An Ideal Husband

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Love, Morality, and Forgiveness Theme Analysis

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.
Love, Morality, and Forgiveness Theme Icon

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, because he believes that love and forgiveness are fundamental to a good, happy life. But he would never say so at a party.

Lord Goring’s earnest efforts to reunite the Chilterns, and his own happy entrance into domestic life with Mabel, show that dandyism and aestheticism do not set themselves against love, kindness, and ordinary happiness – on the contrary, dandyism’s charms and tricks serve to elevate that happiness. Dandyism sets itself against the empty rituals of family morals in defense of real joy.

From beginning to end, Mrs. Cheveley remains the amoral villain of the play, and Lord Goring its sublimely moral hero. The only characters who truly develop in this respect are Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern. In the beginning of the play, both husband and wife see themselves as impeccably moral, because they follow a certain set of socially dictated rules – a mixture of diluted religion and exaggerated propriety. When Robert’s predicament tests their faith in these rules, they become quite confused and helpless: they find that the rules are of no use in an actual crisis. But with Lord Goring’s help, they begin to build a true moral base grounded in complex experience and deep mutual sympathy.

Love, Morality, and Forgiveness ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Love, Morality, and Forgiveness appears in each scene of An Ideal Husband. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Love, Morality, and Forgiveness Quotes in An Ideal Husband

Below you will find the important quotes in An Ideal Husband related to the theme of Love, Morality, and Forgiveness.
Act 1, Part 3 Quotes

Nowadays, with our modern mania for morality, every one has to pose as a paragon of purity, incorruptibility, and all the other seven deadly virtues—and what is the result? You all go over like ninepins—one after the other.

Related Characters: Mrs. Cheveley (speaker), Sir Robert Chiltern
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Cheveley has revealed her evil intentions to Robert. She knows that he once sold a government secret, when he was very young, and she plans to use her knowledge to force him to vote for a fraudulent scheme - the Argentine Canal. At first he refuses to yield to her demand, but slowly his resolve gets weaker and weaker. In this quote, she mocks his hesitation.

We have said that Mrs. Cheveley is the villain of the play, the amoral dandy, and in this quote she makes her attitude toward moral precepts quite clear. As always with dandies, it is difficult to be certain whether or not she is joking, but in this case her words are borne out by her actions. In Mrs. Cheveley worldview, morality is a fad, something utterly external and ultimately irrelevant. Virtues, she quips, are "deadly" - they are cumbersome as a decoration and potentially stifling to the spirit. She does not believe there are people who actually live by these decorative claims; she thinks even the most pure people "go over like ninepins" into universal human selfishness and meanness at the least prompting. This belief is both her strength and her downfall.  


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Robert, that is all very well for other men, for men who treat life simply as a sordid speculation; but not for you, Robert, not for you. You are different. All your life you have stood apart from others. You have never let the world soil you. To the world, as to myself, you have been an ideal always. Oh! be that ideal still.

Related Characters: Lady Gertrude Chiltern (speaker), Sir Robert Chiltern
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

Lady Chiltern has asked her husband why he has agreed to throw his political weight behind the fraudulent Argentine Canal. Robert is too ashamed to tell her the real reason - Mrs. Cheveley's blackmailing scheme - and so he tries to avoid the question by claiming that politics are complicated, and that one must sometimes make moral compromises. Lady Chiltern is horrified by this attitude. She is not at all dandy-ish, and is very solemnly virtuous. She begs Robert to resist the corrupting influence of the political world and to remain the pure, principled man she loves. She even implies that were he to compromise in the way he has described, she would be forced to leave him. 

Lady Chiltern's morality is very abstract and very rigid. It is not based on a philosophy of love and kindness, like Lord Goring's morality, but on a traditional and narrow-minded picture of correct behavior. "You have never let the world soil you," she says to Sir Robert; in her philosophy one must retreat from the world like a nun, instead of encountering it in a kind and decent way. 

Act 2, Part 1 Quotes

Ah! I prefer a gentlemanly fool any day. There is more to be said for stupidity than people imagine.

Related Characters: Lord Arthur Goring (speaker)
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

Sir Robert has promised his wife to rescind his support of the Argentine Canal, but he fears that Mrs. Cheveley will publicly disgrace him if he does not support it. He describes his problem to Lord Goring, who recommends that Sir Robert explain everything to his wife, but Sir Robert says his wife would never forgive him if she knew the truth. Sir Robert then starts to describe how he was lured into selling the government secret in the first place; he was encouraged by a man named Baron Arnheim, who preached a philosophy of money and power as a means to freedom. Lord Goring exclaims that the Baron is a "scoundrel," but Robert counters that he was a highly intelligent and well-educated man. In response to this comment, Lord Goring says the above quote.

Although Lord Goring thoroughly enjoys wit and intelligence, ultimately it is not wit he values most, but a kind of basic goodness - in his words, a gentlemanliness. His joking manner conceals a serious attachment to traditional ideas of right and wrong. 

Act 2, Part 2 Quotes

Nobody is incapable of doing a foolish thing. Nobody is incapable of doing a wrong thing.

