In De Profundis, one of the moments that struck me the most is when Wilde described how Bosie told him that “when you are not on your pedestal you are not interesting” (994). Not only is this a really cruel thing to say to someone, let alone someone you are in a deep personal relationship with, but it also reminded me of a line spoken by Robert Chiltern in An Ideal Husband:
Why can’t you women love us, faults and all? Why do you place us on monstrous pedestals? We have all feet of clay, women as well as men; but when we men love women, we love them knowing their weaknesses, their follies, their imperfections, love them all the more, it may be, for that reason. It is not the perfect, but the imperfect, who have need of love. (552).
I remembered this line because it struck me as ironic in the modern world, where it is more common for women to be placed on pedestals and given unreasonable expectations (purity culture, diet culture, division of labor, etc.). But what strikes me now is the repetition of the image of the pedestal, and how much it seems to reveal about Wilde, especially because An Ideal Husband was written before the date Wilde gives for his fight with Bosie.
I see so much of Wilde in this selection of the text. There is justification for his relationship with Bosie, his feelings about his estrangement from his wife later in life, his Catholic sympathies, and his deep insecurities about his place in the world. And what makes it all the more tragic is that for the most part, it is Wilde himself that puts Wilde on a pedestal. He created a persona for himself, spending hours privately studying and perfecting his appearance. And once he did, he received the fame an notoriety he desired, but cursed himself to always be stuck on the pedestal.
What I found most interesting about Salomé is how Salomé’s choices have complete control over the direction of the play, and how this control directly comes from her attractiveness. At the beginning of the play, she is able to manipulate Narraboth into bringing out Jokanaan because he desires her. When she meets Jokanaan, she pursues him. She tells him how much he admires his appearance and asks him to let her kiss him. This is an interesting reversal of gender roles because it is usually the man who pursues the woman and tells her how beautiful she is. This reversal of gender roles happens in Wilde’s other works as well, such as in An Ideal Husband when Lady Chiltern is invested in politics while Lord Goring is interested in fashion. However, Jokanaan wants nothing to do with her, and for once, Salomé is unable to get what she wants.
Salomé is also shown to have the ability to exert control over Herod. Like with Narraboth, Herod seems to desire Salomé, and Salomé is able to get what she wants because of this. There’s an interesting contrast between Salomé and her mother Herodias. While Salomé is able to get what she wants from Herod, Herod never listens to Herodias when she asks him to stop looking at Salomé. This could be because Herod desires Salomé over his wife, and so Salomé can sway him to do things. He offers her anything if she dances for him, including half his kingdom. However, instead of asking for half the kingdom, she asks for the head of Jokanaan. Herod tries to offer her other things, but she refuses them all. Her mother approves of Salomé’s choice.
What’s interesting about Salomé asking for Jokanaan’s head in the play is that in the original Bible story, it’s her mother that asks her to ask for Jokanaan’s head. However, in the play, Salomé asks for the head of her own volition. This gives her more agency in this narrative. It’s like she’s punishing Jokanaan for being the one man who won’t give her what she wants. After she’s presented with Jokanaan’s head, she laments about how much she loved him. This reminded me a lot of how Dorian mourned Sibyl in The Picture of Dorian Gray and how Sibyl became more perfect to him after her death.
At the very end of this play, however, power is returned to Herod when he has Salomé killed for her actions. This reminded me a bit of the end of An Ideal Husband when Lady Chiltern goes back on what she wants when Lord Goring tells her to so her husband can keep his career. No matter how much power Salomé had in the play, power always reverts back to the man.
We saw a variety and depth in the female characters in Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, specifically through Lady Chiltern and Mrs. Cheveley,but I did not find this to be the case in The Importance of Being Earnest. Granted, Mrs. Cheveley and Lady Chiltern drive much of the plot in their play, the supporting characters of Cecily and Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest, are one-dimensional. Cecily and Gwendolen are the beautiful love interests of Algernon and Jack, respectively. Cecily is arguably developed more than Gwendolen, particularly in the scenes where she describes her diary entries about her engagement to Algernon, or ‘Earnest’. When he proposes to her, she exclaims, “Oh you have made me make a blot! And yours is the only real proposal I have ever had in all my life. I should like to have it entered neatly” (394). She takes her diary very seriously, but this aptitude for writing serves to emphasize her foolishness and absurdity. Both Cecily and Gwendolen are easily placated by their fiancé’s justifications for lying to them, and eventually come to call each other “sister,” like Jack predicted earlier on.
