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An Ideal Husband | Plot Summary

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Summary

An Ideal Husband is set in 1890s London—during the era in which Wilde wrote it—and the action in it takes place over a day's time. It revolves around a scandal that threatens to destroy Sir Robert Chiltern's career and marriage.

Act 1

Act 1 is set at a party at Sir Robert Chiltern's house. When Lady Markby enters, she brings a friend, Mrs. Cheveley, who has come to the party to meet Sir Robert. Lady Chiltern realizes she was at school with Mrs. Cheveley. Lord Goring, an eligible bachelor, and his father, Lord Caversham, also attend the party, as does Mabel Chiltern, Sir Robert's sister.

When Mrs. Cheveley gets a chance to talk to Sir Robert alone, she shares her purpose for coming. Based on advice from a former lover (Baron Arnheim), she invested heavily in the plan to build an Argentine Canal. Sir Robert says she should not have because it was a swindle. She reminds him of his own involvement in the construction of the Suez Canal. He says the two are completely different, and he'll deliver a speech the next day telling the British government not to invest in the canal. Mrs. Cheveley insists he must support it.

She knows Sir Robert made his fortune by selling government secrets to Baron Arnheim. Sir Robert tries to dismiss her accusation, but Mrs. Cheveley has evidence: the letter he wrote offering the secrets. She says she'll give him the letter after he makes a public announcement supporting the Argentine Canal. He agrees. Before she leaves Mrs. Cheveley tells Lady Chiltern that Sir Robert will be supporting the canal.

When Mabel Chiltern and Lord Goring are alone on stage, Mabel finds a diamond brooch in the sofa. Lord Goring takes possession of it and asks Mabel not to say anything about it. They exit the stage.

After Lady Chiltern and Sir Robert return to the stage, she asks him about the canal and explains that Mrs. Cheveley was expelled from school for theft. He admits he's changed his position on the canal, and she pressures him to turn Mrs. Cheveley down, which he does, in a letter.

Act 2

Lord Goring advises Sir Robert to tell Lady Chiltern everything. Sir Robert admits that he sold government secrets illegally. The Baron convinced him to do it to gain power, which he argued would be obtainable only through wealth. If the truth comes out about Sir Robert's crime, there will be a great scandal. Lord Goring urges his friend to fight Mrs. Cheveley and offers to help.

Lady Chiltern consults Lord Goring privately about Mrs. Cheveley. Goring implies that Sir Robert's career may not be without corruption. He suggests that she may be judging her husband too narrowly. Lady Chiltern disagrees, arguing that Sir Robert's virtue is beyond reproach. Mabel Chiltern joins them and flirts briefly with Lord Goring.

Lord Goring exits. Mabel complains about Tommy Trafford proposing marriage to her repeatedly. She and Lady Chiltern discuss the Chilterns' marriage. As Mabel exits, Lady Markby and Mrs. Cheveley arrive to ask if anyone found Mrs. Cheveley's diamond brooch. The three women discuss sexual politics. Lady Markby exits.

Mrs. Cheveley and Lady Chiltern express how much they dislike one another. Lady Chiltern says she is responsible for Sir Robert turning Mrs. Cheveley down about the canal. Mrs. Cheveley says he must keep his word to her or she'll destroy him. Sir Robert appears and has the butler throw Mrs. Cheveley out. Lady Chiltern wants Sir Robert to deny the charges. He admits they are true. Horrified, Lady Chiltern tells him to leave. In a monologue Sir Robert explains how women are wrong to treat men this way, then exits.

Act 3

Lord Caversham enters, and after some conversation tells his son he wants him to get married. He then goes into the smoking room. Lord Goring tells his butler to admit Lady Chiltern, but no one else, then joins his father. However, Goring's footman lets in Mrs. Cheveley, who finds and reads Lady Chiltern's letter in Goring's absence. When she hears voices, Mrs. Cheveley retreats to the drawing room. Lord Goring and Sir Robert enter. Goring tells Sir Robert his wife knows everything, and tells him his wife will forgive him. Sir Robert hears a sound in the drawing room and insists on investigating. He reveals Mrs. Cheveley and storms away angry.

Mrs. Cheveley tries to sell Lord Goring the blackmail letter. She wants to return to England, so her price for the letter is that Lord Goring marry her. They discuss their past engagement years earlier, which Lord Goring broke off when he discovered another man flirting with her. Lord Goring turns down her offer. She asks if he's heard any news of her brooch. He gives it to her, but rather than pinning it on her he closes it on her wrist as a bracelet. Mrs. Cheveley hadn't known it could be worn that way, and she can't get it off. Lord Goring accuses her of stealing it from his cousin years earlier. Rather than be reported to the police for theft, Mrs. Cheveley surrenders the blackmail letter. However, she tells him she still has Lady Chiltern's letter and will use it to imply that he and Lady Chiltern are having an affair. Mrs. Cheveley plans to make it public, damaging the Chilterns' marriage and their reputations.