Related Characters: Lord Arthur Goring (speaker)
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

Lord Goring is speaking to Lady Chiltern about her husband. She still has no idea of his past dishonesty, and believes firmly in his integrity. Lord Goring is trying to discern whether she really would respond to the truth as badly as Sir Robert predicts. He hints that all ambitious politicians must occasionally make mistakes in moral judgment; Lady Chiltern protests that her husband is the exception, and Lord Goring responds with this quote. 

Lady Chiltern and Lord Goring are both moralists, but their moral compasses function very differently. Lady Chiltern abides by a strict, childlike picture of right and wrong, and expects the world to bend itself to this picture. Lord Goring, on the other hand, is an observer of human nature, and takes life as it is for his guide. Here again, we see his belief in the natural, since in the quote he describes an aspect of universal human nature.  He doesn't try to force people into ill-fitting moral categories, but looks at life with a clear, generous eye, and tries to envision the best possible version of it. If everyone makes mistakes, he implies, we shouldn't ignore the truth in favor of an ideal - we must learn to be forgiving. 

All I do know is that life cannot be understood without much charity, cannot be lived without much charity. It is love, and not German philosophy, that is the true explanation of this world, whatever may be the explanation of the next.

Related Characters: Lord Arthur Goring (speaker)
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

Lord Goring continues his conversation with Lady Chiltern. Lord Goring believes life must be "understood," rather than judged; when we try to impose our own moral frameworks on the world, we obscure its most truthful and poignant details. And no matter how much we devote ourselves to the frameworks, they never seem to fit. This is true for both Lady Chiltern's simplistic moral system and for the most complex and profound "German philosophy." Life cannot be known or lived by intellect alone; we must use our sense of mercy, not for the sake of the next world, but for the sake of the here and now.

This quote sheds light on Lord Goring's earlier comment in praise of the "gentlemanly fool." A person who is "gentlemanly," who is kind and generous in his relationships, has a kind of worldly knowledge that is more valuable, according to Goring, than any amount of academic intelligence. 

Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike.

Related Characters: Mrs. Cheveley (speaker)
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

After Lady Markby leaves, Mrs. Cheveley speaks to Lady Chiltern more frankly. Lady Chiltern announces that she no longer wishes to see Mrs. Cheveley at any of her parties, but Mrs. Cheveley is indifferent to the hostile gesture. She mocks Lady Chiltern's stony morality, implying that it is a form of naivete, a kind of evidence that she has made herself blind and deaf to the world. 

Morality, in Lady Chiltern's view, is universal, because it is made up of self-evident truths somewhat like the Biblical Ten Commandments: one must be honest, brave, fair, unwavering, etc. In this quote, Mrs. Cheveley implies the opposite: if morality is only a flare-up of hostility, then it is different for every person, and, worse, different from moment to moment. It is nothing but an ordinary, low human feeling, like jealousy, irritation, or anger, concealed behind a flimsy mask of self-righteousness. We have to admit that Mrs. Cheveley is not entirely wrong; certainly many people in the world are "moral" in the way she describes. But there is another kind of morality which is more deeply rooted than jealousy or anger, and which is a matter of will and conviction rather than emotion. Mrs. Cheveley is very experienced, but she herself has remained blind to this aspect of human nature. 

Act 4, Part 1 Quotes

Well, my duty is a thing I never do, on principle. It always depresses me.

Related Characters: Mabel Chiltern (speaker)
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

Mabel Chiltern and Lord Goring are carrying on their very funny courtship. Lord Goring had been forced to miss his riding date with Mabel earlier that morning, and she scolds him with mock ill-humor. She observes that he continues to look delighted, and he admits he always has a delighted look when he is near her. Then they have the above exchange.

Duty, like common sense, is depressing because it is generally a form of narrow-mindedness posing as universality. It is so dull and oppressive to dip into this conventional stream, that when they encounter anything resembling duty or common sense, Mabel and the other dandies try their best to do just the opposite. It is not a perfect system, but it protects them from what they collectively dread - the boredom of bad art. 

Act 4, Part 2 Quotes

An ideal husband! Oh, I don’t think I should like that. It sounds like something in the next world….He can be what he chooses. All I want is to be . . . to be . . . oh! a real wife to him.

Related Characters: Mabel Chiltern (speaker), Lord Arthur Goring
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

Mabel Chiltern has accepted Lord Goring's proposal of marriage, and has made friends with his father, the cranky Lord Caversham. Lord Caversham warns his son that he must be "an ideal husband" to Mabel, but Mabel objects that she does not want such a husband. We can guess that an ideal husband is someone who resembles Robert: successful, upstanding, and burdened by abstract criteria of goodness. Mabel, however, wants Lord Goring to be his ordinary, earthly self, not "something in the next world." She prefers delight to purity. And she herself does not want to be an ideal wife, but a "real wife." Theirs is to be a marriage which "stands in immediate relation to modern life." 

Lord Caversham's comment about the "common sense" in Mabel's words is then somewhat ambiguous. We have seen common sense roundly reviled throughout the play: it is boring, deadening, and unattractive. A pessimistic reading of the line would hold that ordinary domestic life threatens to turn Mabel and Goring into ordinary adults. But an optimistic reading would argue that it isn't Mabel and Goring who are changing, but Lord Caversham.