An Ideal Husband

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The Natural and the Artificial 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.
The Natural and the Artificial Theme Icon

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 of a painter or sculptor. If life is a work of art, then one’s behavior can only be bad art or good art, never nature. The lives of animals and plants are dictated almost entirely by biology, but the lives of human beings are deliberate. Therefore, naturalism is either sloppy art or a cunning facade (“a very difficult pose to keep up”).

Lord Goring, Mabel Chiltern, and Mrs. Cheveley – the dandies of the play – believe that is impossible to act naturally. In different ways, they all disparage naturalism, which seems to them a bizarre and alarming narrow-mindedness. To assert that one particular manner or way of life is “natural” is to believe that there is precisely one correct way to be human – a delusion responsible for most varieties of hate and prejudice. To assert such a thing also appears naïve and laughable. In this play, especially, naturalism is tragicomic.

Wilde’s contempt is not for nature, though, but for the misconception that it is possible to act naturally. The play as a whole does not deny the existence of the natural, nor does it conflate the natural and the artificial. Its characters do refer to one kind of nature in good faith: “nature” as a synonym for “character” or “personality.” Such usage implies that there exists in every person something apart from mannerisms, rouge, and wit. One’s nature, a locus of beliefs and values, can never be fully or accurately conveyed through behavior; this is the true reason that “natural” behavior is impossible. By behaving in a way that is explicitly artificial, dandies like Lord Goring honor and protect the natural.

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The Natural and the Artificial ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in An Ideal Husband related to the theme of The Natural and the Artificial.
Act 1, Part 2 Quotes

You prefer to be natural?

Sometimes. But it is such a very difficult pose to keep up.

Related Characters: Sir Robert Chiltern (speaker), Mrs. Cheveley (speaker)
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs when Sir Robert Chiltern meets Mrs. Cheveley for the first time at his own party. They banter carelessly, without apparent purpose or meaning, but certain aspects of the conversation seem to foreshadow the harm Mrs. Cheveley tries to inflict on Sir Robert.

It appears initially that the play's protagonists are the young, charming dandies, and its antagonists the elderly, stodgy conservatives; but in fact the dandies are both antagonists and protagonists - the moral dandy, Lord Goring, is the hero, and the amoral dandy, Mrs. Cheveley, is the villain.

The quote hints at the nature of Mrs. Cheveley's amorality. Though she, like all dandies, believes social behavior is primarily a pose, a theatrical performance, she makes no distinction between the performance of the natural and the performance of the artificial. The natural, to her, is emptied of all moral weight: it is in no way a moral center to return to, and can therefore be worn as a mask just as much as the artificial. For the moral dandies, the natural cannot truly be performed, because it exists apart from social games and amusements. It is a core of values which must be guarded so that it can be accessed in times of crisis.  


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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.

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.

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.  

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

In fact, I usually say what I really think. A great mistake nowadays. It makes one so liable to be misunderstood. 

Related Characters: Lord Arthur Goring (speaker)
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Lord Goring continues to listen to Sir Robert's predicament: he has made contradictory promises to his wife, who wants him to do the honorable thing and come out against the Argentine Canal, and to Mrs. Cheveley, who through blackmail has made him promise to support the Canal. Lord Goring continues to insist that Sir Robert should tell his wife the truth. The quote above is an offhand comment, mocking Sir Robert's defensive qualification that part of the money he received for the government secret was used to donate to charities. 

The quote reveals quite a lot about Lord Goring's life philosophy. He tries to say what he believes, and would like to be honest and straightforward at all times; but the fact of the matter is that it is impossible to communicate anything in a straightforward way. Conversation, and language itself, is too full of traps and ambiguities, prejudices, moods, and misunderstandings, to allow for anything like simplicity. So, paradoxically, the best way to communicate what one believes is through joking and paradox - speech patterns that cut through the build-up of convention generally coating ordinary speech. 

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. 

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

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.

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. 

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. 

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.