An Ideal Husband

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The Buttonhole Symbol Icon
When Lord Goring comes home at the beginning of the third act, he exchanges a day buttonhole (a small flower arrangement, like a corsage) for an evening one. We shortly learn that the buttonhole, one of “the delicate fopperies of fashion,” is in fact out of fashion at present – no important people wear it. Its unpopularity does not bother Lord Goring, who believes that “fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear.” The buttonhole is meant to mark a person as insignificant or perhaps middle-class, but Lord Goring happily short-circuits the frigid signaling system that connects clothes and social status. Fashion, for him, is not that signaling system: it is the delicate, inscrutable transfer of meaning from person to object. The buttonhole, at that historical moment, is a trivial item, and Lord Goring wishes it to be “more trivial” still. Its triviality is a mark of its freedom from the serious social games of adults, games with interminable rules, harsh sanctions, and very few rewards. The games extend so far and wide that it requires constant vigilance and good humor to distinguish them from life, and Lord Goring’s buttonhole is a sign of that vigilance.

The Buttonhole Quotes in An Ideal Husband

The An Ideal Husband quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Buttonhole. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Natural and the Artificial Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dover Publications edition of An Ideal Husband published in 2000.
Act 3, Part 1 Quotes

One sees that [Lord Goring] stands in immediate relation to modern life, makes it indeed, and so masters it. He is the first well-dressed philosopher in the history of thought.

Related Characters: Lord Arthur Goring
Related Symbols: The Buttonhole
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes from the narrator, who is obviously very fond of Lord Goring, his fashionable hero. Thus far Lord Goring has been somewhat peripheral to the more striking conflict between Sir Chiltern, Lady Chiltern, and Mrs. Cheveley, but now we have a chance to see him alone at home, in his domain, bantering with his butler. 

Unlike Lady Chiltern, who holds herself at any icy remove from life, Lord Goring "stands in immediate relation" to life; but he doesn't succumb to it blindly - he "masters it." He himself helps to create the conditions of modern life, a task given to every new generation. It is a heavy task, because it requires one to disregard the rules and regulations of past eras while learning enough from them to be able to exceed them. More than anything, it requires a cheerful aversion to authority - a quality Lord Goring has to excess. 

The second sentence of the quote is not exactly accurate at face value. Many philosophers have had excellent style. But in Lord Goring, the two qualities - philosophy and fashion - become as one. His philosophy itself is well-dressed, and his clothes are philosophical. The wild and ephemeral rules of fashion guide his deepest thoughts, and the earnest weight of belief affects his choice of attire.


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And falsehoods [are] the truths of other people.

Related Characters: Lord Arthur Goring (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Buttonhole
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

Lord Goring is speaking to his butler about his buttonhole, which is a small flower arrangement worn on a lapel. The introductory note calls Goring a philosopher, but in this funny dialogue he does not seem to be attempting profundity, or even considering whether or not he means what he says. He is entertaining himself and, arguably, his butler. 

But as usual, the off-the-cuff, paradoxical jokes turn out to bear more weight than it would seem. We observe that Lord Goring's jokes, in this quote, have the same structure as Mrs. Cheveley's comment on morality in Act II ("Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."). As elsewhere, the play challenges us by creating a subtle web of likenesses between the hero and the villain. What Mrs. Cheveley believes about morality, Lord Goring believes about fashion: people we dislike are immoral, people we dislike are unfashionable. Yet we have seen that for Lord Goring, there is a gap between art/philosophy and morality: he appreciates brilliance, but would always prefer "a gentlemanly" - kindly - "fool." Art and philosophy - "the truths of other people" - are an iridescent, shifting veil over the incommunicable human heart. 

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The Buttonhole Symbol Timeline in An Ideal Husband

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Buttonhole appears in An Ideal Husband. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 3, Part 1
The Natural and the Artificial Theme Icon
The Trivial and the Serious Theme Icon
...first well-dressed philosopher in the history of thought.” He asks Phipps for a change of buttonhole (a flower one wears on a suit jacket). Lord Goring speaks meditatively and slyly about... (full context)