LADY MARKBY. [Genially.] Ah, nowadays people marry as often as they can, don't they? It is most fashionable. (1.38)
Lady Markby introduces the idea of marriage as a fad for young people. The characters have many different understandings of the purpose of marriage.
MRS. MARCHMONT. [With a sigh.] Our husbands never appreciate anything in us. We have to go to others for that! (1.165)
Wilde articulates a central theme even in these lighthearted discussions. She's just being clever, but Mrs. Marchmont foreshadows Lady Chiltern's painful discovery that marrying what you believe is the "perfect" husband will only lead to disappointment.
LADY CHILTERN. I will love you always, because you will always be worthy of love. (1.390)
Lady Chiltern traps Sir Robert in her love, which is by no means unconditional. There's almost a latent threat in this line: if you are not worthy of love, I will not love you always. It is clear, however, that she fully expects Sir Robert to live up to her impossible expectations.
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. Arthur, I couldn't tell my wife. […] She would have turned from me in horror . . . in horror and in contempt. (2.3)
Sir Robert's fear drives him further and further away from the ideal of the honest, forthright husband. He gets to the point where he no longer knows how to be a husband to his wife, ideal or not.
LADY MARKBY: He always seems to think that he is addressing the House, and consequently whenever he discusses the state of the agricultural labourer, or the Welsh Church, or something quite improper of that kind, I am obliged to send all the servants out of the room. (2.242)
Lady Markby uses her husband's foibles as conversational fodder and social currency.
LADY MARKBY: Ah, I forgot, your husband is an exception. Mine is the general rule, and nothing ages a woman so rapidly as having married the general rule. (2.276)
Most of the women in the play reinforce the image of Sir Robert as the perfect husband. Maybe that pressure makes it harder for Lady Chiltern to accept the truth.
SIR ROBERT: We have all feet of clay, women as well as men; but when we men love women, we love them knowing their weaknesses, their follies, their imperfections, love them all the more, it may be, for that reason. (2.311)
Sir Robert recognizes his wife as an equal in their "modern" marriage, but still makes big generalizations about the way the sexes love each other. Old-fashioned, maybe, but Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus was a bestseller not too long ago. The struggle for each sex to understand the other continues even today.
LORD GORING: It is the growth of the moral sense in women that makes marriage such a hopeless, one-sided institution. (3.30)
Women at this time were getting out more, getting more involved, making their voices heard on a range of political and ethical topics. Lord Goring seems to regret the growing complexity, and eventually chooses a wife who rejects it.
LORD CAVERSHAM. [Testily.] That is a matter for me, sir. You would probably make a very poor choice. It is I who should be consulted, not you. There is property at stake. It is not a matter for affection. Affection comes later on in married life. (3.111)
Lord Caversham is unnerved by the transition from marriage as an economically driven institution to marriage as a matter of personal preference.
MABEL CHILTERN. Well, I delight in your bad qualities. I wouldn't have you part with one of them. (1.131)
Mabel represents the accepting, indulgent wife, in contrast to Lady Chiltern's demanding and imposing one.
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN: It is not the perfect, but the imperfect, who have need of love. (2.311)
In a long, melodramatic speech, Sir Robert encourages Lady Chiltern to accept his past mistakes and the possibility of future ones.
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN: All sins, except a sin against itself, Love should forgive. (2.311)
What does Sir Robert mean here? Perhaps that only a loveless gesture – for example Lady Chiltern's emotional abandonment of her husband – can't be forgiven. But Sir Robert stands by his description of masculine love and happily forgives his wife.
LORD CAVERSHAM. Oh, damn sympathy. There is a great deal too much of that sort of thing going on nowadays. (3.66)
Lord Caversham stands by an old world, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps ethic that doesn't expect to give or receive help.
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. She stands apart as good women do - pitiless in her perfection – cold and stern and without mercy. (3.153)
At this moment in the play, Sir Robert feels so alienated that his wife's "good" nature and "perfection" are enemies almost as formidable as Mrs. Cheveley's wickedness.
LORD GORING. She loves you, Robert. Why should she not forgive? (3.154)
For Lord Goring, forgiveness and love belong together. He's a good friend of Lady Chiltern's, but doesn't understand her notion of idealistic love. With his knowledge of his own flaws, maybe he can't imagine anyone loving him if he or she couldn't forgive him.
