An Ideal Husband

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Themes and Colors
The Natural and the Artificial Theme Icon
Romance, Boredom, and Delight Theme Icon
The Trivial and the Serious Theme Icon
Wit, Charm, and Contrariness Theme Icon
Love, Morality, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in An Ideal Husband, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Like nearly all aspects of Oscar Wilde’s work, this theme is rooted in aestheticism, a controversial late-19th-century student movement of which Wilde was a part. Aesthetes, or “dandies”, argued that works of art should be measured by aesthetic rather than moral criteria; they also believed that life should approximate a work of art. In explicit reference to this philosophy, Wilde introduces almost every character in the play by comparing him or her to the work…

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If life is a form of art, and art’s purpose is to delight and occasionally to instruct, then boredom – which withers delight and inhibits learning – is to be avoided at all costs. For this reason, boredom is a significant preoccupation for the dandyish characters of the play. Characters assert at various times that obligations are boring (“Well, my duty is a thing I never do, on principle. It always depresses me”), goodness is…

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In a famous collection of aphorisms, Wilde wrote that “dullness is the coming of age of seriousness.” The phrase suggests that dullness is the final, truest form of seriousness, and its inevitable consequence. In the play, serious manners are boring and unappealing almost as a rule – several times, seriousness is called “unbecoming,” and common sense is “plain” – and by that virtue necessarily fail in delivering important, truthful ideas. To be heard one must…

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Most wit, in this play, consists in saying the opposite of something commonly accepted as truth. This sort of wit insists giddily that if one abstracts enough, each thing is as true as its opposite. It’s a sophistry that serves to show not that truth is unstable, but that generalizations have little to do with truth – though they are enjoyable if one doesn’t take them too seriously.

Older, stodgier characters associate wit and verbal…

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Mrs. Cheveley, the ‘heartless’ dandy of the play, thinks that goodness and morality are poses with nothing behind them: she complains that “every one has to pose as a paragon of purity, incorruptibility, and all the other seven deadly virtues.” But Lord Goring, the dandy philosopher, knows that morality can be both a pose and a true condition of inner life. He tries to teach Lady Chiltern to love and forgive her husband…

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