As the title might suggest, An Ideal Husband's primary theme is marriage, a common premise for the potboiler melodramas of Wilde's day. To recall our discussion of the play's Context, the Victorian popular theater provided stock storylines of domestic life that, after various crises, would culminate in the reaffirmation of familiar themes: loyalty, sacrifice, undying love, forgiveness, devotion, and onward. More often than not, this reaffirmation also involved the re-establishment of the conjugal household.
Though An Ideal Husband adopts these motifs, it also mocks, parodies, and ironizes them with its more decadent and dandified characters. Thus we can organize the play's treatment of marriage according to the "poles" these characters might represent.
Lady Chiltern, for example, would predicate marital life on worship, posing her husband as a pristine ideal in both public and private life. Notably this love is explicitly gendered as "feminine." As the play progresses, Lady Chiltern's love comes to appear unreasonable and—once Sir Robert's secret sin is revealed—dangerous to the health of the domestic household. This opinion emerges most explicitly from Sir Robert and Lord Goring, who offer a competing model of marital love that the two identify as "masculine." If a woman loves in the worship of an impossible ideal, a man loves his partner for its human imperfections; his love includes charity and forgiveness whereas the woman's does not.
Thus the play calls for the tempering of the woman's overly idealizing and morally rigid love for one that can pardon human fault. Somewhat paradoxically (but all too unexpectedly), it will ultimately assign the role of pardoner to the woman; as Lord Goring tells Lady Chiltern in Act IV, "Pardon, not punishment, is [women's] mission" in love. Thus the play, miming a conventional narrative arc of the Victorian popular theater, in some sense ruins the ideal husband only to win his forgiveness from his virtuous wife. Re-establishing the conjugal household, this resolution numbers among the more sentimental and conservative of Wilde's day. Obviously, its gender politics are unfortunate to say the least.
The main obstacle to this reconciliation of married life, Mrs. Cheveley, the play's villainness, would subordinate and reduce to marriage to mercenary transactions. Schooled in Baron Arnheim's gospels of power and wealth—gospels that privilege the domination of others over all else—she has no qualms blackmailing Sir Robert and potentially destroying his conjugal bliss to secure her financial investments. Moreover, we come to learn that she engineered a false courtship with Lord Goring in their youth to swindle him out of a settlement. Finally, she will offer to exchange her evidence against Sir Robert for Goring's hand in marriage; Goring will then roundly condemn her for defiling the ideas of love detailed above. With these offenses in mind, Mrs. Cheveley's ultimate capture by a stolen wedding present—the diamond brooch—would revenge her crimes against marriage.
In contrast to both the Chilterns and Mrs. Cheveley, however, the play features a number of characters and conversations—especially those involving "banter" and other apparently frivolous speech—that mock its more conventional thematics. In particular, Goring and Mabel Chiltern function as foils to the upstanding Chilterns. Throughout the play the pair assume an amoral pose, disparaging the demands of duty and ironizing social convention. Notably then do the penultimate lines of the play, spoken by Mabel Chiltern upon accepting Goring's proposal, dispense with the notion of ideal husband altogether. "An ideal husband!" she exclaims. "Oh, I don't think I should like that. It sounds like something in the next world." Goring is to be what he wants while Mabel would only be a "real wife." In this sense, Mabel and Goring playfully reject the moral thematics described above, unconcerned with the question of what a man and wife should be ideally.
Though the title invites speculation on the ideal husband, different figures of womanliness appear throughout the play as well. Once again, we will consider this thematic structure by contrasting a few principle characters. An Ideal Husband relies on a simple opposition between the virtuous Lady Chiltern and the demonic Mrs. Cheveley, the latter's wit and villainy making her a far more pleasurable character. Lady Chiltern appears as the model Victorian new woman, which Wilde elaborated while editor of the Women's World magazine in the late 1880s: morally upstanding, highly educated, and actively supportive of her husband's political career. By Act IV, she will also emerge in the role of forgiver and caretaker (again, "Pardon, not punishment, is [women's] mission"), and thus meets the more conventional demands of Victorian womanhood as well. In terms of generational differences, she stands out against the old-fashioned Lady Markby, the embodiment of an older group of society wives.
Lady Chiltern's primary foil, however, is of course the "lamia-like"—that is, half-snake and half-female—Mrs. Cheveley. Whereas Lady Chiltern is naïve, candid, and always in earnest, the witty and ambitious Mrs. Cheveley is characterized by a sort of duplicitous femininity. As described in Act I, she is a "horrid," "unnatural," and—as quickly revealed—dangerous combination of genius and beauty. Having revealed her capacity to manipulate in Act I, the play dramatically unmasks her as a monster in Act III. Trapped by Lord Goring, Cheveley dissolves into a "paroxysm of rage, with inarticulate sounds," her loss of speech giving way to an agony of terror that distorts her face. For a moment, a "mask has fallen", and Cheveley is "dreadful to look at." Her veneer of wit and beauty thus give way to the hidden beast.
We should also note that the play relates Mrs. Cheveley's duplicity with the artifices of the dandy, Lord Goring. Like Cheveley, Goring is artificial, amoral, cunning, and irrational, traits associated with the feminine. The two great wits and most flamboyantly dressed characters of the play, Goring and Cheveley are doubles for each other: their face-off is something of a climax. Indeed, Goring is Mrs. Cheveley's only match because he can play her game of wiles, just as the Chilterns are doomed to be her victims in their hapless earnestness. Notably, it also takes little for Sir Robert to conclude that they are co-conspirators.
