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Love and friendship were major themes for Society Drama during the 1890s. An established ‘stock storyline’ of the period was that of domestic life affected by a predicament, concluding in the reassertion of common ideas: fidelity, duty, forgiveness, etc. Although An Ideal Husband adopts these motifs, it also parodies them through the exaggerated conceptions of love and friendship each character represents. The play therefore accomplishes an exploration of differing conceptions through the assorted types of love the characters embody. The stage directions upon introducing the characters initiate this idea. For example, Lady Chiltern is a ‘grave Greek beauty’ , highlighting her serious nature and foreboding her strict ideals regarding loving her husband. On the other hand, Lord Goring is a ‘flawless dandy’, linking his ‘type’ with the freer ideas of beauty, style and art – more representative of Wilde’s own view on life and love. The stark contrast between each character allows Wilde to explore their individual conceptions of love and highlight the advantages and flaws of each accordingly.
Lady Chiltern’s conception of love appears to alter Wilde’s message within the play. Her notion of love in the beginning is overtly feminine and Wilde exaggerates her view of her husband until it borders on the ridiculous. She claims she ‘worshipped him’ and that he was the ‘ideal of her life’. In making Lady Chiltern so morally upstanding that she threatens to leave Sir Robert because he has stained his otherwise stainless character, she appears laughable to the audience. ‘We women worship when we love; and when we lose our worship, we lose everything’ is one such hyperbolic statement used to highlight the unreasonable nature of her love. ‘Worship’ is linked inextricably to ‘everything’ within the line, implying there is nothing else within her love for Sir Robert, additionally revealing her view on friendship as an element of love – it is non-existent, there is only idealism. She also speaks for all women (‘we’), again furthering the idea that she is a type, representative of all feminine love in Wildes view. Parodying her view of love guides the audience to see her high-moral standing is not approved by Wilde, implying An Ideal Husband serves to highlight the flaws of such a conception of love. This is contrasted by the apparent change in her views at the end of the play when she comments ‘We have both been punished. I set him up too high’ , reflecting the ‘lesson’ the ordeal has taught her. By allowing her to realise her mistake Wilde explores her flawed notion of love and suggests to the audience that they should not make the same error. He champions his own inverse conception of love, that of passion and forgiveness, without such strict morals.
An Ideal Husband also appears to comment on the modern feminine role within relationships. Although Wilde encouraged the idea of the “new Victorian woman” – someone who is morally upstanding and intellectually supportive of her husband’s career – he conveys through Lady Chiltern that such high morals need not be applied to love. While accepting her intelligence has an ‘ennobling effect on life’ , her moral standing towards love brings ‘ruin’ to the life of Sir Robert, suggesting it is flawed. A further exploration of feminine love is illustrated through the comments of Mrs Marchmont and Lady Basildon. They both ‘have the most admirable husbands in London’ but are ‘well punished for it’, demonstrating again that ideals are not as important as passion. Wilde combines both the old (Mrs Marchmont and Lady Basildon) and new (Lady Chiltern) generation of femininity and through exploring their conceptions of love he shows neither to be happy in passionless love. In suggesting they have unexciting marriages, ‘there is not the smallest element of excitement in knowing him’ and highlighting the flaws of Lady Chiltern’s notion of love Wilde again appears to advocate his own, more natural concept. Idealising is also rejected in another of Wildes plays. Mrs Erlynne of Lady Windermere’s Fan observes that ‘ideals are dangerous things. Realities are better. They wound, but they’re better ’(4.1.308). Lady Chiltern’s transformation throughout the play reinforces this idea, she is indeed ‘wounded’ by the idea her husband is not what she set him up to be. However, I would argue that the Chiltern’s marriage is ‘better[ed]’ by their new openness, and with forgiveness now part of their love they experience a higher level of love and trust. Lady Chiltern says it is ‘love and only love’ she feels for her husband now, a contrast to her cold moral feeling at the beginning of the play. Thus the play operates to highlight the effect of forgiveness on love using her transition between differing conceptions within the play
Sir Robert Chiltern, however, represents a different concept of love entirely, one that can be interpreted as masculine (in his own words: ‘man’s love’). This offers a different understanding of love, when ‘[men] love women [they] love them knowing their weaknesses, their follies, their imperfections, and love them more for it’. It acts in stark contrast to Lady Chiltern’s strict idealistic view and conveys to the audience key themes of the play – forgiveness and the imperfection of human nature. If the couple had followed this masculine conception of love from the start of their marriage Sir Robert would have felt comfortable enough to reveal his faults to his wife earlier, and have her love him all the more for it. The contrast in views of the couple offers evidence as to how and also why An Ideal Husband is an exploration of differing conceptions of love. It is forgiveness within love that Wilde is promoting, and through exploring the flaw of the feminine concept he conveys through Sir Robert that forgiveness and love should prevail over false worship and high morality. ‘Love should forgive’ is the sentiment at the centre of Chiltern’s melodramatic speech at the end of act two, ultimately the representation Wilde is encouraging. Moreover, Sir Robert lacks the ‘courage’ to ‘come down and show [Lady Chiltern] his wounds’ he feels he needs to remain the perfect English gentleman in both public and private life. This was a particularly relevant theme of society at the time, and by exploring this ‘purity’ through the concept of love, Wilde is also making a personally significant observation on society. He himself gave the appearance of being a happily married Victorian father; in reality he was leading a homosexual double life – in his own phrase, ‘feasting with panthers ’. Chiltern’s view on love and the manner it is explored arguably represent Wilde’s own disdainful view of society, he is built up on a pedestal with his talent, but society’s supposed moral view on love restricts him being his true self.
