This section of Act I drastically shifts the tone of the play, moving from the banter of the dinner party to the Chilterns' maudlin confrontation. While the transition from dinner party is gradual, the encounter between the Chilterns' is ultimately so different—in both length and style—from the dialogue thus far as to constitute a new melodramatic "mode" on stage. Note the devices that make up their exchange: Lady Chiltern's lyrical entreaty to her ideal husband ("Oh! Be that ideal still"), Sir Robert's near-confession when Lady Chiltern implores the latter to reveal any past disgraces, the dramatic irony produced when she declares the past the means by which one judges others, and the apparent doom foretold when Lady Chiltern sorrowfully declares that she and a husband who had deceived her would necessarily drift apart. These devices serve to raise the suspense and tension of the exchange; from a party of clever and ironic wits we have moved to an intimate scene between two characters overcome with emotion. Unlike Wilde's inimitable banter, this dialogue directly borrows from the conventions of the Victorian popular stage.
Thematically this exchange addresses ideals of marriage, love, and morality, introducing the notion of the ideal husband. Here the conventionally melodramatic dialogue serves as vehicle for a similarly generic discussion of love. Tellingly, this discussion describes love in explicitly gendered terms. As a woman, Lady Chiltern loves Sir Robert as an ideal husband, a man worthy of worship for the example he sets privately and publicly. As a result, she cannot accept Sir Robert's protestations regarding the need for practical compromises; she will have her ideal spouse or none at all. Sir Robert will confront his wife on the dangers of idealizing one's lover in the following act.
Act I also places a critique of Lady Chiltern's severe sense of morality, however, in the mouth of the villainness, Mrs. Cheveley. Prior to the exchange between the Chilterns, Mrs. Cheveley ventures a biting critique of Victorian society, decrying its "modern mania for morality." Whereas scandals once lent charm to a politician, they now spell his ruin. Ultimately, of course, for Mrs. Cheveley it takes little more to assuage those of rigid morals than a few insipid homilies. As she remarks: "In modern life nothing produces such an effect as a good platitude. It makes the whole world kin."
More humorously, Lady Basildon and Mrs. Marchmont mock the notion of the ideal husband while bantering with Lord Goring. Bemoaning unendurably ideal husbands as dreadfully dull, they declare themselves "martyrs" of married life. Their conversation thus perhaps ironizes Lady Chiltern's worship of her ideal mate and her imminent martyrdom as a deceived wife.
Finally, we should also note the introduction of two objects on stage: the letter that returns from Sir Robert's past and the diamond bracelet. Such lost, misplaced, and waylaid objects are also familiar devices from the Victorian stage, serving to complicate plot and produce moments of dramatic irony. We will return to these objects in more detail below.