An Ideal Husband
Act II - Part Two
Mabel Chiltern then enters the room, chastising her sister-in-law for complimenting Lord Goring's uncharacteristic seriousness. Mabel and Goring then engage in flirtatious banter. Goring requests a list of last night's guests and, having reconfirmed a riding date tomorrow with Mabel, leaves the scene. Mabel then recounts the travails of her courtship by Sir Robert's secretary, Tommy Trafford, to her sister-in-law, mocking his endless proposals and the ideals of husbandry.
Suddenly, Lady Markby and Mrs. Cheveley appear. After some banter, Mabel excuses herself to go play tableaux at Lady Basildon's. The unexpected visitors then explain that they have come for a diamond brooch of Mrs. Cheveley, which she lost the evening before. Of course, no one has reported it being found. After a conversation on the education of women, married life, and a number of marriage scandals, Lady Markby briefly leaves Mrs. Cheveley in Lady Chiltern's charge to pay a visit to her friend, Lady Brancaster. Though Cheveley rather pointedly attempts to extricate herself from the situation, Lady Chiltern insists that she stay.
Once alone, Lady Chiltern ends the banter abruptly, and the two confront each other. Upon discovering that it was the Lady Chiltern who made Sir Robert refuse her proposal, Mrs. Cheveley ominously demands that she have him reverse his decision; once again she asserts that she and Sir Robert make a good pair as they share a secret sin. As Lady Chiltern orders her to leave, Sir Robert enters from behind. Pointing at him with her outstretched finger, Mrs. Cheveley reveals his secret to a horrified Lady Chiltern; Sir Robert rings for Mason and has her shown out.
Though Sir Robert immediately attempts to console her, Lady Chiltern fiercely rejects him, bemoaning the unmasking of her ideal husband and death of her worshipful love. Sir Robert dramatically responds by accusing her of turning him into a false idol, making it impossible for him to confess his dark past, and thus ruining his life. He then contrasts male and female love. Whereas women demand lovers who serve as impossible objects of worship, men allow for their lovers' imperfections. For Sir Robert, true love should always forgive. Accusing Lady Chiltern of ruining him with her demands for perfection, he rushes from the room and shuts the door. Lady Chiltern pauses in horror, her fingers outstretched, and flings herself down beside a sofa, sobbing like a child.
As we are tracing the theme of marriage in this play, we can once again structure our analysis of this act according to the various commentaries on marriage delivered by its different characters. We will begin with the Chilterns.
As in Act I, the playful conversational banter in the second half of Act II ultimately gives way to a confrontation between Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern upon the revelation of latter's secret by Mrs. Cheveley. Once again, their melodramatic dialogue serves as vehicle for a discussion of love that reaffirms the conventional social values of the Victorian stage. This encounter also describes love in gendered terms, and the gender politics of this discussion are unfortunate to say the least.
Recall from Act I that Lady Chiltern loves Sir Robert as an ideal husband, a man worthy of worship for the example he sets privately and publicly. Protesting his rejection by his wife, Sir Robert poses what he identifies as a "masculine" form of love against Lady Chiltern's ostensibly feminine adoration. Man's love allows for or is even predicated on human imperfections. In an unwitting echo of Lord Goring, Sir Robert argues that true love aims to cure the lover's wounds and pardon his sins, not mount the lover on an impossible, indeed "monstrous," pedestal.
Looking toward the play's resolution, however, we might note here that forgiveness will ultimately not appear as a masculine attribute. As we will see, though in this instance the capacity to forgive is associated with the male lover, Sir Robert's speech is less a description of "masculine love" than an injunction to his wife. The play will conclude that it is actually the woman's role to forgive and nurture her husband in affairs of love: as Lord Goring will tell Lady Chiltern in Act IV, "Pardon, not punishment, is [women's] mission." The assignment of this love to the Lady will thus reaffirm a familiar model of Victorian womanhood, one that casts her as healer and caregiver to her husband.
Along with this thematic development, the revelation of Sir Robert's secret speaks to the motif of masks and social theatricality described above. Here, Sir Robert loses his social face—his image as an honorable public figure and husband. Thus Lady Chiltern describes this scene as an unmasking: "Oh, what a mask you have been wearing all these years! A horrible painted mask!" The importance of this confrontation between the Chilterns notwithstanding, a number of more humorous commentaries on marriage run through the second half of the act as well. One might, for example, consider the interlude between Mabel, Lady Chiltern, and her guests. In particular, Mabel makes an especially telling joke regarding a game of tableau—that is, a game in which players re-enact scenes from famous paintings. Informing her sister-in-law of her plans to play tableau at Lady Basildon's, she announces that she will be standing on her head in the "Triumph of something." One can only recall the tapestry—the "Triumph of Love"—that frames Act I. This joke thus perhaps prefigures how Mabel will turn love on its head in her somewhat unconventional union with Lord Goring in Act IV, a union that dispenses with the question of what spouse should be ideally.
Mabel also ridicules courtship and marriage in the caricature of her suitor, the hapless Tommy Trafford, and his innumerable proposals for her hand in marriage. Her mockery of the earnest Trafford not only provides comic relief but, as in the banter from Act I, playfully shifts the conventions by which one would evaluate a potential husband. For example, Mabel complains that Tommy's romantic whispers make him sound like a doctor; his attempts at intimacy only fail to produce some effect on the public. According to this ironic jest then, it is not so much the suitor's sincerity that matters as his sense of publicity. The effect, of course, of this and Mabel's other parodistic remarks is to make Trafford's solemn proposals and courtship rituals absurd.
To take another example: When Lady Chiltern protests that Tommy has a bright future ahead, Mabel declares she could never marry such a man. Such geniuses talk too much and always think of themselves, whereas Mabel requires a husband who will think only of her. Mabel's delightful retort is both irrational ("geniuses always think of themselves") and brazenly unfair: the genius is to be faulted for an egocentrism that prevents him from satisfying Mabel's. Mabel is not looking for an ideal husband; she'd rather have a good admirer. Clearly she pursues romance on terms that diverge sharply from those of the Chilterns.
Lady Chiltern, Lady Markby, and Mrs. Cheveley also converse on married life. Notably, Lady Markby bemoans the talk of government her husband brings home, criticizing the House of Commons as the worst blow to marriage since the Higher Education of Women. Having just come from a meeting of the Women's Liberal Association, Lady Chiltern gently disagrees. She thus comes to embody the model Victorian new woman, a figure of great interest for Wilde during his editorship of Woman's World magazine in the late 1880s. Such an ideal wife is both involved in public affairs and particularly "women's issues" and active in her husband's political career. In contrast, Lady Markby appears emblematic of an older and more conservative generation of London Society. We will take up another generational conflict in the following act, in which Lords Goring and Caversham confront each other on the merits of the modern dandified lifestyle.
A final aside on this generational divide: in Act I, Lady Markby makes a number of questionable references to race, stock, and intermixing and, in Act II, jokingly proposes a scheme of "assisted emigration" to rectify overpopulation in London's newly mixed social circles. Her rather questionable sense of humor—distasteful to a contemporary reader—also identifies her with more conservative circles.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!