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An Ideal Husband | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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An Ideal Husband | Act 2 | Summary



Act 2 begins the morning of the next day, in the morning-room at Sir Robert's, as he consults with Lord Goring about what to do about the blackmail. Lord Goring insists Sir Robert should have told his wife because wives always find out anyway. Sir Robert says he couldn't because it would destroy their relationship, and she's perfect—her morals are impeccable. Sir Robert tries to claim he didn't hurt anyone by what he did. Lord Goring says he did hurt someone: himself. Sir Robert tries shifting the topic, first claiming that everyone uses private information to make money, and then asking if it is fair to judge him for past actions. When Lord Goring counters that life isn't fair, Sir Robert changes the topic yet again, claiming he needed the money because "to succeed one must have wealth." He could not wait until he was older to make this happen.

Lord Goring eventually asked how he got the idea, and Sir Robert admits it was from Baron Arnheim. The Baron had talked about the nature of success and how all that mattered was achieving power over others. Lord Goring thinks this view of the world is shallow, but Sir Robert insists it isn't and that this was necessary for him to gain power, and thus freedom. He explains how Arnheim introduced the deal of sharing state secrets. Lord Goring labels Sir Robert weak, but Sir Robert challenges the label, saying it takes strength to follow some temptations.

Eventually he names specifics: Sir Robert made £110,000, and the Baron more than £750,000. This gave Sir Robert enough money to attain immediate power, enabling him to join Parliament's House of Commons, but he continued to amass more wealth, tripling his fortune in five years by following the Baron's investment advice. Eventually he asks Lord Goring directly if his friend despises him. Lord Goring says he is sorry for him. Sir Robert admits that he feels no regret, but he also says he paid "conscience money many times" to charity.

Their discussion turns to practical plans about how to deal with Mrs. Cheveley's blackmail threat. Lord Goring says Sir Robert must fight—and repeats that he must tell Lady Chiltern everything. He also notes that he was once briefly engaged to Mrs. Cheveley and can't remember why they broke it off. They don't have a plan yet to fight her, but Sir Robert telegraphs Vienna to see if anyone there has negative information on her that might be useful.

Lady Chiltern joins them. She's just been at a meeting of the Woman's Liberal Association, which applauded Sir Robert loudly. Lady Chiltern and Lord Goring joke back and forth about what happens at these meetings, then Lady Chiltern exits. Sir Robert thanks Lord Goring for his support, and then leaves. Once he's gone, Lady Chiltern returns and asks Lord Goring about Mrs. Cheveley. She also asks if she's been correct in her evaluation of her husband's character, which she insists must remain "above reproach." Goring hems and haws, suggesting Lady Chiltern's insistence on moral purity may be harsh and that all people who set out to succeed have some dirty secrets.

Then he gets more direct and serious, suggesting any man might have a letter documenting a foolish mistake made when they were young. Lady Chiltern says this isn't possible: her husband can't make foolish mistakes. Lord Goring disagrees. When Lady Chiltern comments on how serious he seems, Lord Goring apologizes and promises not to stop. Just then Mabel arrives. She and Lord Goring flirt a bit and make a date for the next day. He also asks Lady Chiltern for her guest list. She has Tommy Trafford get him a copy. He thanks her and gets ready to leave. Mabel pouts in protest, and they plan to meet the following day.

Once Lord Goring is gone, Mabel asks Lady Chiltern if she would talk to Tommy Trafford to get him to stop proposing marriage to her, which he has done repeatedly. Lady Chiltern tries to calm Mabel down and praises Tommy's future, but Mabel dismisses the idea, saying she couldn't marry anyone with a future. This brings the conversation around to the Chilterns' wedding again, and how Lady Chiltern married someone with a future. Lady Markby and Mrs. Cheveley arrive. After exchanging a few words with them, Mabel leaves to go to Lady Basildon's.

Lady Markby asks if anyone has found Mrs. Cheveley's diamond brooch. There is no news of it. Lady Chiltern rings for the butler, and Mrs. Cheveley describes the missing brooch for him. Mason reports that it hasn't been seen, and Lady Chiltern dismisses him to get tea ready. The women talk about politics and the relationship between men and women, and whether men or women can think and learn. Once Mason sets up the tea, Lady Markby excuses herself, leaving Mrs. Cheveley and Lady Chiltern alone.

