An Ideal Husband | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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An Ideal Husband | Act 4 | Summary



Like Act 2, Act 4 opens in the Sir Robert's morning-room, where Lord Goring is alone. A servant tells him Mabel is back from riding, and Lord Caversham is waiting to talk to Sir Robert in the library. His father enters and reintroduces the topic of Goring getting married. After some verbal jousting, Lord Caversham mentions an article in The Times on Sir Robert, which praises his speech denouncing the Argentine Canal plan. Lord Goring is happy for his friend, but his mention of Sir Robert's success leads Lord Caversham back to trying to manage his son's life. He suggests Lord Goring marry Mabel Chiltern. Mabel enters. She ignores Lord Goring and chats with his father. Eventually Lord Goring breaks into the conversation. He and Mabel tease one another. She asks Lord Caversham if he can make Goring behave better, but he says he "has no influence" over his son. After more chatter, Lord Caversham excuses himself.

Once Lord Goring and Mabel are alone, he says he wants to ask her something. She guesses it is a marriage proposal, her second that day, since Tommy Trafford has already proposed. After checking to make sure she didn't accept Trafford's proposal, Goring declares his love for Mabel. When he asks her if she can love him in return, she declares she already does, and everyone else knows it. After more teasing and discussion of love, Lady Chiltern enters. Mabel excuses herself, planning to wait for Lord Goring in the conservatory.

Once they are alone, Lord Goring tells Lady Chiltern that Mrs. Cheveley surrendered the letter, and he burned it. She's overjoyed, but he tells her there's a new threat: Mrs. Cheveley stole the letter Lady Chiltern wrote asking for Lord Goring's help. She plans to give it to Sir Robert as evidence that Lady Chiltern has been unfaithful. He also describes how Sir Robert discovered Mrs. Cheveley in Lord Goring's library and left in anger. Lord Goring asks Lady Chiltern to share the truth: that Goring had thought it was her in the library waiting. Lady Chiltern says she can't do this and instead wants to intercept the letter. Lord Goring plays along, and they make plans to have one of Sir Robert's secretaries take the letter without reading it.

Suddenly Sir Robert enters. He doesn't see Lord Goring. He has his wife's letter in his hand, and he mistakes it for a declaration of love she has written for him. He asks her if it is true that she still wants him, and Goring signals from his hiding spot that she should agree. She does, and the Chilterns reconcile. Lady Chiltern adds to their happiness by sharing the news that Lord Goring has burned the blackmail letter. After a moment of pride that he had denounced the Argentine Canal scheme before he knew this, Sir Robert suggests he should retire from public life. Lady Chiltern agrees, and they talk about the future. Lord Goring reenters. Sir Robert thanks him. Lord Caversham enters. He congratulates Sir Robert on the speech and tells him he now has a seat on the prime minister's cabinet, giving him a letter from the prime minister as proof. Sir Robert is overjoyed but tells Lord Caversham he can't accept the offer because he's retiring from public service. Outraged, Lord Caversham asks Lady Chiltern to convince her husband to stay in politics. She declines because she thinks it is the right decision. She asks her husband to go home and write his letter declining the position. Sir Robert agrees, although he's bitter about it. The Chilterns leave.

Lord Caversham complains to his son about the Chiltern's illogical behavior, but Lord Goring insists it isn't illogical. It is their high sense of morality that makes them act as they do. Lord Caversham is about to leave when Lord Goring changes the subject. He directs Lord Caversham to the conservatory, where there is someone who wants to talk about Lord Goring. Lord Caversham is skeptical, but he goes. As he leaves Lady Chiltern enters. Lord Goring asks why she is carrying out Mrs. Cheveley's strategy. He explains that Mrs. Cheveley had been trying to drive Sir Robert from public life and now Lady Chiltern is doing the same. He then delivers a monologue on Sir Robert, the nature of love, and the nature of male and female lives. Lady Chiltern is uncertain, claiming it was Sir Robert's desire to leave office. Goring explains her husband is doing this for her: he is sacrificing everything for her love. Goring advises her not to accept this sacrifice. She admits that they "have both been punished" because her moral standards for his behavior were too high.

Sir Robert enters. He gives Lady Chiltern the draft of his letter resigning from public life. She reads it, then destroys it. Lady Chiltern explains that she rejects his sacrifice and repeats Lord Goring's ideas on male and female lives to him, and that her place is to respect his ambitions. Sir Robert is overcome by emotion. He then asks what Lord Goring had wanted to talk about, and Lord Goring asks Sir Robert, as Mabel's guardian, for Mabel's hand in marriage. Sir Robert refuses, saying he has to think of his sister's happiness. He says he can't let her enter a marriage where there's love on just one side. Lord Goring protests that this isn't the case—that he loves Mabel.

