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.
The Trivial and the Serious Theme Icon

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 be amusing, and to be amusing one must avoid seriousness: this is an important aspect of the philosophy of the dandy.

For other characters in the play, however, the effort to amuse oneself and others is a sign of triviality – of shallowness, frivolousness, or even “heartlessness.” Older, conservative characters like Lord Caversham believe that the world can be cleanly divided into good, important, serious things and bad, unimportant, trivial things. Serious things include money, marriage, propriety; trivial things include beautiful objects, love, and charm. Goring (and Wilde) believes that the items on the first list are merely the superficial, social, deadened versions of the items on the second list, but this fact is imperceptible to the anti-dandy, who makes no distinction between public and private life, between the appearance of something and the private experience of it.

Ultimately, the play satirizes and inverts the distinction between the trivial and the serious to emphasize that acting seriously does not mean feeling seriously, and that people who act seriously as a rule often conflate the two. The inversions also show that the trivial and the serious are not stable, socially determined categories but ephemeral attitudes that can be applied to anything, from politics to buttonholes.

The Trivial and the Serious ThemeTracker

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The Trivial and the Serious Quotes in An Ideal Husband

Below you will find the important quotes in An Ideal Husband related to the theme of The Trivial and the Serious.
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

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 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

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.

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.