The fourth act takes place in Sir Robert’s morning-room, where Lord Goring waits restlessly to share his news. A servant comes in to tell him that Sir Robert is at work, Lady Chiltern is still in her room, and Mabel Chiltern has just come home from a morning outing. The servant also says that Lord Caversham is waiting in the library, and that he is aware of Lord Goring’s visit; Lord Goring asks the servant to tell his father that he has already left. But in a minute Lord Caversham enters and immediately begins scolding his son for his idleness and bachelorhood. Lord Goring promises to be engaged before lunch. “Never know whether you are serious or not,” says Lord Caversham; “neither do I,” Lord Goring replies.
For Lord Caversham, the categories “serious” and “trivial” align, in a vague way, with the categories “good” and “bad” as well as the categories “natural” and “unnatural.” In other words, he believes it is good and natural to behave seriously, and bad and unnatural to behave trivially. Lord Caversham takes all this for granted. Yet there is no particular reason for these associations – no reason other than convention. Lord Goring is wise enough not to attempt to convince his father otherwise.
Lord Caversham brusquely changes the subject. He informs his son that Lord Chiltern has been highly praised for his speech against the Argentine Canal: The Times has honored him for his upstanding political career. Caversham tells his son to go into politics, and then once again tells him to marry. Goring explains that he is too young for such dull things; when his father says that he “hate[s] this affectation of youth,” Goring replies: “Youth isn’t an affectation. Youth is an art.”
Earlier, we briefly compared dandyism to Peter Pan Syndrome – the resolve to never grow up. (J.M. Barrie’s play, incidentally, premiered in London about a decade after Wilde’s.) But here Goring indicates the primary difference between the two mindsets: Peter Pan’s adherents believe that youth is the most natural state, but dandies know it is a chosen attitude, a performance.
Mabel Chiltern comes in. She pointedly ignores Lord Goring, and asks Lord Caversham sympathetically about Lady Caversham’s hats, which she seems to consider a sort of illness. After Lord Goring greets her loudly several times, she explains that she refuses to speak to him – after all, he stood her up that very morning. Lord Goring is genuinely upset to hear it, since he truly enjoys talking to her. “I never believe a single word that either you or I say to each other,” she replies. She complains to Lord Caversham that Lord Goring cannot be influenced; as is his habit, he replies that his son is heartless. In a minute, Lord Caversham leaves.
Here, Mabel and Lord Goring almost have a spat – almost. But their odd sense of humor seems to keep them hovering just above it, as though they’re really just gently mocking spats and the people who have them. The little oxymoron in their conversation – “I love talking to you,” “we never mean what we say” – is an oxymoron only on the surface. In fact, Mabel implies that they love talking to each other precisely because they never mean what they say, because they avoid seriousness.
Mabel continues to prod Lord Goring about their missed date, but he charms her out of her ill spirits. He prepares to ask for her hand in marriage; she guesses his intentions, and confides that it is her second of the day – the annoying Tommy Trafford proposed to her earlier that morning. Little by little, via a series of imaginative twists and turns, they confess their love for one another and determine to marry as soon as possible.
Compare Lord Caversham’s approach to Lord Goring’s. Lord Caversham says to his son: “You must be this and you must be that!” – an apparently ineffective approach. Lord Goring does not tell Mabel to be in a good mood, and he does not tell her to marry him – he just makes it so. In this, he is a fine artist in Mrs. Cheveley’s sense.
Lady Chiltern walks into the room, and Mabel leaves them to speak in private. Lord Goring tells Lady Chiltern that Mrs. Cheveley gave him the incriminating letter, and that he has burned it. He also admits that Mrs. Cheveley stole Lady Chiltern’s letter from his drawing room, and now plans to mail it to Robert as proof of infidelity. Lady Chiltern is horrified. Lord Goring suggests that she tell Robert the truth, but instead she resolves to find a way to keep the letter from Robert.
This scene echoes an earlier conversation between Lord Goring and Sir Robert. At the beginning of the second act, Goring advised Robert to tell his wife the truth about a letter. Now, he advises Lady Chiltern to tell her husband the truth about a letter. But neither of the Chilterns trusts the other enough to come clean. They are inexperienced with forgiveness.