In An Ideal Husband, Oscar Wilde presents a very critical and cynical view of society. The play's irony relies more on the biting cynicism of political and social corruption than anything else. There are four major institutions the play portrays as corrupt.
Marriage -The Chiltern marriage is predicated on Lady Chiltern's belief that Sir Robert must be morally above reproach. Rather than showing concern or sympathy for Sir Robert when he clearly is in great distress after Mrs. Cheveley's visit, Lady Chiltern forces him to remain true to his public image in a way that makes one wonder whether she is trying to protect herself or her husband. Self-interest clearly plays a huge role in the play, and within the sphere of marriage, it threatens the happiness of both the Chilterns. Wilde's language suggests that marriage is a dangerous institution. Mrs. Cheveley comments dryly that the London season is full of those hunting for husbands, or trying to avoid them. The sentiment suggests a type of predatory nature to marriage that contributes to Wilde's already cynical tone.
Media/Information - The media holds immense power through the commodity of information, but it does not always give the public all the information it needs. In the first three acts of the play, newspapers represent a threat to Sir Robert's public image and career, for the information Mrs. Cheveley holds would be deadly in the hands of the press. Yet, without ever receiving this information, the newspapers help Sir Robert's career in the final act, praising his speech denouncing the Argentine Canal scheme. Clearly, the newspapers have the power to influence careers of public figures, but rarely is their coverage complete.
Materialism - Wilde constantly criticizes the materialistic values of his characters. Sir Robert's corruption is fueled by his desire for money, but as the plot soon reveals, his greed leads him to the brink of scandal and unhappiness. Lady Chiltern's materialistic values are more obscure, but are certainly present in her dedication to Sir Robert's public image. Social status defines her husband, and separates him from the rest of England's politicians. Not until they both embrace love in its truest form does the play reach a happy conclusion.
Morality - Most of the characters throughout the play are either morally corrupt or extremely hypocritical. Lady Chiltern's moral corruption lies in the subtle hypocrisy of her actions. She maintains a posture of moral rectitude, but throughout the play has trouble with the concept of forgiveness and what Lord Goring calls charity. The moral lesson he teaches her prevents the collapse of her marriage, and allows her to find happiness. Mrs. Cheveley represents the most obvious moral corruption, and her constant theft and blackmail speak for her complete lack of moral principle. However, in the end, her lack of morality leaves her with nothing. Sir Robert's lack of morality is demonstrated through his political corruption, but by sticking to his principles and denouncing the canal scheme, regardless of the result, he is finally rewarded. Wilde criticizes these corrupt aspects of society, but also gives directions away from them. The play suggests that love leads to happiness, and the plot seems to reward those characters willing to learn and improve upon their moral imperfections.