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.
Wit, Charm, and Contrariness Theme Icon

Most wit, in this play, consists in saying the opposite of something commonly accepted as truth. This sort of wit insists giddily that if one abstracts enough, each thing is as true as its opposite. It’s a sophistry that serves to show not that truth is unstable, but that generalizations have little to do with truth – though they are enjoyable if one doesn’t take them too seriously.

Older, stodgier characters associate wit and verbal play with triviality. But instead it is a form of broad-mindedness that is close to wisdom, and that expresses itself as deliberate uncertainty. Dandies believe that there is more value in speaking well about nothing – “I love talking about nothing, father,” says Lord Goring, “It is the only thing I know anything about” – than in speaking boringly about ‘important’ issues. But such contrariness does not reduce to faith in emptiness or nothingness: it is not a destructive amorality (except when performed by a truly destructive person like Mrs. Cheveley). Wit and contrariness expose the emptiness of certain customs and proprieties in order to make way for actual human contact, and for genuine moral reasoning.

Wit, Charm, and Contrariness ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in An Ideal Husband related to the theme of Wit, Charm, and Contrariness.
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. 

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. 

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

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 3, Part 1 Quotes

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

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.