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In “Anatomy of Criticism”, Northrop Frye explains a formula that describes the structure of dramatic comedy. Two key points in the formula are the use of “obstructing characters” and the “movement from pistis to gnosis”. An “obstructing character” is anything physical or intangible that blocks a relationship, and “pistis to gnosis” is a shift from belief to knowledge. In Oscar Wilde’s play “An Ideal Husband”, Wilde effectively incorporates both of these elements.
Mrs. Cheveley is a character in “An Ideal Husband” who attempts to obstruct the marriage of Robert and Lady Chiltern. Robert Chiltern is “deeply respected by…many” (183), especially his wife; Lady Chiltern states that to her, he has “been an ideal always” (204). However, Lady Chiltern is unaware of the “fraud” (229) that made her husband’s fortune. “Out of malice” (249), Mrs. Cheveley reveals the fraud to Lady Chiltern: “Get him to tell you how he sold to a stockbroker a Cabinet secret” (229). This is a major blow to the marriage of Robert and Lady Chiltern, as “break[ing] her idol…put poison in her heart” (249).
The union of Robert and Lady Chiltern is not the only relationship Mrs. Cheveley tries to obstruct: together, Mrs. Cheveley and Tommy Tafford hope to disrupt the relationship between Mabel Chiltern and Lord Goring. Mabel and Lord Goring have strong romantic feelings for each other: Lord Goring states that Mabel is “the one person in London I really like” (257), and Mabel wishes to “remain with” Lord Goring (258). Unbeknownst to Mabel, Lord Goring and Mrs. Cheveley had a relationship some time ago: “Arthur, you loved me once…and asked me to be your wife” (246). Once again interested in Lord Goring, Mrs. Cheveley tries to convince him to “marry” (247) her, but he “decline[s]” (248). Tommy Tafford is a man who “does nothing but propose” (220) to Mabel, but is cordially turned down at every proposal, as Mabel “make[s] it a rule never to accept Tommy” (259). In the spirit of comedy, the obstructed lovers prevail (Creese), and Mabel accepts Lord Goring’s proposal: “I am so glad” (258).
Not all of the obstructions in “An Ideal Husband” are physical. For example, Mrs. Cheveley’s infidelity is what obstructs her relationship with Lord Goring. Some time ago, Mrs. Cheveley and Lord Goring had a serious relationship: “I did love you…and you loved me” (247), and Goring went so far as to ask Mrs. Cheveley to “be [his] wife” (246). However, the relationship came to an abrupt end after Lord Goring witnessed Mrs. Cheveley “trying to have a violent flirtation” (246) with Lord Mortlake. Mrs. Cheveley’s infidelity ruined her past relationship with Lord Goring, and made any future relationship impossible: he states that he “cannot forgive” (249) her.
Frye’s formula is also exemplified in “An Ideal Husband” in the movement from pistis to gnosis, shown through Sir Robert Chiltern’s transformation from a dishonorable man to an honorable one. Early in Chiltern’s career, he took part in a “very nasty scandal” (196) by “selling a Cabinent secret” (195), something that he admits “most men would call shameful and dishonorable” (208). He continues his dishonorable ways by refusing to tell his wife the truth of his past: “There is nothing in my past life that you might not know” (205). However, as his wife discovers that he “began [his] life with fraud” (230), Chiltern faces reality and accepts that he will eventually die “a lonely dishonored death” (231). It is at this point that Chiltern becomes honorable. Whereas before he planned on making a “rational compromise” (204) and giving his “public support of the Argentine scheme” (196) to keep Mrs. Cheveley from ruining his name, Chiltern instead does the right thing and discredits the scheme in his “speech…at the House” (264), even knowing that “public disgrace might be the result” (264). Instead, he finds “public honor” (264).
The movement from pistis to gnosis is also shown through the beliefs of Lady Chiltern: Lady Chiltern shifts her beliefs from strict Puritinism to open-minded understanding. Lady Chiltern is a “noble and gentle” (249) woman, one whose strict beliefs are characterized by her statement “circumstances should never alter principles” (204). Lady Chiltern holds her husband in high regard; to her, he is “a thing pure, noble, honest, [and] without stain” (230). She thus refuses to believe that he could commit any immoral action, and even requests that he “lie to [her]” (230) when she finds out the truth about his past. However, Lady Chiltern transforms into an accepting and understanding person after her husband tells her that she “ruined” (231) his life by placing him on a “monstrous pedestal” (231). As evidence of this change, she later tells Robert Chiltern that she still “admire[s] him immensely” (266), even though he acted immorally in the past.
In “An Ideal Husband”, Wilde is clearly trying to stress his belief that everyone, no matter how seemingly perfect, is flawed (Creese). Mrs. Cheveley, an obviously evil and flawed woman, fails at everything she does. Chiltern is threatened with losing everything he has gained because he will not admit to his flawed past, and does not find happiness until he accepts the possibility of failure. Most importantly, Lady Chiltern finds flaws in her uncompromising Puritan belief system: perhaps the most controversial point that Wilde hoped to impress upon his Victorian audience.
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