Celia wants to say goodbye to Lavinia amicably, and tells her, "What I want to say is this: I should like you to remember me/As someone who wants you and Edward to be happy." Lavinia is confused by this well-wishing, as the doorbell rings and Julia arrives. Lavinia is surprised when Julia says that her telegram was sent from Essex. "Well, perhaps I was in Essex. I really don't know," she says.
The doorbell rings again and it is Alex, who says his telegram from Lavinia came from Dedham (which is in Essex). Julia decides that Lavinia had a complete memory lapse, so she wrote them all telegrams. She tells Peter to call a taxi, so that they can all go to her house for a cocktail party and let Lavinia rest. Celia leaves, and Lavinia wants Julia to explain the telegram. Lavinia says that she feels as though she started some machine yesterday that keeps on running even though she wants it to stop.
Alex and Julia decide that Lavinia must figure out what is going on for herself, and Julia, Alex and Peter all leave. Left alone, and unable either to ask questions or give explanations, Lavinia and Edward are at a loss for what to talk about. Lavinia asks Edward how he did with the cocktail party, and apologizes for not remembering she had planned it until after she left. He tells her that all the same people came as just now, with one extra, unidentified guest. He tells Lavinia that he lied that she had gone to the country to visit her aunt, but Lavinia thinks he would have been better off telling the truth, since Julia sees through everything.
Lavinia tells Edward that they need to start telling the truth, and that now that she's had some time away, she sees just how absurd he really is, given the fact that he has no sense of humor. Edward suggests that he saw things differently, that he imagined that he was the one who had given in to her. They discuss the fact that Edward wanted Lavinia to pick their honeymoon destination, that it was she who encouraged him to become a lawyer. Lavinia complains, "Everything I tried only made matters worse,/And the moment you were offered something you wanted/You wanted something else."
Edward asks Lavinia why she came back and she does not know. She then asks him why he asked her back, and he tells her he does not know. Edward then gets angry at Lavinia and tells her that she only wanted a successful husband to support her public life. They argue about the fact that they believe the other does not want them to grow or change. Edward complains that Lavinia has always thought she knew more about him than he knew about himself. She counters that he has always assumed that she was not worth understanding.
Edward asks Lavinia why she married him and she tells him he was attractive and he seemed always like he was about to fall in love with her. He tells her that everyone told him he was in love with her and that they were compatible. Lavinia tells him that she thought that by leaving she might be able to help him. She suggests that Edward thinks he is able to change now because Celia is leaving. Edward bemoans the fact that he ever wanted Lavinia back, and she tells him they ought to go out to dinner.
Act 2. Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly's consulting room in London, several weeks later. He goes over his appointments for the day with his Nurse-Secretary. Alex comes in and speaks to Reilly and they discuss the fact that Edward is coming in at 11. Reilly asks Alex if he had any difficulty recommending him as a doctor to Edward. Alex says it was easy and that Edward trusts him, as Reilly tells Alex that he told Lavinia not to mention his name to Edward. They discuss the fact that Edward wants to be sent to a sanatorium in order to get the better of his wife. As Edward arrives, Alex leaves.
When Edward arrives, he recognizes Reilly as the Unidentified Guest from the other night. He asks if Lavinia invited him, and Reilly tells him that she did not, but that he had seen her before. "Let's not call it a trap./But if it is a trap, then you cannot escape from it:/And so...you might as well sit down," Reilly says. Reilly asks Edward to tell him why he is coming to the doctor, and Edward tells him that he is incapable of making decisions and that two people told him that he was on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
When Edward offers to talk about his childhood, Reilly suggests that, given his state, he would misrepresent the story of his childhood and his dreams, which would only "flatter [his] vanity." Edward replies with, "But I am obsessed by the thought of my own insignificance." Reilly suggests that talking about himself would provide relief for Edward's feelings of insignificance, but then give him an excuse to do harm in the world. "Half of the harm that is done in this world/Is due to people who want to feel important," he says.
Edward tells Reilly about the fact that when Lavinia came back he became aware of the tremendous power some women have, and the fact that she has made it impossible for him to have an existence of his own. He suggests that the sanatorium is the only place he can be alone, and that he can go there without his wife knowing. Suddenly, Reilly proposes that Edward meet his other patient, and calls Lavinia in. Both Edward and Lavinia are perturbed to see one another. Reilly tells Lavinia that Edward wants to be sent to a sanatorium, and she wonders if it is the same sanatorium to which she was sent.
Reilly suggests that he did not send Lavinia to a sanatorium but to "a kind of hotel."
The motor of the narrative seems to originate not in the desires of the characters themselves, but in some kind of external fateful "machine" that is controlling each of their destinies. Lavinia refers to this when she tries to get Julia to explain the telegrams to her. She says, "I am sure that you could explain the telegram./I don't know why. But it seems to me that yesterday/I started some machine, that goes on working,/And I cannot stop it; no, it's not like a machine—/Or if it's a machine, someone else is running it./But who? Somebody is always interfering...But who?/I don't feel free...and yet I started it...." In this we see that, in leaving Edward, Lavinia feels that she created some tear in the fabric of her life, one which she is now unable to mend.
In Lavinia's private conversation with Edward, we see that Edward is not the only one who came to some conclusions while Lavinia was away. Lavinia tells her husband that in her absence, she was able to reacquaint herself with her sense of humor, and see him as absurd. "Find that you've spent five years of your life/With a man who has no sense of humour;/And that the effect upon me was/That I lost all sense of humour myself," she says. The Unidentified Guest suggested to Edward that his marriage was more of a confining arrangement than a liberating one, and Lavinia confirms this herself, by suggesting that she always felt as though she was capitulating to his self-seriousness in their marriage. The play presents marriage as a socially convenient, but personally inconvenient agreement.
A major theme of the play—dissatisfaction and the desire for something else—is illuminated in this talk between Edward and Lavinia. In discussing the fact that she felt as though Edward wanted her to arrange everything for him, Lavinia says, "Everything I tried only made matters worse,/And the moment you were offered something you wanted/You wanted something else." Here she references the fact that neither of them could ever meet one another's expectations and were always subject to disappointments within their relationship. These are the exact kinds of disappointments that the Unidentified Guest talked about on the previous evening, when he tried to convince Edward that he is better off being confined to his marriage. Thus, we see that both Lavinia and Edward are grappling with the choice between independence and codependence.
This conflict has to do not only with independence and dependence, but also with the public versus the private. In the course of their argument, Edward contends that all Lavinia wanted from him was social success so that she could be propped up as a well-reputed society lady and hostess. While Lavinia argues that Edward required too much direction and support, he says, " You wanted your husband to be successful,/ You wanted me to supply a public background/For your kind of public life. You wished to be a hostess/For whom my career would be a support." In this moment, the couple reaches a kind of impasse, resentful of one another for completely different things. Edward wants less of a public life than Lavinia, while she wants him to want more from public life.
The surreal and more mystical elements of the earlier scenes are brought into relief by the fact that Edward is allegedly losing his mind, and the party, as well as the Unidentified Guest, were part of a broader plot to convince him to seek professional help for his apparent madness. This does not necessarily turn the play into a realist play, and it maintains its absurdist narrative—nothing is quite explained literally—but it provides yet another symbolic and philosophical lens through which to understand the main theme of the play, which is social and marital relations. The cocktail party, for all its gaiety and frivolity, is actually just a means by which a group of people can scrutinize and control the individual, call his subjectivity into question. The sanatorium that Edward wants to be sent to, on the other hand, is one of the only places he can be alone. The sanatorium and the cocktail party are placed in contrast to one another, representations of public and private domains.