What’s in a Woman?

For the first time this semester, women play a large role in a work from Oscar Wilde. In the previous works we have read, women play a largely passive role often perceived with negative connotations in the eyes of the other characters in the story. In this play, women are not necessarily described better than in previous works, but they take a much more active role in propelling the story forward. Mrs. Cheveley, Lady Chiltern, and Mabel Chiltern are all principal characters in the story, and they each embody a different stereotype of femininity. Mrs. Cheveley is the sneaky gossip, always on the prowl for a new scandal, and orchestrating her own when there is none to be found. Lady Chiltern, ever the moralist, represents the perfect woman who does no wrong in contrast to Mrs. Cheveley. And finally, Mabel Chiltern, the bright eyed beauty, highlights the decadent woman with her looks and fascination with the unique. 

At the crux of the conflict, we find Mrs. Cheveley with her sticky fingers and stolen letters. She strides into the Chiltern household with her agenda and declares war on the happy life of Robert Chiltern because of his ruthless ambition in his youth. There seems to be a prevailing theme of the corrupting nature of youth throughout the last two pieces we have read from Oscar Wilde. Mrs. Cheveley is capitalizing on that fact to blackmail Robert. A curious mascuine air surrounds her because of her assertive and dominant countenance. She does not bow to the intellect of men, and places herself in a position of power over them, which is a distinctly masculine trait throughout the literature of this time. This stereotype is not meant to describe her as a respectable woman, but to highlight that when women grasp for power they end up scorned and hated. Robert’s ambition leads him to similarly morally gray actions, but in contrast, he enjoys an immensely successful life with the admiration of all those around him. This disconnect with what a man and a woman can achieve highlights Wilde’s own perception of women as subordinate to men. 

In contrast to Mrs. Cheveley, Lady Chiltern and Mabel Chiltern embody more feminine elements of a stereotypical woman. Lady Chiltern is lauded as the perfect woman, faithfully devoted to her husband and pure to the core. She is almost disgustingly feminine having it reflected even in the pink paper she writes her correspondence on. Mrs. Cheveley is particularly annoyed by this since the two women were enemies during schooling. Lady Chiltern also acts as the moral law throughout the play. Robert is forced to confront his sins because of her and her unwavering morality. All these traits define the ideal wife. A beautiful, faithful woman who adores her husband despite his faults leading him toward a better path in life. Mabel Chiltern represents a different version of the ideal woman. She is constantly pursued for her beauty, and enjoys the frivolous pleasures of life. She is drawn to Lord Goring for his decadent ideals, reminiscent of Lord Henry but with more concern for his friends, because he promises a truly unique and fantastic life full of material pleasures and experiences. Out of all the women in the play, Mabel is the simplest, in quest of a fitting husband to satisfy her luxurious lifestyle. Wilde would hold her as the most desirable woman because she seems to have the least concern with the serious points of life. Passion and pleasure are her aim for herself and her husband, and what’s more to life than that to a decadent?

3 thoughts on “What’s in a Woman?”

  1. I think this is a great explanation of the types that the female characters are fit into. I think Mrs. Cheveley is especially interesting because while she is the “bad guy” of the play, she is complex and witty, which you pointed out is similar to Lord Henry. We did not discuss much in class the fact that Mrs. Cheveley tries to get Lord Goring to propose to her in exchange for the letter that would end Sir Robert. I felt a bit of pity for Mrs. Cheveley in this scene. What she really wants is to marry Lord Goring, but given what little power she has as a woman in society, she goes about it in such a dramatic and evil way. I agree with you that Wilde uses Cheveley to explore how women become “scorned” when they overstep their place in society, and I don’t think he wants his audience to sympathize with her. I just wonder what to make of her confession to Lord Goring. I think you could take that scene out, and the rest of the play would still make sense. Why include it at all?

  2. I also found the variety of women in this text really interesting. I was intrigued by the fact that of the three women you mentioned, Wilde gives two of them (Lady Chiltern and Mable Chiltern) happy endings, whereas Mrs. Cheveley gets an ambiguous ending. This is striking to me because each woman fits a very strong archetype (as you have laid out) and seeing multiple types of women get happy endings feels like a deviation from the Victorian norm, or even the Decadent norm. Even Mrs. Cheveley, the villain of the play, doesn’t receive much punishment other than the loss of her canal deal.

  3. I think it’s very interesting that you draw a line of comparison between Lord Goring and Lord Henry as they both adhere to Decadent ideals. While I was reading, Mrs. Cheveley was the character that reminded me most of Lord Henry. She says a lot of witticisms that hold little meaning and seem to be meant to entertain. In addition to that, she acts as something of a corrupting force in Sir Chiltern’s life, which is also reminiscent of Lord Henry. Mrs. Cheveley reminded me so much of Lord Henry, but the characters view her with more suspicion, and as you point out, she seems to embody the stereotypical gossipy woman. I think it’s interesting how different behaviors are judged differently based on the person who does them.

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