An Ideal Husband | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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An Ideal Husband | Act 1 | Summary



The play opens in Sir Robert Chiltern's house, where the Chilterns are hosting a party. Lady Chiltern stands at the top of the stairs receiving guests. The main room visible on stage is richly decorated. There is a chandelier, and tapestries hang on the walls. Guests can hear music off to the right coming from the music room.

Two guests, Mrs. Marchmont and Lady Basildon, are sitting on a sofa, gossiping about the party and their role in it. They leave to go to the music room, where the Vicomte de Nanjac starts talking to them. Lord Caversham enters. He's a respectable older gentleman. He immediately asks Lady Chiltern about his son Lord Goring, whom he calls "good-for-nothing." Mabel Chiltern joins them and charms Lord Caversham as they chat about why he sees his son this way. Lord Caversham believes his son leads an "idle life."

Mason, the butler, announces two more guests: Lady Markby and Mrs. Cheveley. Lady Markby greets Lady Chiltern and introduces her friend, Mrs. Cheveley. Lady Chiltern becomes distant when she realizes she and Mrs. Cheveley have met before. She hadn't realized it earlier because Mrs. Cheveley had remarried and so changed her name. Mrs. Cheveley pretends she doesn't remember her hostess and asks if they have really met before; Lady Chiltern mentions they were at school together. Mrs. Cheveley says she's forgotten school because it was unpleasant, but she is eager to meet Lord Chiltern, whose reputation has grown internationally. Lady Chiltern dismisses the idea that Mrs. Cheveley and her husband could have anything in common. She moves away, and the Vicomte de Nanjac joins the conversation.

Sir Robert Chiltern enters. He greets Lady Markby and asks about her guest. Lady Markby introduces Mrs. Cheveley. At first Sir Robert doesn't recognize the name, but he seems to once Lady Markby mentions Mrs. Cheveley had been in Vienna. Lady Markby introduces the two. Mrs. Cheveley mentions that she already knows Lady Chiltern because they were at school together. As they chat they talk about men and women and society's judgments of them. Eventually Sir Robert asks what brings her to London from Vienna and asks specifically if it is "politics or pleasure." Mrs. Cheveley responds that politics are her "only pleasure."

This shifts the conversation to the nature of politics. He tries to pin her down regarding how she sees politics. After she drops her fan and he recovers it, Sir Robert asks again what brings her to London. She says she wanted to meet him and has something for him to do for her. He asks what, but she puts him off by requesting a tour of the house and mentions that Baron Arnheim had described Sir Robert's art as lovely. Sir Robert is visibly shocked at the mention of Baron Arnheim and asks how well Mrs. Cheveley knew him. "Intimately" is her answer. She praises him; Sir Robert's discussion of Arnheim is more hesitant.

Lord Goring enters. Sir Robert takes advantage of his entrance and introduces him to Mrs. Cheveley so he can disrupt their conversation. The two have met before and immediately begin talking. Mrs. Cheveley and Sir Robert exit the stage together, but not before she mentions that the length of her stay in London depends partly on Sir Robert.

Lord Goring and Lady Chiltern chat, and Lord Goring asks who brought Mrs. Cheveley. Lady Chiltern mentions that Lady Markby brought her. The Vicomte de Nanjac joins them and asks if he can escort Lady Chiltern into the music room.

This gives Lord Caversham the chance to talk with his son. He complains about London society and how Lord Goring is "living entirely for pleasure." Lady Basildon and Mrs. Marchmont join them. They talk about politics, marriage, and the dangers of listening. The women object when Lord Goring praises Mrs. Cheveley. Mabel Chiltern, Sir Robert's sister, joins the conversation, and complains that everyone is talking about Mrs. Cheveley. After a bit more general conversation, Lord Goring and Mabel break away for a more private talk, then go downstairs. The Vicomte de Nanjac reenters and invites Lady Basildon to dinner. Young Mr. Montfort enters and escorts Mrs. Marchmont to dinner.

