LORD CAVERSHAM: And if you don't make this lady an ideal husband, I'll cut you off without a shilling.
MABEL CHILTERN: An ideal husband! Oh, I don't think I should like that. It sounds like something in the next world.
LORD CAVERSHAM: He can be what he chooses. All I want is to be to be oh, a real wife to him.
LORD CAVERSHAM: Upon my word, there is a good deal of common sense in that, Lady Chiltern.
The title phrase, "an ideal husband," appears in the penultimate dialogue of Act IV as the last joke of the play. Mabel Chiltern and Lord Goring have just announced their engagement, and Lord Caversham—emblematic of an older generation of London Society—issues the threat quoted above to his dandified son. At the same time, Mabel and Goring have negotiated a union that dispenses with question regarding the ideal behavior of the married couple. As Mabel protests, the "ideal husband" belongs in heaven; Goring can be whatever he wants while she wants to be his real wife who decidedly belongs to this world. Indeed, throughout the play they have assumed an amoral pose, disparaging the demands of duty and respectability. Their union thus in a sense counterpoises that of the upright Chilterns, who have just reconciled and are also on the scene.
Humorously, Caversham concurs with his future daughter-in-law. His comment on "common sense" recalls a comic interlude from Act III, in which he identifies common sense as a property of men. Moreover, unbeknownst to him, he has addressed his comment to the character who above all has learned the dangers of attempting to create an ideal spouse, Lady Chiltern.
There was your mistake. There was your error. The error all women commit. Why can't you women love us, faults and all? Why do you place us on monstrous pedestals? We have all feet of clay, women as well as men; but when we men love women, we love them knowing their weaknesses, their follies, their imperfections, love them all the more, it may be, for that reason. It is not the perfect, but the imperfect, who have need of love. It is when we are wounded by our own hands, or by the hands of others, that love should come to cure us—else what else is love at all? All sins, except a sin against itself, Love should forgive. All lives, save loveless lives, true Love should pardon.
Sir Robert makes this speech to Lady Chiltern at the end of Act II when Mrs. Cheveley reveals his secret past to the Lady and the latter rejects Sir Robert in horror. It is a melodramatic speech, drawn from the popular stage of Wilde's day; in this sense, it is conventional in both content and style. A key passage in the play's treatment of the theme of marriage, it establishes a difference between masculine love, which allows for or is even predicated on imperfection, and feminine love, which mounts the lover on "monstrous pedestals" for worship. As it is directed toward imperfect—and not ideal—beings, one might consider this masculine form of love as more "human." For Sir Robert, masculine love is love in its proper form, love that can cure the lover's wounds and forgive his sins.
Of course, the play ultimately does not assign this form of love to the man. Sir Robert's speech is less a description of "masculine love" than an injunction to his wife. With the reconciliation of the Chilterns in Act IV, the play will conclude that it is actually the woman's role to forgive and nurture her husband in affairs of love, thus reaffirming a familiar model of Victorian womanhood. As Lord Goring will tell Lady Chiltern in the final moments of the play, "Pardon, not punishment, is [women's] mission." Stylistically, Sir Robert's outburst exemplifies Wilde's use of melodramatic speech, a type of speech that dramatically departs his use of banter and repartee. Note the typical devices: the anaphoric sentence structure ("There was your mistake. There was your error."), antitheses (perfect/imperfect), and exhortations that build from the one previous. Such devices function to increase the pathos of Sir Robert's tirade, showing him overcome with emotion.
Perhaps most important stylistically, however, is the speech's tone. Notably, Sir Robert breaks into more epigrammatic prose in the latter half of the passage ("All sins, except a sin against itself, Love should forgive. All lives, save loveless lives, true Love should pardon."). Such epigrams use the same rhetorical structures (reversals, antitheses, etc.) that make up Wildean banter; as a result, one could, for example, imagine these lines being spoken ironically at a dinner party. Sir Robert's desperate tone—and the crisis at hand, of course—completely changes how his speech is received, stirring the spectator with a surfeit of pathos and emotion.
LORD GORING: You see, Phipps, fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear.
PHIPPS: Yes, my lord.
LORD GORING: Just as vulgarity is simply the conduct of other people.
PHIPPS: Yes, my lord.
LORD GORING: And falsehoods the truths of other people.
PHIPPS: Yes, my lord.
LORD GORING: Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself.
PHIPPS: Yes, my lord.
LORD GORING: To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance, Phipps.
