Literary texts communicate ideological perspectives, but our responses are mediated by our own

social, cultural and/or historical space.

An Ideal Husband (1895) – Oscar Wilde

Intro

The period from 1890 to 1895 brought Oscar Wilde to the height of his writing career; scandalous in
their assault on Victorian mores, Wilde’s new comedy of manners conquered the London stage. An
Ideal Husband (1895) was written during the decade known as the “Yellow” or “Naughty Nineties”,
the twilight years of England’s Victorian era. Imperial expansion, foreign speculation, and the
period’s system of mores – involving notions of familial devotion, propriety and duty both public and
personal – provide the backdrop for Wilde’s play. As a primary propagator of aestheticism, Wilde
rebelled against Victorian sensibilities, calling for a world judged by the beauty of its artifice rather
than its moral value. The play, often referred to as a ‘well-made’ play, is about a prominent
politician, in danger of losing his reputation as a paragon of integrity, owing to a youthful
indiscretion that the play’s villain is threatening to expose.

Body 1: Aestheticism

The play finds its roots in the controversial late 19th century movement of aestheticism. As
articulated by Wilde, Aestheticism was a rebellion against the somber respectability of Victorian
ideals and moral strictures. Art must be loved for its own sake, judged by the beauty of artifice
rather than that of morality. As with dandyism and decadence, the Aestheticism movement
venerated individual freedom, modernity, and social theatricality. Examining the introductions of
characters, this idea of physical appreciation is identified. Both Mabel Chiltern and Mrs. Cheveley are
described with flower references: Mabel as “the apple-blossom type” and having “all the fragrance
and freedom of a flower” and Cheveley as wearing “heliotrope” and looking “rather like an orchid.”
Moreover, the women are described in ‘soft’ terms, viewed as “types of exquisite fragility.” Mabel is
further described as having “ripple and ripple of sunlight in her hair” and “like a Tanagra statuette”
whilst Cheveley is seen to be “extremely graceful.” The descriptions of the men derive a stark
contrast. In Sir Robert’s case, “A personality of mark, deeply respected by the many,” his manner
being that “of perfect distinction” and “one feels that he is conscious of the success he has made in
life.” Besides, his intellect is mentioned, as well as his willpower. Wilde explains that “Vandyck would
have liked to have pained his head,” whereas Mrs. Cheveley is described as a “work of art.” The use
of figurative language suggests that instead of being looked at, in the case of Mrs. Cheveley, Sir
Robert should be painted, denoting power and status. The references in the introductions of the
female characters refer to sensual, fragile art while those of male characters are portraits, coming
with connotations of more authority and seriousness. Wilde’s portrayal of the characters introduces
the patriarchal agenda of the era, dramatizing the clash in value systems rather explicitly, continually
posing the figure of the dandy, a thinly veiled double of Wilde himself, against a set of more
respectable, "ideal" characters.
Body 2: Marriage (Victorian, Hypocrisies)

 The Chilterns are foolish to try to have an "ideal" marriage based on materialistic values, such as
property and high social standing. The Chiltern marriage is predicated on Lady Chiltern's belief
that Sir Robert must be morally above reproach. Rather than showing concern or sympathy for
Sir Robert when he clearly is in great distress after Mrs. Cheveley's visit, Lady Chiltern forces him
to remain true to his public image in a way that makes one wonder whether she is trying to
protect herself or her husband. Self-interest clearly plays a huge role in the play, and within the
sphere of marriage, it threatens the happiness of both the Chilterns. Wilde's language suggests
that marriage is a dangerous institution. Mrs. Cheveley comments dryly that the London season
is full of those hunting for husbands, or trying to avoid them. The sentiment suggests a type of
predatory nature to marriage that contributes to Wilde's already cynical tone.
 Wilde examines the problematic nature of marriage, portraying it as both corrupt and
corrupting. The survival of marriage and the proposal of entering married union is central
throughout the plot, highlighting the characters’ imperfections.
 The play's Although Sir Robert is only honest when it is in his interest, Lady Chiltern, for all her
talk of honor and morality, is often hypocritical in her inability to forgive others.

 The upper class (the elite) valued history, heritage, lineage and the continuity of their family
line. They believed that they were born to rule through divine right and they wanted this right to
continue. They had a paternalistic view of society, seeing themselves as the father in the family
of society. Noblesse oblige was their belief that it was the elite's duty to take care of society. The
elite hoped to continue tradition and the status quo, through institutions such as the law of
primogeniture (first-born son inherits everything). The elite intended to stay on top and
wealthy.
During the Victorian era, men and women searched for an ideal relationship based on the
expectations of a demanding society. Wilde treats marriage as a complicated and imperfect
relationship in the play, mocking the Chilterns’ attempt to create an ‘ideal’ marriage based on
materialistic values, such as property and high social standing.

