Critical Essay on <i>An Ideal Husband</i>
The country in which Oscar Wilde was born was, for many centuries, a territory of the United Kingdom (Britain). Ireland was, then, a colony of Britain, a situation of enforced dependence that most Irish deeply resented. Uprisings against British rule were common until, finally, Home Rule was established in 1921. After this date, most major Irish- British skirmishes pertained to the contested territory of Northern Ireland, a portion of the Irish island that Britain retained owing to Northern Ireland’s large number of ethnic and religious Britons. (Northern Ireland is still British land to this day.)
Of interest to critics lately, in terms of Irish writers such as Wilde, James Joyce, and others, is how these authors’ works might evince patterns of anti-imperial expression. In other words, even if the work in question has little obvious, or no evident, political content relating to the Irish-British relations, how might the writing still be somehow colonial? What might the writing of the colonial writers of the world’s empires have in common?
As of a few decades ago, anybody who thought of Wilde probably thought of him as an English author. Yet, a more accurate description of him, perhaps, is that he is an Irish writer writing in the language of the empire to which his country belonged. Indeed, if it were not for British imperial ambitions, Wilde might have spoken and written in Gaelic, the predominant Irish language that British rulers suppressed. (School children in Ireland now learn Gaelic, but English is still the dominant language in the country.)
While Wilde had political convictions, he did not write much that was overtly political. Yet, he did grow up in a household taken with the cause of Ireland’s quest for independence. His mother was an extremely well known and influential political organizer and writer on the side of Irish independence. She published many books on Irish history and folklore, and, under the pen name of Speranza, she wrote a great deal of political material for the independence movement.
Still, even taking into account his mother’s profound patriotism and his own support of Irish independence, Wilde does not present himself as an obvious candidate to be studied as an Irish writer. He chose to live, after all, in London, the center of the empire; then again, this would be the likely destination of many ambitious writers of the time who were writing in English. Another interesting detail complicating Wilde’s identity and status is that his family was Protestant. That is, they shared Britain’s brand of Christianity, not Ireland’s (Catholicism).
Nevertheless, certain critics have embraced Wilde as a colonial, Irish writer, and what might be anti-imperial about An Ideal Husband will now be addressed in what follows.
One of the most significant aspects of Wilde’s art for colonial critics is the particular nature and focus of Wilde’s wit and favorite themes. His wit, critics say, would have encouraged contemporary audiences not simply to think, but to question the notions that enabled them to construct the secure imperial identities they presumably had. How might a populace support the vast imperial cause of Britain—the imperial project that at one point encompassed colonies stretching around the entire globe? For starters, colonial critics say, Britons had to be very sure of their cultural values and identity, and that these particular values and ways were superior to others: one did not colonize simply for financial gain; one colonized to bring to foreign peoples one’s superior way of life.
How, then, to encourage British audiences to think flexibly about their identities and to question the spreading of British culture? Well, one thing would be to highlight the problem of identity as such; in this regard, Lord Goring’s posing is significant (indeed, the fact that Wilde’s most entertaining characters all believe in the pose is significant). To adopt a pose means to choose how one wishes to come off. It means that there is no real, true self (identity) that one cannot help but express; it means that one can perform and create the self one pleases, that one can create a self from scratch. This notion of making-the-self invests the individual with great critical and moral power. It substitutes the individual for the social body: each person must decide who he or she wants to be, and each person must create his or her own identity. People who believe that they have the power to choose their beliefs are likely to be people who are critical of public opinion, or at least always willing to question it, and public opinion in Wilde’s time, in England, was decidedly on the side of the empire.
In An Ideal Husband, there are a number of instances where Wilde’s wit takes as its target the notion that there is no true and inevitable self to be expressed. The best and clearest example is near the beginning of the play, in an exchange between Sir Robert Chiltern and Mrs. Cheveley. Chiltern has asked Cheveley if she is a pessimist or optimist, to which she replies that...
(The entire section is 2090 words.)