Come on, admit it. You like Lord Goring best. And why not? He's a good friend and a really snappy dresser. He has all the funniest lines. We're pretty sure Wilde liked him best, too. In fact, he might even be based on Oscar Wilde. After all, they seems to share a similar taste in wit and fashion.
Lord Goring's fancy threads and wayward habits identify him as a dandy. This isn't an insult, it's how Oscar Wilde and his friends identified themselves, too. "One sees that he stands in immediate relation to modern life, makes it indeed, and so masters it" (3.1). In this passage, being modern means running circles around convention. Lord Goring "plays with life," unwilling to submit to the expectations that trap Sir Robert. This evasive tactic is all over his speech – he plays innocent, often pretends to misunderstand what people say, and intentionally reverses meanings. It's funniest when he teases his father, the character who is most representative of the old guard:
LORD CAVERSHAM. [Going towards the smoking-room.] That is a paradox, sir. I hate paradoxes.
LORD GORING. So do I, father. Everybody one meets is a paradox nowadays. It is a great bore. It makes society so obvious.
LORD CAVERSHAM. [Turning round, and looking at his son beneath his bushy eyebrows.] Do you always really understand what you say, sir?
LORD GORING. [After some hesitation.] Yes, father, if I listen attentively. (3.68-71)
Acting the part of the dandy frees Lord Goring from obligation. No one expects him to be productive or get married – so he can do both things on his own terms.
There's one important social rule with which Lord Goring agrees: keep the partying and the deep thoughts far away from each other. The "trivial" and the "serious" are never to meet, even in buttonholes. But Wilde calls Lord Goring "the first well-dressed philosopher in the history of thought" (1.1). This characterization forces us to consider that Goring is capable of embracing both the trivial and the profound. Lord Goring's outsider status gives him the perfect position to affect some real change in the people around him, and he draws on his somewhat split personality in order to influence people who seem diametrically opposed, such as Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern. He's not in one declared camp or another – he would never be so serious as to declare something – so he can play confidante to both Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern.
Lord Goring knows what it is to be a flawed person. He jokes about it with Sir Robert: "My father tells me that even I have faults. Perhaps I have. I don't know" (2.74). He's more sheepish when he admitting to Mabel that he's a little over thirty and very extravagant (4.99). Lord Goring sees the good in Sir Robert, despite condemning his friend's crime. He doesn't share Sir Robert's lust for power, as Sir Robert doesn't share Goring's need to shop. But Lord Goring understands his friend very well. He gets inside his shoes, and asks Lady Chiltern to do the same:
What sort of existence will he have if you rob him of the fruits of his ambition, if you take him from the splendor of a great political career, if you close the doors of public life against him, if you condemn him to sterile failure, he who was made for triumph and success? (4.236)
Have you noticed that Lord Goring is the busiest person in the play? Does it seem that his scenes read a little faster? He's not the protagonist, but he defines the action, exerting influence on Sir Robert, Lady Chiltern, Mrs. Cheveley, Mabel – everybody who's anybody. He restores the orderly world that Mrs. Cheveley disrupted. He's also the go-to person for plot points. Who snatches up the bracelet? Lord Goring. Who nabs slippery Mrs. Cheveley? Lord Goring. Who convinces Lady Chiltern to forgive and accept? Guess who. And who keeps us entertained with his quick wit and sharp tongue? Need we say more?Lord Arthur Goring Timeline