Lady Chiltern asks why they shouldn't get married, and her husband says it is because Goring can't love Mabel the way she deserves. When Lord Goring asks why, Sir Robert explains about finding Mrs. Cheveley hidden in Lord Goring's rooms the previous night, and how Goring defended her. Lady Chiltern explains Lord Goring hadn't known Mrs. Cheveley was there, and Lord Goring explains he had expected Lady Chiltern. She then explains how she had gone to Lord Goring for help. She even admits that she'd written her letter to Lord Goring, not her husband. Lord Goring insists that he would never have doubted her innocence.

Once he learns the truth, Sir Robert gives Lord Goring permission to marry Mabel. Mabel and Lord Caversham reenter. Mabel again teases Lord Goring about his father's conversation being better than his and how she'll only talk to him. Lord Goring kisses her in response, and Lord Caversham asks if that means she has accepted his son's marriage proposal. Lord Goring shares the good news: she has—and Sir Robert has decided to accept the cabinet seat.

Lord Caversham threatens to cut off his son's inheritance if he doesn't make Mabel "an ideal husband." For her part Mabel rejects this idea, saying "an ideal husband" sounds like something from the next life, not this one. Everyone goes in to lunch except Sir Robert, who stays behind to think. Lady Chiltern comes back to check on him. When she does, he asks her if she pities him, or loves him. She claims she feels only love for him, and they are starting a new life together.


Importance of Lord Goring

The opening of Act 4 underscores Lord Goring's importance to the play. Act 1 opens with a social scene featuring many characters, but Acts 2, 3, and 4 all open with Lord Goring on stage. Act 2 opens with him talking to Sir Robert (a friend and equal); Act 3 opens with Lord Goring holding forth to Phipps, his butler; and Act 4 opens with Lord Goring alone on stage. It is as if Wilde is focusing more and more tightly on Lord Goring to emphasize him, showing his increasing power and importance as the play goes on.

Act 4's first exchange between Lord Goring and his father shows the value and danger of nonsense. Throughout the play Lord Caversham is continually trying to influence his son. In response Lord Goring speaks in witticisms and paradoxes to confuse his father. This helps Lord Goring create some emotional distance from his father, giving him the chance to be his own man and act as he chooses rather than being defined by his father's expectations. Because he has established this pattern, Lord Goring can state the literal truth—that he hopes to be married by noon—but his father can't tell if he is serious or not because it sounds like a joke. Wit thus serves an important function for Lord Goring because it provides him with autonomy.

When Lord Caversham departs, he leaves his son and Mabel together. Their interaction shows quite a bit about both of their characters, as well as about period gender relations. To start Mabel anticipates Lord Goring's proposal. This means she is far more insightful than Wilde's initial description of her in Act 1 might lead a reader to think. Wilde initially describes her as a "perfect example of an English type of prettiness" with "the courage of innocence"; in other words a pretty, innocent young woman. When she then puts Lord Goring off balance by casually noting it is her second of the day, however, it is clear that she'll definitely be his equal in terms of vigorous wit. Finally, when she notes that everyone in London except Lord Goring knows that she already loves him, she demonstrates that Lord Goring is not nearly so all-knowing as he would wish, and in this instance she knows more than he does. Mabel is definitely more formidable than she first appears.

Their exchange also demonstrates how deeply Lord Goring cares for Mabel. He's been able to deliver well-crafted and amusing epigrams in all kinds of circumstances: when his father is pressuring him, when Sir Robert's career is falling apart, and even when Mrs. Cheveley is trying to blackmail Lord Goring into marrying her. However, when Mabel says she's never going to speak to him again, Lord Goring loses his verbal flair. He is reduced to flat statements about how much she means to him. When that happens, Mabel steps in to take over the job of confusing Lord Caversham in order to buy Lord Goring space: within just a few lines she both asks Lord Caversham to have his son behave better and then a moment later insists he can't be influenced because of his "terribly weak" nature.

