Political corruption dominates the plot in An Ideal Husband. Sir Robert's flawless career is threatened by the corruption of his youth. One of the play's ironies is that the happy ending relies on Sir Robert's corruption remaining hidden from public view. The offer of a cabinet seat would never stand if the public had knowledge of his past. Yet, because he successfully hides this past, he feels absolved of his crime. Even Lady Chiltern forgives him for it. The reader can also certainly understand the folly of youth and imperfections of humanity, especially in the face of temptation. However, Wilde's play observes the relevant point that the modern political playing ground was emerging into one where corruption often went hand in hand with politics. The morals of many people, and some of the plays major characters, are based more on the fear of public detection and retaining social status than on pure values of right and wrong. He criticizes this society throughout the play.
Institution of Marriage
Wilde treats marriage as a complicated and imperfect relationship in his play, and mocks the Chilterns' attempt to create the perfect marriage based on social status. Lady Chiltern constantly states that her husband cannot afford to support the Argentine Canal scheme because he represents the best of English life. Both Lady Basildon and Mrs. Marchmont complain about their marriage because they are too perfect, and are therefore uninteresting. In any marriage, problems arise, but in the best marriages, love remains constant. Lord Goring is the play's champion of love, and his relationship with Mabel allows for imperfections rather than focusing on ideals. Mrs. Cheveley tries to make Lord Goring marry her, but she represents evil and self-interest, and as Lord Goring notes, desecrates the word of love. Thus, he does not even imagine accepting her suggestion, and maintains true to himself and his love. The survival of marriage and the proposal of entering into married union is front and center throughout the plot, and highlights the characters' imperfections.
The Triumph of Love
At the very end of Act I, the final scene ends with the great chandelier illuminating the tapestry of the Triumph of Love. This description certainly foreshadows the rest of the play, for in the remaining three acts, love does in fact triumph. Part of the play's final line is "Love, and only love." With the help of Lord Goring, Lady Chiltern learns about the power of love and comes to understand life through the lens of love. Many of the other characters also examine differing ideas of love. Lord Goring speaks of love as the only path to truly understand and living life, and in the end pledges his love to Mabel. Lady Chiltern believes her love is contingent upon her husband's moral perfection, but learns that perfection is impossible, and that love will endure even when flaws are acknowledged. The plot is a battleground between the forces of love versus the forces of evil. In Act III, Mrs. Cheveley, the representation of evil, twice wears a look of triumph. However, despite evil's best efforts, Lady Chiltern finally understands that love is powerful enough to withstand imperfection. Moreover, Sir Robert moves from viewing wealth as all-important to understanding love and his marriage are the most important things in his life. Thus, love, rather than wealth or evil, leads to happiness and triumphs all.
The characters in the play are highly concerned with the fashions of the day. Lady Markby comments that Mabel is becoming increasingly modern, and warns her of the danger associated with such change, as a tendency towards modernity allows for more rapidly becoming out of date. Likewise, Lady Markby preoccupies herself with the modern infatuation with curates, and notes that the citizens of overpopulated England tend to jostle and scramble a great deal nowadays. Wilde references modernity throughout the play, regardless of topic or scene, and often associates it with unpleasantness. Notably, Sir Robert comments that every modern fortune is built on private information, thus arguing for the necessity of political corruption. Moreover, Lord Goring comments that Mrs. Cheveley is most likely one of those modern women who fancy new scandals. The general fear of modernity suggests a social weakness of an inability to accept change. Most of the play's characters, despite claiming an interest in modern culture, seem to wish for social conformity.
The question of forgiveness runs throughout An Ideal Husband. As Sir Robert angrily tells his wife that she has placed him up on a monstrous pedestal, he tells her that it is when men are wounded that they are most in need of love and forgiveness. As he puts it, love forgives. Much like the question, "Are you a pessimist or an optimist?" the decision to forgive determines the quality of the characters' moral fortitude. Mrs. Cheveley stands as the one character beyond forgiveness. In Act III, Lord Goring explains that Mrs. Cheveley's attempt to kill Lady Chiltern's love for her husband is an unforgivable act. However, when Sir Robert appears at Lord Goring's house in desperate need of advice, believing he has killed his wife's love for him, Lord Goring maintains that she will forgive him. Lord Goring understands that the act of forgiveness is a crucial part of marriage, and through it we acknowledge universal human imperfection. Therefore, love and forgiveness are inseparable throughout the play. When love is present, there is the possibility of forgiveness. Human imperfection inherently requires love and forgiveness from others.
The past constantly remains in the characters' consciousness, and thus also in the reader's. In the first act, Mrs. Cheveley tells Sir Robert that he cannot buy back his past; he must face his mistakes. Similarly, Lady Chiltern defines Mrs. Cheveley by the dishonesty she exhibited and thefts she committed during her schooldays. In fact, Lady Chiltern believes the past defines a person, and reveals true character. Mrs. Cheveley's past finally catches up with her as well, when Lord Goring finds the piece of jewelry she stole from Lady Berkshire. It ruins her plan to blackmail Sir Robert, and leaves her helpless against Lord Goring's demands. Even Lord Goring's past briefly haunts him. Many years previous he was briefly engaged to Mrs. Cheveley. Sir Robert discovers the woman in his house, and afterwards refuses Lord Goring his sister Mabel's hand. Fortunately, Lord Goring and Lady Chiltern explain the events of that evening and Sir Robert blesses the marriage. Lord Caversham, Lord Goring's father and a figure of the past, constantly compares modern day society with his own generation, which leaves him wondering at the state of his country. The past looms large for all the characters and profoundly affects their present lives.
The Role of Women in Society
Much of the play provides commentary on the role of women in society. Sir Robert asks Mrs. Cheveley if she thinks science can grapple with the problem of women, which sets up the play's suggestion that women are highly complex. In the final act, Lord Goring gives a speech to Lady Chiltern about the role of women in society and in marriage, stressing the importance of supporting a husband in pursuing what he loves rather than stifling his desires. She takes his advice to heart and urges her husband to continue his public service. Lord Goring often draws a clear distinction between the role of men and women in society and in marriage. In Act III, he thinks to himself that all women should stand by their husbands. Lord Caversham suggests that only men, and not women, are endowed with common sense.
Although many of the male characters have problems with the women, many women have problems with the men. Lady Basildon and Mrs. Marchmont are miserable with their husbands, and fed up with their perfection. Mrs. Markby and Mrs. Cheveley believe that men need education, but doubt their capacity to develop. Lady Markby and Lady Basildon, and Mrs. Marchmont also comment on the role of women. Lady Markby talks about modern women, deriding their higher education, a topic that Lady Chiltern rigorously defends. She explains that in the past, women were taught not to understand anything, but that the modern woman is far more knowledgeable. Thus, women have a complex role within the play. The coexistence of men and women often seems a constant struggle, but one that is ultimately beneficial to all.
An Ideal Husband Questions and Answers
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The play opens at a party at Sir Robert Chiltern's house in Grosvenor Square, London. The party exemplifies much of the play's tendency towards quick and witty conversation. The Chiltern home is regal and their guests are impeccably dressed. Much...