Further personal similarities between playwright and character can also be observed in Lord Goring and his conception of love, friendship and life. Goring’s view on love is inherently based on Aestheticism, a movement supported by Wilde that encouraged style and passion whilst rejecting Victorian moral structures. Lord Goring ‘plays with life’ and states ‘it is love, and not German philosophy, that is the true explanation of this world’ , showing that he is as distanced from the moral ideals of Lady Chiltern as possible, and instead lives his life through feeling. By exploring this different conception of love Wilde emphasises love as a theme within the play by showing it to override all adversity through honesty and forgiveness – represented by Goring. He encourages both Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern to revert to aesthetic love, as opposed to their own differing conceptions. The former he entreats to be honest with his wife and to break her ‘ideal’, ‘you must begin by telling you’re wife the whole story’, as he knows the power of forgiveness within love. To the latter, Goring relates the value of forgiveness by advising her ‘Women are not meant to judge us, but to forgive us when we need forgiveness’ , sparking the positive transition observed within Lady Chiltern. Furthermore, throughout the play Goring guides Lady Chiltern away from her ideal notion of love, ‘often you don’t make sufficient allowances. In every nature there are elements of weakness’. These examples encompass Goring’s understanding that the act of forgiveness is a crucial part of marriage, whereby human imperfection is acknowledged. It is plausible that Wilde had no intention of exploring differing conceptions of love in this way. He was himself an aesthete and advocated beauty over meaning, leading him possibly to have written the play as ‘art for art’s sake’, however I would disagree. Fundamentally, An Ideal Husband explores the other character’s conceptions of love and highlights their faults, ultimately conveying natural, forgiving love – advocated throughout by Goring – prevailing over unnecessary morality.
Nevertheless, the play does not seem to explore as many differing conceptions of friendship as it does with love, and does so less didactically. Lord Goring is described by Sir Robert as his ‘best friend’ and constantly supports him throughout the play, eventually saving him from ruin. His conception of friendship appears heroic, providing support for Sir Robert by reiterating ‘you’re wife will forgive you’ in Sir Robert’s darkest moments and serving as the ‘one friend [Sir Robert] can trust’ . There are hints of distrust though, such as Goring imploring Lady Chiltern to ‘come to me at once’ , however this seems to serve as a dramatic device for Wilde to create doubt regarding his character’s integrity. Eventually this enhances Lord Goring in the view of the audience as we see his good intentions as a friend. Conversely, these examples act more to support Wilde’s positive representation of Dandyism, characterised by Goring, than to thoroughly explore differing conceptions of friendship. The only alternative conception offered is through the characters of Baron Arnheim and Mrs Cheveley. The Baron uses his friendship to corrupt Sir Robert into believing his ‘gospel of gold’ and it is further hinted that his friendship with Mrs Cheveley is based on money. In addition, Mrs Cheveley reduces the idea of marriage to a purely mercantile state by abusing Goring’s friendship and effectively blackmailing him (however this serves more as an exploration of a different love concept, one void of any feeling, morally or passionately). I would argue that these differing conceptions of friendship are utilised merely as a plot device. Lord Goring’s notion of friendship, as the supposed ‘hero’ of the play is based on trust and guidance, whereas Mrs Cheveley, very much the villain, is keen on advancing herself financially. Thus, the idea of friendship within the play is used more to highlight the particular characteristics and intentions of characters rather than serving to explore differing conceptions of friendship in detail.
Perhaps the most differing conception of love and friendship is the pairing of Lord Goring and Mabel Chiltern. They act as polar opposites to Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern, by combining both friendship and unconditional love. Goring comments in his usual ironic manner that ‘affection comes when people thoroughly dislike each other’ , a remark that reflects the playful sentiment between the two throughout the play. They reject the notion of the ideal, thus reversing the Chiltern’s idea of love, both embracing their imperfections. Mabel states ‘I delight in your bad qualities. I wouldn’t have you part with one of them’ whilst also wanting to be a ‘real wife’ , not a stainless, perfect one. Through such a contrast Wilde seems to comment that humanity will always fall short of its ideals, but love will still prevail. Wilde once observed, ‘”Women have always had an emotional sympathy with those they love[;] intellectual sympathy [is now] also possible.” He was commenting on the changes in society at the time with regard to women and I believe Mabel Chiltern is a reaffirmation of this idea; she is both younger and prettier than Lady Chiltern, representing a positive change. Wilde is advocating that women should now love men passionately and not make false idols of them. Furthermore, Mabel is intelligent, however she still rejects an ‘ideal husband’, thinking the idea to be ‘something in the next world ’. It appears however, to be in the past world, with Wilde now promoting a fresher outlook on relationships.
To conclude, Wilde does explore differing conceptions of love within the play, demonstrating the flaws of existing concepts within society and highlighting the benefits of his own Wildean model through Lord Goring and Mabel Chiltern. I would disagree with the notion that he explores differing conceptions of friendship; rather he champions a movement towards a combination of natural love and trusting friendship.
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