An Ideal Husband

by Oscar Wilde

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Historical Context

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The Dandy
Dandies, of which there are many in Wilde’s play, are a phenomenon of nineteenth- and earlytwentieth- century Europe. Dandies were men that were known for their commitment to fashion— usually extravagant fashion—and for their love of all things beautiful in general. Nineteenth-century dandies in the new mega-cities such as, Paris, London, and New York, would stroll elegantly down pedestrian boulevards and frequent fashionable places. It is said that their exquisite nature and distaste for all things rough and vulgar stemmed from their dismay over a changing world. Specifically, these city dandies were witnessing the industrialization of their environment. This involved a change from a world where rural living was dominant to a world where factories in new urban centers were being rapidly built—with all their belching, polluting coal smoke, as well as their horribly exploited and impoverished workers (ten–twelve hour or more workdays, pitifully inadequate pay, and six, sometimes seven-day work weeks). What they saw was ugliness and the worship of money no matter the environmental and human cost, so they rejected the practical and spoke for the value of the ephemeral, the delicate, and the beautiful. It was a way of insisting that the creation of wealth was evil if the quality of peoples’ lives was the price.

Wilde himself was a dandy in dress for some time. After graduating from Oxford, he spent a few years dressing in what was then considered exquisite fashion when he went out in the evenings. He did not go so far as to dress unusually in the daytime, however.

Many photographs of Wilde in one of his ‘‘exquisite’’ outfits exist; and what was so outrageous then were knee breeches and a velvet waistcoat, a flowing cloak, and longish hair.

Wilde did not dress unusually for his evenings out for long; as soon as he became well known he conformed, albeit always fashionably, to the more conservative tastes of the time.

Aestheticism as a movement in the arts developed in England in the late nineteenth century, but somewhat earlier in other countries, such as France, where it had its roots. The aestheticist dictum is ‘‘art for art’s sake,’’ meaning that an artwork need only be beautiful (well made) to be worthy of admiration. In other words, a work of art did not need to have any obvious social value to be great. So, for example, if an artist wished to depict the life of a criminal, as long as he or she did it well and accurately, the work of art was valuable. Also, if an artist simply wished to make a work of art, treating a subject that would not necessarily ennoble its audience, then that was fine, as long as the work was well-done. If this sounds like a reasonable formula for art, it is. Yet, aesthetes, or followers of aestheticism, caused a stir in England at the time because during the Victorian era the English developed a taste for art with a strong social quotient. They liked their art to be obviously ennobling. They wanted art to be morally instructive, for example, in which the good was clearly distinguished from the bad, the bad was always punished, and the good was always rewarded.

A further problem with aestheticism from the point of view of traditional, more conservative Victorians was that aesthetes took their principles very seriously, some to an extreme, and flaunted them. For example, the scholar most responsible for propagating aestheticist views in England, Walter Pater, wrote works proclaiming that the enjoyment, cultivation, and experience of beauty and exquisite sensation was one of the most important...

(This entire section contains 693 words.)

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human pursuits of all. He wrote these rather extravagant ideas down, most famously, in the conclusion to a book entitledThe Renaissance. Pater’s followers, aesthetes, were, of course, dandies. They dressed beautifully, spoke beautifully, and enjoyed conversations about the best of art and decoration past and present.

Pater, an Oxford don, influenced Wilde while he was a student at Oxford. Not that Wilde’s interests and life can be explained solely with reference to dandyism and Aestheticism, but these formations did, nonetheless, make their mark on Wilde.

Literary Style

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Wit as a type of humor is what Wilde is known for, both in his everyday life and in a number of his writings, including An Ideal Husband. Wit is clever humor—not bawdy, rude, silly, or visual funniness. Wit entails the delivery of an unexpected or surprising insight, or a clever reversal of expectations. For example, at one point in the play, Mrs. Cheveley says, ‘‘a woman’s first duty in life is to her dressmaker, isn’t it? What the second duty is, no one has yet discovered.’’ This would have provoked laughter because the popular saying she is reversing is as follows: ‘‘A woman’s first duty is to her husband.’’ Victorians were known for their commitment to duty and there would have been not one person in Wilde’s audience who had not heard and read the popular axiom many, many times.

Epigram and Aphorism
Epigrammatic turns of speech are short and sweet, and they are somehow surprising or witty. Wilde’s characters’ wit is often epigrammatic. For example, as Mrs. Cheveley says at one point, ‘‘Oh! I don’t care about the London season! It is too matrimonial. People are either hunting for husbands, or hiding from them.’’ Mrs. Cheveley’s purported reason for disliking the London social season is funny. Even funnier is that what makes the season ‘‘matrimonial’’ is not simply the search for husbands.

An aphorism is a brief statement containing an opinion or general truth, which might or might not be witty. Wilde excelled in wit in the form of aphorisms. Lady Cheveley, for example, delivers quite a few aphoristic witticisms in An Ideal Husband. For example, ‘‘Morality,’’ she says, ‘‘is simply the attitude we take toward people whom we personally dislike.’’ Or, as she says elsewhere: ‘‘Questions are never indiscreet. Answers sometimes are.’’ There is also Lord Goring’s opinion about good advice. In reply to Mabel Chiltern when she questions his having told her it’s past her bedtime, Lord Goring says, ‘‘My father told me to go to bed an hour ago. I don’t see why I shouldn’t give you the same advice. I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never any use to oneself.’’