A similarity between the women in the two plays is how they praise men. Specifically, Cecily exclaims, “How absurd to talk of the equality of the sexes! Where questions of self-sacrifice are concerned, men are infinitely beyond us,” to which Cecily replies, “They have moments of physical courage of which we women know absolutely nothing” (407). These lines reminded me of when Lady Chiltern finally accepts her husband’s role in the government and talks about how men’s lives are more valuable than women’s. Maybe my perspective as a modern reader is clouding my approach to these texts, but it seems ridiculous how these female characters praise the obviously flawed male characters, specifically in instances where they have wronged them. Is Wilde once again poking fun at the dynamics of the upper classes of society, particularly where women are involved, or does he subscribe to the idea that women are truly the inferior sex? I would also be interested as to what others think of Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism. How do they resist or uphold the gender dynamics presented by the other characters?
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 of the things that fascinated me the most about Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” wasn’t the story itself, but the stage directions that pop up throughout the narrative. The general rule I have always heard about playwriting is to keep stage directions minimal, to only use them when absolutely necessary, and even then, to be very sparse and plain with your language. As someone who has never read any of Wilde’s plays before, I was struck by the way in which Wilde throws this rule out the window. They are wordy and eloquent and contain details like “Watteau would have loved to paint them” and “He is fond of being misunderstood” (515, 521). I found these stage directions equal parts off-putting and delightful. Off-putting because they were unexpected in this format, delightful because they are so beautifully written. I feel like they are where Wilde’s prose really shines.
However, these stage directions brought up a lot of questions for me as to how this text should be read. I know that it was intended to be viewed as a stage play, meaning the audience would not have necessarily had access to them. They would have been reserved mostly for the actors, and I imagine that some of these details would be quite helpful to them, and some would be quite frustrating. For example, the direction “She is a heliotrope, with diamonds” feels very opaque as a character description, whereas “She has the fascinating tyranny of youth, and the astonishing courage of innocence” is much more specific (517, 516). But the way Wilde mixes prose into this play is extremely fascinating to me. Did he mean to or was it unintended? As modern readers, how should we interpret them? Should we study them like normal stage directions, or as something more?
This is the first of Wilde’s plays we have read, and I found the stage directions to be almost more interesting than the dialogue. While plays are obviously meant to be performed live, given the detail in the stage directions, I wondered if Wilde really wrote An Ideal Husband to be read. Most stage directions come to life through the set design, movement, and dialogue of the actors, but he notes, “HAROLD, the footman, shows Mrs. Cheveley in. Lamia-like, she is in green and silver. She has a cloak of black satin, lined with dead rose-leaf silk” (557). The “Lamia-like” point colored how I interpreted the rest of the play, and an audience would have missed this in a live performance unless the stage directions were read aloud.
Keats’ poem, “Lamia,” is, at its core, a story of exposure. Essentially, Lamia is a serpent turned into a beautiful woman, which further connects to the snake brooch that Mrs. Chevely stole. Lycius falls in love with Lamia, and at their wedding, a blind prophet recognizes Lamia as the serpent. In the context of An Ideal Husband, the reference to this poem obviously reinforces Sir Robert Chiltern’s intent to find some secret about Mrs. Cheveley in order to protect himself. The threat of exposure extends beyond Sir Robert and Mrs. Cheveley to Lord Goring and Lady Chiltern as well. Lady Chiltern is the most interesting and puzzling character to make sense of when reading “Lamia” alongside the play. I expected, since Mrs. Cheveley represents the evil serpent, that Lady Chiltern is the most obvious beautiful and morally righteous counterpart. Sir Robert describes her as such: “She does not know what weakness or temptation is… She stands apart as good women do – pitiless in her perfection – cold and stern and without mercy. But I love her Arthur” (561). However, she ultimately turns into a different form of Lamia, threatened with the exposure of her letter to Lord Goring and attempting to end her husband’s career similar Mrs. Cheveley (578).
I think there is much more that can be done with Wilde’s use of “Lamia” in this play, but the main effect I walked away with was the deconstruction of morality. Even the morally righteous characters, like Lady Chiltern, have secrets, and despite her twisted approach, Mrs. Cheveley is really just in love with Lord Goring. Wilde explores morality in a lot of his works like “The Harlot’s House” and The Picture of Dorian Gray, but his exploration of morality in political and domestic spheres in this play is the most effective in proving that it is nearly impossible to label people as “good” or “bad.”