Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1080
Scandal, Hypocrisy, and the Ideal
Cautioning Sir Robert that she will indeed carry out her threat and ruin his career, Mrs. Cheveley declares:
Remember to what point your Puritanism in England has brought you. In old days nobody pretended to be a bit better than his neighbors. Nowadays, with our modern mania for morality, everyone has to pose as a paragon of purity, incorruptibility, and all the other seven deadly virtues—and what is the result? You all go over like ninepins—one after the other. Not a year passes in England without somebody disappearing. Scandals used to lend charm, or at least interest, to a man—now they crush him. And yours is a very nasty scandal. You couldn’t survive it.
Here, in a nutshell, is the central message of Wilde’s play: the more a culture upholds stringent moral values, the more likely it is that publicly prominent people will crumble under charges of impropriety. By this Wilde does not mean that immorality or criminal behavior is acceptable. What he means is that an exaggerated attachment to moral purity leads to social ills and not social good. This might seem counterintuitive; after all, should not the respect for moral purity lead to more people being truly good? For Wilde, it just leads to more people being failures in their own eyes and others’ because it is impossible for most people not to make a mistake at some point in their lives. It encourages people not to hide even their minor vices, but to proclaim loudly against any and all weakness, thereby becoming hypocrites and paving the way for their greater shame if they are ever found out for their true selves. As Mrs. Cheveley’s speech makes clear, in the Victorian climate of intolerance, politicians and other social leaders were pressured to proclaim themselves paragons of purity when they were not. Consequently, when the truth of their large or small sins came to the surface, their careers and reputations were compromised or ruined.
Mrs. Cheveley’s speech was not only meant for Wilde’s British audiences but also for his avid American audiences. This is not simply because America was culturally close to England but also because of pertinent American history and its continuing influence on American life. Some of the first Europeans to settle in the United States were members of Puritan sects, and what these Christian fundamentalists are most remembered for is their period of hysteria and cruelty. In their pursuit of moral purity they saw evil everywhere, declared numerous persons witches, and burned them alive (the ‘‘witch trials’’). Extremism, in other words, leads only and always to tragedy, even if it is extremism in the name of good.
As far as Mrs. Cheveley is concerned, politicians who conform and project themselves as paragons of good are hypocrites. They, like Chiltern, have things they need to hide, whether in their past or in their present. Wilde’s disdain for hypocrisy explains his attachment to characters who are dandies like Lord Goring. Lord Goring’s dandy pose entails, essentially, the notion that he is wicked and cares about himself first of all. In other words, the values he professes are precisely the opposite of those who proclaim themselves upstanding citizens wedded to duty and the welfare of others. Yet, if the upstanding citizen cannot possibly be the paragon he or she professes to be, then he or she is akin to Goring—a person who will, at times, let his or her own interests take precedence over the public good. In short, says Wilde, it is better to be a Goring, who does not pretend to be good, than to be a hypocrite.
An Ideal Husband’s play on things ‘‘ideal’’ or pure is related to its cautionary message about the Victorian obsession with perfect goodness. Obviously, the perfect specimen of any given thing is an ideal specimen of the thing. Lady Chiltern wants an ideal husband, which is a man who fulfills his husbandly role perfectly and who is, as well, an ideal human, i.e., perfectly good. She thinks this is what she has in Sir Robert, and Sir Robert, for his part, loves his wife so much that this is what he wants her to think. In learning that she is wrong to want such a thing, Lady Chiltern’s development over the course of the play is a crucial component of the play’s message.
The coupling of Mabel Chiltern and Lord Goring is Wilde’s antidote to the Chilterns. Mabel, notably, declares that she wants to be a ‘‘good’’ wife to Lord Goring, not a perfect or ideal one. Lord Goring, perhaps, is Wilde’s version of a goodenough husband, as he readily admits that he has faults. The human race, Wilde seems to say, will always fall short of its ideals, but this should not be occasion for tragedy. On the contrary, what leads to tragedy is insisting that perfection must be achieved even after the best that can be done has been tried.
Politicians in late-nineteenth-century England were not terribly different from politicians today. They saw themselves as public servants and entered into politics to do some good and make a difference. Yet, to go far in politics it takes ambition. Politicians who aim to reach high positions in the government have to have nerves of steel and very thick skins. They are ruthlessly attacked by members of the opposing party; even others in their own party will attempt to outmaneuver them; journalists will dig into their private lives and print anything that will sell a magazine or newspaper; and so forth. Thus, in addition to wanting to do good, a politician aiming for the top has to be very ambitious. He or she has to have some craving for glory that makes all the pain of getting to the top bearable. In the ferociously ambitious Sir Robert Chiltern, Wilde presents just this type of politician. In doing so, he has presented his highly successful politician accurately. After all, Chiltern is only forty but he is already an under-secretary, and, at the end of the play, the prime minister offers him a cabinet position.
This depiction of the politician’s hungry ambition makes sense in An Ideal Husband. The play is concerned with having people adopt a realistic view of the world and how it works; consequently, Wilde avoids an idealized picture of the motivations of top-ranking politicians.