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An Ideal Husband | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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An Ideal Husband | Act 3 | Summary



Act 3 opens in Lord Goring's library. Lord Goring's butler Phipps helps him prepare for the evening, while Lord Goring talks about style and society. As they finish Lord Goring asks if there have been any letters. There are several, including one from Lady Chiltern in a pink envelope. It says she "wants [him], trusts [him]," and is coming to him. Lord Goring concludes Lady Chiltern has learned about her husband's secret and rearranges his plans so he can meet with her.

Phipps returns and announces Lord Caversham. Father and son snipe a bit at each other, then Lord Caversham introduces a serious topic: he wants Lord Goring to get married. He suggests Goring take Sir Robert as his model. After more back and forth about how Goring acts, talks, and should live, Lord Caversham goes into the smoking room. Goring tells Phipps that he should admit Lady Chiltern immediately if she arrives, but no one else. Lord Goring then joins his father in the smoking room.

In his absence Goring's footman Harold shows Mrs. Cheveley into the library. Mrs. Cheveley is surprised she is expected. She goes into the drawing room and instructs Phipps on how to make it more presentable. Mrs. Cheveley looks around the room, finds the letter on pink paper, and recognizes the handwriting as Lady Chiltern's. She reads the note, and it makes her happy. She's about to steal it when Phipps returns.

Phipps leaves Mrs. Cheveley in the drawing room, but she sneaks out. She's moving toward a table when she hears voices and goes back into the drawing room. Lord Goring and his father take the stage, arguing again about who Goring should marry. Lord Goring shows his father out, then returns with Sir Robert. Sir Robert tells Lord Goring that Mrs. Cheveley has revealed everything to Lady Chiltern. Sir Robert is crushed. There's no news from Vienna that he could use against Mrs. Cheveley. Sir Robert is thirsty, so they ring for Phipps to get drinks. Lord Goring talks to Phipps privately, telling him not to let "that lady" in, meaning Lady Chiltern. Phipps replies that she is already there. Neither Lord Goring nor Phipps is aware that he is actually referring to Mrs. Cheveley.

Sir Robert asks Lord Goring for advice. He says he loves his wife more than anything, including his ambition. When Goring asks if she has some similar failing, he insists not—that she's completely good. Goring says she'll forgive him. Sir Robert is about to say more when they hear the sound of a chair falling in the drawing room. Sir Robert realizes it means someone's been listening in on his secrets. Goring swears there's no one there. When Sir Robert insists on looking, Goring admits there is someone there, someone Sir Robert shouldn't see, and forbids him from entering the room. Sir Robert goes in and returns angry.

Still unaware that it is Mrs. Cheveley, not Lady Chiltern, in the drawing room, Lord Goring insists she's innocent, that she loves Sir Robert, and that she's there to save him. Sir Robert thinks Goring's crazy and storms out. As soon as he leaves Mrs. Cheveley emerges. Goring is baffled as to what she was doing there, but he guesses she's there to sell him Sir Robert's letter, and he's right. He offers money, but she rejects his offer. She reminds him that he used to love her and proposed but then rejected her for flirting with another man. He agrees with her version of events up to a point but says she only pretended to love him because she was poor and he had money.

She essentially agrees, but then says she wants to return to England and marry. If Goring marries her the next day, she will give him the letter implicating Sir Robert. He says he'll be a bad husband, but she waves away the objection. He rejects her, and she asks if he's willing to let Sir Robert be destroyed. They argue about Sir Robert's character and the nature of that original act she has evidence of. Mrs. Cheveley says she hates Lady Chiltern. The argument grinds to a halt, with Mrs. Cheveley reviewing her offer and her threat. Lord Goring labels her actions as "vile" and beyond forgiveness, but she insists what she's done is just business.

Mrs. Cheveley is about to leave when she asks if Goring has heard any news of a brooch she lost. He brings it out to return it to her, but rather than pinning it on he puts it on her wrist as a bracelet. Lord Goring accuses her of stealing it from Lady Berkshire, his cousin. He had given it to her and not seen it for years until he saw Mrs. Cheveley wearing it at the party the previous night. She says she'll deny it, but he points out that the fact she doesn't even know how to work the bracelet's catch to get it off her arm will serve as evidence that she stole it. She tries to remove it and insults him, but can't get it off.

Goring says he'll call the police immediately and charge her with the crime. She says she needs time to think, but Goring insists that she give him the incriminating letter at once, and she does. When he's getting her a glass of water to help her calm down, she steals Lady Chiltern's letter. Once Goring is back she says she's never going to harm Sir Robert again—that in fact she'll do him a service by sending him the letter Lady Chiltern sent Lord Goring, which makes it sound as if he and Lady Chiltern are having an affair. He tries to get it back but fails. Mrs. Cheveley leaves, happy and triumphant. Lord Goring is left alone on stage, biting his lip.


A Flash of Pink

Lady Chiltern's choice to send a pink envelope is a form of dramatic genius on Wilde's part. From the time it is introduced, audience members can track a flash of pink as the letter moves across the stage. They can tell when Mrs. Cheveley finds it, and later they can tell when Sir Robert reads it. This becomes a dramatic signal indicating shifting fortunes and generating rising tensions. At the same time it communicates more about Lady Chiltern's character: even when she's in a difficult situation it does not occur to her to be sneaky. This is both admirable and naive since the letter will later be used against her by Mrs. Cheveley. Finally the content of the letter is one of the places where Wilde really depends on the audience going along with him. The wording is so damning and open-ended he might as well have labeled it a plot device.

