An Ideal Husband
Act III - Part One
Act III opens in Lord Goring's library with an impeccably dressed Goring and his impassive servant Phipps, named in the stage notes as the ideal butler. A short exchange ensues, in which Goring, trying on a new buttonhole, delivers a series of epigrams regarding fashion, vulgarity, falsehood, and self-love to the yes-saying Phipps. Phipps then brings Goring his letters, and the Lord discovers that Lady Chiltern has sent him a note on pink paper imploring him for help: "I want you. I trust you. I am coming to you." Though it is signed Gertrude, it is addressed to no one.
Though it is late, Goring prepares for her arrival. Phipps, however, abruptly announces the arrival of his father, Lord Caversham. Goring receives him and the two discuss the prospect of Goring's marriage and his adopting a serious career, Caversham posing Sir Robert as an ideal model. Sending Caversham to the smoking room, Goring quickly tells Phipps that he expects a female visitor and instructs him to show her into the drawing room.
Suddenly a bell rings, and Goring moves to answer but is intercepted by Caversham and must accompany him to the smoking room. Mrs. Cheveley then appears on the scene; Phipps informs her of Goring's instructions and shows her into the drawing room. Pleased at the prospect of catching him out, Cheveley rifles through his papers and discovers Lady Chiltern's letter. Just as she moves to steal it, Phipps enters and shows her into the drawing room. Upon his departure, she re-emerges and creeps toward the writing table anew, but must retire upon hearing the voices of Goring and Caversham.
After a brief exchange on marriage and common sense, Goring leads Caversham to the door, only to return, somewhat haplessly, with the unexpected Sir Robert. Sir Robert reports that Lady Chiltern knows all; moreover, the Vienna embassy has failed to excavate any secret scandal from Mrs. Cheveley's past. Goring keeps Lady Chiltern's request for assistance secret.
Phipps then enters, and Goring, taking him aside for further instruction, learns that the lady he expects waits in the drawing room. He decides to give the would-be Lady Chiltern a lecture through the door, prompting Sir Robert to declare his love for his wife and suggesting that she has already forgiven him. Just as Sir Robert is about to reveal what he plans to tell the House regarding the canal scheme, he hears a chair fall in the next room. Though Goring hopelessly tells his friend no one is in the next room—this deferral of the inevitable raising the scene's tension—Sir Robert bursts through and of course discovers Mrs. Cheveley. He curses the unsuspecting Goring for his treachery and storms out; Mrs. Cheveley emerges, beaming with bemusement.
One can divide this part of Act III according to its two major exchanges: one between Lord Goring and his butler Phipps and another with between Goring and his father, Lord Caversham. Both comment on the dandy lifestyle.
The opening exchange Goring and Phipps is a comic interlude, coming on the heels of the wrenching confrontation between the Chilterns. Phipps is described in the stage notes as a "mask with a manner," a man less communicative than the Sphinx. Representing the "dominance of form," such a figure is a familiar comic device, producing a certain "dead-pan" humor that requires such an impenetrable, impassive facade. The scene is structured by an exchange between Goring's pronouncements and Phipps' repeated response in the affirmative.
Goring's epigrams concern the "lifelong romance" of narcissism, reducing a number of oppositions (fashionable/unfashionable, refined/vulgar, true/false) to one between "other people" and "oneself." Thus the vulgar is 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 responds with an indifferent "yes." Thus the butler serves as a sort of mirror to Goring's narcissism; 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 stands 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 duties in the name of individual freedom and a self-centered concern with the frivolous (fashion, style, and so on).
At the same time, Phipps reflects his master imperfectly. Not only does he fail to notice his lord's dress, he also gets the last laugh of the scene at Goring's expense, remarking stoically that the lower classes are "extremely fortunate" in losing their familial relations. Phipps's joke introduces the second exchange of this scene: a confrontation between father and son over the latter's bachelorhood and irresponsible way of life. The exchange between Goring and Caversham reveals the dandy in vexed relationship with the figure of paternal authority, particularly when the latter would correct the dandy's behavior. As Goring remarks in the following act, fathers should be neither seen nor heard in family life (mothers, on the other hand, are "darlings").
As Goring is a figure of the new—presented in the stage notes as a man in "immediate relation" to modernity, making and mastering it—and Caversham the emblem of a generation past, their meeting represents a clash between modern and past lifestyles. Mrs. Cheveley's remarks from Act II have prefigured this showdown long before—namely, that nowadays fathers have much to learn from their sons with regards to the art of living, the only fine art modern times have produced.
For Wilde, the modern lifestyle is precisely that of the dandy, eschewing duty and respectability for the pursuit of pleasure, beauty, pretence, wit, idleness, irrationality, and affectation: in short, everything Caversham abhors. In the encounter dramatized here, Caversham assaults Goring with fatherly advice, arguing that he cannot continue living for pleasure and that he should imitate Sir Robert's success: in light of Sir Robert's scandal, the irony of his counsel is not lost on us. In particular, Caversham insists that Goring find a proper marriage—that is, one that considers position and property before sentiment. As with all things for Caversham, it is a matter of "common sense." Obviously Goring cannot comply with his father's wishes.
Underlying this generational clash is also dandyism's veneration of youthfulness as part of modern life. As Goring tells his father when the latter denounces his affectation of youth: "Youth isn't an affectation. Youth is an art." At the same time, the dandy is also often middle-aged: though he never admits it, Goring himself is in his mid-thirties. To some extent then, Goring appears as the overgrown child in his conversation with his father, refusing to take up the responsibilities of adulthood and living past his time as a young man. One wonders, moreover, if the dandy must always fear the threat of becoming outmoded: as Lady Markby notes earlier, the danger of being too modern lies in growing old-fashioned quite quickly.
Along with these differences in values, what sets father and son apart is a marked difference in their speech, Goring running circles around his father with his wit. Caversham will continually request serious conversation, fall into senile—rather than affected—self-contradictions, and find himself unable to follow Goring's repartee.
For example, at one point Caversham condemns one of Goring's expressions of sympathy, saying there is too much sympathy going on these days. Goring concurs, replying: "If there was less sympathy in the world, there would be less trouble in the world." Thus Goring willfully misapprehends his father's rebuke—that the modern world is overly sentimental—and plays on its literal meaning, taking the vague phrase to one of its ostensibly logical conclusions. The effect is to reveal the absurdity in Caversham's pronouncement.
Caversham, of course does not know how to take his son's reply. Having not gotten the joke but noting the sophistry in his son's logic, Caversham responds: "That is a paradox sir. I hate paradoxes." Of course, Goring's repartee is less an example of paradox than the playful logic of the dandy. Thus son replies with a further set of twists: "So do I, father. Everybody one meets is a paradox nowadays. It is a great bore. It makes society so obvious." The term "paradox" as a structure of rhetoric now refers to paradox as a description of character. Moreover, being paradoxical—usually connoting obscurity and so on—becomes dull and obvious as an affectation "everyone" has come to adopt. To translate: it is quite boring that everyone you meet has become a paradox. If everyone is a paradox, then everyone is obvious. As with Goring's joke on sympathy, his dizzying repartee is not only surprising and delightful, but perhaps an occasion for insight—in this case on London Society—as well.
Speaking ironically, sarcastically, hyperbolically, or paradoxically, Goring is—as he himself notes in Act II—quintessentially "liable to be misunderstood." Indeed, the capacity to cause and manipulate such moments of confusion is one of Goring's greatest powers. As the stage notes from Act I indicate, Goring is fond of this liability as it gains him "post of vantage" in the social arena; again, through his speech, he "makes and masters" modern social life.
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