An Ideal Husband

Oscar Wilde

Act III - Part One

Summary Act III - Part One

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.