LORD CAVERSHAM. He is very heartless, very heartless. (4.66)
Lord Caversham repeats this phrase several times in the play. He sees only the public Lord Goring – lazy, indifferent, devil-may-care – not the real Lord Goring scrambling to save a marriage and advocating for a reliance on the heart.
LORD GORING. […] you whose lips desecrated the word love, you to whom the thing is a book closely sealed, went this afternoon to the house of one of the most noble and gentle women in the world to degrade her husband in her eyes, to try and kill her love for him […]That I cannot forgive you. (3.258)
It's interesting that Lord Goring can't offer Mrs. Cheveley what he so forcefully promotes to Lady Chiltern – forgiveness.
LORD GORING: Women are not meant to judge us, but to forgive us when we need forgiveness. Pardon, not punishment, is their mission. (4.236)
Lord Goring makes this speech after he's become engaged. How much of this is wishful thinking?
LADY CHILTERN. You can forget. Men easily forget. And I forgive. That is how women help the world. I see that now. (4.248)
As a modern reader, it's hard to get around the sexist message of the play's end. One other way of looking at it is this: formerly protective of Sir Robert's impermeable public persona, Lady Chiltern sounds like she'll redirect that energy into caring for the man himself, in all his humanity. So part of her transformation is abandoning idol-worship for the difficult, day-to-day work of accepting and loving a real person. And this interpretation is a little more palatable for someone reading An Ideal Husband today.
LADY MARKBY: Really, now that the House of Commons is trying to become useful, it does a great deal of harm. (1.54)
One of the older characters in the play, Lady Markby's conversation is often a variation on "how things have changed." Here she seems to long for a bygone past when the House of Commons was more ceremonial than effective.
MRS. CHEVELEY. Politics are my only pleasure. (1.84)
Laura, Laura, Laura. (That's Mrs. Cheveley's first name.) It's all about her. Politics, sex, friendship all serve one purpose – securing her comfort and security.
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. A political life is a noble career! (1.85)
This is early in his conversations with Mrs. Cheveley – before she reminds him of the ignoble moment that bought him this noble political career. One immoral act has enabled him to do a lot of good. The only problem is that she is not willing to forget that original, immoral act.
MRS. CHEVELEY. Sometimes. And sometimes it is a clever game, Sir Robert. And sometimes it is a great nuisance. (1.86)
While Sir Robert understands politics as a narrative of progress, Mrs. Cheveley sees it almost like a fickle frenemy, sometimes for her, sometimes against her. She doesn't get this "common good" thing.
LORD GORING. I adore political parties. They are the only place left to us where people don't talk politics. (1.159)
Lord Goring is the original hipster, totally cooler-than-thou. He likes to pretend that political engagement – indeed, caring about anything – is too much for him. But he's also the character who ends up exerting the most influence on others throughout the play.
LADY BASILDON. I delight in talking politics. I talk them all day long. But I can't bear listening to them. (1.160)
For Lady Basildon, politics are useful in social settings. She can show off her learning but she doesn't really have to engage with contrary opinions.
MRS. CHEVELEY: Remember to what a point your Puritanism in England has brought you. (1.268)
Mrs. Cheveley blames Sir Robert's imminent doom on British Puritanism, contrasting it with the looser morals in Vienna. Mrs. Cheveley's willingness to exploit probably gives her more leverage in England than it would on the Continent.
LORD CAVERSHAM. I wish you would go into Parliament. (4.35)
Lord Caversham is old-fashioned and idealistic about politics. Political office is about serving the public, yes, but it's also about securing the family name. A career in Parliament might save his son from being such a public embarrassment.
LORD GORING. My dear father, only people who look dull ever get into the House of Commons, and only people who are dull ever succeed there. (4.36)
For a self-described slacker, Lord Goring is very hard headed about what he does and doesn't want. He is skeptical of the machine of politics of politician's motives – but he's not going to let us know he's thought that much about it.
LORD CAVERSHAM. You have got what we want so much in political life nowadays - high character, high moral tone, high principles. [To LORD GORING.] Everything that you have not got, sir, and never will have. (4.194)
One of the funny/sad ironies that keeps popping up is Lord Caversham's total dismissal of his son as a useful human being. In reality, Lord Goring is the play's most useful character. His desperate efforts to save a marriage amply demonstrate his character, morality, and principles
MRS. CHEVELEY. Do you know, I am quite looking forward to meeting your clever husband, Lady Chiltern. […] They actually succeed in spelling his name right in the newspapers. That in itself is fame, on the continent. (1.43)
Mrs. Cheveley seems to think that any attention is good attention.
