In class on Wednesday, we spent a lot of time discussing the concept of the closet. In the closet, one hides the parts of oneself one doesn’t want others to see. They must show their best selves to the world or face dire consequences. For Oscar Wilde, he had to hide his queerness from the world, and in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian had to hide away his corruption and project the image of perfection to the rest of society. While reading An Ideal Husband, Sir Robert Chiltern’s conflict reminded me of the concept of the closet.
Sir Chiltern has an important position as the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs and a reputation as an upstanding man of honor. However, in his youth, he sold government secrets to Baron Arnheim in order to make his fortune. Now, Mrs. Cheveley is blackmailing him by threatening to expose his past in order to make him support the Argentine Canal plan, which he knows is a scam. If Mrs. Cheveley exposed him, he could lose everything. Mrs. Cheveley says to Sir Chiltern that, “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… Scandals used to lend charm or at least interest, to a man—now they crush him” (528). Like Dorian, Sir Chiltern has to project a perfect public image in order to maintain his place in society.
Not only is this perfect image necessary to keep his job, but it’s also necessary to maintain his marriage. His reputation as a man of honor is the reason his wife loves him. When Mrs. Cheveley reveals to Lady Chiltern that Sir Chiltern sold government secrets, Lady Chiltern says, “What a mask you have been wearing all these years! A horrible painted mask! You sold yourself for money” (552). She’s calling Sir Chiltern out for maintaining a facade of perfection. However, Sir Chiltern’s morally dubious act was the reason he got his fortune and was able to marry Lady Chiltern in the first place. He just needed to hide that he ever did anything unvirtuous in order to maintain his lot in life.
One thought on “Sir Robert Chiltern and the Closet”
I also had this thought. It is interesting to me how it seems to be more important to Sir Chiltern to keep his past secrets from his wife than from the public sphere. He tells Lord Goring that “If my wife found out, there would be little left to fight for” (541). Of course, this is reversed by the end of the play, but it is interesting to see how Sir Chiltern is much more afraid of the consequences of the private sphere than those of the public sphere. Is Wilde trying to touch on the idea that it is easier to be seen by a stranger than someone you love?