listening through the keyhole, of course.
    • Lord Goring guesses that she's come to sell him Sir Robert's incriminating letter. Well, what does she want for it?
    • But Mrs. Cheveley takes her time. She asks him to sit. They take a stroll down memory lane. Lord Goring proposed to her, but broke it off when he saw her messing around with some Lord Mortlake. Lord Goring's lawyer paid her off.
    • Mrs. Cheveley claims she loved him back in the day. Lord Goring can't believe it – she's too smart for love.
    • She comes clean. What she really wants is to come back to England and be rich. Have a house, have lots of intellectual parties, that sort of thing. If Lord Goring promises to marry her, the letter is his.
    • Lord Goring insults her and then complements her. Neither tactic seems to work.
    • Mrs. Cheveley thinks that Lord Goring should sacrifice to save Sir Robert.
    • Lord Goring won't do it. Facing his rejection, she gets a little nasty: Sir Robert is a dead duck. Won't you please shake hands, Lord Goring?
    • No way, he says. Goring refuses to shake hands with the woman who is ruining Lady Chiltern's life (and not to mention what she's doing to Sir Robert). He adds that Mrs. Cheveley is killing love out of spite.
    • Mrs. Cheveley protests that it wasn't out of spite. She went to the Chiltern's to ask about a brooch she dropped. Lady Chiltern was so uppity that she had to taunt her a little.
    • The brooch, eh? Lord Goring gets it out and puts it on her – as a bracelet.
    • Lord Goring then gets into the history of the brooch. He gave this brooch to his cousin for her wedding. It was stolen years ago, and a servant was fired for it. When he found the brooch at the Chiltern's last night, he decided to wait and find out the thief. Lo and behold it is Mrs. Cheveley.
    • She denies the theft and tries to take it off her wrist. She's trapped, though. There's a secret clasp she can't find.
    • Lord Goring's going to call the police.
    • Mrs. Cheveley totally flips out. Usually she is the most controlled character in the play, but now she is starting to lose it. She's scary. She'll do anything to avoid this.
    • Lord Goring demands the incriminating letter about Sir Robert's earlier mis-deeds.
    • She gives it to him.
    • With a sigh Lord Goring burns it with the lamp.
    • Mrs. Cheveley, always thinking, asks for a glass of water. When Lord Goring turns his back, she steals Lady Chiltern's pink letter.
    • She puts on her cloak and gets ready to leave. But not before she tells him that she has the pink letter. She'll make Sir Robert think his wife is sleeping with Lord Goring.
    • Phipps enters and shows her out. As she leaves, the stage directions describe her face: lit up, joyful, young. Lord Goring bites his lip and lights a cigarette.
  • Act 4

    • The setting is the same as Act 2: Sir Robert's morning room. Lord Goring is by the fireplace, bored. He can't find anyone to talk to, even though he has all this new information. Where is everyone?
    • Thankfully the servant James has some answers. Sir Robert's still at the office; Lady Chiltern hasn't left her room; but Mabel is around. Oh, and Lord Goring's father, Lord Caversham, is here, too.
    • Lord Goring doesn't want to deal with his father.
    • Too bad, here comes Lord Caversham. He's on this marriage thing again. And he has news. There's an article in the Times about Robert Chiltern.
    • Lord Goring has to know – what does it say?
    • Everything positive, of course. He made a brilliant speech denouncing the Argentine scheme. It's being called the turning point of his career.
    • Whew.
    • Lord Caversham takes up the parental advice thing again. Why doesn't Lord Goring go into Parliament? Why doesn't he get married? How about that Mabel Chiltern?
    • And here she is. Mabel ignores Lord Goring, as he stood her up for riding this morning. She wonders why Lord Caversham can't have a positive influence on his son.
    • Lord Caversham replies that he has no influence on his son at all.
    • Lord Goring asks if he should leave so they can talk.
    • Stick around, says Mabel. You might learn something.
    • But Lord Caversham has to go. He has an appointment with the Prime Minister. He can't take Lord Goring with him, as it's not the Prime Minister's day to see the unemployed.
    • Mabel plays hard to get until Lord Goring proposes. He soon pops the question.
    • It's her second proposal of the day. But this one she accepts.
    • They kiss. Lord Goring confesses he's a little over thirty. And very extravagant.
    • Mabel wants to tell Lady Chiltern.