Lord Caversham's insistence that his son marry is very realistic: marriage was part of a respectable life in this period, and parents played an active role in directing their children's lives, including their adult children. At the same time his son knows what Lord Caversham does not. His father pushes Lord Goring toward marriage, using Sir Robert as the model of a happily married man at a time when Sir Robert's marriage is in crisis and Lord Goring has been acting more ethically than Sir Robert.

Wilde's plays borrow a lot from the tradition of the well-made play. This tradition often uses lost or misplaced objects and letters and a string of carefully exploited coincidences to generate dramatic tension and suspense. Parts of Act 3 also resemble a farce, a light comedy full of silly coincidences, as absurd cases of mistaken identity produce humorous confusion all around. Wilde uses all of these elements in the extended sequence involving Mrs. Cheveley.

Lord Goring gives instructions to his butler about who should be allowed to enter (only Lady Chiltern), but by chance his footman admits Mrs. Cheveley. When the footman shows Mrs. Cheveley into the drawing-room, she pretends to dislike the lamp, which means the footman has to leave her to get candles, leaving her alone to search the room at her leisure. Not only does Lord Goring happen to leave Lady Chiltern's letter where Mrs. Cheveley can find it, the pink paper Lady Chiltern used draws her eye. Though it has been years since they were at school together, Mrs. Cheveley recognizes Lady Chiltern's handwriting at a glance. Finally Sir Robert has to arrive before Lord Goring discovers Lady Chiltern in order for Mrs. Cheveley to overhear specific details (like how much Sir Robert loves his wife, and how perfect he thinks she is). This in turn set ups the dramatic reveal that causes Sir Robert to distrust Lord Goring. Each of these coincidences is somewhat unlikely in itself, and all of them have to occur to set up the secondary plot complication in which Mrs. Cheveley believes she can use Lady Chiltern's letter to harm Sir Robert. These often hilarious plot twists make the play very engaging. However, anyone looking for realism will be disappointed, and if they want reasons to dislike the play, or think it one of Wilde's lesser works, they'll find it in these unlikely coincidences.


The confrontation between Lord Goring and Mrs. Cheveley changes the course of the play as their past relationship comes to light. Wilde fills the first portion of Act 3 with fairly conventional drama and relatively little character development. Once Lord Goring and Mrs. Cheveley are talking, however, they reveal a whole new backstory about their romance years earlier. Lord Goring loved Laura Cheveley enough to propose at one point, until he saw another man "trying to have a violent flirtation" with her. He had to use legal means to get out of the proposed marriage, including paying her because he broke off the engagement. Her actions hurt both his pride and his heart. This establishes a clear behavior pattern for Mrs. Cheveley: she manipulates men and forces them to give her money. It also establishes a new motive for Lord Goring that causes the audience to reconsider his prior actions: each time he urged Sir Robert to fight Mrs. Cheveley it might have been because it was the right thing to do, but it was also because Mrs. Cheveley had hurt him in the past.

Their exchange also deepens Mrs. Cheveley and shows her goals evolving. She wants influence over Sir Robert and to become wealthier as a result. With Lord Goring she wants to gain influence in a different way. Marrying to advance one's social position was common in this period, but British society didn't approve of such naked ambition, especially from women. After Lord Goring rejects Mrs. Cheveley's proposition, the two engage in open verbal combat. It ranges from rudeness to direct personal insults to general commentary on the difference between men and women. The comments range from fairly witty ones, which audiences could take lightly (like Mrs. Cheveley's comments on glove sizes), to more sharp and painful observations. Along the way Wilde reinforces key themes: the difference between the social norms that govern the sexes, the nature of honor, and the influence of the past.

When the scene seems about to end, Mrs. Cheveley overreaches. She tries to retain a past victory while also achieving a current one. She asks if there has been any sign of the brooch she lost. This leads to the most painful scene in the play and the one that makes it hardest to apply the term comedy to An Ideal Husband. Like Act 3's opening scene, this one depends on a coincidence that would fit well in a well-made play: not only was it Lord Goring who found the brooch, but he also recognizes it one that had been stolen from his cousin. Because of this he knows the brooch better than Mrs. Cheveley, who has worn it for years. The bracelet has a secret spring, of which she is unaware, and he locks it on her. She can't get it off.

The scene is brutal to read or watch. Throughout the play Mrs. Cheveley has been cool and self-possessed, in complete command of the language she speaks. She even outmaneuvers Sir Robert, who speaks in Parliament. Here, though, Lord Goring reduces her to clawing at her own arm, crying, and screaming in rage. It is ugly, but it reveals Mrs. Cheveley at her worst and most pathetic.

Snake Brooch

At this revealing moment, Wilde uses a dramatic device that is powerfully symbolic because it represents Mrs. Cheveley herself. The brooch is beautiful and precious, but in the shape of a snake, a reptile that sheds it skin and slithers through the grass. Snakes symbolize sneakiness and dishonesty and breed suspicion. The most famous representation of a snake is based on the story in the Bible of the fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. It is a snake who tempts Eve to bite the forbidden apple causing her and Adam to be expelled from the Garden. When Mrs. Cheveley first appears in this act, Wilde's stage directions refer to her as "lamia-like." The lamia is a figure from Greek mythology who is sometimes shown as human above the waist and a snake below.

The brooch is also something Mrs. Cheveley stole. In this sense it resembles other things she takes, such as Lord Goring's money and Sir Robert's honorable reputation, and it serves as proof of her ability to manipulate events to her advantage. When Lord Goring traps her with the bracelet, he uses the symbol of Mrs. Cheveley's power to disempower her. A snake can also have a poisonous bite, and in the end her past in the form of the bracelet is coming back to bite Mrs. Cheveley.

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