An Ideal Husband
Marriage: The presentation of Januarie, Placebo and Justinus
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in the late 14th Century, featuring several tales loosely linked together that revolve around typical medieval lifestyles with its many modern day parallels. Marriage was a popular theme for debate during this time, with particular concerns to reasons for and consequences of marriage. Chaucer presents a variation of views, initially through the Merchant’s Prologue where the Merchant forcefully stresses his perspective that passionately opposes marriage. Chaucer structures the Prologue in the form of a confessional complaint which parallels Justinus’ anecdotal account of his experience of marriage. The powerful opening of the Merchant’s Prologue is intended by Chaucer to echo the prior epilogue of the Clerk’s Tale that concludes with the comment “and let him care, and wepe and wringe and waille”, followed by the Merchant’s miserable descriptions of marriage having him “wepyng and waylyng”. The repeated use of the word “wepe” emphasizes their mutual distaste for married life. As the tale progresses, the Merchant’s bitter tone converts and becomes extremely more accepting of marriage in light of Januarie’s upcoming decision to be “wedded hastily”, which suggests his rash and unthoughtful consideration for the true value of marriage.
Chaucer makes evident Januarie’s main reason for marriage being to live a spiritual, sanctified life that will enable him a place in heaven, but implicitly contrasts this throughout, for instance; the specifications Januarie makes for his wife are intended to fulfill his sexual desires. January’s glamorization of a younger wife implicitly presents the view that perfection and happiness in marriage is not possible with an elder woman, which links to ideas portrayed in the Clerk’s Tale through Grisilida who is depicted as a young and beautiful wife who remains subservient, somehow due to her youthfulness. The impression is made onto the reader that Januarie is self-delusional since he is old himself, and he may also come across as judgmental and offensive. It can be interpreted that his intentions are solely for himself. This contradicts the traditional religious conditions of marriage as being beneficial for both husband and wife. Marriage was deemed a unison, and a reflection, of the love of Christ for his people. However, many medieval readers would relate to Januarie’s ambitions in marriage, considering the conventional attitudes to the nature of marriage were regarded as a mercantile transaction and the consolidation of title, so marriage was rarely undertaken for love. This significantly contrasts the views of a modern reader, who would be more inclined to disagree with Januarie’s real purpose for marriage. It seems pointless, however, that Januarie enters into a debate with his brothers as it seems like he has already made his decision, and he absorbs himself in Placebo’s flattery.
Placebo’s sycophantic nature imposes his belief that Januarie need not acquire advice from anyone, and believes Januarie should ignore “the word of Salomon” who says it is best to act upon advice that one has sought. University philosophers in the Middle Ages favoured dialectic, yet Placebo’s use of exegesis does not give forth a productive and informed argument – it seems to only allow for Januarie to collude in his fantasies further without even considering an alternative, in the way that Justinus does. Chaucer’s depiction of Placebo lends the tale verisimilitude as Placebo is demonstrated as a typical pleasing courtier, therefore rather than debating against Januarie’s unrealistic expectations of marriage for the purpose of Januarie’s own good, Placebo entertains his imaginations. It can be interpreted that Januarie does not want to be damned of his right to have a youthful, obedient wife who will satisfy his needs, since the wife, when married, had the same legal status as her husband’s domestic animals. Conventional attitudes to the institution of marriage were very similar to Januarie’s, which Chaucer implements purposefully to represent an actuality.
Justinus’ view aids towards a nature of debate more than Placebo since his views are opposing, as he suggests that Januarie must “be pacient” since marriage is “no childes play / to take a wyf withouten avisement”. He says choosing a wife involves that “men moost enquere”. Making reference to the Christian vows, Justinus highlights the permanent nature of marriage – which Placebo fails to mention, which is ironic since he is so experienced in his courtly life. The sacrament of marriage involves the exchange of vows of care and fidelity, sanctifying the partnership in the eyes of God. Where those vows are kept, as they eventually are in The Franklin’s Tale, the marriage may be said to be good, despite the inequality of the partners. The bitter narration in the Merchant’s Tale, by the Merchant, however, draws no distinction between good and bad marriage and belittles the sacrament itself; initial images of married life in the Prologue, being a form of “cursedness”, is juxtaposed with the Merchant’s view in the Tale, describing Januarie’s desire for “marriage hony-sweete”.
