An Ideal Husband

Oscar Wilde

Act III - Part One

Summary Act III - Part One

Underlying this generational clash is also dandyism's veneration of youthfulness as part of modern life. As Goring tells his father when the latter denounces his affectation of youth: "Youth isn't an affectation. Youth is an art." At the same time, the dandy is also often middle-aged: though he never admits it, Goring himself is in his mid-thirties. To some extent then, Goring appears as the overgrown child in his conversation with his father, refusing to take up the responsibilities of adulthood and living past his time as a young man. One wonders, moreover, if the dandy must always fear the threat of becoming outmoded: as Lady Markby notes earlier, the danger of being too modern lies in growing old-fashioned quite quickly.

Along with these differences in values, what sets father and son apart is a marked difference in their speech, Goring running circles around his father with his wit. Caversham will continually request serious conversation, fall into senile—rather than affected—self-contradictions, and find himself unable to follow Goring's repartee.

For example, at one point Caversham condemns one of Goring's expressions of sympathy, saying there is too much sympathy going on these days. Goring concurs, replying: "If there was less sympathy in the world, there would be less trouble in the world." Thus Goring willfully misapprehends his father's rebuke—that the modern world is overly sentimental—and plays on its literal meaning, taking the vague phrase to one of its ostensibly logical conclusions. The effect is to reveal the absurdity in Caversham's pronouncement.

Caversham, of course does not know how to take his son's reply. Having not gotten the joke but noting the sophistry in his son's logic, Caversham responds: "That is a paradox sir. I hate paradoxes." Of course, Goring's repartee is less an example of paradox than the playful logic of the dandy. Thus son replies with a further set of twists: "So do I, father. Everybody one meets is a paradox nowadays. It is a great bore. It makes society so obvious." The term "paradox" as a structure of rhetoric now refers to paradox as a description of character. Moreover, being paradoxical—usually connoting obscurity and so on—becomes dull and obvious as an affectation "everyone" has come to adopt. To translate: it is quite boring that everyone you meet has become a paradox. If everyone is a paradox, then everyone is obvious. As with Goring's joke on sympathy, his dizzying repartee is not only surprising and delightful, but perhaps an occasion for insight—in this case on London Society—as well.

Speaking ironically, sarcastically, hyperbolically, or paradoxically, Goring is—as he himself notes in Act II—quintessentially "liable to be misunderstood." Indeed, the capacity to cause and manipulate such moments of confusion is one of Goring's greatest powers. As the stage notes from Act I indicate, Goring is fond of this liability as it gains him "post of vantage" in the social arena; again, through his speech, he "makes and masters" modern social life.