    • So Lady Chiltern naturally materializes. Looking pale.
    • Mabel skitters out; she'll be in the conservatory under the second palm tree on the left. The usual palm tree.
    • Lord Goring gets straight to it. The letter's been burned, and Sir Robert is safe. But she's in danger now. Because Mrs. Cheveley has her letter and plans to paint it as a love letter. She's got to come clean, tell Sir Robert she was planning to go to Lord Goring late last night.
    • Lady Chiltern can't see how this will help the situation. Let's intercept the letter, she says.
    • But it's too late. Sir Robert comes in with the letter in his hand. He's reading it: "I want you. I trust you. I am coming to you. Gertrude." Apparently, Sir Robert thinks it's addressed to him.
    • What should she do? What should she do? She looks at Lord Goring. He seems to indicate that she should just go with it.
    • She does.
    • They make up. Lord Goring tactfully retreats into the conservatory.
    • Lady Chiltern takes this opportunity to fills in her husband: Lord Goring has destroyed the letter, so there is nothing to worry about.
    • Sir Robert is relieved. Instead of public humiliation, he's been lifted even higher. He proposes retreating from public life. Lady Chiltern thinks that's a great idea.
    • Lord Goring reenters with a new buttonhole flower made by Mabel.
    • Sir Robert thanks Lord Goring effusively for saving his life. How can he ever repay him?
    • Lord Goring has an idea. It involves someone who is standing under the usual palm tree…
    • But they are interrupted. Lord Caversham, shown in by Mason, is full of congratulations. The Prime Minister wants to offer Sir Robert a seat in the Cabinet.
    • Sir Robert is so proud and flattered that he almost accepts…until he sees Lady Chiltern's eyes.
    • He declines.
    • Lord Caversham is incensed. He appeals to Lady Chiltern. She approves of her husband's decision. And she wants him to write the letter declining the post right now. They exit.
    • Lord Caversham can't believe it. Go talk to Mabel, says Lord Goring. She'll cheer you up.
    • Mrs. Chiltern reenters and Lord Goring has at her. Why is she driving him from public life?
    • Excuuuse me?, she says.
    • It's speech time. Lord Goring has some advice for her, since she asked for it on that pink paper. Taking away Sir Robert's political career will emasculate him. She needs to forgive him, stop judging. She needs to accept him for who he is.
    • And then he adds some comments that we would find offensive today, but that were not back in the Victorian period. Lord Goring says that a man's life means more than a woman's. The realm of influence is larger. Her job is to love him and to support him in everything he does.
    • Lady Chiltern objects. Sir Robert is the one that proposed to leave office.
    • Sir Robert only suggested leaving office because he's willing to make the sacrifice for his wife, says Lord Goring. But Lady Chiltern shouldn't demand it; the man has been punished enough.
    • When Sir Robert comes in with the letter he didn't really want to write, Lady Chiltern tears it up.
    • And then – this is weird – she quotes the part of Lord Goring's speech in which he talks about men's lives being of more value than women's. (We'll talk about it in her "Character Analysis.") Anyway, she doesn't want him to give up public life.
    • Sir Robert is overcome. He hugs her, and thanks Lord Goring.
    • Lord Goring takes this opportunity to ask for Mabel's hand.
    • Sir Robert says no. He doesn't think Lord Goring loves her. Or rather, he thinks Lord Goring loves someone else. He tells the story of encountering Mrs. Cheveley at Lord Goring's house. He can't let Lord Goring marry Mabel if he's involved with that she-snake.
    • Now it's Lady Chiltern's turn to do some good. She confesses that Lord Goring had been expecting her. The letter Sir Robert read was meant for Lord Goring. They were just lucky Sir Robert didn't fall into Mrs. Cheveley's trap.
    • Apparently, all the confusion have been cleared up.
    • Mabel enters with Lord Caversham. They bring him up to speed. Lord Goring and Mabel are engaged, and Sir Robert will accept the seat in the Cabinet.
    • Lunch is served, says Mason.
    • Lord Caversham hopes Lord Goring will make an ideal husband, but Mabel doesn't like the sound of that. She would rather him be a real person.
    • Everyone exits except for Sir Robert. After a minute, Lady Chiltern comes in.
    • Sir Robert asks if she feels love for him, or only pity.
    • It's love, she replies, and only love.