In conclusion, Chaucer’s use of personification allegory with Placebo and Justinus express the conflicting views of marriage, represented by the definition of their names – Placebo meaning “I shall please”, symbolizing pretense, and Justinus, “the just one” symbolising justice and honesty. Chaucer implies that his brothers are types rather than individually realized characters in order to detach any emotion from the attempted debate displayed between the two. It can be interpreted that this emotional detachment is a reflection of Januarie’s real sense of lack of emotion for his wife, also conveyed through the objectification of woman in his use of his wax imagery (“a yong thing may men gye/ right as men may warm wex with handes plye”) and through use of his animal imagery (making a preference to “a pyk than a pickerel”) This approach to marriage was common amongst contemporary audiences; the idea of an elder man marrying a girl as young as twelve was traditional and more accepted than those of the modern audience. However, enjoyment of sex, even between married couples, was deemed a mortal sin as the only purpose of sex was believed to be for procreation and to avoid lechery, so Januarie’s early desire for marriage as an entrance to heaven may be prevented with Placebo’s encouraging words and lack of debate against the reality of Januarie’s future.
Power in An Ideal Husband and The Canterbury Tales
Both within ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ by Chaucer and ‘An Ideal Husband’ by Oscar Wilde, the theme of power is explored, with various characters attempting to increase their power often by corrupt or deceitful means. Although corruption is explored through a variety of characters, the male protagonists Januarie and Lord Chiltern both appear to be the most corrupt in their attempts to gain power however, as both authors create a society in which corruption is already rife, the corruption of these men is not so heavily criticized as they are perceived to be merely be reflections of contemporary society. Wilde particularly emphasizes the way in which characters are able to gain power for themselves through the depiction of characters such as Mabel Chiltern and Lord Goring, whereas Chaucer suggests that almost all people must engage in some level of corruption in order to gain the power they desire, perhaps because they are limited by the existing social structures of the time.
Wilde and Chaucer both demonstrate – through the characters of Lord Chiltern and Januarie respectively – the way in which the male desire for power inspires corrupt behavior. Wilde’s narrative is constructed around Lord Chilterns’ corrupt and ‘scandalous’ behavior in his youth in which he obtained and exploited a letter which came into his possession whilst he was working for Baron Arnheim, a letter now in the possession of the knifing Mrs Cheveley. At the beginning of the play, Wilde describes Lord Chiltern as an ‘upstanding gentlemen’, placing particular emphasis on the way in which people admire him both as a husband and as a politician. However, what becomes immediately clear to the audience is that this power and respect Robert holds is not as a result of his own self-determination, but is in part due to the scandal he was involved in when he was younger. Whilst discussing his predicament with Goring, Lord Chiltern emphasizes how he did not regret his decision but that it showed ‘strength and courage’ to ‘yield’ to the opportunity which had presented itself to him, and that he did not particularly regret having engaged in such corruption. Within Victorian England, political scandal was incredibly common and in the late 1890s several leading politicians had disappeared after being implicated in scandals; thus, as corruption in the Victorian government was common, it perhaps does not occur to Robert that his behavior is so dastardly. Wilde’s presentation of a character who is both perceived to be incredibly upstanding but is in fact corrupt creates conflict for the audience who may be uncertain as to whether or not they should trust Lord Chiltern. However, as the Victorian theater audience was typically upper class, they may have either not been unsurprised by the corruption present, as they were familiar with it, or may else feel threatened by such a play which dared to question their own social standing and its origins; this latter aspect may in fact explain why Lord Chiltern is exonerated at the end of the play, not simply returned to his position but in fact elevated to a more senior position in government. On the other hand, Chaucer creates a male protagonist whose thirst for power does not result in corrupt behavior in such an explicit sense, although he clearly lies about his potential in order to gain. The Merchant first introduces Januarie as a ‘knyght’, but one who is is ‘hoar’ and ‘olde’ and thus not desirable because, in the view of Morden, he is unable to fulfil the expectations of a courtly lover. Januaries’ self-deception about his desirability and possible exploitation of his position as a knyght enables him to attract Mae, a partner significantly younger than himself. Although Januarie’s character is not likeable, the audience is made to feel some sympathy for his plight and the way he seeks a wife and a marriage which he believes will be ‘esy and so clene’, however the way in which he attracts such a young girl seems shocking, particularly to a modern audience. Within Chaucer’s England, it was not uncommon for young girls to marry older men as this ensured their financial and social security, however the age gap between Mae and Januarie does raise questions about the motivations of each character; some critics argue that the exaggerated age difference between Mae and Januarie helps to emphasize the comedic elements of the story, as well as emphasizing its allegorical nature. Therefore, although Lord Chiltern and Januarie desire to gain personally in their pursuit of power, arguably it is Lord Chiltern whose behaviour seems most outrageous, and who the audience feels less sympathy for as he does not show remorse for his actions, whereas Januarie seems genuinely to be less aware, and self-deceiving about his own potential ability to secure power.
