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An Ideal Husband

An Ideal Husband

Professor Anne Varty on An Ideal Husband and 'The Well-Made Play'

Professor Varty teaches various courses on the 19th C and 20th C at Royal Holloway including the Aestheticism & Decadence module on our MA in Victorian Literature, Art & Culture.

Professor Anne Varty on An Ideal Husband and 'The Woman with a Past'

Professor Anne Varty on An Ideal Husband and 'The Dandy'

  • An Ideal Husband fits the conventions of the Well-Made Play, which was a very conservative form of theatre that uses stock characters and which has four sections:
    • Exposition
    • Complication
    • Crisis
    • Resolution
  • It is considered to be a conservative form because the end reinstates the social world that it begins with
  • Wilde uses this format to create a very tight play.
  • He sets up all the information the audience needs to know and the key themes in the first act, the exposition.
  • The complication occurs when Mrs Cheveley arrives
  • Wilde uses a box set and creates a mini-farce for the crisis, which allows for plenty of tension
  • The resolution reinstates the status quo.
  • So is it a conservative play?
  • A progressive reading would be that the terms on which the relationships are configured has changed by the end.
  • Part of the so-called 'Women Question' that focused of the social situation for women in a time of change
  • The Woman with a Past is a stereotype which either challenges or upholds the idea that women should be the upholder of a nation's morals.
  • Plays and playwrights at the time treated the same subject differently
  • Mrs Cheveley is the Woman with a Past in An Ideal Husband, and a figure through whom the social situation of women can be explored.
  • She acts as a foil to the virtuous Lady Chiltern and also to the Dandy, Lord Goring
  • A fallen woman and a new woman but also financially independent, Mrs. Cheveley acts as a way of exploring new social roles for women
  • However, Wilde's use fo the past complicates ideas about what it means to have a past. Mrs Cheveley doesn't just have a past, she also uses the past to blackmail others.
  • But Goring's superior knpowledge of the past allows him to trap her in the past, showing the way that everyone is handcuffed by the past, an idea Wilde highlights in this way as a method of resisting naturalism with stressed The Burden of the Past, the Burden of the Environment, and the Pressure of the Present Moment which thus robs characters of moral agency.
  • It turns out that The Woman with a Past carries this naturalist burden of having no choice but to be the villainness.
  • Wilde finally resists the power of the past through the Dandy's gospel of love: the past is defeated by knowledge, compassion and forgiveness
  • The Dandy comes from Baudelaire, who thought of the Dandy as as an observer.
  • Wilde takes the idea further: the Dandy becomes a means through which he can comment on the social norms of the day without being absorbed by them. Thus Dandies loses their status as social commentator if or when they become embroiled in the plot .
  • The Dandy is also a way Wilde explores existing gender stereotypes and especially ideas about masculinity because of the way he rejects property and status, focusing instead on wit, taste, and fashion.
  • For these same reasons, the Dandy is a figure that resists utilitarian attitudes to life: he demonstrates Wilde's idea that being is a better state of existence than doing.
  • Lord Goring, the Dandy of this play, voices many ideas expressed by Wilde in The Soul of Man Under Socialism which figures the Christ figure as artist, outsider and Dandy, rejecting property and materialism, and preaching the doctrine of love.

The British Library's Discovering literature page on Oscar Wilde

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