Summary of Act III
Lord Goring enters the library in his house, in evening dress, ready to go out. To the right is the door to the hall. To the left is the door to the smoking-room. Behind are the doors to the drawing-room. His “Ideal Butler,” Phipps, is “a mask with a manner,” a Sphinx who reveals nothing (p. 73). The two engage in clever pleasantries, as Lord Goring suddenly finds a letter that came while he was at dinner. It is in Lady Chiltern’s handwriting on pink paper, saying, “I want you. I trust you. I am coming to you. Gertrude.”
Lord Goring had told Gertrude the previous day, as he had to Sir Robert, to call on him if she ever needed him. Now he realizes, she must know everything and feels desperate. He cannot go out now as he had planned; he must wait for her arrival. He decides he will tell her to stand by her husband. It is 10:00 p.m. Suddenly, Lord Caversham, his father arrives.
Lord Goring hopes his father will leave soon, but Lord Caversham makes himself comfortable, saying he wants to have a serious conversation with his son. He tells him he must get married at once; it is his duty. He should be more like the ideal Sir Robert Chiltern and settle down. He is now thirty-four, and he cannot put it off. Lord Goring, nervous about Gertrude’s arrival, tries to get his father to leave, saying they can talk more about it tomorrow. Lord Caversham keeps complaining of a draught in the library, so he goes into the smoking-room. Lord Goring tells Phipps there is a lady coming to see him, and she must be shown into the drawing-room when she arrives. No one else is to be admitted.
Just then, the bell rings, and as Lord Goring goes to answer the door himself, his father comes out of the smoking-room and wants his attention. Lord Goring goes with his father into the smoking-room, reminding Phipps of his instructions.
Phipps answers the door to find Mrs. Cheveley. She does not give her name, but Phipps says Lord Goring gave orders to show her into the drawing-room. She is surprised that Lord Goring had expected her. She looks into the drawing room, remarking how ugly it is and how she shall have to change it.
She realizes Lord Goring is waiting for another woman and wonders who it is. She starts snooping through his messages on his writing desk and finds the letter from Gertrude Chiltern. She smiles as though she understands, hides the letter under a blotting-book, and goes into the drawing-room. Later, she sneaks into the library again to retrieve the letter but hears voices from the smoking-room where Lord Goring is speaking to his father. She goes back to the drawing-room without the letter. The men come into the library and Lord Goring says he hopes he will be able to choose his own bride, but his father says he will do it because there is property at stake.
Lord Goring shows his father out but comes back into the library with an unexpected guest who just came in, Sir Robert Chiltern. He tells his friend that his wife knows everything now and complains of his fate. Lord Goring asks Sir Robert if he has heard anything from Vienna. He answers yes, that a telegram has revealed that Mrs. Cheveley inherited money from her former lover, Baron Arnheim. Sir Robert asks for a drink, and Lord Goring rings for Phipps and orders hock and seltzer.
Privately, Lord Goring tells Phipps that when the lady calls, she should be told he is not home. He is afraid of Robert and Gertrude meeting. Phipps tells him the lady is already in the drawing-room. Lord Goring thinks it is Gertrude there and believes things are in an awkward mess.
Sir Robert says Lord Goring (Arthur) is his only friend and asks his advice. Arthur asks if Gertrude has any weakness or has done some folly in her own life. Sir Robert says no; she is “pitiless in her perfection—cold and stern and without mercy” (p. 86). They have no children, and it is a lonely house. Phipps enters with his drink, and suddenly, they hear noises in the drawing-room. Sir Robert is afraid someone has been listening to his secrets, but Arthur gives his word no one is there.
Not believing him, Sir Robert rushes into the drawing-room and comes back shocked, wondering what that woman (Mrs. Cheveley) is doing in his house. Arthur still thinks it is Gertrude and claims she is guiltless of any wrongdoing, trying to protect Gertrude’s reputation to her husband. Sir Robert rushes out, assuming Mrs. Cheveley, his enemy, is Lord Goring’s mistress.