The conversation turns serious. Lady Chiltern tells Mrs. Cheveley that if she'd known who she was she wouldn't have invited her to the party. Mrs. Cheveley notes that Lady Chiltern hasn't changed; Lady Chiltern says she never does. She believes that once someone is dishonorable, they stay that way. Mrs. Cheveley asks if this is always the case, and Lady Chiltern says it is. Mrs. Cheveley sees the entire idea of morality as personal preference. She detests Lady Chiltern, just as Lady Chiltern loathes her.

After another pointed exchange, Lady Chiltern says she is the one who got her husband to write the letter turning Mrs. Cheveley down. Infuriated, Mrs. Cheveley says he must keep his word to her or she'll destroy him. Lady Chiltern dismisses the idea, but Mrs. Cheveley says she and Sir Robert are alike: both are frauds, linked by the same sin. Lady Chiltern tries to throw her out, and as she's doing so Sir Robert enters. Mrs. Cheveley insists that Lady Chiltern ask her husband about the source of their wealth and social position through fraud by selling "to a stockbroker a Cabinet secret." She gives them an ultimatum: they have until the next day to do what she wants or she will expose Sir Robert's deeds publicly. Sir Robert calls the butler and throws her out.

Once they are alone Lady Chiltern expresses her shock at her husband's "dishonour." She attacks her husband, insisting he deny the charges. Sir Robert can't: he admits they are true and asks for understanding. Lady Chiltern is horrified, and calls him a thief and a liar. She insists he leave her, telling him how much she had worshipped him. Sir Robert ends Act 2 with a monologue explaining how mistaken his wife was to see him this way and how wrong women in general are to do this because men are always flawed. He blames his wife for this situation and leaves, shutting the door behind him. She rushes after him, but he is gone. She sobs.


Contrasting Acts

Act 1 is a busy social whirl. Dramatically it is flashy. It contains many fragmentary exchanges, with several characters coming and going. It serves to charm the audience, lure them in, and introduce all the characters and what is at stake in the plot. Act 2 has a very different pace. It shifts from social interactions among a group to private interactions between intimates: either close friends, couples, or dedicated enemies. If there is a contradiction between these characters' public faces and their private ones, it emerges here.

Sir Robert and Lord Goring

Act 2's opening exchange between Lord Goring and Sir Robert communicates a lot about each man's character. To start Lord Goring blends two qualities that are rare enough in isolation, and very uncommon together: wit and practicality. He delivers Wildean lines about wives discovering everything except the obvious, which make him seem flippant or frivolous. He suggests Sir Robert tell his wife the truth, not out of ethical obligation but because she'll find out anyway.

Sir Robert is not always listening to his friend. Instead, he is responding to internal worries and memories. As a result their extended scene moves back and forth between being a conversation to being two synchronized monologues delivered for the audience's benefit. When Sir Robert questions if it is fair that he be judged negatively, Lord Goring offers the sweeping (and stunning) reply that life isn't fair, and people are better off because of this. Such a statement takes a very dark and cynical view of people. It also runs counter to period ideals of the nature of justice (it should be fair). At points like these the audience could easily see how Lord Goring and Mrs. Cheveley might belong together. Both reject a traditional moral framework, replacing it with practicality and self-interest. Lord Goring is just better at being charming about it and is on the side of his friend, who is, for all his past mistakes, the victim of a ruthless blackmailer.

At the same time Lord Goring is clearly not the waste his father, Lord Caversham, fears he is. He gives Sir Robert clear and focused advice on Mrs. Cheveley's blackmail threat. And when Sir Robert makes excuses for his actions, Lord Goring counters them with wise, and often compassionate, commentary, while never condemning his friend. In this way he seems the more mature and responsible of the two men. Sir Robert and Lord Goring are classic examples of Wilde's love of paradox because each man seemingly contradicts himself. Sir Robert is both honorable and dishonorable. Lord Goring is even more complex. His lifestyle and his world-weary epigrams make him appear superficial and cynical when he is arguably the play's most serious and humane character.

Wilde turns Sir Robert's explanation of selling state secrets into an extended speech, and rightly so. Baron Arnheim does not physically appear in this play. (He dies before it starts.) However, he looms as a powerful influence over it. He is the source of Sir Robert's temptation, ideology, and wealth, and, of course, the source of Mrs. Cheveley's power. Sir Robert presents the coldly practical ideology he learned from the Baron, in which power and wealth are unified: money matters because it gives you power, and power over others is the only thing that matters. Lord Goring pronounces this "thoroughly shallow," but for once Sir Robert directly contradicts his friend. He notes the freedom wealth gives, and suggests that Lord Goring cannot understand how attractive wealth is because he's never been poor. Sir Robert's comment is a reminder that ethics have their limits. It is easy to know the honorable thing to do, but not so simple or easy to do it when one is powerless.

