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An Ideal Husband

Oscar Wilde

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Take a short, humorous example of Wildean banter and explain why it is funny. What literary devices (irony, sarcasm, paradox, etc.) make the joke possible? What, if any, is the joke's insight? How might it function in the larger context of the play? If applicable, also consider the use of facial expressions, gestures, stage movement, and so on.

Joking with Lord Goring and Lady Basildon on the travails of having unendurably faultless husbands, Mrs. Marchmont at one point exclaims: "My poor Olivia! We have married perfect husbands, and we are well punished for it." Lord Goring replies: "I should have thought it was the husbands who were punished."

As with many of Wilde's jokes, Mrs. Marchmont's relies on a scandalous reversal of expectations: the marriage of a perfect husband is less a boon than a bane, the ensuing married life being the wives' punishment. To translate further: the perfect husband may be morally upstanding but is a dreadful bore. The ironical Mrs. Marchmont is only half-serious in tone, but one might take her joke seriously in light of a play that concerns itself with the dangers of the ideal spouse. Thus Mrs. Marchmont's frivolous jest might in a sense "laugh off" the more somber discussions of ideal husband that appear through the play. Ever the wit, Lord Goring matches Mrs. Marchmont by reversing the terms of her lament: the husbands, and not the wives, are the true victims of punishment. These continuous reversals and improvisations define what Wilde describes as the wit's "playing" with the world.

Additional Note: Tellingly, Mrs. Marchmont and Lady Basildon will subsequently declare themselves martyrs to their perfect husbands as well. Thus their exchange perhaps mocks Lady Chiltern's impassioned speech and emergence as a martyred wife at the end of the act.

Discuss how objects in circulation (letters, etc.) function in the play. What might they suggest about characters, plot structure, etc.? What might they symbolize?

Stolen, mislaid, and misaddressed objects are stock elements of the Victorian popular stage, serving as devices for the complication of plot and development of dramatic irony. Despite the conventional nature of these devices, however, how these objects circulate and what they might symbolize invite further interpretation.

An Ideal Husband features three notable objects in circulation, each playing fateful roles in the plot: Sir Robert's letter to Baron Arnheim, Mrs. Cheveley's diamond brooch, and Lady Chiltern's pink note to Lord Goring. Notably, all at some point pass through the hands of Mrs. Cheveley and Lord Goring, emphasizing how the two are the central actors of the play. Indeed, all three objects change hands between them at their confrontation in Act III, what one might identify as the play's climax. As the "causes" of complication in the plot, it is fitting that all these objects emerge at the plot's most tense moment.

These objects are also rich in symbolic properties. To elaborate on a few that relate to the primary theme of marriage: the brooch, for example, is an agent of vengeance. A stolen wedding gift deployed by her ex-fiancé, it traps Mrs. Cheveley in blackmail, avenging both her near-destruction of the Chilterns' marriage and betrayal of Lord Goring in their courtship.

If the brooch avenges Mrs. Cheveley's crimes against conjugal life, Lady Chiltern's pink note attests to marriage's restoration. Though written as a plea for help to Lord Goring, Sir Robert mistakes it as being a love letter addressed to him, facilitating his reconciliation with his wife. Tellingly, in the final scene, it serves as a sort of second marriage certificate, Gertrude putting Sir Robert's name down as its addressee.

Compare and contrast the different notions of love proffered by the players, both major and minor. Contextualize these opinions within the larger moral scheme of the play. You may want to isolate two characters or couples for comparison.

One could draw an obvious contrast between the ideas of love presented by Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern and in particular by isolating their confrontation at the end Act II. In this scene, both Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern assume melodramatic voices—their speech suddenly characterized by exclamations, apostrophes, and lyrical entreaties—that mirror the conventional dialogue of the Victorian popular stage. Accordingly, their melodramatic dialogue serves as vehicle for a similarly generic discussion of love that reaffirms the social values of the Victorian stage. Tellingly this discussion describes love in explicitly gendered terms. As a woman, Lady Chiltern loves Sir Robert as an ideal husband, a man worthy of worship for the example he sets privately and publicly. In contrast, Sir Robert describes a masculine love that allows for or is predicated on human imperfection. Human require a love that can cure their wounds and forgive their sins, rather than exalt them as moral exemplum. Once again, in terms of the play's moral thematics, one might group their rousing confrontation with the characters, plotlines, and other elements that mirror the mechanics of the popular theater in contrast with those that might undermine these theatrical conventions.

Suggested Essay Topics

In Act I, Mrs. Cheveley's tells Sir Robert: "Questions are never indiscreet. Answers sometimes are." In Act II, Goring tells Sir Robert: "It is always worthwhile asking a question, though it is not always worthwhile answering one." With these quotes in mind, discuss how moments of interrogation function in the play.

In Act III, Lord Caversham tells Lord Goring that he hates paradox. In what ways does Goring use paradox in his speech? What are the effects of such use?

Discuss Wilde's techniques of characterization. How does he make use of art work in drawing the introductory "portraits" of his players? How does he make use of costume? What are the differences in the speech of individual characters? You may choose to focus on two or three characters to make comparisons.

Discuss how the play constructs Mrs. Cheveley's femininity. For example: why is she described as lamia-like? You may want to consider her dialogue, dialogue about her, her costumes, etc.

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