An Ideal Husband

by Oscar Wilde

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How does An Ideal Husband dramatize the clash in value systems at the end of the nineteenth century?

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An Ideal Husband is full of examples of the clash between traditional moral ideas of purity and integrity on one hand and shrewd deception and politicking on the other. Sir Robert is built up as a symbol of integrity—especially by his wife, who views him as an ideal, model husband. When Robert initially is blackmailed into supporting the Argentinian canal scheme, Lady Chiltern threatens to reject him, having no tolerance for behavior she sees as corrupt.

The audience, of course, recognizes that Robert is only vulnerable to blackmail because he has already been willing to make back room deals. In fact, his financial and social position are built on such a deal.

Thus, while it might initially appear that the central clash in An Idea Husband is between a tradition of honesty and a new, dirty approach to politics, we should ask whether the world of politics has ever been as honorable and pure as this framework suggests. One reading of An Ideal Husband is that the world of politics has always been corrupt, and the clash is not between old and new value systems, but a clash between public appearances of purity and a backroom reality of corruption carefully concealed, but always close to breaking forth into the light.

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