Mrs. Cheveley comes into the library and reveals herself to Lord Goring. He offers her a cigarette and guesses that she has come to sell Sir Robert’s letter to him. He asks her to name her price. She says that he once loved her and proposed to her. Now she will marry Arthur in exchange for the letter. She wants to come back to London and be part of society. In their conversation, she reveals herself to be cruel and without mercy, and Arthur is not as cynical as she supposes. He defends both Lady Chiltern and Sir Robert as morally above Mrs. Cheveley, and so she cannot understand them. She claims nevertheless it is a “commercial transaction” (p. 95) and she will expose Sir Robert if he does not help her. Lord Goring says what she has done to the Chilterns is unforgivable.
Mrs. Cheveley says she merely returned to their house to find her lost jewel, her diamond snake-brooch. He claims he has found it and offers to pin it on her. He puts it on her arm as a bracelet. She is surprised that it can be worn that way and asks how he knows this secret. He replies that he gave the jewel to his cousin, Lady Berkshire, ten years ago, and accuses Mrs. Cheveley of stealing it. She denies it and tries to get it off, but it has a secret spring, and she cannot take it off. He threatens to call the police unless she turns over Sir Robert’s letter. She gives it to him, and he burns it.
She threatens, however, to blackmail Gertrude now for she has the note written to Lord Goring, implying that Gertrude was his secret lover (“ I want you . . . I am coming to you”). She rushes out with it triumphantly.
Commentary on Act III
Wilde uses the typical device of drawing-room comedy, having people in different rooms who must not mix, because they all have different information and cross-purposes. The fact that he has Mrs. Cheveley, a former lover, in one room, Sir Robert in another, and his father in a third, indicates the social complications of his upper class life. Society seems to be based on lies, poses, and intrigue. Arthur is the one trying to conduct this charade, but he too is fooled as messages go astray, creating more and more complications.
Like all good comedy, Wilde carefully crafts the play like a dance, and once things are as complicated as they can get, with Mrs. Cheveley trying to ruin everyone’s life, including trapping Arthur into marriage, the knots suddenly unravel quickly. The key is the diamond snake brooch introduced in the first scene, which will implicate Mrs. Cheveley in one of her former crimes. She had stolen the brooch and let a servant take the blame for it. Arthur effectively handcuffs her with it to publish her guilt to all.
The focus is on Arthur in this act as the moral agent and solver of problems. Goring, like Algernon in “The Importance of Being Earnest” is the witty social dandy, most suggestive of Wilde himself. Algernon, however, is merely an empty clown compared to Arthur who carries more depth and serious purpose in this play.
He juggles many roles as a friend, former lover, playboy, romantic lover, and son. Oddly enough, though his reputation as the irresponsible dandy is established in Act I, he gains more and more serious status as the play progresses. He has appeared to be selfish, and yet in this act, he does everything he can to save his friends, the Chilterns. He is clever enough to know how to play the blackmail game with Mrs. Cheveley, unlike the Chilterns who seem too innocent to help themselves.
It is Arthur who makes most of the serious moral pronouncements in the play in favor of love and forgiveness, chiding Robert, Gertrude, and especially Mrs. Cheveley, for shortcomings. He tells Mrs. Cheveley she does not know the real character of the Chilterns, and she has deliberately brought tragedy into their lives for which he will not forgive her. He admits he once loved her enough to be engaged to her, but she only knows how to manipulate others. She believes she and Arthur have the same motive because they are both aware of the social game, but Arthur separates his sort of silliness from her harmful behavior in this scene.
Though the central act here of burning the letter sets Sir Robert free, the scene ends with more threats and misunderstandings to resolve. Sir Robert has rushed out of the house thinking that his friend Arthur is in league with Mrs. Cheveley, and Mrs. Cheveley has rushed out with the intention to damn Gertrude with what she believes is a love letter from Gertrude to Arthur. Now she can make the lily-white Gertrude appear as corrupt as anyone else.