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.
The Natural and the Artificial ThemeTracker
The Natural and the Artificial Quotes in An Ideal Husband
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN
You prefer to be natural?
Sometimes. But it is such a very difficult pose to keep up.
Oh! I am not at all romantic. I am not old enough. I leave romance to my seniors.
You seem to me to be living entirely for pleasure.
What else is there to live for, father? Nothing ages like happiness.
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.
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.
In fact, I usually say what I really think. A great mistake nowadays. It makes one so liable to be misunderstood.
Nobody is incapable of doing a foolish thing. Nobody is incapable of doing a wrong thing.
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.
The art of living. The only really Fine Art we have produced in modern times.
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.
And falsehoods [are] the truths of other people.
But women who have common sense are so curiously plain, father, aren’t they?
Youth isn’t an affectation. Youth is an art.
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.