At least as important as Sir Robert's description of how the Baron tempted him is the follow-up to this description. When Lord Goring asks Sir Robert directly if he regrets what he did, Sir Robert says he does not: he feels like he fought his century with its own weapons and won. This reveals his character as much deeper and more complicated than it seems early in the play. It also reveals that Mrs. Cheveley is right. The two of them are the same. Sir Robert has claimed the moral high ground throughout his career, but in the end he is just as pragmatic and unethical as Mrs. Cheveley. He is not ethical. He is practical—and she's beating him at the game they are playing. This is very bold of Wilde. The plays of his period that featured politicians with sins or crimes in their pasts emphasize these men's shame and remorse over what they've done. Sir Robert is only concerned that his actions not be found out.

When the talk switches from what Sir Robert has done to what he should do, Lord Goring suggests Sir Robert try simply paying Mrs. Cheveley. He replies that he's tried, and she refused. Lord Goring takes this as evidence that the "gospel of gold" sometimes breaks down, but the audience should recognize it as something very different. Mrs. Cheveley has said she wants Sir Robert to endorse the Argentine Canal so she and her friends can make money from it. Money definitely motivates Mrs. Cheveley. However, it is at least as important for her to win that money by beating the Chilterns. Her self-interest goes beyond the pragmatic to the emotional and the personal, just as Sir Robert's does. Like Baron Arnheim and Sir Robert, Mrs. Cheveley enjoys power for its own sake and has contempt for the Chilterns' high social status. Mrs. Cheveley underscores this when she steals Lady Chiltern's letter later in the play. There's no money to be had from doing this: she simply wants to win.

As Sir Robert and Lord Goring strategize about how he might fight Mrs. Cheveley, they briefly touch on a historical shift that's happening in society. When Sir Robert is brainstorming for weapons he could use against Mrs. Cheveley, he speculates she has a scandalous past. Goring agrees but says it is a "décolleté one." "Décolleté" is a French word that refers to dresses that are revealingly low-cut, suggesting there may be sexual scandal in her past. Goring notes such scandals are "excessively popular" now, while Sir Robert's scandal, in which he sins while claiming the higher ground, is much more damaging. Among other things this indicates that the nature of male and female honor is changing, as are gender relationships.

Upon entering Lady Chiltern mentions having been at a meeting of the Woman's Liberal Association and how much they applauded her husband. This would have signaled to Wilde's audience how progressive a politician Sir Robert was. The Women's Liberal Association would have supported women's education and suffrage. It is one of several points in the play where Wilde establishes a tension between public and private reality. Sir Robert supports modern gender relations, but his wife is a model of Victorian womanhood: she is honorable and pure and acts as his moral compass. Thus there is a tension in the play between women's traditional role in society versus women's growing independence.


Wilde gives Mabel two monologues in this act: one moderately long and one long. Both address the theme of marriage, but in ways that mock it and provide comic relief. When she objects as much to the way Tommy Trafford proposes and where he does it as to the proposals themselves, she transforms matrimony from a sacred covenant to a kind of art. Though this doesn't play a major role in this drama, it does in other works by Wilde: it is an example of his aesthetic philosophy, in which style and beauty matter as much as substance, or more than substance. It is also an effective strategy for satirizing social norms, getting the audience to recognize social hypocrisy by making them laugh at it.

However, it is Sir Robert who gets the final monologue in this act. Sir Robert's speech engages the larger question of how men and women should relate. It is complex and serious, even bitter. He blames his wife for idealizing him, but not his wife alone: he says this is a universal problem among women. They all put their men on pedestals and insist they are perfect. This leaves them no room to be the flawed human beings they are. Men, on the other hand, know women are imperfect but love them, not despite their flaws but because of them. Sir Robert argues that "it is not the perfect, but the imperfect, who have need of love."

Sir Robert also claims that the way his wife idealized him has ruined him. It is clear from earlier in the play that Sir Robert truly loves his wife and does not want to lose her love. Does Sir Robert believe what he says in this speech? Is this an accurate description of his marriage? The two most important details of his speech are that he blames his wife for threatening their relationship and that he admits he was willing to betray his principles to keep his public honor intact. This ideal husband is anything but ideal: he is willing to live a lie. On the other hand Wilde uses the social norms defining gender roles as a way to comment on morality in general, and in the end Sir Robert is in the right. The play returns to his point in Act 4 as Lady Chiltern realizes that the way she has idealized her husband has indeed been a mistake and that she should forgive him.

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