Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband
Oscar Wilde (1845-1903) lived an outrageous and controversial lifewhich was well publicized and condemned, as his life defied the strictsocial mores of the time. He was put into this public position due tothe success of his plays which challenged Victorian earnestness whilebeing hilariously funny. His plays, in particular An Ideal Husband,1895 portray Victorian society as viciously hypocritical at it’s worstand laughably pretentious at it’s best. Wilde expressed this point ofview in An Ideal Husband through the rich use of plot development,construction of characters, dramatic irony, hyperbole, witty andepigrammatic repartee and satire.
The central plot of An Ideal Husband begins with the antagonist, MrsChevely, tries to blackmail Sir Robert Chiltern (one of theprotagonists) with a secret from his past. She has with her anincriminating letter which proves Robert’s involvement in insidertrading in the Suez Canal Scheme, in order to benefit from aninvestment. The Suez Canal Scheme was a very important scheme in therecent history of the time. Wilde’s plot of a a man going unpunishedfor such a serious crime challenged the earnestness of the Victorianpeople. This challenge and insult to earnestness is stronglyemphasised by the characterisation of robert chiltern.
Wilde adds insult to injury by constructing robert as being a verylucky man in life. He is an attractive man who lives in Grosvenorsqaure, (an upper class area) with his adoring wife. After finding outthe origin of this wealth, the audience is annoyed as they know (dueto the plays realistic style) that he aquired it all t…
… and so far have only talked abouttrivial things and “people don’t talk politics.” (hypocritical)
An ideal person is an earnest person, and ideals are another theme ofthe play. Mrs. Marchmont and Lady Basildon are two married ladies who,while talking about their “hopelessly faultless” husbands exposeearnestness (an “admirable” quality) as ‘unendurable’ and”tragic”.These ladies, through dramatic irony, expose the earnestnessof searching for an ideal husband as laughably pretentious andhypocritical. This is because many women at the time were searchingfor an earnest husband to spend their lives with when there is, asMrs. Marchmont puts it “not the smallest element of excitement inknowing him.” Yet they keep searching for an earnest and idealhusband. It is in these ways Wilde challenges Victorian earnestness.