An Ideal Husband

Oscar Wilde

Act IV

Summary Act IV

Moreover, by demanding that Sir Robert exit public life, Lady Chiltern, according to Lord Goring, "[plays] Mrs. Cheveley's cards"—that is, she plays the part of the villainess rather than that of the heroine. What Goring means precisely by this accusation is somewhat unclear. Is the supposed fault she shares with Mrs. Cheveley is her use of love to bend her husband's will? In any case, Goring's speech leaves the audience with firmly established gender roles in the marital household that, to a contemporary reader especially, are quite disappointing. As noted above, Lady Chiltern will repeat his speech to Sir Robert verbatim, indicating that she has learned her lesson well.

At the same time, as with the entire play, Act IV offers a critique of marriage that undermines this sentimental resolution. More precisely, Goring and Mabel's marriage serves as a sort of foil to the Chilterns'. As Mabel declares in one of the penultimate moments of the play, the "ideal husband" belongs to the next world; in their marriage, Goring can be whatever he wants. She, on the other hand, promises to be a "real wife."

Thus Mabel and Goring negotiate a union that dispenses with question regarding the ideal behavior of the married couple. Indeed, throughout the play they have assumed an amoral pose, disparaging the demands of duty and respectability. Earlier in the act, for example, Mabel remarks to Goring how "on principle," she never does her duty; it always depresses her. She thus teases the lord with what one might describe as a "false paradox"—that is, a statement that is taken or misunderstood as amusingly paradoxical even as the terms involved ("duty" and "principle") are not necessarily contradictory. Read literally, Mabel's witticism suggests that the principles of these lovers demand precisely that they resist the notion of duty. Clearly then does Mabel end up on different footing than her sister-in-law, who has finally come to learn her duties to her husband.