Oh goodness, did Oscar Wilde have fun with this one. No character is introduced without lengthy (and often rapturous) description of his or her god-given charms and how he or she's dressed them up. Mrs. Cheveley has "Venetian red hair, aquiline nose, and a long throat" above a bright purple dress – "heliotrope," to be exact – and lots of diamonds. She is "a work of art, on the whole, but showing the influence of too many schools" (1.35). This is our first glance at Mrs. Cheveley, yet we already sense an immense confidence, need for attention, and public persona that is both calculated and extreme.
Wilde continually alludes to visual art to describe his characters. Diametrically opposed to flamboyant Mrs. Cheveley is Lady Chiltern: "a woman of grave Greek beauty" (1.1). What? No description of her dress? She must be serious. She's like a marble statue, impressive, cold, and a little unapproachable. Mabel is "like a Tanagra statuette" – a Greek terracotta girl with big eyes and round cheeks – but she has "all the fragrance and freedom of a flower" (1.23). Her spontaneity and youth distinguish her from both Mrs. Cheveley and Lady Chiltern, and exempt her from the play's strife.
Wilde devotes a very long paragraph to Sir Robert Chiltern's appearance, immediately signaling his protagonist's role. He is handsome, but there's something mismatched about his face: "the firmly-chiseled mouth and chin contrast strikingly with the romantic expression in the deep-set eyes" (1.52). He's half Orlando Bloom, half Daniel Craig – a sensitive soul who has become a man of action. Despite superhuman self-control, he suffers so much inner conflict that his nostrils quiver.
And then there's Lord Goring. We actually get to see him getting dressed in Act 3. It's a fabulous candlelit ritual presided over by Phipps the Butler. Lord Goring's silk hat, Inverness cape, white gloves and Louis XIV cane identify him as a dandy. (For more on Lord Goring as a dandy check out his "Character Analysis.") Directors of the play also would have created, for Victorians in the know, a picture image of Wilde on stage, dubbing Lord Goring as the representative of the author's point of view.
While most of these characters are too wealthy to work, what they do with their time still says a lot about them.
Sir Robert does work – a lot. He's a workaholic whose industriousness earns him the respect of his peers and his wife. His work ethic also is a cause of concern for his wife. He's moving up the rungs of the governmental career ladder quickly. At the beginning of the play Sir Robert is the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and by the end he's in the Cabinet. He could end up being Prime Minister. With such a meteoric rise, he has a long way to fall.
Lady Chiltern doesn't have a job on the books, but being the wife of the next big man in politics takes a lot of work. And she is ambitious for Sir Robert, as he acknowledges in Act 4. Supporting his career means throwing perfect, tasteful parties to impress everyone, educating herself on political topics, and serving on the Women's Liberal Association. She's a woman who likes to stay busy and engaged in service to her community. And we see that she works hard to further women's rights, which also makes her an interesting figure in the play.
Mabel's just a kid. Basically, her main task is socializing with potential suitors. She goes walking with Tommy Trafford and rehearses tableaux with him and Lord Goring. Self-absorbed and carefree, Mabel's a female dandy. This makes her the perfect match for Lord Goring.
Lord Goring, of course, doesn't work. How would he have time to put in hours at an office somewhere? As Mabel tells Lord Caversham, "he rides in the Row at ten o'clock in the morning, changes his clothes at least five times a day, and dines out every night of the season" (1.25). Lord Goring's resolute refusal to get a job, despite his father's pleas and ultimatums, confirms him as self-centered nonconformist. His lack of career ambitions might also give him the detachment that allows for the clarity of his advice.
Mrs. Cheveley doesn't work. She earns her money like most Victorian women – from men. Baron Arnheim's estate won't last forever. She needs to lock down something else, be it the Argentine investment or from a marriage to Lord Goring. As much as she wants to be, she's not truly independent. Mrs. Cheveley's need for social and financial security, mixed with her mischievous temperament, creates a brew that's pretty toxic for the other characters in the play.
Reading what these characters say about each other is fun because Oscar Wilde was so brilliantly catty.
Lady Chiltern on Mrs. Cheveley: "She was untruthful, dishonest, an evil influence on everyone whose trust or friendship she could win" (1.344). See how Lady Chiltern just says what she means? She doesn't make it clever like Mrs. Cheveley.
Mrs. Cheveley on Lady Chiltern: "A woman whose size in gloves is seven and three-quarters never knows much about anything" (3.255). Mrs. Cheveley is calling Lady Chiltern a naïve little prude.
Lord Goring on Mrs. Cheveley: "Oh, I should fancy Mrs. Cheveley is one of those very modern women of our time who find a new scandal as becoming as a new bonnet, and air them both in the Park every afternoon at five-thirty" (2.78). Lord Goring warns Sir Robert that he might need more than a scandal to bring down Mrs. Cheveley. Lord Goring understands Mrs. Cheveley's flashy exhibitionism – because he shares it.
Mrs. Cheveley on Lord Goring, who (Mabel tells us) is President of the Charity for the Undeserving: "The post should suit him admirably, unless he has deteriorated since I knew him first" (2.212). Mrs. Cheveley manages to toss off an insult of her former fiancée, though she's surrounded by his allies. To her, he's undeserving because he was a silly romantic who failed to be realistic about love, and left her in the lurch.