An Ideal Husband: Summary of Act Two
The next day in the morning room of Sir Robert Chiltern’s house Lord Goring is fashionably dressed and lounging in a chair, while Sir Robert is pacing up and down in distress. Lord Goring tells him he should have told his wife the truth because she will find out. Robert says that he would have lost the only woman he has ever loved. His wife is perfect.
Lord Goring says he would like to have a talk with Gertrude, but Robert says nothing will make her change her mind, even though the wrongdoing he did in his youth is really commonplace in politics. Robert seems only sorry he has been found out, for he feels he has not really hurt anyone. He was only twenty-two, poor, and ambitious. He needed money to realize his ambition. Baron Arnheim tempted him with his “philosophy of power” and “gospel of gold” (p. 43), and he gave in. Wealth gave him the power and freedom he needed to succeed.
Lord Goring says he never thought a man like Sir Robert could be so weak, but Robert insists it took strength and courage to do what he did. He made the money that set him up for life. He tried to make up for it by giving money to charity.
Lord Goring suggests he tell his wife right away, but Robert says it would kill her love, for she believes he is perfect. He is in terror of the coming disgrace. Lord Goring admits he was once engaged to Mrs. Cheveley and that Robert must fight her. They agree any weapon against her is justified. Sir Robert decides to cable Vienna where she has been living to find out if there are any secrets he can use against her.
Lady Chiltern comes in saying she has just been to the Women’s Liberal Association where her husband’s name gets loud applause. It is a political association that concerns itself with Factory Acts and other liberal causes. She leaves again.
Sir Robert shakes Lord Goring’s hand and thanks him for being a friend to whom he could tell the truth. Lord Goring tells him if he needs him to send a note to his house in Curzon Street. Sir Robert leaves and Gertrude enters.
Gertrude complains to Lord Goring about Mrs. Cheveley who would have dragged her husband into scandal. He tries to convince her to be less demanding and more practical; she is a little “hard” (p. 53), because all natures have some weakness, and one has to have charity towards others. She says she has never heard him be serious before. He tells her she must call on him if she is ever in need.
Mabel Chiltern enters, telling Lord Goring to “be as trivial as you can” (p. 55), and he asks to see Lady Chiltern’s guest list from the night before (trying to identify the owner of the lost diamond brooch). Gertrude sends him to Tommy Trafford, Sir Robert’s secretary. He leaves.
Mabel tells Gertrude that Tommy Trafford has proposed to her again. She complains about how often he proposes and how old-fashioned he is. Gertrude says that Robert thinks Tommy is brilliant and has a good career ahead of him. Mabel claims she will never marry a man of genius as Gertrude did. She excuses herself to go to a rehearsal—she is in Lady Basildon’s theatrical tableaux for charity.
Lady Markby and Mrs. Cheveley enter. Lady Markby claims they came to look for Mrs. Cheveley’s diamond brooch that she lost last night. The three ladies discuss politics and husbands. Lady Markby tells Gertrude she has “a pattern husband” (p. 63). After she leaves, Mrs. Cheveley tells Gertrude she has not changed in her devotion to high principle, which she applies to everyone. Gertrude admits she is the one who made her husband renege on his promise to Mrs. Cheveley. Mrs. Cheveley confesses she holds Sir Robert in her hand and explains his past to his wife—he got his fortune through dishonor, by selling a Cabinet secret.
Sir Robert enters and tells Mrs. Cheveley to get out. The Chilterns argue, as Gertrude reveals her shock at her husband’s dishonorable past. She says he has soiled her by selling himself for money. He was her ideal, and now she is disillusioned. Sir Robert turns the tables on her and accuses her of not loving enough to accept his imperfections. If she had been practical, he could have dealt with Mrs. Cheveley and buried his past. Because she demands his perfection, she is now the cause of his ruin.
Commentary on Act Two
Wilde makes a surprising turn in this act by making Gertrude Chiltern seem more to blame than Sir Robert for their disastrous situation on the edge of scandal. Both Lord Goring and Sir Robert try to explain to Gertrude that her virtue is actually hardness of heart. True love, they tell her, is forgiving. If she had not insisted on virtue in her husband, he could have saved his reputation by quietly paying off Mrs. Cheveley.
On the other hand, Sir Robert is oddly unrepentant about his past. He tells Lord Goring he had to be dishonest to make enough money to go into politics. He is now a liberal politician able to bring about progressive change in England. He is respected as an idealist and known as a champion of liberal causes. Dishonesty is the basis of politics, he argues. It may be ironic that his beginning was dishonest, but he has since used his power to do good. Sir Robert admits to assuaging his guilt and trying to buy off fate by giving money to charity. Wilde seems to point out that life is a mixed affair, not black or white. Lord Goring, Sir Robert’s best friend, is fine with forgiving this past indiscretion, while his adoring wife, is intolerant.
Sir Robert complains about women insisting on men being pure. He does not want to be on a pedestal. This again is an ironic and comic reversal, for it was usually the woman who was put on a pedestal of purity in Victorian society. Gertrude is such a pure woman herself but turns out to be an impediment to happiness, a shrewish bluestocking, less admirable than the more humane characters.
Sir Robert insists that he has not been weak in giving in to the temptation of a bribe, but rather, courageous: “To stake all one’s life on a single moment, to risk everything on one throw, whether the stake be power or pleasure” (pp. 44, 45) is the sign of manliness. These lines are strangely prophetic for Wilde himself who was arrested for homosexuality only a few months after the play opened, and like Sir Robert, threatened with a scandal that would ruin his life.
Lady Markby is the comic foil to the evil Mrs. Cheveley. Her trivial point of view on English politics and society highlights the hypocrisy underlying English life and furnishes a lot of funny lines. She complains the House of Commons is ruining their married life by distracting their husbands. Lady Markby constantly harps on the difference between the classes and thinks society is going to the dogs in modern times by not appreciating the superiority of blue blood. Mabel Chiltern also satirizes society but does it more intelligently and knowingly. She explains she is doing a charity project for the “aid of the Undeserving” poor (p. 59).
This act has revealed the hidden basis of society in a tissue of lies. Sir Robert does not think he should be punished for doing what everyone secretly does anyway.