Sir Robert and Mrs. Cheveley return to the stage. They take a seat on the sofa, and Mrs. Cheveley introduces the topic of the Argentine Canal Company, which supposedly plans to build a canal in Argentina. Sir Robert tries to put her off, saying the subject is boring, but she insists and asks about his experience with the Suez Canal. Sir Robert counters that the two development plans are very different: the Suez Canal was a great venture and politically and economically useful, while the Argentine Canal would be a "swindle." She explains that she's invested heavily in the Argentine project on the advice of a mutual acquaintance: Baron Arnheim.

Sir Robert advises Mrs. Cheveley to get out of this investment and says that he'll be giving a public statement against the project tomorrow. She says he can't and it's essential to his own interest that he supports the project. When he refuses she blackmails him. She tells him she has the letter he wrote to Baron Arnheim letting him know in advance that the Suez Canal would be approved by the English government. This inside information allowed the Baron to make money by buying shares in the canal. Thus the letter proves that Sir Robert's fortune and political career are based on illegally sharing government information. Mrs. Cheveley argues exposing this scandal would destroy him. On the other hand, if he supports the Argentine Canal she'll give him the letter. He asks for more time to think about the situation. She turns him down: it has to be now. He finally agrees, and she dismisses him to go get her carriage.

While Sir Robert is gone, a number of guests return with Lady Chiltern. Mrs. Cheveley makes a point of telling Lady Chiltern her husband has changed his position about the Argentine Canal before she leaves. Once she's gone Mabel Chiltern complains about her to Lord Goring, calling her a "horrid woman." While they are talking she finds a diamond brooch on the sofa. Lord Goring takes it and asks Mabel not to tell anyone he has it.

Once they leave Lady Chiltern asks her husband if he's really going to support the Argentine Canal. He admits he is. She quizzes him about why, but he says it is a matter of practical compromise. Lady Chiltern professes that he cannot do this if it is dishonorable and because he "[has] been an ideal always." Sir Robert tries to put her off, but she tells him that if he does this, it threatens their marriage. She insists he write Mrs. Cheveley right away and tell her he won't be supporting the scheme. He does.


Stage Directions and Setting

Before any of the play's characters speak, Wilde uses stage directions to highlight important aspects of the play for the audience. The grandeur of the room in which the party and first act are set communicates that the hosts are wealthy. The meaning of this setting will soon change. When the audience learns about Sir Robert's financial crimes later in the play, the entire set will serve as evidence of them.

The setting also includes a valuable and undoubtedly expensive tapestry, proof of the Chilterns' general taste and wealth. Its larger function, though, is to comment on the play as a whole. A tapestry portrays an image on one side, which is visible, while its reverse may conceal something or someone from view. In this way the tapestry symbolizes the play's central conflict: the love between Sir Robert and his wife is evident, but in Act 1 he has a serious secret to hide: the dishonorable source of his wealth and the flaw it will create in his wife's view of him as an "ideal husband." However, the tapestry also foreshadows the play's ending. The tapestry "represent[s] the Triumph of Love," based on an 18th-century painting by Boucher, most likely depicting Venus, the goddess of love. An Ideal Husband is a story in which love will triumph in the end, as indeed it does.

Minor Characters

The opening exchange between Mrs. Marchmont and Lady Basildon telegraphs several of the play's concerns and topics: duty, matrimony, education, and self-interest. These two minor characters differ very little from one another. They exist in the play to establish, and simultaneously make fun of, social norms. They entertain through their commentary, provide a more general period view of marriage, and show how socially important Sir Robert is.

The two women's interaction also represents how participating in high society is a kind of spectator sport. All the guests at the Chilterns' gathering mix and mingle, come and go, assessing each other's social status and personal characteristics at every turn. Everyone seems to have an opinion about someone else, from Lord Caversham's assessment of his son, Viscount Goring, as a "good-for-nothing" to the various, somewhat contradictory assessments of Mrs. Cheveley. Private assessments matter, too, such as Lady Chiltern's view of her husband as an honorable man versus Mrs. Cheveley's view of him as dishonorable and therefore ripe for blackmail.

