An Ideal Husband

Oscar Wilde
Summary

Act II - Part Two

Summary Act II - Part Two

Recall from Act I that Lady Chiltern loves Sir Robert as an ideal husband, a man worthy of worship for the example he sets privately and publicly. Protesting his rejection by his wife, Sir Robert poses what he identifies as a "masculine" form of love against Lady Chiltern's ostensibly feminine adoration. Man's love allows for or is even predicated on human imperfections. In an unwitting echo of Lord Goring, Sir Robert argues that true love aims to cure the lover's wounds and pardon his sins, not mount the lover on an impossible, indeed "monstrous," pedestal.

Looking toward the play's resolution, however, we might note here that forgiveness will ultimately not appear as a masculine attribute. As we will see, though in this instance the capacity to forgive is associated with the male lover, Sir Robert's speech is less a description of "masculine love" than an injunction to his wife. The play will conclude that it is actually the woman's role to forgive and nurture her husband in affairs of love: as Lord Goring will tell Lady Chiltern in Act IV, "Pardon, not punishment, is [women's] mission." The assignment of this love to the Lady will thus reaffirm a familiar model of Victorian womanhood, one that casts her as healer and caregiver to her husband.

Along with this thematic development, the revelation of Sir Robert's secret speaks to the motif of masks and social theatricality described above. Here, Sir Robert loses his social face—his image as an honorable public figure and husband. Thus Lady Chiltern describes this scene as an unmasking: "Oh, what a mask you have been wearing all these years! A horrible painted mask!" The importance of this confrontation between the Chilterns notwithstanding, a number of more humorous commentaries on marriage run through the second half of the act as well. One might, for example, consider the interlude between Mabel, Lady Chiltern, and her guests. In particular, Mabel makes an especially telling joke regarding a game of tableau—that is, a game in which players re-enact scenes from famous paintings. Informing her sister-in-law of her plans to play tableau at Lady Basildon's, she announces that she will be standing on her head in the "Triumph of something." One can only recall the tapestry—the "Triumph of Love"—that frames Act I. This joke thus perhaps prefigures how Mabel will turn love on its head in her somewhat unconventional union with Lord Goring in Act IV, a union that dispenses with the question of what spouse should be ideally.

Mabel also ridicules courtship and marriage in the caricature of her suitor, the hapless Tommy Trafford, and his innumerable proposals for her hand in marriage. Her mockery of the earnest Trafford not only provides comic relief but, as in the banter from Act I, playfully shifts the conventions by which one would evaluate a potential husband. For example, Mabel complains that Tommy's romantic whispers make him sound like a doctor; his attempts at intimacy only fail to produce some effect on the public. According to this ironic jest then, it is not so much the suitor's sincerity that matters as his sense of publicity. The effect, of course, of this and Mabel's other parodistic remarks is to make Trafford's solemn proposals and courtship rituals absurd.

To take another example: When Lady Chiltern protests that Tommy has a bright future ahead, Mabel declares she could never marry such a man. Such geniuses talk too much and always think of themselves, whereas Mabel requires a husband who will think only of her. Mabel's delightful retort is both irrational ("geniuses always think of themselves") and brazenly unfair: the genius is to be faulted for an egocentrism that prevents him from satisfying Mabel's. Mabel is not looking for an ideal husband; she'd rather have a good admirer. Clearly she pursues romance on terms that diverge sharply from those of the Chilterns.

Lady Chiltern, Lady Markby, and Mrs. Cheveley also converse on married life. Notably, Lady Markby bemoans the talk of government her husband brings home, criticizing the House of Commons as the worst blow to marriage since the Higher Education of Women. Having just come from a meeting of the Women's Liberal Association, Lady Chiltern gently disagrees. She thus comes to embody the model Victorian new woman, a figure of great interest for Wilde during his editorship of Woman's World magazine in the late 1880s. Such an ideal wife is both involved in public affairs and particularly "women's issues" and active in her husband's political career. In contrast, Lady Markby appears emblematic of an older and more conservative generation of London Society. We will take up another generational conflict in the following act, in which Lords Goring and Caversham confront each other on the merits of the modern dandified lifestyle.