Within ‘An Ideal Husband’ and ‘The Merchant’s Tale’, the pursuit of power is depicted to have gendered expectations, with women who seek power often becoming vilified in a way in which the male counterparts – who are clearly corrupt – are not. In ‘An Ideal Husband’ the villain of the play is Mrs Cheveley, who attempts to blackmail Robert using the letter, to break down the family unit and destroy Robert’s reputation. Immediately, Wilde characterizes Mrs Cheveley as the villain through her dress, describing her as ‘lamia-like’, likening her with the mythical creature reputed to have destroyed families by eating children. Additionally, the description of Mrs Cheveley’s ‘thin, red lips’ creates and pale skin creates a vampirish image, contrasting her with the other characters and clearly presenting her as the villain. When Mrs Cheveley confronts Robert, she is incredibly ‘plain’ with him, stating her precise expectations. The audience prior to this point have warmed to Robert as they have viewed him through the eyes of those who respect him and thus feel threatened by Mrs Cheveley. Critics such as Gower have argued that Mrs Cheveley’s actions in exploiting the letter are not worse than Lord Chiltern’s use of it and that the only reason Mrs Cheveley is vilified is on account of her gender and this sense is emphasized through the way in which Mrs Cheveley is portrayed as mimicking Lord Chiltern’s lines of arguments, inverting them to suit her means. In Victorian England women were expected to be obedient and subservient and thus Mrs Cheveley’s behaviors is even more shocking to a contemporary audience, who would be appalled at her behavior. Although it is never expressed what Mrs Cheveley seeks to gain through Robert’s intervention in the Argentine canal scheme, presumably she will reap financial and other rewards and therefore is corrupt in the sense she tries to gain personal power through dishonest means. A year after writing ‘An Ideal Husband’,Wilde was on trial for gross indecency, and was being blackmailed over letters which implicated his relationship with the Queensbury’s son Bowsie and thus Wilde was incredibly familiar with the idea of blackmail. Although it would be easy to outrightly show that Mrs Cheveley was a corrupt villain, the fact he draws parallels between her and Lord Chiltern creates a sense of moral ambiguity surrounding their characters and their desire for power, perhaps reflecting the complexity of the predicament that he found himself in. Similarly, in ‘The Merchant’s Tale’, Chaucer creates a narrative in which Mae exploits Januarie and his blindness for her own personal gain. Mae’s marriage to Januarie would already have resulted in her having an elevation in social status as well as securing her financially for life (divorce did not exist in Chaucer’s society) and thus even her marriage to the unattractive Januarie can be shown to be an attempt to boost her status. Mae’s exploitation of Januarie’s blindness for her own personal pleasure is vilified by the Merchant, who uses a disapproving tone through his descriptions of Mae’s actions with Damyan, remarking in fact that it is was almost too rude to go into detail. Mae is also depicted as exploiting Januarie’s blindness by contradicting his assertions about the sex she had in the tree, stating that his vision was not fully restored is also criticized by the Merchant, who suggests that Mae was exploiting the physical problem of her husband. However, critics such as Williams assert that it is important to remember that ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ is designed to be used as a device by the merchant in order to explicitly criticize all women (including his own wife, who is the ‘woost ther kan be’) and thus cannot be believed in its entirety. Nonetheless, the overall effect of both of these texts is that women seeking power are presented as being more villainous and unacceptable than their male counterparts.
