An Ideal Husband | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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An Ideal Husband | Themes


Honor versus Dishonor

Honor is the foundation of Sir Robert's marriage. His wife, Lady Chiltern, is a firm believer in leading a "stainless" life based on absolute moral principles. She not only loves her husband as a person—she respects and idolizes him as an ideal and honorable husband. Sir Robert has also built his reputation and career upon being an honorable and ethical man. It is the cornerstone of his identity and gives him much of his political power. The play explores what happens when it turns out that this "ideal husband" is not as honorable as he appears to be.

When Mrs. Cheveley tries to blackmail Sir Robert over a crime he committed years before, it reveals not only his dishonorable past but also his true character—his private life and his public life are at odds. Sir Robert's wealth and political career were financed by his illegal sale of government secrets, a fact he has hidden from his wife and almost everyone else. At first Sir Robert decides to do anything he can to keep his past from his morally upstanding wife. In Act 2 he spends a great deal of time making excuses for his past behavior, then later breaks down and tells her the truth. Sir Robert is neither completely good nor bad but flawed. Can the Chilterns' marriage survive when this truth is exposed? Throughout An Ideal Husband Wilde questions the significance of honor and dishonor in private and public life and the assumptions that surround the concept of moral absolutes.

Social Norms

The world of An Ideal Husband takes place in London high society in the 1890s. Wilde explores the intricacies of its social norms, and An Ideal Husband takes a close look at how people use and abuse them. Wilde was a Decadent, part of an artistic movement that questioned the basis of what society considered appropriate moral behavior. Part of the appeal of Wilde's work comes from the way he consistently mocks social norms, fearlessly satirizing their rigidity or hypocrisy, in favor of a more fluid and forgiving approach to human behavior.

The category of social norms is wide ranging in the play, encompassing class, gender, and politics. Much of the humor in this play, and much of Wilde's insight, comes from showing how different categories of people defend social norms as absolutes, while in reality using them for their own purposes. For example, Mrs. Cheveley agrees with the socially accepted dictate that "one should always play fairly," then explodes it by adding "when one has the winning cards." Being morally upright is all to the good, but Lady Chiltern almost leaves her husband when she finds out he doesn't live up to her standards. Sir Robert, in turn, fulfills the social conventions of the successful man (wealthy, respected, influential) while hiding a corrupt past. Wilde repeatedly reveals how social norms are built on the shifting sands of self-interest.

Wilde's play also takes an often amusing look at gender roles, as characters debate them throughout the play. What are the proper social roles for men and women? Male and female characters tend to see one another as a different species. In Act 2 Sir Robert Chiltern illustrates the contrast in gender beliefs with this response:

Lady Chiltern: Modern women understand everything, I am told.
Mrs. Cheveley: Except their husbands. That is the one thing the modern woman never understands ...

Sir Robert Chiltern: There was your mistake ... the error all women commit. Why can't you women love us, faults and all?

The crisis in the Chiltern's marriage serves as a testing ground for this question, but the male characters in the play tend to fare better than women. The play's female characters are articulate and intelligent. Mabel Chiltern, for example, is resourceful and witty and winds up engaged to Lord Goring. On the other hand women's intelligence does not generally work for them in the end. Mrs. Cheveley, arguably the play's cleverest woman, is also its villain, who ultimately fails to achieve her plans. Lady Chiltern believes in living a life based on unshakeable ethics and morals but is revealed as flawed and unfairly judgmental of her husband. Despite the fact that he has been lying to her for years, it is she who must change and forgive him so he can continue his successful political career.


This play is titled An Ideal Husband, so it is no great surprise that much of the play revolves around not only what this means but also what marriage means. In the play marriage is a topic for gossip, a subject for planning, a means to wealth and respectability, and even, ideally, a way to find love. The various characters in the play view marriage very differently, and in most cases their views change over time. At the start of the play the Chilterns view marriage extremely idealistically; they see one another as faultless paragons of virtue. When each learns the other is flawed, they must find a way to adapt to this new reality so their marriage can survive. In fact a capacity for moral flexibility seems essential to marriage itself in the play—there is no such thing as an "ideal husband," or wife, for that matter.

Lord Goring changes his mind about marriage, resisting the idea and embracing his life as an idle bachelor, until he suddenly proposes to Mabel in Act 4. Mabel, in turn, notes that she wants to be "a real wife" to Lord Goring, not an idealistic construct. The couple represents a modern marriage of intellectual equals who may be witty but don't want to define their marriage by impossible standards. Perhaps the only person whose viewpoint remains unchanged regarding marriage is Mrs. Cheveley: throughout the play she treats marriage (and relationships outside of marriage) as a kind of business contract, in which people exchange things for other things, such as a respectable social position. Interestingly, despite her efforts to snag Lord Goring or damage the Chilterns' marriage, she fails and winds up alone at the end of the play.

The Past

The play ponders how the past lives of the characters affects their present and future. Characters in this play have complicated relationships with their pasts. Sir Robert tries to leave his criminal past behind. When it refuses to stay dead because of Mrs. Cheveley's threat to expose it, he tries to justify it. "No one should be entirely judged by their past," he argues. By contrast, his wife, Lady Chiltern, acts as if the past determines the present (and perhaps the future). "One's past is what one is. It is the only way by which people should be judged," she says. She assumes that she knows who Mrs. Cheveley is and how she'll act based on their shared past at school. This reflects Lady Chiltern's sense of morality as an absolute.

Mrs. Cheveley, however, seems torn about the past: she informs Sir Robert that no man is rich enough to buy back his past, but she herself acts as if she can escape or deny her own. She openly wears a brooch she stole years before but doesn't seem to think anyone might recognize it. She also tries to manipulate the past by blackmailing Lord Goring into marrying her despite the fact that he had broken off his engagement to her years before. Their relationships to the past show all of these characters mistakenly believe they know the past and can control it.


Reversals abound in An Ideal Husband, in which characters seem to be one thing but turn out to be another. Sir Robert experiences a reversal of fortune, going from being a secure, wealthy, beloved husband to a victim of blackmail on the brink of ruin. His hidden past reverses what his wife has believed about him: that he is a man beyond moral reproach. Lord Goring first appears as an idle dandy whose own father sees him as worthless but proves to be the most worthy character in the play as he fights to save the Chilterns from the devious Mrs. Cheveley. In turn characters are forced to reverse their own assumptions. Lord Goring was once in love with Mrs. Cheveley but now sees her as a villain. When Lady Chiltern realizes her husband is not who she thought he was, she is challenged to change her worldview, which is based on her firm belief in moral absolutes.

Wilde's use of language, especially in the play's comic lines, mirrors these many reversals. The witticisms of An Ideal Husband are based on reversing the meanings of words or phrases, creating verbal irony: a character starts out saying one thing but takes it in the opposite direction. They can also be paradoxical— statements that appear contradictory but are likely true. When Mrs. Cheveley says, "Oh! don't use big words. They mean so little," she plays the opposing meanings of "big" and "little" against each other. The joke is that big words should therefore convey big meanings—in other words they should say a lot—but they often have little meaning at all. The joke is based on Mrs. Cheveley making a neat reversal, saying that something big is actually little at the same time.

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