Comedy of Manners
While Wilde has a serious plot and message in An Ideal Husband, the play is mostly comic. As such, it is close to a form of dramatic comedy known as the comedy of manners. Comedies of manners are mostly associated with eighteenthcentury Europe, although they date back to the beginnings of European drama. A comedy of manners is a play whose purpose is to satirize human vagaries. They focus on a particular stratum of society and make fun of that group’s pettiness, hypocrisies, vanities, failings, and so forth. In An Ideal Husband, for example, Wilde satirizes the hypocrisy of the English ruling classes through his portrait of Sir Robert Chiltern. Comedies of manners are also characterized by their wit, i.e., the way that the characters’ dialogue is composed mostly of clever and funny bantering. This explains Wilde’s attraction to the form.

Melodramas tell their stories through sensational and improbable characters and turns of event. For example, villains are thoroughly villainous in melodrama, and heroes and heroines are purity itself. Rings, letters, gloves and such items are lost and found in ways that lead to all sorts of revelations and complications of plot. Heroines often end up in terrible danger, but the hero always arrives at the last moment to save the day, and so forth. Wilde employs some stock melodramatic situations and events in An Ideal Husband. For example, the detail of the incriminating letter from the past and the blackmail scheme on which the plot turns are melodramatic flourishes.

Problem Play
What are called problem plays were first written in Europe in the late nineteenth century. They are called this because they tackle some pressing social development of the day. For example, the playwright credited with introducing the form in its purest, earliest form is Henrik Ibsen, whose A Doll’s House took on the issue of feminism: the struggles of Europe’s ‘‘new’’ women and their families. If critics have difficulty calling An Ideal Husband a comedy of manners, and some prefer the term ‘‘social comedy,’’ this is because the play has a serious element to it. This serious component reflects Wilde’s respect for the problem play.

Compare and Contrast

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1890s: Dandies dress themselves in clothes reminiscent of days gone by; some carry a single flower as an accessory.

Today: A wide range of distinctive clothing that indicates a particular subculture, such as punk, Goth, and hip-hop, can be seen on the street of a typical American city.

1890s: Conservative Victorian ideology still rules the day, despite a new generation’s sense that it is becoming ‘‘modern.’’

Today: Alternative lifestyles and a general tolerance of difference coexists in the United States.

1890s: Oscar Wilde’s career was destroyed thanks to allegations of same-sex love affairs.

Today: Same-sex marriage is legal in some countries, such as Canada; a debate over whether or not to institute state-sanctioned same-sex marriage is current in the United States.

1890s: Queen Victoria, who gave the Victorian era its name, is known as the Imperial Queen; she declares herself Empress of India and Britain’s world empire becomes vast.

Today: The last of the British empire unravels in the mid twentieth century, and major British cities, such as London, are post-colonial, multiethnic metropolises.

Media Adaptations

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An Ideal Husband was made into a film by a British production in 1947. This film version was directed by Alexander Korda and starred Paulette Goddard as Mrs. Cheveley and Michael Wilding as Lord Goring.

An Ideal Husband was adapted for television in Britain in 1969 as part of a ‘‘Play of the Month’’ series.

• Another British production made An Ideal Husband into a film 1998. This version was directed by William Cartlidge and starred James Wilby as Sir Robert Chiltern, Sadie Frost as Mrs. Cheveley, and Jonathan Firth as Lord Goring.

• A joint United States and Great Britain production of An Ideal Husband was made in 1999. This widely acclaimed version was directed by Oliver Parker and featured an all-star cast, including Cate Blanchett as Lady Gertrude Chiltern, Minnie Driver as Mabel Chiltern, Julianne Moore as Mrs. Cheveley, Jeremy Northern as Sir Robert Chiltern, and Rupert Everett as Lord Goring.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Belford, Barbara, ‘‘A Broken Line,’’ in Oscar Wilde: A Certain Genius, Random House, 2000, p. 233.

Eagleton, Terry, Introduction, in Saint Oscar, and Other Plays, Blackwell Publishers, 1997.

Hall, Peter, ‘‘A Warm, Impossible Love,’’ in the Guardian, November 11, 1992, Features Page, p. 4.

Nichols, Mark, ‘‘An Ideal Husband—The Wit and The Legend,’’ in The Importance of Being Oscar, St. Martin’s Press, 1983, pp. 91, 138.

Review of An Ideal Husband, in the Times (London), January 4, 1895, p. 7.

Wilde, Oscar, An Ideal Husband, in The Plays of Oscar Wilde, Random House, 1932.

Ellmann, Richard, Oscar Wilde, Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. This work is currently the most thorough and definitive biography of Wilde. In it, students of Wilde can read in minute detail about the author’s life and career.

Holland, Vyvyan, Oscar Wilde, Thames and Hudson, 1960. This is a brief, informative book on the life of Wilde by his son, with photographs of Wilde, family, friends, and other notables. Holland corrects what he believes are inaccuracies in the major biographies of Wilde, such as those written by Frank Harris and Richard Ellmann.

Raby, Peter, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde, Cambridge University Press, 1997. This collection by several authors on different aspects of Wilde’s career and works contains many informative, recent essays. For example, one essay explores Wilde’s four comedic plays as a group, and another compares Wilde’s dramatic techniques to those of other major playwrights of the time.

Roditi, Edouard, Oscar Wilde, New Directions, 1986. Most recent books on Wilde by literary scholars tend to focus on narrow, specialized subjects. Roditi’s study, however, is a broad, general exploration of Wilde’s art. As such, it is very useful for students looking for a general introduction to Wilde.

San Juan, Epifanio, Jr., The Art of Oscar Wilde, Princeton University Press, 1967. Like Roditi’s study of Wilde, this scholarly exploration of Wilde is a comprehensive, useful introduction to Wilde’s work.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide