Study Guide

An Ideal Husband Themes

  • Marriage

    Marriage was a popular topic for plays in Oscar Wilde's time. It's still popular in ours. Remember all those movies in which a young couple fight and break up, but make up in time for the credits? Same thing here. The characters mill around in a comic fog of misunderstanding and hardheadedness until their need for each other (with a little meddling) overcomes the odds. They learn to be honest, to forgive, to commit, and to give. In An Ideal Husband, marriage seems to be a generally desirable institution. Only the villain stays single.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. If Oscar Wilde were performing a wedding ceremony, what advice would he give to the newlyweds?
    2. Will Lord Goring and Mabel have a happy marriage? On what do you base your answer to this question?
    3. What did Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern learn about each other that may make them more compatible?
    4. Do you think Mrs. Cheveley is capable of love? What sort of fellow would be the lucky man?

    Chew on This

    Lord Goring's irreverence toward marriage and other respected institutions makes him the ideal problem-solver for the crisis of Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern.

    Denied influence in the public sphere, women in Victorian England exerted influence through marriage.

    The marriage of Lord Goring and Mabel at the end of An Ideal Husband is a contrivance put in to please the audience.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    In An Ideal Husband, compassion and forgiveness are the holy grail of marriage, and the only way marriage can possibly work. In this play, both the men and the women are forever messing up and inadvertently hurting each other. That seems to be inevitable when it comes romantic relationship. What is preventable is the stalemate that happens in the middle of the play, when each side denies the other any communication. According to Lord Goring, husbands and wives need to step back, let go of anger, try to step into the shoes of their spouses, and forgive. And Lord Goring gets the other characters to do just that.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Does Sir Robert deserve forgiveness? What about Mrs. Cheveley?
    2. How much of Lord Goring's gospel of forgiveness is founded on his tendency to behave like a wealthy aristocrat?
    3. If Mrs. Cheveley the only character undeserving of compassion, then why do you think this is the case?

    Chew on This

    Oscar Wilde's plea for indulgence – through the voice of Lord Goring – is rooted in his love life at the time the play was written.

    Gestures of compassion, forgiveness and acceptance resolve the plot of An Ideal Husband, and define this play as a comedy.

  • Politics

    Politics serve a number of purposes in An Ideal Husband. They start the show with a party, lend weight to the protagonist's crisis, and give occasion for many, many witticisms. The public nature of work in politics gives the protagonist higher stakes. To paraphrase the villainess: scandals don't just hurt a politician, they crush him. Pitted against the equally high-stakes game of love, politics lend an exciting background to this comedy with dashes of potboiler.

    Questions About Politics

    1. Are the politicians in An Ideal Husband interested in the common good? Or are their efforts focused on raising their status?
    2. Do you think that success in public life and happiness in private life mutually exclusive?
    3. Why does Lady Chiltern so quickly request that Sir Robert leave public life? Are political success and moral wholeness mutually exclusive?

    Chew on This

    The transition of settings in An Ideal Husband – from political party to a private morning room – underscores the play's investigation of public and private morality.

    An Ideal Husband argues that love is more important than politics.

  • Respect and Reputation

    Respect and reputation are extremely important in the polite Victorian society of An Ideal Husband. The respect of your peers gets you an invitation to dinner and a potential opening for what it is you really want: a promotion, a husband, more invitations to dinner, etc. Decorum is so ingrained in these characters that they can't talk to their friends in front of the butler, and can't order the butler in front of their friends. Characters who flout social norms are punished or woefully misunderstood.

    Questions About Respect and Reputation

    1. Would Sir Robert command more respect from the reader/audience if he came clean to the public?
    2. How much of Lady Chiltern's interior life does she reveal? At 27 and married for years, could she truly be as idealistic as she says? Is this a badly written character?
    3. How does Sir Robert's relationship to his reputation differ from Lord Goring's?

    Chew on This

    Lord Caversham's verbal abuse of his son reflects Victorian England's worship of surfaces.

    Mrs. Cheveley's bad-girl status helps her gain access to what she wants.

  • Morality and Ethics

    In An Ideal Husband, morality and ethics are inextricably bound to respect and reputation. As most characters shrewdly scale the social skyscraper, ethical behavior is valuable in gaining credibility with others – not necessarily valuable in itself. Good deeds are rewarded with respect and power; bad deeds get you kicked off the island. Those with no part in the rat race are a little freer to define their own ethical code. They may even play with social expectations, doing good while acting badly in order to ease the strictures.

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. Who is the most ethical person in the play? Who is the least ethical?
    2. Which characters see morality as connected to reputation? Which don't?
    3. How do different generations in the play view moral decision-making?

    Chew on This

    Mrs. Cheveley says Sir Robert is fraudulent and dishonest. She's right. His ruthless pursuit of wealth and influence typify the turn-of-the-century London politician.

    The play argues for compassion as the ultimate morality.

  • Power

    Characters in An Ideal Husband have two kinds of power. In a play with a political setting, the first is naturally public power, the ability to make decisions on a grand scale. Speeches made, votes taken, meetings and reports – at this level of government, one man can affect thousands of people. But this one man is at the mercy of the second kind of power, one individual's control over another person. And it's not just the villain he has to fear. All of the characters in this play try controlling each other, whether as blackmailers, tastemakers, armchair judges, or spouses. Even the "good" characters work hard to get what they want.

    Questions About Power

    1. Who is the play's most powerful character? What gives him/her power over the other characters?
    2. Is any character totally powerless?
    3. How does the need for power or control manifest itself in each character? Which tactics are the most successful?

    Chew on This

    Mrs. Cheveley's influence descends as Lord Goring's ascends, revealing the play's optimistic perspective; the forces of friendship are stronger than those of self-interest.

    Lady Chiltern has all the power in the Chiltern marriage.

  • Memory and the Past

    In An Ideal Husband, the past is mostly a thing one wishes had never happened. The characters don't want to talk about the past or hear about it. They definitely don't want a letter from it, especially if said letter identifies them as an erstwhile crook. There's some dispute about the past's influence on the future. Does it define these characters? Or can they leave the past behind like a snake shedding an old skin? Ultimately, love buries the old ghosts and banishes the vipers. With the promise of one new marriage and one renewed one, the last act of the play looks resolutely toward the future.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. How do physical objects bring the past into the present?
    2. Is Sir Robert really as safe as he feels at the end of the play? If another Mrs. Cheveley comes out of the woodwork, with another letter, how might things be different?
    3. How do unforeseen consequences of past actions drive the plot of An Ideal Husband?

    Chew on This

    An Ideal Husband pits different conceptions of human development against each other. Through the course of the play, the author endorses the idea of a human being as a work in progress. A person's past is just a draft in the ongoing creation of identity.

    As the millennium approaches, the couples reject the past as represented by Mrs. Markby and Lord Caversham.

  • Women and Femininity

    Search "woman" in An Ideal Husband and you'll come by lots of zingers. "Women represent the irrational." "Women have a wonderful instinct about things. They can discover everything except the obvious." And can you believe it: "A man's life is of more value than a woman's." What's the deal? Well, in 1890s England, women simply weren't considered men's equals or colleagues in public life. An equal right to vote came in 1928. There are lots of unpleasant words about (and between) women in this play. But take a look at their actions. These women are aware of their power over men and they use it, whether for love or hate.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. How do women negotiate within their given roles of exerting influence?
    2. What do the generational differences of opinion in the play say about women at the turn of the century?
    3. How are Lady Chiltern and Mrs. Cheveley different models of feminine power?
    4. How would women behave differently if the play were set in 21st century United States?

    Chew on This

    While men exert wider public influence in the play, women press their own agendas by manipulating men with sex and guilt.

    While Lord Goring appears to be the play's most progressive character, he is in fact its most sexist.