Is Marriage Ideal?

Marriage is undeniably inescapable in Wilde’s play, An Ideal Husband. It seems that there are as many perceptions of marriage as there are characters in the play, as each main character views the prospect (or reality) of marriage completely differently. Though the institution is mocked constantly throughout the play, its importance is never understated, even by those desiring to be life-long bachelors. Even Lord Goring, one of Wilde’s more obvious insert characters, says to Robert, “No man should have a secret from his own wife.” Though he immediately follows this statement up with the qualification, “She invariably finds it out.” Even Goring is ultimately unable to avoid married life, as the play concludes to his marriage to Mabel, though their wedding is itself a parody of marriage itself, as Mabel expresses disgust at the very idea that Goring would be an ideal husband to her. 

It seems that, through heavily parodying the idea of marriage, but never reducing it to absurdity, that the play is recognizing that all things worth parodying must have at least some level of importance in society. In this way, An Ideal Husband is far from anti-marriage, just as The Importance of Being Earnest is far from being anti-posh, rather both seek to point out the absurdity of real life, without reducing real life to mere absurdity. 

This is not to say that An Ideal Husband is pro-marriage or even neutral on the subject, but rather that it is able to make its criticisms of marriage more effectively by recognizing its importance, something that would not be possible if Wilde painted the institution as wholly undesirable and negative. Overall, I think it is clear that there are a lot of moving parts in An Ideal Husband, and if you read past the incredibly rich and witty dialogue, you can see Wilde toeing the line of what can and cannot be said, or performed on stage. 

One thought on “Is Marriage Ideal?”

  1. This is a great post that touches on what makes Wilde’s criticism in the play so effective. The upper class audience is able to laugh as Wilde seemingly pokes fun at their lifestyles, but upon closer look, the play is a profound criticism on not only marriage but high society as well. I think it’s also interesting to consider how this criticism works within the form of the “well-made play” or “drawing room comedy.” The final stage, or “restoration,” is the most significant given that the social order is seemingly restored. Mrs. Chevely’s efforts to ruin Sir Robert Chiltern ultimately fail, and Lady Chiltern reminds us that men’s lives are of more value than women’s (579). While the social order is restored on the surface, the ending of the play only serves to further Wilde’s criticism. Despite the recognition of the issues that come with idealizing people and forcing them into types, the characters really experience no growth other than that Lady Chiltern becomes more relaxed in her views of morality. I think this resolution further connects to the point we talked about in class of Wilde’s perception of the upper classes as “bored.” The play takes place in 24 hours, and the characters resume life as it was.

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