LADY MARKBY. Oh! she goes everywhere there, and has such pleasant scandals about all her friends. (1.60)
For Lady Markby, scandal is something delicious and exotic – to be kept far away from her, preferably across an ocean.
Nowadays, with our modern mania for morality, every one has to pose as a paragon of purity, incorruptibility, and all the other seven deadly virtues – and what is the result? You all go over like ninepins - one after the other. (1.268)
Like Lord Goring, Mrs. Cheveley believes that human beings are fundamentally flawed. Unlike him, she uses this knowledge for personal profit.
Suppose that when I leave this house I drive down to some newspaper office, and give them this scandal and the proofs of it! Think of their loathsome joy, of the delight they would have in
Even in Oscar Wilde's time, digging up dirt was an important part of journalism. What would happen, though, if news sources weren't allowed to do the kind of investigative reporting that reveals wrongdoing?
SIR ROBERT. Besides, Gertrude, public and private life are different things. They have different laws, and move on different lines. (1.351)
This quote reveals that Sir Robert is pragmatic – pretty much a necessity for political success.
LADY CHILTERN. They should both represent man at his highest. I see no difference between them. (1.352)
Lady Chiltern is idealistic. This creates some tension for Sir Robert, but perhaps it's useful to have someone with such convictions keeping him honest.
LADY CHILTERN. I know that there are men with horrible secrets in their lives - men who have done some shameful thing, and who in some critical moment have to pay for it, by doing some other act of shame - oh! don't tell me you are such as they are! (1.370)
Lady Chiltern is as self-deluding, as we all are, to some extent. We think: "Oh, that sort of thing happens to other people, but not to me." It's clear that she had been thinking this all along, until she was forced to deal with a difficult situation. Experiencing the crisis in her own home humanizes her.
SIR ROBERT: And now what is there before me but public disgrace, ruin, terrible shame, the mockery of the world, a lonely dishonored life, a lonely dishonored death, it may be, some day? (2.311)
Sir Robert fears public humiliation almost as much as he fears losing his wife's love.
LORD CAVERSHAM. [Opens THE TIMES.] 'Sir Robert Chiltern . . . most rising of our young statesmen . . . Brilliant orator . . . Unblemished career . . . Well-known integrity of character . . . Represents what is best in English public life . . . Noble contrast to the lax morality so common among foreign politicians.' (4.31)
Part of us applauds Sir Robert's narrow escape, part of us wanted him to be caught – and then redeemed.
SIR ROBERT. Gertrude, Gertrude, you are to me the white image of all good things, and sin can never touch you. (4.272)
Oh dear. This quote occurs at the end of the play. After Sir Robert has twisted Lady Chiltern's arm to accept his imperfection and obvious missteps, he wants her to be the "white image of all good things"? Maybe you should write the sequel: An Ideal Wife.
MRS. CHEVELEY. I have a distinct recollection of Lady Chiltern always getting the good conduct prize! (1.66)
Mrs. Cheveley thinks that ethics are just obedience.
MRS. CHEVELEY. [In her most nonchalant manner.] My dear Sir Robert, you are a man of the world, and you have your price, I suppose. (1.252)
Mrs. Cheveley is saying that a man of the world recognizes that principles bow before needs (i.e., he'll do what it takes to get what he wants politically). Sir Robert has accepted that law before, and Mrs. Cheveley expects he'll do so again. Like Lady Chiltern, she doesn't believe people change.
LADY MARKBY. Lady Chiltern is a woman of the very highest principles, I am glad to say. I am a little too old now, myself, to trouble about setting a good example, but I always admire people who do. (1.290)
It's funny how Lady Markby equates holding the highest principles with setting a good example. For her, if a tree falls in the forest and no one can hear it, it doesn't make a sound. In other words, morals only matter if other people can see you upholding them.
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. [Sitting down.] Sooner or later in political life one has to compromise. Every one does. (1.359)
Sir Robert feels the need to school his wife on the realities of politics…but he doesn't want to. He sounds a little childish with that last excuse, "Everyone's doing it!"
LADY CHILTERN. Circumstances should never alter principles! (1.362)
Lady Chiltern thinks of human behavior as solid and unchanging, impervious to everything around it. Oscar Wilde, history, and psychologists take another view. Procrastination break: google "Situationism."
LORD GORING. […] in England a man who can't talk morality twice a week to a large, popular, immoral audience is quite over as a serious politician. (2.58)
Apparently people had double standards for their politicians even back in Victorian England.
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. I would to God that I had been able to tell the truth . . . to live the truth. Ah! that is the great thing in life, to live the truth. (2.115)
Sir Robert is caught between a desire to come clean to his wife and to his public, and a very real understanding of the repercussions of admitting his crimes. No matter how long ago he committed his crimes, the danger of potential damage is real.
MRS. CHEVELEY Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike. (2.289)
It's interesting how much Mrs. Cheveley sounds like Lord Goring at certain points. No wonder they were into each other at one point. What makes their behavior so different?
LORD GORING. I don't like principles, father. I prefer prejudices. (4.195)
In a society as rule-oriented as Victorian England, this kind of statement is pretty radical. Speaking through Lord Goring, Wilde is saying that personal preferences are what matters, not rules.
MRS. CHEVELEY. [Leaning back on the sofa and looking at him.] How very disappointing! (1.250)
The power's in the stage directions. Mrs. Cheveley knows she has the upper hand. She's relaxed. She wants to enjoy the foreplay. Then she'll go for the jugular.
MRS. CHEVELEY. […] I am much stronger than you are. The big battalions are on my side. You have a splendid position, but it is your splendid position that makes you so vulnerable. (1.268)
The tables have turned. Normally Sir Robert uses the power of his good reputation to influence people. Now that reputation leaves him wide open. Mrs. Cheveley has no good reputation to protect and so she pulls out all the stops.
LADY CHILTERN. It is power to do good that is fine – that, and that only. (1.366)
Lady Chiltern can't understand Sir Robert's obsession with power, and why the desire for political power would influence him to sacrifice his beliefs. Two very different temperaments meet in this marriage.
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. Youth is the time for success. I couldn't wait. (2.25)
Sir Robert's lust for power was so great that he effectively said "carpe diem" (i.e., "seize the day") when Baron Arnheim made his original offer. This quote typifies the Aesthetic movement's obsession with youth.
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. With that wonderfully fascinating quiet voice of his he expounded to us the most terrible of all philosophies, the philosophy of power, preached to us the most marvelous of all gospels, the gospel of gold. (2.35)
Sir Robert describes a seduction that was both sensual and spiritual. Poor guy didn't have a chance.
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. […] power, power over other men, power over the world, was the one thing worth having, […] and in our century only the rich possessed it. (2.35)
Sir Robert tries to make Lord Goring understand the desperation that comes with being poor and ambitious. Lord Goring was born wealthy and was never in the position where he had to compromise any principles.
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. Wealth has given me enormous power. It gave me at the very outset of my life freedom, and freedom is everything. (2.37)
As Sir Robert recalls his misdeed, his condemnation of the act falters. Suddenly, it seems like the right and necessary thing to have done. Because of the impact Sir Robert has made, the Baron actually facilitated a lot of good in the end.
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. She must have had some curious hold over Baron Arnheim. I wonder what it was.
LORD GORING. [Smiling.] I wonder. (2.191-192)
We know what you're thinking: it's about sex. Lord Goring is acknowledging that age-old source of power.
MRS. CHEVELEY. Call it what you choose. I hold your husband in the hollow of my hand, and if you are wise you will make him do what I tell him. (2.295)
Mrs. Cheveley delights in having something on Miss Goody-Two-Shoes, Lady Chiltern. Cheveley's lust for power resembles Sir Robert's.
LORD GORING. Power is his passion. (4.240)
Have you noticed that most of the quotes on power come from Sir Robert? He uses the word nine times in one scene.
MRS. CHEVELEY. Even you are not rich enough, Sir Robert, to buy back your past. No man is. (1.274)
The past seems like a wholly negative thing. A large part of Sir Robert's past is comprised of the positive decisions he's made. Now, only the mistakes seem important and influential.
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. No one should be entirely judged by their past. (1.345)
Sir Robert says this about his nemesis, Mrs. Cheveley. He also seems to be fishing for a gentle response from his wife that might apply to him, too.
LADY CHILTERN. [Sadly.] One's past is what one is. It is the only way by which people should be judged. (1.346)
Sorry, Sir Robert. Lady Chiltern believes that people can't change. She refuses to believe that human beings are works in progress.
LADY CHILTERN. But you told me yesterday that you had received the report from the Commission, and that it entirely condemned the whole thing. (1.350)
Lady Chiltern has a memory for even the most recent past, holding Sir Robert to a decision he made yesterday.