However, clearly it is possible to seek power in manners that are not corrupt as demonstrated through characters such as Goring and Mabel Chiltern. Within ‘An Ideal Husband’, Goring’s slightly aloof nature and dandyish qualities set him apart from the other characters in the sense that he does not appear to care what others think of him. Similarly, Mabel Chiltern, as woman in a secure financial position as the ward of her brother Robert Chiltern, she is not required to seek a husband outrightly, although of course the end of the play does depict their engagement. Lord Goring’s sense of power is attained not through his conformity or his engagement to Mabel even, but by the way he is seemingly removed from politics and the events of the play. When Goring orchestrates the plot to eradicate Mrs Cheveley, he does so from his own home, using information he has gathered through observation; as Goring is not going to be directly impacted by anything he does, he is able to act effectively and without concern for his reputation. Critics such as Kutchner have suggested that Lord Goring was Wilde’s ‘slightly fanciful’ representation of himself and thus here it appears that Wilde may be suggesting that a lack of reputation, or rather a lack of a conventional reputation was in fact an asset as it allowed one to act in any way without it impacting your reputation. Goring’s dandyish qualities present him as a man whose primary concern is not politics or family – the qualities Lord Caversham, his father, thinks he should prioritize – but in fact aesthetics and wit, and, as one critic remarked ‘it is far harder for a scandal over appearance to cause long term damage’, whereas a role in a corrupt political sphere could in fact damage him. Thus Lord Goring is presented as being able to gain power through non-corrupt means because the avenues of power he seeks are different from Robert and do not involve the corrupt politics. Additionally, Szanter argues that Mable Chiltern in fact holds some of the greatest power in the play because of her wealth and social status, both of which means she is under no pressure to marry quickly. Also, Szanter argues that, unlike Lady Chiltern, Mabel Chiltern is not constrained by marriage and thus has fewer expectations imposed on her. This line of reasoning suggests that in fact power is not something which is just gained through corruption suggests it may be obtained by other means such as birthright, although this obviously is not accessible to everyone. On the other hand, Chaucer does not demonstrate that this is the case in any way, perhaps reflecting a time period with limited social mobility and a greater emphasis upon social class and patriarchal values.
In conclusion, both Wilde and Chaucer explore power and various means by which it can be obtained. Although the male protagonists Januarie and Lord Chiltern both appear to be the most corrupt, it is the women who are most vilified for their corrupt nature. Wilde shows that it is possible for characters to gain some power for themselves through non-corrupt means, although this is arguably as a result of birth right rather than their own self-determination. Both Wilde and Chaucer show that corruption was endemic in society and often resorted to by characters who are limited society’s expectation of their class and gender.
“Masks, Poses, Facades, Deceptions- all are weapons in the battle of life”.
Throughout ‘An Ideal Husband’, the “battle of life” is portrayed in numerous ways by numerous different characters. For example. Robert Chiltern deceives those around him by selling a cabinet secret, and Mrs Cheveley wears the mask of good intentions when in reality she only wants to make money. The only common denominator is the fact that the characters in the play all lie and deceive others for their own benefit.
Sir Robert Chiltern’s use of deception in the play is by far the most high profile out of all the characters. After all his great fortune, of which the play’s setting is largely based around, was all funded by his dishonest method of making money in selling a cabinet secret about the Suez Canal Scheme. This “swindle” as Mrs Cheveley referred to it, propelled Robert into the Government and founded his reputation as being a true gentleman and valued member of Parliament. In terms of Robert using the swindle to aid him in the “battle of life”, he speaks to Lord Goring about his life before he met Baron Arnheim. He tells Lord Goring that he had the “misfortune of being well born and poor” and that Goring “never knew what ambition was” in the way he did, which would further develop the idea that Chiltern used the medium of deception to make a better life for himself. One could argue that if Chiltern hadn’t taken advantage of the situation that he found himself in, he would still be in the significantly less reputable position of Under Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
This whole affair closely relates to elements of the contemporary historical context, as the Suez Canal was opened in 1869, and ‘An Ideal Husband’ was published in 1895, midway through its construction. This would therefore mean that the Canal would have been a popular topic of conversation at the time. The fact that Wilde was using these popular topics in his work further reinforces his stature of being one of the most sought-after conversationalists of his time.The way that scandals such as this have been interpreted has changed over the years, alongside people’s attitudes towards success. In terms of the audience at the time of Wilde’s life, they would have been shocked to see that a so-called gentleman had been so dishonest and selfish. By contrast, in today’s society we have become used to seeing scandals involving people of high society very often.
