The Reverend James Morell, a Christian Socialist clergyman of the Church of England, is working in his drawing room. His morning is enlivened by a procession of visitors, some welcome, some not so much. First, is his secretary, Miss Prospeprine Garnett, who is arranging his usual busy schedule of lectures. Next is the Reverend Alexander Mill (“Lexy”), Morell’s curate, followed soon by Mr. Burgess, Morell’s father-in-law. Finally, Candida, Morell’s pretty and witty wife enters, followed closely by Eugene Marchbanks, a strange and insecure poet of eighteen years who has become a frequent guest in the Morell household.
Finally, Morell and Marchbanks find themselves quite alone. Marchbanks tells Morell that he is in love with Candida and means to take her away from what he sees as a plain, unhappy marriage. At first, Morell patronizes him and refuses to take him seriously. As the conversation becomes more heated, Marchbanks’s words begin to strike home. Marchbanks is about to leave when Candida enters and convinces him to come and help her set the table for lunch. Marchbanks feels he has won a great victory, and Morell is left alone, with his confidence in the security of his marriage badly shaken.
That afternoon Morell and Marchbanks are again in the drawing room when Marchbanks is horrified to learn that Candida is filling and trimming lamps. He chastises Morell for allowing his wife’s delicate fingers to be sullied by such work. Morell is again angered, almost to the point of violence. When Candida enters, Marchbanks contrasts the filling of dirty lamps with poetic visions of the romantic places he would like to take her where the lamps are stars, “and don’t have to be filled with paraffin oil every day.” Ever practical, she leads him off to the kitchen to slice onions.
Candida soon reenters to find her husband alone. Concerned about his worn appearance, she urges him to stop working and sit and talk with her. She tells him that the women who attend his lectures aren’t really moved by what he says. They simply come to look at him because they, like her, are in love with him.
However, she feels sorry that poor, young Eugene has never had the love that her husband is accustomed to. She is concerned for how Eugene will ever learn about love; and, gradually, Morell realizes that he would be foolish to simply take his wife’s love for granted. He is in a state bordering on mental agony when Marchbanks enters. Finally, Morell leaves for a lecture he has agreed to, leaving Marchbanks alone with Candida for the evening.
While Morell is gone, Marchbanks recites poetry to Candida by firelight. She, however, is deep in thought and largely oblivious to him. Finally, she tells him to put his poetry aside and come and talk to her. Morell returns from his lecture to find Marchbanks on his knees in front of Candida with his arms clasped on her lap. Unembarrassed, Candida leaves to take care of household business. Morell and Marchbanks argue again, about the young poet’s feelings for Candida and about their very differing views on romance, marriage, and life.
When Candida reenters, the two men tell Candida of the arguments they have been having and tell her they want her to choose between the two of them. “I suppose it is quite settled that I must belong to one or the other,” she responds, and asks what each will bid for her. Morell finally breaks down and weeps but responds to her request with practicality, offering strength, honesty, industry, and dignity. Marchbanks is ever the poet, offering his “heart’s need.”
Candida will, of course, make her own decision, but, before she is finished, she hopes to teach these two men something. She is, after all, her own woman—and, if choose she must, it will be on her terms, not theirs.