Act 4

Act 4 opens with Lord Goring standing in Sir Robert's morning-room. Lord Caversham joins him and once again pressures his son to marry. He then tells Lord Goring about the great speech Sir Robert gave the night before denouncing the Argentine Canal plan. Lord Caversham then suggests Lord Goring marry Mabel Chiltern.

Mabel enters. She speaks to Lord Caversham and ignores Lord Goring until Goring can't take it and breaks into the conversation. Lord Caversham excuses himself. Once Lord Goring and Mabel are alone, he proposes. She accepts. Lady Chiltern enters, and Mabel leaves. Lord Goring tells Lady Chiltern Mrs. Cheveley surrendered the letter she was using to blackmail Sir Robert. Lord Goring has burned it. However, there's a new threat. Mrs. Cheveley stole the letter Lady Chiltern wrote asking for Lord Goring's help. She plans to use it to prove Lady Chiltern has been unfaithful. Lord Goring asks Lady Chiltern to tell her husband the truth about her visit to him the previous night. Lady Chiltern says she can't do this. She makes plans to intercept the letter. Lord Goring plays along.

Before they can act Sir Robert enters. He has his wife's letter, which he takes as a declaration of love from his wife. He asks her if it is true that she still wants him. She says she does, and the Chilterns reconcile. Lady Chiltern adds to their happiness by sharing the news that Lord Goring burned the initial blackmail letter.

Sir Robert suggests that he should retire from public life. Lady Chiltern agrees. Lord Goring reenters. Sir Robert thanks him. Lord Caversham enters. He congratulates Sir Robert on the speech and tells him the Prime Minister has given him a seat on the cabinet. Sir Robert is overjoyed but tells Lord Caversham he can't accept because he's retiring from public service. Lord Caversham is outraged and asks Lady Chiltern to convince her husband to stay in politics. She refuses, saying she thinks it is the right decision. She asks her husband to write his letter declining the position. Sir Robert agrees. The Chilterns exit.

Lord Caversham complains to his son about their decision, then exits. Lady Chiltern reenters. Lord Goring tells her she is now carrying out the same agenda as Mrs. Cheveley: getting Sir Robert to leave public life. Lady Chiltern claims her husband wants to leave office. Lord Goring explains that her husband is actually sacrificing everything for her love. He advises her not to accept this sacrifice.

Sir Robert enters with his resignation letter. His wife destroys it. Sir Robert is overcome by emotion. Lord Goring asks Sir Robert, as Mabel's guardian, for Mabel's hand in marriage. Sir Robert refuses. Lord Goring protests that he loves Mabel. Sir Robert explains his objections: he found Mrs. Cheveley in Lord Goring's rooms the previous night. Lady Chiltern explains that Lord Goring hadn't known Mrs. Cheveley was there. Lord Goring explains he had expected Lady Chiltern instead. She says that she had gone to Lord Goring for help. She even admits she'd written her letter to Lord Goring, not her husband. Once Sir Robert learns the truth, he agrees to Mabel and Lord Goring's engagement. Mabel and Lord Caversham appear. Lord Goring tells them Mabel has agreed to marry him. Sir Robert decides to accept the cabinet seat.

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.

An Ideal Husband Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Sir Robert Chiltern sells government secrets to gain wealth.

Rising Action

2 Mrs. Cheveley steals a brooch from Lord Goring's cousin.

3 Mrs. Cheveley blackmails Sir Robert about his past crime.

4 Mrs. Cheveley wants Sir Robert to support the canal.

5 Sir Robert explains his past crime to Lord Goring.

6 Lady Chiltern writes Lord Goring, asking for his help.

7 Sir Robert finds Mrs. Cheveley at Lord Goring's.

8 Mrs. Cheveley tries to blackmail Lord Goring into marriage.

9 Lord Goring blackmails Mrs. Cheveley to return the letter.

10 Mrs. Cheveley steals a letter that will hurt Lady Chiltern.

Climax

11 Sir Robert publicly denounces the Argentine Canal.

Falling Action

12 Lord Goring proposes to Mabel Chiltern.

13 Mrs. Cheveley sends Sir Robert the damaging letter.

14 Lady Chiltern tells Sir Robert the truth about the letter.

Resolution

15 The Chilterns reconcile; Sir Robert takes a Cabinet post.

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