Sir Robert and Mrs. Cheveley

Wilde's description of Sir Robert is almost impossible for an actor to play: How could an actor display that Sir Robert is not popular but is "intensely admired by the few, and deeply respected by the many," especially before he even speaks? However, this description sums Sir Robert up very well for readers and foreshadows much of the play in a single paragraph. Sir Robert is very "conscious" of what he's done with his career (and should be, since it is both an impressive achievement and depends on a hidden crime). His reason and passion are divided, "as though thought and emotion were each isolated in its own sphere"—and how could they not be, given the dishonesty at his root? The audience can see nervousness in his face, and again, how could they not, since he knows he's a criminal (but makes his reputation from his virtue)? In this description Wilde shows how Sir Robert is already divided, even contradictory. This foreshadows how, in the play, Sir Robert comes to represent what it means to be flawed, balancing on a thin line between honor and dishonor.

When Mrs. Cheveley and Sir Robert meet, one of Wilde's more interesting choices is how many different ways he shows her controlling the situation. She praises his manners when he gives her a compliment. She draws his attention by being overtly witty and hard to classify. She explicitly denies that male reason can analyze her (or any woman), which challenges him. When he first asks how she views politics, she diverts him by dropping her fan. When he asks why she's in London, she asks for a tour of his house, then drops Baron Arnheim's name, putting Sir Robert off balance. When he tries to appraise the situation by asking how well she knew the baron, she replies, "Intimately." This is both socially inappropriate (since her choice of words shows that she was the baron's mistress) and a clear signal to Sir Robert: I know your secrets. Long before they have their crucial talk, Mrs. Cheveley has seized control.

When Mrs. Cheveley first introduces the topic of the Argentine Canal, Sir Robert calls it a "swindle" and tries to take the high moral ground by insisting on calling "things by their proper names." This introduces Wilde's use of the dramatic technique of repetition and reversal. Throughout the play characters echo one another, or respond to one another, like instruments in an orchestra picking up the same melody. Mrs. Cheveley uses Sir Robert's own earlier words against him by repeating them verbatim: "It was a swindle, Sir Robert. Let us call things by their proper names. It makes everything simpler." He uses the phrase to make a point about ethics. He plainly sees the Argentine Canal for what it is: a rip-off, a con game. He will speak against it. Mrs. Cheveley turns his words against him to reveal his own dishonesty and criminality. She now controls what he will say about the project: it is an excellent idea.

Near the end of the pivotal exchange between Mrs. Cheveley and Sir Robert, in which Mrs. Cheveley explicitly tries to blackmail him, Wilde places the first extended speech in the play. He gives it to Mrs. Cheveley, who lectures Sir Robert on their situation. This speech fulfills several functions. It provides historical perspective as she lectures Sir Robert on how the social norms of English society have changed. People did not care as much about being "a bit better than [their] neighbours" in the past. Now "everyone has to pose as a paragon of purity" to establish their superiority, and people can be destroyed by scandal.

Mrs. Cheveley clearly dislikes this view of the world but is more than ready to use it to benefit herself. Finally, while she is clearly trying to gain a financial advantage by ensuring that the Argentine Canal deal goes through, Mrs. Cheveley may have an additional motive for blackmailing Sir Robert. When she praises his illegal action as "clever" and a "great success," she's indicating that she and Sir Robert are on the same ethical level, as if she is trying to establish that they share equal status. As she reminds him, "You have a splendid position, but it is your splendid position that makes you so vulnerable."

One aspect of Mrs. Cheveley's character involves how her immorality intersects with her memory of the past. When it is useful to her, Mrs. Cheveley's memory is quite hazy. She claims she can't remember her time at school. However, when she is "introduced" to Lord Goring, she claims her memory is "under admirable control." Managing the past—what she remembers about it, what she chooses to forget, and what she can remind others about it—is central to Mrs. Cheveley's power and character. Her knowledge of his past is exactly what makes Sir Robert vulnerable to her blackmail scheme.

When Sir Robert introduces Mrs. Cheveley to Lord Goring, he doesn't know they know one another. The two immediately begin sparring verbally, and Sir Robert steps in and says Lord Goring is "the result of Boodle's Club." Boodle's Club is the second oldest gentlemen's club in London. It was founded in 1762 and is one of the most prestigious clubs in England. Saying Lord Goring is a member immediately tells people a lot about him: he socializes with the upper levels of government and royalty, but he also socializes in a single-sex setting, setting him against the changes in gender roles mentioned in the play. Wilde's use of this brief phrase is also a kind of shorthand, signaling information efficiently to those in the know.

