In the Chilterns’ morning room Lord Goring stands by the fireplace looking bored. He rings for the servant, wanting to speak to Robert or Gertrude but learns that his father, Lord Caversham, is waiting in the library for Sir Robert. Arthur does not want to meet his father again, but he comes in the room and begins scolding his son, asking if he is engaged to be married yet. Lord Goring says no, but he hopes to be before lunchtime. His father does not know if he is joking.
Lord Caversham says that The Times reports Sir Robert’s speech to the House last night on the Argentine Canal scheme was “one of the finest pieces of oratory ever delivered” (p. 103). It is called a turning point of his career. He denounced the scheme and was lauded for his integrity. Lord Goring is happy because it shows his friend has the courage to do the right thing, even though it could mean the end of his career. At least he is not giving in to blackmail.
His father suggests to Arthur that he propose to Mabel Chiltern. Mabel enters and begins talking to Lord Caversham but ignores Arthur. She pretends to be surprised he is there and reminds him he broke their appointment yesterday. She threatens never to speak to him again. He tells her she is the only person in London he likes to have listen to him. She wittily replies she never believes a word they say to one another.
After Lord Caversham leaves, they continue chatting and flirting. Lord Goring admits he always is happy when he is with her. She asks if he is going to propose to her. He says yes, and she remarks it will be the second proposal of the day, after Tommy Trafford’s. He takes her hand and says he loves her, and she says everyone in London knows she loves him, except him. They kiss.
As Mabel leaves, she says she will wait for him in the conservatory. Lady Chiltern enters, and Arthur tells her that he burned the incriminating letter so Robert is safe. Gertrude is relieved, but now he tells her that she is in danger from the letter she wrote to him last night that sounds like a love letter. Mrs. Cheveley will try to make Robert think the worst. Robert already thinks the worst because he thinks Mrs. Cheveley is Arthur’s lover and co-conspirator, since he found them together. Gertrude says her letter must be intercepted on the way to her husband.
It is too late, for just then Robert enters with the letter. He reads it aloud, thinking it is addressed to him by his wife, and that it means she forgives him. He is ecstatic. She tells him the good news about Mrs. Cheveley’s letter being burned by Arthur, and he is doubly happy. He had gambled with the speech last night, speaking the truth despite Mrs. Cheveley’s threat, and it turned out to be honorable, a new wave of success for him. Perhaps now he should retire from public life, he asks his wife? Should he quit while ahead? Lady Chiltern says yes, because it was ambition that first led him astray.
Lord Caversham enters and says the Prime Minister is offering Sir Robert a Cabinet seat because of his high principles. He tries to talk Robert out of retiring and Lady Chiltern objects. As her husband leaves, Arthur asks why Gertrude is taking Mrs. Cheveley’s place to ruin her husband’s career. The duty of women is not to judge but to forgive and encourage. Robert would destroy his career if his wife asked him to, but sacrifice is not a good basis for marriage. His life is in her hands.
Robert returns and shows her his resignation letter. She repeats Arthur’s advice on the role of a wife as a support to her husband. She tells him she wants him to continue his career; “I forgive. That is how women help the world” (p. 120). Robert thanks Arthur for always helping him, so Arthur asks for Robert’s sister Mabel in marriage in return. Robert refuses, saying that Arthur would not love her. It is known he is a playboy. Arthur insists he loves only Mabel.
Robert says he doubts that, since when he called last night he found Mrs. Cheveley at his house. He knows they were once engaged. Arthur refuses to explain or defend himself against these charges, so Lady Chiltern helps Arthur by admitting that she was the one whom he actually expected last night. She did not go to Arthur’s house as she had promised, but she wrote the note telling him she was coming to him. It was a letter not to her husband, but to Arthur. She was afraid Robert would believe Mrs. Cheveley’s interpretation of her letter as a love letter to Arthur, and that is why she did not confess the truth.
Sir Robert asks why Gertrude did not trust his love for her? She is “the white image of all good things” for him (p. 123). There is no name at the beginning of the letter, so it could not have really been incriminating. Gertrude writes her husband’s name in it, and Robert says Mabel and Arthur can be married. Lord Caversham predicts that one day Robert will be Prime Minister.
Mabel admits she does not want Arthur to be an ideal husband. He can be whatever he likes. She just wants to be “a real wife to him” (p. 125). Gertrude realizes she finally feels real love for her own husband, not a distant adoration.
Commentary on Act IV
The consensus at the end of the play is that ideal husbands are not the real thing. True happiness comes if husbands and wives love and forgive each other. The comedy of manners illustrates the lesson of how social manners can take the place of real life. People become the masks they must wear. In the last act, prejudice is exposed and everyone is revealed as he or she is.
Sir Robert, it turns out, truly is a hero, for he gave the speech to the House of Commons against the Argentine Canal fraud assuming he was going to be exposed by Mrs. Cheveley. He did the right thing without expecting a reward.
Gertrude, the one who acts righteous, is the one who actually is the impediment to her husband. Worse than Mrs. Cheveley’s scheming is Gertrude’s virtue. By trying to force her husband to act up to an ideal image, she almost ruins his career, and does not allow him to actually be the noble man he is. He is not only ambitious; he also wants to serve his country. When he speaks eloquently, he believes in what he says, and thus inspires others. She wants him to retire from public life, afraid he will run up against other bribes and temptations. She does not trust him.
It is Arthur who is the softening and reasonable influence, though everyone thinks he is the immoral playboy. One wrong does not type a man forever, as he reminds Mrs. Cheveley. He shows Gertrude her job is not to sound off like a curate but to encourage and love her husband. Mabel emphatically declares she does not want an ideal husband, or a role model. Her unpretentious Arthur is honest enough for her.
The satire on the “ideal” is a comment on Victorian morality that Wilde was always mocking. Victorian morality made people stiff and stuffy and self-righteous the way Gertrude is. This insistence on the ideal made people pretend to be what they were not. Such a social system turns out not to be ideal at all, but a system of lies, in which the main sin is to break the illusion. Ironically, Sir Robert has more faith in his wife than she has in him.
Much of the witty banter in the play is between men and women, and often the jokes are about the war of the sexes. This is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s characters like Beatrice and Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing.” Lord Goring’s last speech to Lady Chiltern particularly sounds a lot like the ending of “The Taming of the Shrew” when Katherina expounds on what she has learned about the duty of women.
Lord Goring tells Gertrude “A man’s life is of more value than a woman’s. It has larger issues, wider scope, greater ambitions” (p. 119). Though most of Lord Goring’s lines in the play are witty, certain of his key speeches are serious, like this one. It is not meant to be funny and would have accorded with Victorian sentiment, though women readers today may find it misogynistic. He tells Lady Chiltern that women are emotional, while men are intellectual. The stage direction before he gives this final important speech suggests he pulls himself together to show “the philosophy that underlies the dandy” p. 118). In other words, he looks like a lightweight but reveals himself as the wise mouthpiece of Wilde’s play.
Like Katherina in “The Taming of the Shrew” who is taught her duty by her husband and then turns around and gives it out to the other wives, so Gertrude hears Lord Goring’s advice and then repeats the words to her husband: “Our lives revolve in curves of emotions. It is upon lines of intellect that a man’s life progresses” (p. 120). In the play, we seem to lose an ideal husband, but gain an ideal wife. Wilde’s ideal, however, seems based more on tolerance than on principle.