An Ideal Husband (Essay)
Literature Essay by Kevin Shah Mansouri, 2018 Literature Subject Exhibition Winner
Discuss how the aesthetic qualities of at least one text have been used to support and/or challenge ideologies.
Aesthetic qualities are an indelible part of the works of Oscar Wilde, playing an important role in his stage productions to both entertain his audience, and cause them to consider and challenge dominant ideologies of the Victorian era. Challenging the parochial and stringent societal codes found in fin de siecle Victorian society in his satirical stage-play An Ideal Husband (1895), Oscar Wilde’s witty and thoughtful social commentary works to deconstruct and criticise dominant Victorian values and beliefs through aesthetic qualities. This critique of Victorian ideologies centres around the conflict between Sir Robert Chiltern, a prominent politician idolised by both his wife and wider society, and his scandalous past, which is resurfaced by the politically expedient Mrs. Chevely. Through the sharp use of aesthetic qualities of wit and melodrama, skilfully blended with the genre of comedy of manners, Wilde Critiques the value of idealism within Victorian society. This critique can be extended through an understanding of the ideology of aestheticism, which Wilde paints as a more authentic, virtuous way of life rather than Victorian morals. Finally, Wilde both supports and challenges Victorian ideologies in relation to women.
Within Victorian society, strict morality, probity, and societal conventions ostensibly dominated society and its ideologies. For many, this manifested itself in a form of idealism and striving towards perfection, but for Oscar Wilde, such idealism was not only unattainable, but also detrimental to society. This is explored through the plot, designed to bring enjoyment with the hypocrisies and satire playing an important part of its aesthetic appeal. Lady Chiltern’s (as well as wider society’s) obsession with the absolute moral purity of her husband is a significant source of conflict, driving the plot and reaching its climax at the end of Act II, culminating in Robert’s emotionally charged dialogue where he declares the folly in such idealism, violently stating “Why can’t women love us, faults and all? Why do you place us on monstrous pedestals?”. The metaphor and use of repeated rhetorical questions emphasises and presents to the audience Robert’s internal anguish at being reduced to an unattainable “ideal”. Lady Chiltern’s fundamental error is in her impossibly idealistic belief in the perfectibility of human beings. The double standards and hypocrisies which inevitably follow are dramatized to great comedic effect and aesthetic appeal, as Robert’s moral probity is shown to be a hypocritical veneer, open to the blackmail plot of Mrs. Chevely, who in an attempt to gain material wealth through corruption, states to Robert “…our mania for morality, where everyone has to pose as a paragon of purity, incorruptibility and all the other seven deadly virtues. And what is the result? You all go over like nine-pins…”. The oxymoronic alliteration “…modern mania…pose…purity) emphasises the veneer of social cohesion, with the use of the creative metaphor “nine-pin” providing great aesthetic appeal. Mrs. Chevely mocks the discourse of religion in her sarcastic critique of Sir Robert, generalising about society as a whole while also providing a further avenue to aesthetic appeal through the allusion to religious and biblical discourse. One of the central messages of the play can be inferred from this dialogue: the more a society upholds stringent moral values, the more likely its members are to crumble under the charges of impropriety. Finally, the moral proposition and ideology of idealism is blatantly subverted in the plays conclusion and resolution through the marriage of Lord Goring and Mabel Chiltern, with Mabel stating “An Ideal Husband! Oh, I don’t think I should like that.”. The use of eponym in this line, coupled with the happy resolution of the play blatantly subverts Victorian ideologies in relation to idealism, while providing the audience a satisfying conclusion. Thus, An Ideal Husband challenges Victorian ideology, critiquing the detrimental impact of idealism through the aesthetic qualities of humour, plot, satire, and several more.
