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
The Trivial and the Serious Quotes in An Ideal Husband
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.
I love talking about nothing, father. It is the only thing I know anything about.
You seem to me to be living entirely for pleasure.
What else is there to live for, father? Nothing ages like happiness.
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.
Youth isn’t an affectation. Youth is an art.