Mabel Chiltern

Wilde's stage directions describe Mabel Chiltern as pretty, innocent, and childlike. However, her first exchange in the play, with Lord Caversham, reveals she is more than this. She has an active wit. She can deliver well-turned lines as well as the play's central wit, Lord Goring. She is also far more in control of her fate than Wilde's description of her might suggest: she holds her own with Lord Caversham, and speaks of Lord Goring "developing charmingly," foreshadowing that she has plans for him (and indeed she becomes engaged to him late in the play). Mabel's character can be seen as part of Wilde's celebration of youth. At the same time Wilde's closing description in this stage direction signals Mabel's later complexities and possibilities: he describes her as a being like a "Tanagra statuette." The Greeks produced these statuettes in the 4th century BCE, and they were naturalistic, rather than idealized, suggesting Mabel may be more what women actually are when not forced into a mold.

In her own way Mabel already demonstrates she's playing the role of a good wife, as she charms Lord Caversham and deflects his criticism of Lord Goring. When Mabel and Lord Caversham are talking, Lord Caversham introduces the theme of influence: he attempts to influence his son through talking about him to others and through provoking social disapproval.

When Mabel finds the brooch in Act I, several things happen. First when Lord Goring is about to ask her to keep the discovery secret, he approaches it gradually, saying he's about to make a strange request. Mabel responds eagerly, and this puts Lord Goring off balance. Since Lord Goring has just recently ordered her to go to bed (to sleep) she is either accepting a proposition he hasn't yet actually made (sex), or a proposal he won't make for several acts. And since her response knocks him off balance, she is clearly in control of the situation and their courtship.


A tense exchange between Sir Robert and his wife makes up the last portion of Act 1. Their exchange also weaves together several of Wilde's themes: honor, dishonor, and the power of the past all collide with the nature of marriage. On the level of plot, this scene further establishes the stakes for the play's action, putting Sir Robert on the horns of a dilemma. If he turns Mrs. Cheveley down he risks her exposing his crime and destroying his career. If he gives in to Mrs. Cheveley he risks losing Lady Chiltern, who tells him they will grow apart (their marriage will change, and perhaps collapse).

Spheres of Influence

The scene also comments on the two spheres men and women are supposed to inhabit. In the 1890s when An Ideal Husband was staged for the first time, men's and women's roles were considered to be distinct from one another. Men were dominant, and women subordinate. If these roles are distinct, as Victorian values claimed, then it would make sense for there to be two sets of rules. However, if one set of rules governs both realms, as Lady Chiltern argues, Sir Robert is guilty and can't justify giving in to Mrs. Cheveley (or ever arguing against women in the public sphere). The scene ends by reversing period power relations: Lady Chiltern literally dictates to Sir Robert what he should write, and he follows her commands. The tragedy is set in motion. In Act 1 of the play women often control the events in both the play's main plot (the blackmail; the Chiltern's marriage) and the secondary or comic relief plot (Lord Goring and Mabel's romance). The interchanges in Act 1 are prime examples of Wilde's tendency or turn things upside down not only verbally but also socially.

Throughout this play people try to influence one another and to deal with outside influences. This starts with the play's opening exchange, when Mrs. Marchmont complains about Lady Chiltern telling her she should find a serious purpose in life, and continues through the very end of the play, where Lord Caversham threatens to disinherit his son if he isn't an ideal husband to Mabel Chiltern. People use charm, reason, bribery, violence, trickery, blackmail, and moral force on one another. The reasons they try to influence one another do vary. Some, like Mrs. Cheveley, seek influence for personal profit. Others, like Lord Goring, try to influence people to help friends, as he does when he corners Mrs. Cheveley and retrieves the letter. Finally, some seek influence for more complex and ambiguous reasons, like Sir Robert seeking power over others for its own sake, but also to do good.

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