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An Ideal Husband | Quotes

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1.

Oh, I love London Society! ... It is entirely composed now of beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics. Just what Society should be.


Mabel Chiltern, Act 1

Mabel Chiltern demonstrates she is much more than a young, innocent girl. She charms Lord Caversham, a decorated statesman, and delivers the play's first Wildean witticism, classifying everyone in London society in a single verbal slash. They may be beautiful, but they're idiots. They may be brilliant, but they're lunatics. It is truly a backhanded compliment. A moment later she'll indicate Lord Goring's special place in this paradoxical categorization: outside of it. This indicates that she cares for him.

2.

My prizes came a little later on in life. I don't think any of them were for good conduct. I forget!


Mrs. Cheveley, Act 1

Mrs. Cheveley is contrasting the good conduct prizes Lady Chiltern won in school with the more complicated and adult rewards she has claimed for herself: an extramarital affair, stolen jewelry, and, she hopes, a fortune made through blackmail. She wryly says "I forget" as if she doesn't care about these "prizes," but she is using understatement, a type of verbal irony in which what she says is not the same as what she means.

3.

All reasons are absurd.


Lord Goring, Act 1

On the face of it Lord Goring's brief statement is ridiculous. He says it to Mabel, when they are discussing Mrs. Cheveley. Mabel inquires why Lord Goring wants to know more about Mrs. Cheveley. His response allows him to evade her question by claiming that reasons are beside the point.

However, this line is also an example of how Wilde reverses accepted wisdom to create both wit and profound insight. Responsible politicians like Sir Robert and ethical members of society like Lady Chiltern think they care deeply about the reasons why people do things. Here Lord Goring claims that they really don't care: all human action is absurd. This relates to his later comments about how we judge people because we like or dislike them, and to Mrs. Cheveley's observation that morality is nothing but a disguise for self-interest.

4.

You see, it is a very dangerous thing to listen. If one listens one may be convinced; and a man who allows himself to be convinced by an argument is a thoroughly unreasonable person.


Lord Goring, Act 1

In this statement Lord Goring continues Wilde's practice, which he uses throughout his comedies and fiction, of reversing common wisdom to generate humor and deep insight. Here he upsets the ideal of the rational man that is central to the Western philosophical tradition, going as far back as Plato. The rational man would listen and weigh and measure what he hears. Instead Lord Goring offers another model of proper action: don't listen to others because then you might change. In a society where everyone is trying to influence one another, turning a deaf ear to those speaking to you is a way of maintaining your autonomy.

5.

Even you are not rich enough, Sir Robert, to buy back your past. No man is.


Mrs. Cheveley, Act 1

Mrs. Cheveley's comments are often driven by self-interest or malice. As a result she uses them like tools or weapons to get her way. That's the case here when she dismisses Sir Robert's attempt to buy the blackmail letter from her. This line also powerfully develops Wilde's theme of how powerful the past is because it cannot be erased and is therefore inescapable. However, because it is Mrs. Cheveley, the play's villainous blackmailer, who delivers this line, audiences can be expected to reject it despite its wisdom, especially as her desire to not only blackmail but also wound the Chilterns becomes clear as the play continues.

6.

Life is never fair, Robert. And perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not.


Lord Goring, Act 2

This line is one of Wilde's most revolutionary. It directly challenges conventional morality and social norms. Rather than supporting the notion that a fair world is the best and most moral aim, Lord Goring turns this idea upside down. He implies that if life were fair, most people would not be grateful, they'd be sorry. In a fair world they would be punished for their mistakes, such as injustices they committed against others. A world that is unfair is the superior choice because it gives people a better chance to avoid that outcome.

7.

I did not sell myself for money. I bought success at a great price. That is all.


Sir Robert Chiltern, Act 2

Sir Robert says this to Lord Goring when he's consulting his friend about what to do about Mrs. Cheveley's blackmail attempt. Lord Goring has just asked how Sir Robert could have sold himself for money. Sir Robert responds by directly challenging traditional morality, and audiences must decide if he's just justifying his actions or if he truly thinks as independently as it appears. He argues that he was buying success, not selling himself, as if these are two opposing ideas, with the implication that buying success is somehow less morally objectionable than selling oneself for money. In this way he unintentionally echoes Mrs. Cheveley's later insistence that she is simply trying to do business and watch out for her own interests when she steals and blackmails. On the other hand Sir Robert may be telling the truth: in a society in which wealth is power, he did what he needed to do in order to thrive.

8.

I tell you that there are terrible temptations that it requires strength, strength and courage, to yield to.


Sir Robert Chiltern, Act 2

This is another instance where Wilde turns standard wisdom on its head. It also reverses and complicates the relationship between Lord Goring and Sir Robert. When the play opens, Lord Goring, every bit the idle dandy, cracks scandalous jokes, while Sir Robert, the honorable statesman, talks a predictable line, delivering set speeches on virtue. But Sir Robert's situation has changed. This is his response to Lord Goring, who has just expressed his genuine shock at Sir Robert having been weak enough to give in to temptation when he sold the cabinet secret to the Baron. Lord Goring represents the conventional moral stance that it should take strength to resist temptation. Rather than agreeing that temptation got the best of him, Sir Robert twists Lord Goring's moral platitude in a different direction, suggesting that it takes strength of character to embrace some temptations and courage to "risk everything on one throw" of the dice.

