An Ideal Husband | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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An Ideal Husband | Symbols


Snake Brooch

The brooch is an important plot device. When Mrs. Cheveley loses the brooch in Act I, Lord Goring recognizes it. When she claims it as hers in Act 3, he uses it as evidence of her earlier crime and blackmails her in turn. It is also an important symbol. First it is a diamond brooch and therefore very valuable. Second, like many things in the play it can be more than one thing: it can be a bracelet or a brooch. Third and more specifically, it is something Mrs. Cheveley thinks of one way but Lord Goring thinks of another. She stole it years before from Lord Goring's cousin. For her the theft reinforces her confidence in her ability to take what she wants for herself. But for him it is a sign of her capacity for dishonesty and duplicity. When Lord Goring reveals it can be both a bracelet and a brooch, locking it on her arm, he shows that Mrs. Cheveley doesn't have nearly the mastery of the situation she thinks she does. What she sees as something of value becomes a trap.

The brooch is also symbolic because it is an object of beauty and aesthetics, representing the power of art that tends to triumph in Wilde's work. The fact that the brooch/bracelet features a snake is also symbolic. Snakes are traditionally symbols of being untrustworthy (because they shed their skin, as Mrs. Cheveley attempts to do). They are also associated with evil because they symbolize human's fall from paradise in the Bible. In Genesis it is a serpent in the Garden of Eden who persuades Eve to taste the apple, leading to the Fall.


During Wilde's time letters served as a major form of communication. Letters are very important in this play as plot devices. Mrs. Cheveley's attempt to blackmail Sir Robert, for example, rests on her possession of the letter he wrote to Baron Arnheim, which is evidence of his past criminal activities. All four important letters in the play—the blackmail letter, the letter on pink paper from Lady Chiltern, the letter from the prime minister, and Sir Robert's letter of resignation—are also highly symbolic.

Each letter represents a critical turning point in the play's plot because its fate determines the fate of a specific character. In this respect the letters are directly tied to the play's core themes about honor and marriage. The blackmail letter, for example, could destroy Sir Robert's career and marriage. Lady Chiltern's letter is subject to being misinterpreted as scandalous and therefore also threatens her reputation and marriage. Whoever is in possession of a letter is in possession of the power to help or hurt another character.


At the beginning and end of Act 1, Wilde draws attention to a tapestry in the Chilterns' home by describing it in the stage directions. The tapestry is old and valuable, so it first symbolizes how wealthy Sir Robert is. Tapestries can also both reveal and conceal. A scene is woven onto the visible side of the tapestry for display. The other side of the tapestry is hidden from view. As wall hangings, tapestries are often large enough for someone to hide behind. In this way the tapestry symbolizes much of the action throughout the play as Sir Robert tries to hide his disreputable past from his wife, Lady Chiltern, and preserve his image as an honorable man, while the double-dealing Mrs. Cheveley works behind the scenes to blackmail him.

However, the tapestry's greater symbolism comes from how it comments on the play's dramatic arc. The tapestry likely shows a scene based on one of 18th-century artist François Boucher's paintings of Venus, the goddess of love. The tapestry creates dramatic irony, or when the audience knows more than the characters, at the end of Act I because it shows love triumphing in the artwork as it seems to be failing in the real world of the play. However, the tapestry simultaneously foreshadows the play's eventual resolution in Act 4, in which love triumphs for the Chilterns, along with Lord Goring and Mabel, over Mrs. Cheveley and the self-serving greed she represents.

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