Lady Chiltern reenters and sits down to talk to Lord Goring about her husband’s mysterious dealings with Mrs. Cheveley. Awkwardly, Lord Goring tries to tell her to be a bit more merciful – to recognize that even the most upstanding people sometimes suffer moments of moral frailty. He tries to say that the world runs on love and charity, not on cold, abstract standards of right and wrong. He also tells her to come to him for help, if she ever needs it. Lady Chiltern half-discerns that he is alluding to her husband, but she cannot believe that Robert could ever do anything dishonest. She is amazed to hear Lord Goring speak so seriously; it is the first time she has heard him take such an undandylike attitude.
Lord Goring tries, finally, to explain his ideas about morality to Lady Chiltern. Ultimately, though, his ideas express more about his model of human nature – a changeable, unstable, various model, sensitive to the slightest impulses and held together by a frail structure perceived outwardly as “personality.” This model of human nature is linked closely to the dandy’s funny, inconsistent, inscrutable manner. The dandy refuses to participate in society’s game of stable personalities.
Mabel Chiltern enters and forbids Lord Goring from acting seriously – it is “unbecoming.” They make plans to go riding the following morning. As an afterthought, Lord Goring asks Lady Chiltern for a list of the guests from the previous night, and she tells him that he can obtain one from Tommy Trafford, a mutual acquaintance. Lord Goring says his goodbyes and walks out. Mabel complains to Lady Chiltern that Tommy Trafford proposes to her too often, and in very embarrassing fashion. She would never want to marry a man like Tommy, who has genius or an important career, because it would be dull – he would talk so much about his affairs. Mabel runs out, comes back in, and announces that Mrs. Cheveley is on her way.
The dull Tommy Trafford acts as a counterpart to Lord Goring. They are both Mabel’s suitors, yet they come at courtship in very different ways. Tommy is straightforward, persistent, artless, and boring. Lord Goring is so roundabout and inscrutable in his flirtations that they hardly even seem like flirtations. Clearly, Mabel is more responsive to the latter strategy. She prefers Lord Goring’s method because she, too, is a dandy. It is not a superficial similarity: they are alike not only in manner but in their ideas of human nature.
Lady Markby and Mrs. Cheveley enter. Mabel briefly says hello and runs off to pose in a tableau – a performance in which people pose as figures in a famous painting. Lady Markby explains that they have come to inquire about Mrs. Cheveley’s missing diamond brooch, but Lady Chiltern does not know anything about it. Lady Markby uses the occasion to ramble about the degeneration of London society: it is too crowded, too modern, too “mixed,” class-wise. She also complains about the trend in higher education for women, though on this point Lady Chiltern must respectfully disagree. Finally, Lady Markby complains about her over-politicized husband, and here Lady Chiltern disagrees once again – she enjoys talking about politics.
In this scene, Lady Markby helps to show the disparity between seriousness and the appearance of seriousness. So far, Lady Markby has seemed like a kindly, polite, dignified (if somewhat silly) older woman. But behind the appearance of kindly politeness is a tangle of prejudice and thoughtlessness. Lady Markby may seem to act “naturally,” but her behavior is only a pose – and one that does not represent her beliefs. It’s also important to note, in light of later events, that the author satirizes her narrow-mindedness regarding women.
The butler brings in tea, and Lady Markby rambles about family feuds. Mrs. Cheveley notes that parents nowadays must learn “the art of living” from their children – “the only really Fine Art we have produced in modern times.” Soon Lady Markby says her goodbyes and leaves to make another social call, and Lady Chiltern invites Mrs. Cheveley to stay and talk.
As soon as Lady Markby leaves, Lady Chiltern drops all pretense of pleasantness. She tells Mrs. Cheveley that she does not wish to see her again socially: she doesn’t want to receive anybody who has behaved as disgracefully as Mrs. Cheveley did in her youth. Mrs. Cheveley takes this very coolly; “morality is simply the attitude we adopt toward people whom we personally dislike,” she says. But, she says, she has come to do Lady Chiltern a favor – to advise Lady Chiltern to convince her husband to keep his promise about the Argentine Canal. Lady Chiltern is outraged, and demands that Mrs. Cheveley leave her house at once.
Just as Goring, in his dandy-like way, believes that personhood is variable and unstable, Mrs. Cheveley believes that morality is subjective and variable– that there is no such thing as right and wrong. But the similarity is deceptive. Goring’s dandyism does not imply that there is nothing worth valuing: we have seen him argue for understanding and forgiveness. Unlike Mrs. Cheveley, he thinks human relationships are of great value.
Just then, Robert walks in, Mrs. Cheveley announces triumphantly that Robert made his fortune by selling a government secret. After observing the impact of her announcement with satisfaction, she leaves the house. Robert admits that Mrs. Cheveley spoke the truth, and Lady Chiltern cries out that all their life together has been a lie. She loved him because he was good, honest, and idealistic, and now her love has been crushed; he is no longer her ideal. Despairingly, Robert tells her that people should love one another for both their flaws and their virtues; that it is wrong to make an ideal of the person one loves; and that love should be forgiving above all. He says that men love women for their flaws, but women put men on false pedestals. In preventing him from giving the dishonest report, he cries, she has ruined his life. He storms out, and Lady Chiltern bursts into tears.
The crisis that Mrs. Cheveley has brought on the Chilterns has exposed a significant difference between them. Robert – perhaps because of recent events – believes that a person is a composite of faults and virtues, a complicated and inconsistent entity. Lady Chiltern believes that people are either entirely bad, like Mrs. Cheveley, or entirely good, as she thought Robert once was. If he is not entirely good – if he has done a dishonest thing – he must be entirely bad. This scene shows that it is often crucial to possess a realistic, complicated idea of human nature; otherwise, we end up loving not people but ideas.