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.
Romance, Boredom, and Delight Theme Icon

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 boring, common sense is boring, earnestness is boring, perfection is boring (“We have married perfect husbands, and we are well punished for it”), and romance is boring (“Englishmen always get romantic after a meal, and that bores me dreadfully”). Romance, especially, is boring because it is a mixture of goodness, obligation, and earnestness. Like the other items on the list, it is too heavy a feeling to be delightful; delight is nimble, spontaneous, and changeable.

Yet, as the play’s ending demonstrates, when life comes to a crisis – the crisis of the Chilterns’ marriage, and the crisis of Robert’s reputation – one must move beyond the distinction between the boring and the amusing. The distinction is useful only to a certain point; it is important to the artifice of social life, but less so at times when human nature is more exposed. In moments of crisis, it is the distinction between empathy and egotism, between goodness and heartlessness, which guides the play’s heroes and heroines.

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Romance, Boredom, and Delight ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in An Ideal Husband related to the theme of Romance, Boredom, and Delight.
Act 1, Part 1 Quotes

Oh, I love London Society! I think it has immensely improved. It is entirely composed now of beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics. Just what Society should be.

Related Characters: Mabel Chiltern (speaker)
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

In the moments before this quote, Lord Caversham, a traditional-minded elderly gentleman, speaks about Lord Goring to the young and charming Mabel Chiltern. As he speaks, Lord Caversham complains to her about the social life of the younger generation, and Mabel responds with this quip.

Mabel's defense of London society rests, simply, in the delight and amusement it gives her, which are themselves the new society's highest values. In other ways, too, her response mirrors the new society: her amusement shows itself in the paradoxical, counter-intuitive, silly quality of her answer, for one would not expect a clever and prosperous young woman to praise insanity and stupidity. Yet though her praise seems irrational, it also paints a delightful picture.

Mabel mentions that society has "immensely improved." It is interesting to imagine the prior society, from which the new one has evolved, as the opposite of the new: where the new society Mabel praises has "beautiful idiots," we might imagine the older society filled with grey-faced scholars, and where the new society has "brilliant lunatics," we can imagine the old full of boring, sensible couples. Paired with its alternative, Mabel's praise seems all the more reasonable, though no less amusing for it. 



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Act 1, Part 2 Quotes

Oh! I am not at all romantic. I am not old enough. I leave romance to my seniors.

Related Characters: Lord Arthur Goring (speaker)
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

Lord Goring makes the above remark to Mrs. Cheveley, to whom he is introduced at Robert Chiltern's party, though he has previously met her elsewhere. The relation between them at this point appears to be friendly but not at all warm. 

Although Lord Goring, a man of uncertain age, seems to be more or less adult, he claims here to be too young for romance. This quote is an example of the dandy's beloved art of paradox and surprise. Though love and romance are thought conventionally to be the province of the young, Lord Goring declares confidently that they are the business of "seniors." What does he mean? If you have read to the end of the play, you know that he is certainly not immune to love. When he says 'romance,' he means not love itself, but its boring, lukewarm, sentimental rituals, the pretty words and dull occasions required in polite society. Love is youthful, and youth is mischievous; therefore Lord Goring refuses to participate in games which do not amuse him.

I love talking about nothing, father. It is the only thing I know anything about.

Related Characters: Lord Arthur Goring (speaker)
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

Lord Goring is speaking to his father, Lord Caversham, who is scolding him for leading a wayward, empty-headed life. He wants his son to pursue some sort of serious occupation, to fill his life with the objects and attributes of serious adulthood (wife, children, politics, large furniture).

Lord Goring's manner with his father is as light-footed as always, and, like Mabel, he defends himself with the very object of his defense: wit, paradox, and delight. When his father exhorts him to enter into the solid world of adulthood, Lord Goring replies that he loves not solid things but "nothing," the ephemeral, iridescent nothing that passes between people when they are really enjoying each other's company. He implies that this "nothing" is the only thing that can be known, since it is actually felt, whereas customary, polite behaviors and adult objects are hidden behind a veil of indifference. 

You seem to me to be living entirely for pleasure.

What else is there to live for, father? Nothing ages like happiness.

Related Characters: Lord Arthur Goring (speaker), Lord Caversham (speaker)
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

Lord Goring continues to lightheartedly defend himself from his well-meaning father, who now accuses him of hedonism (a life solely devoted to the pursuit of pleasure). Lord Caversham, out of long habit, firmly believes that serious things are important, and important things are not fun. Lord Goring tries to show him the folly of his reasoning. What remains of these serious things, as we grow older? Of course we may feel proud of our accomplishments, but only if they gave us pleasure in the first place - not immediate gratification, necessarily, but pleasure nonetheless. This sort of pleasure turns into a more long-term happiness: in other words, pleasure and happiness are continuous, as they are in the quote itself. We know from later events in the play that Lord Goring's definition of pleasure and happiness goes beyond fashionable parties - that it also extends to difficult and important moral issues. One can be serious occasionally, but happiness still acts as a moral compass.

I like looking at geniuses, and listening to beautiful people.

Related Characters: Mrs. Marchmont and Lady Basildon (speaker)
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Marchmont and Lady Basildon, two guests at the Chilterns' party, are minor characters in the play, but they faithfully represent the dandy philosophy. Everything they say seems simultaneously meaningless and true, and the joke lies in the tension between the two qualities.

