You are on page 1of 4


An Ideal Husband is a play in four acts written by the Irish author Oscar Wilde. It was put on stage for the first time in 1895 and then published in 1899, a year before his death. With his usual sense of humor and wit, Wilde exposes in this play a wide variety of topics that picture the characteristics and defects of the upper classes of the Victorian society, for instance, marriage, politics, corruption, forgiveness, the role of females in society, among others. The complexity of topics and situations presented in the play allow the reader to analyze and answer a series of questions as: how marriage is visualized and understood, the contrast between the traditional role of females in society against the one that was developing at the end of Nineteen Century or morality and ethics of the aristocracy in the British society of the period. The present essay addresses the topic of morality and ethics given by Wilde, and will try to answer the following question: How Oscar Wilde describes the moral sense in the play an ideal husband?


From the reading of an ideal husband it can be said that in society, especially among the rich and powerful individuals, the ones with political influences and members of the government, there is an incongruity, a double standardized vision of morality and ethics: one set of rules and principles that must be accomplished by others and the exceptions of those principles that can be applied in oneself behavior. Probably, one of the most remarkable examples of the previously mentioned situation can be observed in the scene when Lady Chiltern finds herself in a very

similar position as the one recently lived by her husband; Mrs. Cheveley, as a final act of revenge, threats her with sending to Lord Chiltern a letter which supposedly would expose an affair between Lord Goring and Lady Chiltern. In desperation, on behalf of keeping her image undamaged, Lady Chiltern sees as her only option to intercept that letter, an action that even today we could consider a crime, or at least controversial. But that is not the only action that breaks, contradicts and goes against the highly moral standards that she claimed to possess when she discovered the secret sin of her husband. Even though she accuses and judges her husband of lying to her, as can be evidenced in the following quote: Oh! what a mask you have been wearing all these years! A horrible painted mask! lied to the whole world1 When she has to choose between telling Lord Chiltern the truth about that letter or doing an action of questionable morality, she chooses the second one almost without hesitation, as can be seen in the following fragment 2: Lord Goring: I think it is better that he should know the exact truth. Lady Chiltern: [Rising.] Oh, I couldnt, I couldnt! Lord Goring: May I do it? Lady Chiltern: No. An additional piece of evidence about the way on which Oscar Wilde describes morality and ethics can be found in a statement expressed by a character who openly goes against the norms, using any kind of resources to achieve her goals: Mrs. Cheveley. In the second act she says: Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike. As I can understand, this quote indicates that the moral values that society constantly demands were never meant to guide the own behavior, that morality, by definition is established as an external cannon, as a punishment towards others but not towards ourselves. The importance of morality for the Victorian society, more specifically for political leaders, can be exemplified by a statement given by Lord Goring in the second act. He says to Lord Chiltern the following: in England a man who can't talk morality twice a week to a large, popular, immoral audience is quite over as a

1: An ideal Husband, II act 2. An ideal Husband, IV act

serious politician. This text shows us the importance of the presence of morality in the public speech in order to build a strong and respectable public image. But the quote also gives evidence of the before mentioned contradiction or double standardized conception of morality, because morality has to be a quality exhibited, or at least declared by the public figures, but it does not need to be a characteristic of the masses. A final example, not precisely about morality but about how easily we contradict ourselves and change our opinions is found on two statements given by Lord Caversham. During the third act, while he discusses with his son about women and marriage, he claims very emphatically that: No woman, plain or pretty, has any common sense at all, sir. Common sense is the privilege of our sex. A simple analysis of that quote shows us that Lord Caversham is deeply convinced that no female, at any moment or under any kind of circumstances can present that characteristic. But that conviction only lasted a brief period of time, because, at the very end of the fourth act, he expresses the following words: Upon my word, there is a good deal of common sense in that, Lady Chiltern. As we can see, under a change on the circumstances (his son has started a romantic relationship with Mabel Chiltern) Lord Caversham is able to modify his speech, without even expressing any kind of conflict with his previously established belief.


In the previously presented situations, the author shows us and almost essential characteristic of human nature, which is the existence of incongruences, in the particular case of this play, the double standardized conception of morality. Oscar Wide provides to the audience (or readers) a considerable amount of examples about the easiness on which we humans contradict ourselves, how our speech is not always coherent with our behavior; how we decide, sometimes, not to guide our own conduct according to a certain principle, and, at the same time, we demand others to respect under any kind of circumstances the very same

principle that we have chosen to break, even if that respect for the rules may end up damaging our own image in society and also among the people we love.


Unknown author. An Ideal Husband Background. Consulted on Nov. 20th, 2012. Wilde, Oscar. An ideal husband, A play. The Project Gutenberg, 2009 HTML file. Consulted on Nov. 23rd, 2012.