The third act opens onto Lord Goring’s library, where the impressively inscrutable butler named Phipps is tidying up some newspapers. Lord Goring walks in, dressed beautifully and expensively - “the first well-dressed philosopher in the history of thought.” He asks Phipps for a change of buttonhole (a flower one wears on a suit jacket). Lord Goring speaks meditatively and slyly about the nature of fashion, politeness and truthfulness; he concludes that in all these matters, one’s own person represents the good and others represent the bad (“falsehoods [are] the truth of other people.”) As if to soothe a child, Phipps responds to each of these musings with a polite “Yes, my lord.” Lord Goring examines his buttonhole, and decides that it is not trivial enough – it makes him look too much like an adult.
The quoted description of Lord Goring is both an amusing quip and a weighty comment on both clothing and philosophy. The quotation implies that people have generally considered serious thought incompatible with superficial aspects of beauty and pleasure, and that Lord Goring is the rare person that has reconciled the two. Why have people tended to separate them? Because many consider only “serious” matters, unearthly, metaphysical ideas, deserving of “serious” thought. Lord Goring believes that trivial, earthly things are equally deserving of serious thought.
Phipps hands Goring three letters and leaves the room. One letter is written on pink paper; it is a message from Lady Chiltern that reads: “I want you. I trust you. I am coming to you.” She intends to arrive at ten that evening. Goring decides to cancel his previous evening plans and try to convince Lady Chiltern to forgive Robert, since every woman should stand by her husband.
Lord Goring’s ideas about love and forgiveness are explicitly gendered. He states that women, in particular, must be forgiving and loving. Yet his statements seem to be more gendered than his actions. Based on his interactions with Robert, one could argue that his beliefs apply equally to men.
Just then, Lord Caversham enters. For Lord Goring, it is a very inconvenient time. Lord Caversham intends to have a serious talk with his son, but Lord Goring explains that he “only talk[s] seriously on the first Tuesday in every month, from four to seven.” Lord Caversham waves aside his son’s jokes and announces that he must get married, and right away – he should follow Sir Robert’s example. He is already thirty-four, after all – though here Goring interrupts to say that he always claims to be thirty two. They briefly discuss paradoxes of personality – Goring quipping and playing, Lord Caversham confused and cranky – and then Goring suggests that they move into the smoking-room, which is less drafty.
We have said that Lord Goring does not believe that talking seriously and thinking seriously are equivalent, or even much related. But we can still ask the question: why avoid talking seriously? After all, it doesn’t necessarily hinder serious thought. Lord Caversham is a good illustration of the dangers of talking seriously. When Lord Caversham makes a humorless statement about right and wrong, its humorlessness (seriousness) is a symptom of narrow-mindedness, of imaginative stiffness and prejudice.
His father walks ahead into the room. Lord Goring takes Phipps aside and tells him that a lady is coming to visit him that evening, and instructs him to take her into the drawing room when she arrives. The bell rings, but Lord Goring must rush off to join his father. Soon Mrs. Cheveley walks into the library, radiant and splendidly dressed. She looks into the drawing-room with a proprietary air, as though planning to redecorate; she even asks Phipps to change the lampshades. She is surprised to hear from Phipps that Lord Goring was expecting her, and then assumes that he was expecting another woman – a secret lover, perhaps. She glances at the table and recognizes Lady Chiltern’s handwriting; she reads the letter and takes it as proof that Lady Chiltern and Lord Goring are having an affair. Phipps comes in from the drawing-room, and she hides the letter under a book on the table.
Mrs. Cheveley believes that moral codes are completely empty – that there is nothing actually of value that morality protects. She wears this attitude with an air of superiority, as though she has risen above a mass delusion. She believes the attitude affords her a special insight into people’s actions and motivations. But in this scene, it becomes clear that her viewpoint actually limits her understanding. Because she believes that all moral attitudes are only theatrical displays, she is unable to understand behaviors that truly are morally grounded. For this reason, she misreads both Goring (in expecting him to marry her) and Lady Chiltern (in interpreting her letter as proof of infidelity.)
Suddenly, Lord Goring and Lord Caversham walk back into the library, and Mrs. Cheveley hides in the drawing-room. Father and son are still discussing marriage. Lord Caversham explains that the choice of wife should fall to him, because “there is property at stake” – “marriage is a matter for common sense.” Lord Goring objects that women with common sense are “curiously plain.” As is his habit, Lord Caversham calls his son “heartless,” and Lord Goring politely disagrees.
The question of Lord Goring’s “heartlessness” is central to the play. In Wilde’s time, dandyism and aestheticism were considered destructive and amoral. The play makes a strong case to the contrary. Lord Goring believes that common sense is “plain” because it is prejudiced and narrow-minded, and therefore ugly: its ugliness lies in its untruth.
Just then, Sir Robert walks in. He tells Goring despairingly that Mrs. Cheveley has revealed his shameful secret to his wife. He has also learned that Mrs. Cheveley is more or less untouchable in Vienna, because Baron Arnheim left her most of his fortune. Lord Goring takes Phipps aside and tells him that he must change his instructions regarding the lady visitor: when she comes, Phipps must turn her away. Phipps replies that the lady is already here, waiting in the drawing-room. In some confusion, Lord Goring returns to Sir Robert, who begs him for advice. He has realized, he says, that “love is the great thing” – not ambition. Lady Chiltern, Robert says, has never done anything dishonorable, and Robert is afraid that she will leave him. Lord Goring assures Robert that she will forgive him.
What is the meaning of Robert’s realization? He has come to believe that one’s relationships with other people matter more than personal gain: the simple foundation of most moral codes. Lord Goring has helped Robert arrive at this conclusion, and behind Goring’s dandyism is the same simple belief in human relationships. No matter how heartless he may seem to some, Lord Goring has taken it upon himself to champion the very center of moral life. But his moral quality is obscured to people like Lord Caversham, who conflate manner with belief.