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. Gertrude, there is nothing in my past life that you might not know. (1.375)
Sir Robert wishes he could live in the truth. His fear of rejection makes that impossible at the moment. He lies.
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. […] she looks like a woman with a past, doesn't she? (2.95)
What exactly does a woman with a past look like? Is it her dress? Her lipstick? Her age?
LORD GORING. Perhaps Mrs. Cheveley's past is merely a slightly DECOLLETE one, and they are excessively popular nowadays. (2.96)
Lord Goring reminds Sir Robert that Mrs. Cheveley might not be as susceptible to scandal as he is. As Lady Markby says elsewhere, it probably enhances her charms.
MRS. CHEVELEY. [With a sneer.] Oh, there is only one real tragedy in a woman's life. The fact that her past is always her lover, and her future invariably her husband. (3.253)
This quote is a brainteaser from Mrs. Cheveley. Does she mean that the past is romantic but erratic, the future steadfast but dull? That the best times are behind her? How would you interpret this quote?
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. I wish I had seen that one sin of my youth burning to ashes. (4.170)
Sir Robert is referring to the old letter to Baron Arnheim. Would Mrs. Cheveley have been as powerful without this material piece of evidence? There's an interesting contrast between the past that truly existed and the past that's recorded – then later interpreted as reality.
LORD GORING. Why should you scourge him with rods for a sin done in his youth, before he knew you, before he knew himself? (4.236)
Lord Goring's understanding of human beings is fundamentally opposed to Lady Chiltern's. He believes a person becomes, she thinks a person is.
LADY BASILDON. What martyrs we are, dear Margaret!
MRS. MARCHMONT. [Rising.] And how well it becomes us, Olivia! (1.15-16)
Their willingness to suffer conversation with boring men makes these women more attractive.
MRS. CHEVELEY. Certainly, more women grow old nowadays through the faithfulness of their admirers than through anything else! At least that is the only way I can account for the terribly haggard look of most of your pretty women in London! (1.70)
Mrs. Cheveley doesn't have a domestic bone in her body. A steadfast admirer would bore her to death. Maybe that's why she goes after Lord Goring.
MRS. CHEVELEY. Ah! the strength of women comes from the fact that psychology cannot explain us. […] Science can never grapple with the irrational. (1.76-78)
Much of Mrs. Cheveley's power – especially in this early scene – lies in her mystery.
LORD GORING. [Turning round.] Well, she wore far too much rouge last night, and not quite enough clothes. That is always a sign of despair in a woman. (2.81)
"Hello kettle? This is pot. You're black." Lord Goring and Mrs. Cheveley share the award for Most Hours in Front of a Mirror.
LADY MARKBY. I assure you that the amount of things I and my poor dear sister were taught not to understand was quite extraordinary. But modern women understand everything, I am told. (2.240)
It's Lady Markby with the how-things-have-changed report. Probably the most interesting aspect of this quote is the idea that "ignorance" can be taught.
LORD GORING. But women who have common sense are so curiously plain, father, aren't they? (3.114)
Let's remember that in Lord Goring's world, common sense is not a desirable attribute.
LORD CAVERSHAM. No woman, plain or pretty, has any common sense at all, sir. Common sense is the privilege of our sex. (3.115)
Lord Caversham eats these words later, applauding Mabel's common sense in favoring the "real" over the "ideal" in marriage.
MRS. CHEVELEY. My dear Arthur, women are never disarmed by compliments. Men always are. That is the difference between the two sexes. (3.243)
Mrs. Cheveley has full confidence in the superiority and strength of women.
LORD GORING. How you women war against each other! (3.250)
Lord Goring sees Mrs. Cheveley and Lady Chiltern as two black widows of very different natures. He couldn't be married to either of them.
LORD GORING. A man's life is of more value than a woman's. It has larger issues, wider scope, greater ambitions. A woman's life revolves in curves of emotions. It is upon lines of intellect that a man's life progresses. Don't make any terrible mistake, Lady Chiltern. A woman who can keep a man's love, and love him in return, has done all the world wants of women, or should want of them. (4.246)
Lord Goring advocates for women to remain in the private sphere as silent supports to their men. Lady Chiltern parrots his speech when her husband comes back in. Some critics see the word-for-word repetition as a comic resolution, but we're not so sure. Can you think of another way to interpret it?