Body 3: Gender (Representations, Patriarchal, Feminism, Wilde)

 Patriarchal, ambivalent

Undoubtedly ambiguous, the play both undermines and supports the patriarchal agenda.
Constructed in layers of assertion and contradiction, it does not contain a distinctive thesis and
antithesis, instead characters alternately depend upon and subvert traditional stereotypes. A
feminist critical approach to the text unearths Wilde’s social criticism of the patriarchal ideas of the
Victorian era surrounding women. Embodying this ambiguity are the characters of Mrs. Chiltern and
Mrs. Cheveley. Mrs. Chiltern is the epitome of a respectable Victorian woman; ostensibly appearing
as proto-feminist, empowered and not confined to domestic space. Despite transgressing the
contemporary gender boundaries by campaigning for equality and attempting to control the actions
of her husband, she falls back into the traditional role of women: “Pardon, not punishment, is
women’s mission.” Showing no signs of disapproval at Lord Goring’s highly conservative and
derogatory speech: “A man’s life is of more value than a woman’s…”, she accepts her conventional
role of a good Victorian woman and that her life is secondary to that of her husband. The robotic
way she repeats Goring’s words encourages this, ultimately displaying how women were
indoctrinated into accepting and adopting patriarchal ideas of what women should be like. Lady
Chiltern's primary foil, however, is the ‘Lamia-like’ Mrs. Cheveley. The witty and ambitious “work of
art” is characterized by a sort of duplicitous femininity, described in Act I as "horrid," "unnatural”
and showing “the influence of too many schools.” Her ambition and talent for partaking in scheming
power games found in the closed male sphere pose a threat to the traditionally divided spheres of
male and female, the public and private. Furthermore, the appearance of Mrs. Cheveley conforms to
the stereotype of the fallen woman. Described as having too much make up on, with highly coloured
red lips that match her “Venetian red hair” and rouge, at the time considered decadent and
associated with immorality, prostitution and acting. Having revealed her capacity to manipulate in
Act I, the play dramatically unmasks her as a monster in Act III. Trapped by Lord Goring, Cheveley
dissolves into a "paroxysm of rage, with inarticulate sounds," her loss of speech giving way to an
agony of terror that distorts her face. For a moment, a "mask has fallen", and Cheveley is "dreadful
to look at." Her veneer of wit and beauty thus give way to the hidden beast. Characters such as Mrs.
Chiltern and Mrs. Cheveley transgress the contemporary gender boundaries, though in the end they
more conform than reject the roles they have been given because of their gender. Trapped in the
clasp of patriarchy, they are aware of their situations, relying on their intelligence to separate
themselves from their stereotypes.

Undoubtedly ambiguous, the play both undermines and supports the patriarchal agenda.
Constructed in layers of assertion and contradiction, it does not contain a distinctive thesis and
antithesis, instead characters alternately depend upon and subvert traditional stereotypes. A
feminist critical approach to the text unearths Wilde’s social criticism of the patriarchal ideas of the
Victorian era surrounding women. Embodying this ambiguity are the characters of Mrs. Chiltern and
Mrs. Cheveley. Both women are presented as sharing one underlying fault, emotion. In contrast to
men such as Mr. Chiltern, who seems to possess “an almost complete separation of passion and
intellect, as though thought and emotion were each isolated in its sphere through some violence of
will-power,” the life of a woman “revolves in curves of emotion.” The text is ambiguous as on the
surface it seems to support these patriarchal words, though reading between the lines the play it
criticizes this definition of women as both characters transgress it, relying on intelligence in their
own different ways. Mrs. Cheveley, in putting her emotions aside to blackmail Mr. Chiltern, and Mrs.
Chiltern, in her political advice to her husband. Goring’s words that “It is upon lines of intellect that a
man’s life progresses” reveal the notion that both characters undermine the patriarchal view of
femininity as being driven solely by emotion. This critique becomes further evident in that Mrs.
Cheveley turns the ‘irrationality’ of women into a power, stating “The strength of women comes
from the fact that psychology cannot explain us.” Additionally, in An Ideal Husband (1895), women’s
connection to men is constant, revealing the underlying patriarchal power at play. Mr. Chiltern’s
need for a moral “white image of all good things” allows Mrs. Chiltern a glimpse into the male
sphere of politics, whilst subsequently boosting her own career as her husband is “received with
loud applause.” Mrs. Cheveley earns the fortune she does as a result of two financially profitable
relationships, one to Baron Arnheim, and the other to Lord Goring: “At the time I was poor; you
were rich.” Characters such as Mrs. Chiltern and Mrs. Cheveley transgress the contemporary gender
boundaries, though in the end they more conform than reject the roles they have been given
because of their gender. Trapped in the clasp of patriarchy, they are aware of their situations, relying
on their intelligence to separate themselves from their stereotypes.

Conclusion:
While presenting a reassuringly familiar melodrama of intrigue and blackmail, Wilde place his action
in the center of nineteenth century political life, and examined the issues of private and public
morality and their relation to the contemporary debate on the role of women.

The Victorian period is now often regarded as one of many contradictions. It is easy for many to see
a clash between the widespread cultivation of an outward appearance of dignity and restraint, and
the widespread presence of many arguably deplorable phenomena. Wilde employs satire directed at
the political and moral hypocrisy of aristocratic London society to draw upon the conflict between
public and personal morality, and the power of self-interest. The spheres of public and private life
are clear to all, outlined by Sir Robert: “public and private life are different things. They have
different laws.” Lord Goring, Mabel Chiltern, and Mrs. Cheveley – the dandies of the play – believe
that is impossible to act naturally. In different ways, they all disparage naturalism, which seems to
them a bizarre and alarming narrow-mindedness. To assert that one manner or way of life is
‘natural’ is to believe that there is precisely one correct way to be, portraying naturalism as
tragicomic. Mrs. Cheveley, the ‘heartless’ dandy of the play, thinks that goodness and morality are
poses with nothing behind them: she complains that “every one has to pose as a paragon of purity,
incorruptibility, and all the other seven deadly virtues.” Lord Goring, the dandy philosopher, knows
that morality can be both a pose and a true condition of inner life.