An Ideal Husband

Oscar Wilde

Act I - Part One

Summary Act I - Part One

As one might imagine, the "subversive" potential in these conversational games is the concomitant shift in the social values up for discussion. Thus Goring assures Mabel that his bad qualities are quite dreadful: "When I think of them at night, I go to sleep at once." In this example, Goring revises the meaning of "bad," moving from "bad" as in flawed or even reprehensible to "bad" as in boring. In doing so, the question at hand is no longer one of good and bad character traits, but whether a given trait is—to invoke a famous Wildean phrase—charming or tedious.

Wilde's excessively playful repartee is scandalous as it continually undermines the attempt to have a "serious conversation." Moreover, such speech is also scandalous in that it stands to expose the absurdity of a socially conventional statement, flout convention entirely, or reveal a conventional opinion's true meaning. One might translate the case of Goring's retort to Mabel, for example, with the following: why do good and bad character traits matter when what's truly important is whether these traits are entertaining? Or: perhaps when people describe an individual's good or bad traits, they really mean to say whether they find him amusing or dull. As we proceed to the development of the play's "serious" themes regarding conjugal life, duty, respectability, and so on, we must thus always keep the banter that undermines the ideas presented in mind.

Act I opens at a dinner party, and so we might note that repartee is only possible in social intercourse—what one might describe as the social theater. As members of London Society, Wilde's characters are extremely concerned with their "performances" at various gatherings and how they "look" in various social circles. As a result, their speech is very much part of their social personas—what we might call their "masks" or "poses." We will discuss masks (and unmaskings) in more detail as we go on. Mrs. Cheveley introduces the motif of social theatricality here when she declares that what Sir Robert describes as the "fashionable religions" of optimism and pessimism to be "merely poses"; of course, for Mrs. Cheveley, being natural is a pose as well.

Act I involves a number of conversations on gender as well. These conversations are crucial as one of the play's primary themes consists of varying conceptions of womanliness. Of particular note is a conversation between Sir Robert and Mrs. Cheveley that relates aestheticism and a certain vision 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, artificial, amoral, terms conventionally associated with the feminine. Here Mrs. Cheveley poses woman as a sort aestheticist art object. She tells Sir Robert that while men can be analyzed, women are to be merely adored: herein lies their strength. Like art, they 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 one of these dangerously well-dressed and irrational women.