Reversed Expectations

In Act 4 some characters behave in ways that reverse the audience's expectations of them and make them more complex, even paradoxical. When Lord Caversham explains Sir Robert's powerful (and ethical) speech denouncing the Argentine Canal scheme, he shows something very important about Sir Robert: no matter how he got his start in politics, he is willing to stand up and do the right thing when he has to, despite considerable risk. This indicates that despite his many flaws, which are quite real, Sir Robert does possess an ethical bravery. In the end he is willing to risk it all and do what he should. In the play Sir Robert first appears as honorable, then as dishonorable, and now he is honorable again. His personality is a series of reversals. In this way the play suggests that human beings are changeable, their personalities moving between often opposing characteristics. This stands in direct contrast to Lady Chiltern's insistence on rigid moral absolutes.

This reversal of character applies to Lord Goring and Lady Chiltern as well. If readers take him at his word, Lord Goring apparently wants to mend fences with Sir Robert because he doesn't like his friend being angry at him or having a false impression of him. He benefits in no other way: he gains no social advantage and doesn't make any money off this action. This loyalty suggests Lord Goring is really quite morally conventional (despite his verbal gymnastics and dandyish ways). By contrast Lady Chiltern appears to resemble her husband (or more like her enemy Mrs. Cheveley) than she would ever admit. She was perfectly willing to break social convention and visit a single man, Lord Goring, in his room at night. However, she's not willing for her husband to know she did so. In other words, like Sir Robert she's willing to sin but not for her sins to be made public. Her behavior in this case is not ethical, it is pragmatic—based purely on personal interest: her belief that she needs to lie in order to preserve her marriage. This places her cherished belief in absolute moral standards in serious question.

Dramatic Structure

One element of the play's structure that can operate quite subtly on an audience is symmetry or balance, a technique Wilde uses in Act 4 to bring a sense of closure to the play, but also to comment on gender relations and morality. In Act 1 Lady Chiltern pressures her husband to write a letter to Mrs. Cheveley immediately, to reject her blackmail attempt. Here in Act 4, when the prime minister offers Sir Robert a position, she pressures him to write a letter turning the position down, and to do so immediately. It is as if on some level she knows (or fears) Sir Robert will only hold to an ethical position so long as she's pressuring him to do it, so they must act quickly. The first letter would keep him in public life; this second letter removes him from it.

After Sir Robert decides he must retire from public life, Wilde uses another dramatic technique: repetition. In Act 2 Sir Robert had delivered a fairly bitter monologue about how women put men on pedestals and how everyone suffers as a result. Here in Act 4 Lord Goring reintroduces that topic and delivers a similar message: holding men to too high a standard is damaging, and what men need from women is forgiveness when they stumble. Both Sir Robert and Lord Goring even use the same word: pardon. The circumstances in which they deliver their messages, however, are very different. Self-interest might have driven Sir Robert to these words—he is, after all, the man who needs to be pardoned—but Lord Goring has no such need. And where Sir Robert was feeling bitter and angry at his wife, Lord Goring lacks these motivations. Except for his concern for his friends, he is objective. This therefore becomes part of the play's message: holding husbands to impossible standards results in tragedy, because, in reality, everyone stumbles. For so brilliant and witty a man as Wilde, this is a surprisingly humble message.

Wilde uses repetition even more overtly at another key point in Act 4. Lord Goring lectures Lady Chiltern on men and women and on how their lives differ. She then turns around and repeats this message word for word to her husband. These are the words Sir Robert needs to hear, but they are not hers. They are Lord Goring's words coming out of her mouth. And this brings the major action of the play full circle, reversing it in key ways. In Act 1 Mrs. Cheveley tries to blackmail Sir Robert into saying what she wants him to. In Act 4 Lord Goring persuades Lady Chiltern into speaking his words. This unifies social norms, honor, and marriage in a striking fashion.

This brings the Chilterns back together and frees Lady Chiltern to admit her "sin." In the end Sir Robert opts to take the cabinet position. His wife's own absolute moral standards have been shown to be more similar to her husband's than not, and her role in her marriage has changed. She now believes that "a man's life is of more value than a woman's. It has ... greater ambitions." This reins in Lady Chiltern's independent judgment and is functionally antifeminist. Her major role as a woman now is to forgive her husband and let him fulfill those ambitions. Rather than hiding sins from one another, the Chilterns now have a clean slate and know each other's secrets. This is the first time Lady Chiltern has acted without the self-interest her own ethics generate: she shares the truth for its own sake, and so Lord Goring can be reunited with Sir Robert and united with Mabel. The result is good feelings and good fortune all around. The two couples at the end of the play represent a more traditional view of marriage and social norms about male and female roles on the one hand (the Chilterns), and a more radical, modern view of marriage on the other (Mable and Lord Goring). When the play ends Mrs. Cheveley is essentially forgotten, and these two couples look ready to live happily ever after.

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