Here, like in Lord Goring's comment about romance, we have an inversion of an accepted truth, since people generally believe it is good to listen to smart people, and to look at beautiful people. Is the quip simply nonsense or is there something to it? As with the other jokes, if it were truly nonsense, it wouldn't have power to charm us. To look at a genius and to listen to a beautiful person is to avoid staring a fact squarely in the face, to experience it more peripherally - the genius and the beauty both coming in through the side door. The quote also implies that it is just as interesting to consider someone's weaknesses (a genius's looks, perhaps, or a beautiful person's intelligence), and that the most interesting thing of all is to experience virtues and flaws simultaneously. 

As with the other dandy quips, this quotation can be analyzed down to a serious idea, but it works best in its original enigmatic form. 

Act 2, Part 2 Quotes

When Tommy wants to be romantic he talks to one just like a doctor.

Related Characters: Mabel Chiltern (speaker), Tommy Trafford
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

Mabel Chiltern is talking to Lady Chiltern, her sister-in-law, about her annoying suitor, Tommy. Tommy is successful and well-off, but Mabel finds him very dull. Her feelings on romance resemble those of Lord Goring and Lady Cheveley, who believe romance is for old and proper people. Mabel has just reprimanded her other suitor, Lord Goring, for speaking too seriously. Like Lord Goring, she does not feel that youth and love have much to do with seriousness, at least the sort of external seriousness practiced by the older set. 

Tommy resembles a doctor when he speaks romantically because both medicine and a certain kind of romance operate according to a set of rules and procedures, removing any element of fun or play. In medicine and romance, there is a straightforward, oft-repeated relationship between the participants, which cuts out the excitement and uncertainty courtship requires. A medicinal courtship is the process by which the social order tames love, and which tends to muddle its partitions. The dandies' joking disdain of romance is a veiled resistance to larger social structures. 

The art of living. The only really Fine Art we have produced in modern times.

Related Characters: Mrs. Cheveley (speaker)
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Cheveley and Lady Markby have come to the Chilterns' house to look for Mrs. Cheveley's lost brooch. Lady Markby is quite snobbish and conservative, not a dandy like Mrs. Cheveley. When Lady Markby complains about the generation of contemporary society, Mrs. Cheveley objects that the adults must learn from the children, for it is the children who have mastered "the art of living." 

Though this quote is spoken by the villainous character of the play, it is a good summary of the dandy philosophy. Even the most mundane daily interactions must be performed as small works of art, which means boredom and cliche must be avoided at all cost. In a sense, the other arts pale in comparison; no instrument can be as complex as the human person, the human psyche, which has the denseness of an entire world. And no other art demands such round-the-clock devotion. But we can assume its rewards are proportionally greater, as well. Mrs. Cheveley's mastery of the dandy art makes us ask, however, what kind of relationship can or should exist between dandyism and gentlemanliness, between art and morality?

Act 3, Part 1 Quotes

But women who have common sense are so curiously plain, father, aren’t they? 

Related Characters: Lord Arthur Goring (speaker), Lord Caversham
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

Lord Caversham has come to visit his son at an inconvenient moment, just as Lord Goring is expecting Lady Chiltern for a serious conversation about her marriage. Lord Caversham urges his son to get married and settled down, like the exemplary Sir Robert. The advice has an ironic sound in this moment of the play, when Sir Robert's integrity, career, reputation, and marriage are all teetering on the edge of collapse. Lord Caversham advises his son to use common sense in the matter of marriage, and Lord Goring responds with the above quote. 

Common sense is commonly understood as a universal quality of basic understanding. It is common sense that salt does not taste good in a cup of tea, for example. Part of what is known as common sense is a basic knowledge of physical and chemical laws and the properties of the human body; in other words, the knowledge we acquire in early childhood. The other part is a nebulous web of beliefs, and, like any belief thought to be universal, is usually a painfully narrow reflection of a certain time and place. Lord Goring is saying that women (and men, presumably, but this quote is also an echo of the sexist undercurrent in the play's society) who embody the deadened conventional aspect of their society instead of the tumult of human nature are "curiously plain" - curious in their apparently complete self-negation, and totally devoid of charm. 

Act 4, Part 1 Quotes

Youth isn’t an affectation. Youth is an art.

Related Characters: Lord Arthur Goring (speaker)
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

Lord Goring is waiting in Sir Robert's drawing room to speak to him about his conversation with Mrs. Cheveley, who has hatched a new plot against him and his wife - a new blackmailing scheme involving Lady Chiltern's note to Lord Goring, which Mrs. Cheveley takes for a love letter. Once again Lord Caversham interrupts Sir Goring and the plot to scold Lord Goring for his dissolute lifestyle. He continues to insist that Lord Goring should follow in Sir Robert's footsteps, and mentions that Sir Robert has just risen to an even higher rank in his political career by giving a rousing and intelligent speech against the Argentine Canal. Once again, Lord Caversham is a source of dramatic irony, since the audience knows it is actually Lord Goring who is responsible for Sir Robert's speech.

When Lord Goring explains that he is too young to be useful, Lord Caversham complains about this "affectation of youth," and Lord Goring responds with the above quote. This epigram hearkens back, once again, to a quote by Mrs. Cheveley, discussed above, in which she calls the art of living "the only fine art." Youth is not an affectation, because it isn't a mask one can simply put on and take off; it a complicated, demanding role that takes great skill and subtlety. The type of youth Lord Goring practices is not a set of stony conventions, but a unique, difficult, delightful role, which he himself invents. 

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.