With these parallels in mind, one might thus note that Goring might share an unnatural or monstrous femininity with Cheveley as well: the dandy is, after all, often considered the paragon of the effeminate male. The important difference, however, lies in Mrs. Cheveley's unmasking. If Mrs. Cheveley's mask is ultimately torn aside—in an echo, perhaps, of Dorian Gray—to reveal her cruelty and ambition, Goring largely keeps his on, maintaining his dandified pose for most of the play.
Comments on what Mrs. Cheveley at one point describes as the "fine art" of living run throughout the play. The dandified Lord Goring of course exemplifies this stylization of life as art, emphasizing the beauty of youth and artifice, the importance of idleness, fashion, and social theatricality, and the ironization of existing social conventions. Once again, we can pose the fine art of living against the somber respectability and moral strictures of the Victorian age.
Wilde's plays are often read for their witty epigrams; indeed, these epigrams are what make his plays "subversive." "Wit" is defined here as the quality of speech that consists in apt associations that surprise and delight or the utterance of brilliant things in an amusing fashion; the epigram is a brief, pointed, and often antithetical saying that contains an unexpected change of thought or biting comment.
Delivered in a social intercourse that consists of rapid-fire repartee, the tone of Wilde's epigrams are often "half-serious," playing on the potential for the listener's misunderstanding—for example, taking a phrase literally, too seriously, or not seriously enough. Rhetorically, they tend to involve a combination of devices: the reversal of conventionally paired terms, irony, sarcasm, hyperbole, and paradox. Take then, for example, Lord Goring's rejoinder to his father, Lord Caversham, when the latter accuses him of talking about nothing: "I love talking about nothing, father. It is the only thing I know anything about." At one level, Goring's epigram is clearly sarcastic; at another, it is paradoxical, as in a sense one cannot know anything about nothing. The epigram also shifts between conventionally valorized terms: whereas most people would hope to have something substantive to talk about, Goring loves to talk about nothing.
As one might imagine, the "threat" in these games of rhetoric is the concomitant shift in the values—aesthetic, ethical, philosophical, or otherwise—taken up in conversation. Consequently, the apparently frivolous epigram becomes the primary vehicle by which the play mocks the values and mores of the contemporary popular stage.
In contrast to its witty, epigrammatic banter, An Ideal Husband also makes extensive use of the melodramatic speech. Such speeches reflect more conventional dialogue from the Victorian popular stage. Notable examples include Lady Chiltern's plea to Sir Robert at the end of Act I, their confrontation in Act II, and reconciliation in Act IV. These rousing speeches—far longer in length than most of the dialogue—involve innumerable apostrophes ("Oh my love!" and so on), exclamations, and lyrical entreaties. Laden with pathos, they radically transform the tone and mood found in the scenes involving epigrammatic banter, representing moments in which poised and polished characters find themselves overcome with sentiment. If the epigram is the means by which the play subverts thematic conventions, the melodramatic speech tends to reaffirm it, serving as vehicle for the play's pronouncements on love and marital life.
Act I takes place against the backdrop of a Rococo tapestry, a representation of François Boucher's "Triumph of Love" (1754). The "Triumph" allegorizes the victory of love over power: Venus points to Vulcan's conquered heart, and the god gazes up at her like a love-sick boy.
Though the most obvious reading might consider the tapestry as prefiguring the defeat of Mrs. Cheveley and reconciliation of the play's lovers, the significance of the allegory is not so self-evident. Indeed, it takes on a number of meanings. In the story the tapestry tells, Venus conquers Vulcan only to commit adultery with his brother, Ares. In this sense, Love's triumph is more Mrs. Cheveley's than the Chilterns', the former having similarly betrayed Lord Goring in their youth.
Within the action of the play itself, the tapestry takes center stage, so to speak, at the end of Act I, when the audience has just witnessed an argument that appears to foretell the doom of the Chilterns' marriage. Horrified, Sir Robert sits in the dark, the tapestry left lit by the chandelier. In this case then, the image of Love's victory is ironic as it would seem that intrigue is poised to ruin conjugal bliss.
We can chart one more mention of the Boucher tapestry in Act II. Telling Lady Chiltern of her plans for the day, Mabel will jest about standing on her head while playing tableau in the "[t]riumph of something." This joke perhaps prefigures Mabel's own turning of love upside-down in her rather unconventional courtship with Lord Goring: recall that Goring and Mabel resist notions of love as duty and dispense with the questions of ideal marital life that consume the Chilterns.
The play's other notable symbol is Mrs. Cheveley's diamond brooch. Like the tapestry, it takes on multiple meanings through the course of the play. First, as a diamond snake, it symbolizes the evil woman—a woman who resembles a skin-shedding reptile in her duplicity.
The brooch also functions as an agent of vengeance. Ultimately revealed as a wedding gift Mrs. Cheveley stole in her youth, the brooch returns as evidence of a past crime, entrapping a woman who would manipulate past wrongs to her own advantage and wreck marriages. The "poetic justice" in her arrest is clear.
Finally, one might comment on the "duplicity" of the brooch. As Goring notes, the brooch is nothing less than a "wonderful"—or, in modern parlance, "fabulous"—ornament, a luxurious object that metamorphoses into a trap. As noted above, the dandy operates by trickery and artifice—not force—and always with style. In this sense, the brooch is the only "weapon" one can imagine the dandy putting to use, emblematizing his artfulness and guile.