9.

Nobody is incapable of doing a foolish thing. Nobody is incapable of doing a wrong thing.


Lord Goring, Act 2

Here Wilde makes a case for compassion and forgiveness as Lord Goring responds to Lady Chiltern, who insists on absolute moral purity when she states that Sir Robert "is incapable of doing a foolish thing." Lord Goring's response is structured like one of Wilde's epigrams, but it is something far rarer in Wilde's work: a statement of simple, humble truth. This statement is more powerful for coming from someone Wilde describes as a philosopher, who is clearly proud of his flashy wit. Because he lives as an idle dandy, it is easy to dismiss Lord Goring as being superficial or not taking life seriously, but this comment, central to the play's message of acceptance and forgiveness, suggests he has hidden depths.

10.

Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear.


Lord Goring, Act 3

This statement by Lord Goring aligns his worldview closely with that of Mrs. Cheveley. Both reject the idea of absolute moral standards. Instead they recognize that people tend to put themselves and their own egos at the center of their universe, and construct standards and labels to justify their negative judgments of others.

11.

It is a commercial transaction. That is all. There is no good mixing sentimentality in it.


Mrs. Cheveley, Act 3

There is such an abundance of epigrams in An Ideal Husband it is easy to forget that sometimes characters can still speak directly, as Mrs. Cheveley does in this quotation. It follows her fiendish offer to Lord Goring: if he marries her she will destroy the letter incriminating his friend, Sir Robert. He refuses, and she says she will ruin Sir Robert. When he objects in horror, she argues that it's just business.

In this instance Mrs. Cheveley says what she means and means what she says. Earlier in the scene she claimed that she loved Lord Goring years ago but qualifies it, saying that he was "the only person I had ever cared for, if I ever have cared for anybody." She clearly wants to marry him as much for wealth and social status as anything else. Many of the characters in the play base their actions on their own self-interest, often hypocritically. Mrs. Cheveley is in a league of her own—the most extreme example in the play of selfishness as a poisonous absolute.

12.

The drawback of stealing a thing, Mrs. Cheveley, is that one never knows how wonderful the thing that one steals is.


Lord Goring, Act 3

Lord Goring delivers this aphorism very close to the climax of Act 3, after he has locked the brooch on Mrs. Cheveley's arm as a bracelet. He is referring most immediately and literally to that brooch: he knows it better than Mrs. Cheveley because he bought it as a gift for his cousin. It has a "wonderful" secret clasp that she did not know about. The ingenious clasp makes it impossible for her to unlock and remove the bracelet from her wrist.

Lord Goring's comment definitely applies to Mrs. Cheveley's theft of Lady Chiltern's letter and to her proposed deal to marry him. She tries to steal his love but clearly fails to understand how wonderful love is when it is freely given, as it is between Lord Goring and Mabel, or, in the end, between Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern.

13.

My dear father, if we men married the women we deserved, we should have a very bad time of it.


Lord Goring, Act 4

At several points during the play, Lord Goring addresses the question of fairness. It reveals the often paradoxical nature of Wilde's witticisms, in which two seemingly contradictory ideas coexist. Sometimes, as when he is talking to Sir Robert, Lord Goring is very serious. In this instance he is a more traditionally a Wildean hero: the line he delivers is serious in intent but also delivered for laughs. Who would Sir Robert the criminal politician deserve as a wife? Sir Robert doesn't think it is Lady Chiltern, with her high moral standards. He thinks she is better than he is. Her belief in absolute moral purity leads to more trouble for him. Lord Goring implies that if men married women of the same high moral caliber as Lady Chiltern, they'd be in trouble, too, as they could not live up their wives' high expectations.

14.

A man's life is of more value than a woman's. It has larger issues, wider scope, greater ambitions.


Lady Chiltern, Act 4

Lady Chiltern says this to Sir Robert when she rejects his decision to retire from public life, which she had previously supported. She is also repeating words Lord Goring has just said to her. This is a speech by a woman to a man explaining the difference between men and women ... and quoting a man to do so. Lady Chiltern will bend her rigid moral standards and forgive her husband's past criminal acts, having decided that a woman's role is to forgive so men can get on with their "greater ambitions." In this way, while her marriage is preserved her own power within it is diminished.

15.

An ideal husband! Oh, I don't think I should like that. It sounds like something in the next world.


Mabel Chiltern, Act 4

Mabel Chiltern says this in one of her last speeches in the play, after she has agreed to marry Lord Goring. She's rejecting Lord Caversham's instruction to his son that he needs to be an ideal husband. In doing so Mabel is accomplishing several things. She's indicating that the play's light and flighty characters may be more realistic than its idealistic, serious ones. She's correctly pointing out the danger of trying to live out an ideal. And she's bringing the play full circle, commenting on its title even as she rejects the concept it represents. She's also connecting this play to Wilde's previous play A Woman of No Importance, where the idea of an ideal husband is also raised and rejected.

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