One should pause on this apparently frivolous comic interlude at the beginning of Act III as it provides a short manifesto for the dandy-philosopher (even as on principle a dandy never makes his ideas manifest). More precisely, this scene brilliantly dramatizes the dandy's narcissism. It is structured as an exchange between Goring and his butler, in which the former delivers a series of scandalous epigrams while the latter concurs impassively. Spoken by a man in the throes of a lifelong romance with himself, Goring's epigrams convey his egocentrism, reducing the oppositions at hand (fashionable/unfashionable, refined/vulgar, true/false) to one between "other people" and "oneself." Thus the vulgar what others do, the unfashionable what others wear, and the false what others hold true. This exchange artfully reinforces Goring's narcissism with an interlocutor who indifferently responds in the affirmative. Thus the butler serves as a sort of mirror to Goring's Narcissus; as it is certain that his interlocutor will agree with him, Goring is even more "talking to himself" than if in soliloquy.
Goring's narcissism is significant in terms of the mores of his age. As discussed in the Context, the dandy stood in rebellion to the values of the Victorian era, an era defined by a devotion to family life, public and private responsibility, and obedience to law. Dandyism dispensed with these somber duties in the name of individual freedom and a self-centered concern with the frivolous (fashion, style, and so on).
MRS. CHEVELEY: Ah! The strength of women comes from the fact that psychology cannot explain us. Men can be analyzed, women merely adored.
SIR ROBERT: You think science cannot grapple with the problem of women?
MRS. CHEVELEY: Science can never grapple with the irrational. That is why it has no future before it, in this world.
SIR ROBERT: And women represent the irrational.
MRS. CHEVELEY: Well-dressed women do.
This exchange takes place toward the beginning of the dinner party in Act I before Mrs. Cheveley moves to blackmail Sir Robert. As one of the primary themes of the play consists of competing visions of womanliness, it is of interest in that relating aestheticism with a certain conception of femininity.
As discussed in the Context, aestheticism, a doctrine often abbreviated as a philosophy of "art for art's sake," insists on art being judged by the beauty of artifice rather than that of morality or reason. Beauty is irrational and amoral, and the aestheticist who worships beauty indulges in excess and exaggeration to flout his age's standards of respectability (i.e. "proper" thinking, proper aesthetic and moral judgments, etc.).
Typically one imagines the (male) dandy as the epitome of the aestheticist credo: artificial, amoral, and irrational. At the same time, like the dandy, these terms are often associated with the feminine. Here Mrs. Cheveley poses woman as a sort aestheticist art object. Like art, women can only be adored—that is, not analyzed—and herein lies their strength. As objects of admiration, women resist judgment according to rational or moral categories. They embody the irrational (or at least when well-dressed) and are thus powerful, perhaps even dangerous. Mrs. Cheveley herself is of course one of these dangerously well-dressed and irrational women.
If female strength lies in the irrational, one might note that Mrs. Cheveley's wit draws from the irrational as well. In this instance, irrationality inheres primarily in her use of hyperbole and false logic: if men can be analyzed, women can only be adored; science has no future in the world. Such irrational speech is what makes Mrs. Cheveley such a mighty conversational foe, poised to manipulate her interlocutors and misconstrue situations to her own advantage.
Who on earth writes to him on pink paper? How silly to write on pink paper! It looks like the beginning of a middle-class romance. Romance should never begin with sentiment. It should begin with science and end with a settlement.
Mrs. Cheveley exclaims these observations to herself in Act III upon discovering Lady Chiltern's letter among Lord Goring's papers. Thematically, this passage is significant in that it condenses Mrs. Cheveley's philosophy of romance in the cleverly rhyming epigram, the "settlement" substituting for romance's "sentiment". Love is a science and aims toward material gain, subordinate to the gospels of power and wealth—a philosophy that privileges the domination of others over all else—Mrs. Cheveley learned from Baron Arnheim.
The passage is also significant as a commentary on the play itself. As discussed in the Context, An Ideal Husband adopts many of the conventions of the Victorian middle-class melodrama—the stolen letter being a foremost example. One might thus consider Mrs. Cheveley's jab at Lady Chiltern as referring to the play reliance on these conventions as well, Wilde mocking his own use of this stock device. Lady Chiltern's note is certainly "pink"—as in embarrassing—in both its melodramatic content ("I want you. I trust you. I am coming to you.") and generic nature even if the spectator sympathizes with her plight.
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