In his play An Ideal Husband, Oscar Wilde portrays his contemporary England. It is possible to discern the author’s attitude to his society from the title of the play. We observe a seemingly ideal society.
However, as the plot develops, it becomes obvious that the “ideal” society is founded on lies and manipulation. The Chilterns and those who have come to their reception represent a microcosm of the English society. The head of the family turns out to be a swindler. Sir Robert has pulled off a shady deal that brought him fortune and a high government position. His marriage to Gertrude has helped him secure an image of an honest gentleman.
Wilde points out that moral degradation has affected not only men but also women. Mrs. Cheveley does not look very much like an honest mother and wife. This lady is unscrupulous and loses no opportunity to line her pockets. This is an epitome of a modern woman who needs neither a husband as protector nor a family. Such a woman will not wait until a wealthy man proposes to her. Rather, she will offer marriage to him. And if he rejects the offer, she will find another way to succeed. However, there are women among the characters of the play who stay within the traditional perceptions of their role in the society. Such are Gertrude and Mabel.
Wilde ridicules his contemporaries’ ostentatious righteousness. And though the play has a happy end, the author is well aware of the fact that the reality is the opposite to this comic outcome. The truly virtuous lose, but the treacherous move onward and upward by stealing, deceit, and blackmail.