This reading can be extended through an understanding of the idea of aestheticism, an intellectual movement and ideology whose subversive dictum was “art for art’s sake”, rather than a morally improving purpose as was the dominant value of Victorian ideology. The aesthetic qualities and aestheticism is explored through the characterisation of the decadent dandy Lord Goring, who is initially described through stage-direction as “[…the first well dressed philosopher in the history of thought…]”, as well as being accompanied by the stage costumes of a “Louis seize hat…inverness cape…” and a “…silk hat…”. The deliberate mention of clothing associated with great aesthetic appeal and wealth reveals Goring’s apparent desire for outward perfection as a “flawless dandy”, positioning the audience to align Goring with the aesthetic movement. This use of stage-costume, a clear aesthetic quality, emphasises the value placed on beauty and form by Goring, which was typical of aesthetics, and which worked as a form of escape for the aesthete from the stifling moral obligations of Victorian society. Oscar Wilde makes this clear, as Goring is described as “[…standing in immediate relation to modern life…]”. Goring’s apparent superiority positions the audience to consider the value of aestheticism within Victorian society, which Wilde ironically paints as being a more authentic way to live through self-imposed morals (deeply Christian values of forgiveness and love in Goring’s case) and values (art, beauty), than through superficial Victorian propriety and morality, the dominant ideology of the time which Wilde challenges. Goring’s authenticity is suggested, as when discussing with Robert Chiltern his scandalous past, he emphatically declares “Ah! I prefer a gentlemanly fool any day. I have quite an admiration for stupidity. It is a sort of fellow feeling…”. This self-deprecating humour (which works to great aesthetic and comedic appeal on stage as it coolly opposes Lady Chiltern’s moral clichés) is starkly contracted with the wise advice he gives Chiltern. Goring’s admiration for stupidity suggests an appreciation of authenticity, with Goring blatantly subverting Victorian idealism and ideologist, as instead of presenting a mask of moral purity, he remains authentic and even broadcasts his flaws to those around him. Oscar Wilde, as an aesthete himself, seems to project aspects of his own character on Goring, promoting the aesthetic movement he was a part of. Finally, Goring’s altruistic nature is shown as he states to Lady Chiltern “I will help you in every way I can… come to me for assistance…”. The genre of melodrama is used to present aesthetic appeal, as Lord Goring, as the hero, works to fight against the hypocrisies and evils which plague his society, challenging Victorian ideologies surrounding moral probity and idealism. It is his authenticity, suggested to be granted to him through his aestheticism, that grants him such power. Thus, Wilde extends the genre of comedy of manners through suggesting that aestheticism is a more authentic and virtuous way to live than Victorian ideologies, critiquing and challenging Victorian ideologies through the aesthetic qualities of genre, humour, stage-costume and many more.
Finally, Oscar Wilde presents an ambivalent representation of Women in his plays both supporting and challenging the dominant patriarchal ideologies of the time through aesthetic qualities. The play posits in its fourth act that women are inferior to men in both the value of their lives, and intellectual capacity, as Lord Caversham, representative of the dominant patriarchal ideologies of the time, states “No women, plain or pretty, has any common sense… Common sense is the privilege of our [male] gender.” This separation of men and women was an aspect of the so-called “spheres”, a Victorian belief where women should remain domestic in their focus, while men work on political, legal, and economical affairs. This allusion to dominant ideologies, an aesthetic element of the text, seems to be subverted by Lady Chiltern, who is part of the “…Woman’s Liberal association…” and campaigns for the “…higher education of women…”. Yet this blossoming, progressive, independent woman’s identity is shortly after debunked, as despite previously challenging dominant ideologies, when Lord Goring in the final act of the play states that “A man’s life is of more value than a women’s”, Lady Chiltern shortly after repeats this same statement to her husband, in an attempt to reconcile her role as a supportive, “ideal” wife, an essential aspect of her identity. This character progression is shocking from a feminist perspective, as it represents Lady Chiltern as a puppet to the dominant patriarchal ideologies of the time, and losing all sense of a self-secure identity independent of a man. However, it would be an oversight to ignore the ambivalence evident in this social commentary, as Wilde cleverly reverses the gender stereotyping which underpins much conventional melodrama when Lady Chiltern berates Robert for not being able to hold him to the ideal she once held him to: “You were to me something apart from common life. A thing pure, noble, honest, without stain! The ideal of my life!”. The use of asyndeton when listing qualities that she admired in her husband underpins the gender stereotype reversal, shocking the audience and working to great aesthetic appeal. Thus, Wilde both supports and challenges Victorian ideologies in relation to women through several aesthetic qualities, providing the audience an interesting representation of Victorian society.
Oscar Wilde’s mastery of dramatic conventions propelled his success during the Victorian era. His aestheticism played an important part in his work, using stage-costume, satire, wit, genre, and many more to provide an aesthetic appeal to his audience. It is through these aesthetic qualities that Wilde challenges Victorian ideologies in relation to idealism, morality, and conventionality, that points aestheticism as a more authentic way of life, critiquing Victorian superficiality, and finally, he endorses and challenges societal patriarchal ideologies in relation to women.