An Ideal Husband

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

SIR ROBERT CHILTERN
You prefer to be natural?

MRS. CHEVELEY
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:

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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:

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LORD CAVERSHAM
You seem to me to be living entirely for pleasure.

LORD GORING
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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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And falsehoods [are] the truths of other people.

Related Characters: Lord Arthur Goring (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Buttonhole
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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