In fact, Robert Chiltern and his actions almost directly relates to the recent insider trading scandal involving Phil Mickelson, the professional golfer who got caught up in such an incident. This somewhat tarnished his reputation as he lost multiple lucrative sponsors and the respect of many of his admirers. Although Robert Never actually got publicly shamed for his actions, the social ‘punishment’ would have been the equivalent to that of Mickelson.Mrs Cheveley is another character who uses certain poses to succeed in life. At the very start of Act One, she describes being natural as “such a difficult pose to keep up”. This implies that her entire persona is based around her being phony towards others, but she won’t change her ways because that is not who she is. In many ways this makes her very similar to Robert, in the way that she was born poor but full of ambition.
This idea is developed when she speaks to Lord Goring about why she got engaged with him, as she justifies it simply by saying “I was poor; you were rich.” By speaking in such terms, this tells the audience that she is not a loving or friendly person, but simply a pragmatic one, who has no qualms with deceiving others. It is this feature of her character which most likely made Goring fall in love with her; he is a romantic. Wilde played on the notion of ‘opposites attract’ here. This emphasizes that Mrs Cheveley doesn’t care about people’s feelings or trust; just that she succeeds. Further evidence can be seen in the way she almost tears apart the Chilterns’ marriage, just so that she can force Robert to advertise the Argentine Canal Scheme in Parliament and make her a profit on her investment. Interestingly, Wilde was perhaps airing his own political views about the authenticity of the Argentine Canal Scheme.
In the 19th Century, Women were expected to marry in their early twenties, not with the view of sexual desire, but with one of maternal desire instead. Furthermore, they were certainly not expected to be the ones in society who earn the money. Mrs Cheveley contradicts all of these stereotypes because in every relationship that she has in the play, positive or negative, she is the one in control, which would have most probably shocked men at the time of writing, but empowered women. For example, although her relationship with Robert Chiltern turned sour, she is still the person who is telling him what to do. A key example of this is found when Mrs Cheveley first admits to Robert Chiltern that she knows about his secret. He is about to stand up and leave, before Wilde writes in the stage directions that she “detains” him, as if he were in a prison, and she had the key. This is Mrs Cheveley’s “weapon”, and she uses it to try and better her own life by gaining an advantage over Robert.
This idea about being a in a prison directly relates to Wilde’s life, as he spent two years (1895-1897) sentenced to hard labour for being a homosexual. In this sense we can clearly see that it is Wilde who shares certain similarities with Sir Robert Chiltern, based on the fact that they both kept some secrets which would have defamed them. The only difference is that Chiltern seems to get away with it more, whereas Wilde didn’t. I believe that these differences in outcomes between Wilde and Chiltern was Wilde portraying what he hoped would happen in terms of his secrets being found out. In my view this is where the title of the play comes from, but more significantly the word “Ideal”, as these were the “ideal” outcomes that Wilde wished for when his secret got found out; that it all turns out alright for him in the end.Perhaps the only character in the entirety of the play to use deceit in a relatively noble way is Lord Goring, when he tricks Mrs Cheveley into displaying that the Brooch that she left at the Chilterns’ house is not hers. For instance, he draws Mrs Cheveley into lying by saying the brooch was a “present”, and then quickly traps her within her own deceit by informing her that he gave it to his cousin as a gift ten years ago. Now that Cheveley couldn’t escape the truth, as she was both trapped inside Goring’s house, and trapped with the Brooch on her arm, she had no choice but to hand over the letter which so incriminated Robert over. This act of deceit aided Goring in numerous ways, all of which could be considered as being for the side of ‘good’ over ‘evil’. For example, it ridded him of Mrs Cheveley, which paved the way for him to propose to the woman whom he truly loved in Mabel Chiltern, and it subsequently allowed Robert to take Goring back as his “closest friend”.
In Wilde’s mind, he was very much like Goring, in the way that he lied for a good cause, rather than to gain an advantage on somebody else. The similarities between Wilde and Goring’s character are so similar, this notion is hard to ignore. For instance, they can both be considered ‘dandies’, they are both great believers in aestheticism and they both often spoke in paradoxical ways. In the Second Act of ‘An Ideal Husband’, Goring says “Nobody is incapable of doing a foolish thing. Nobody is incapable of doing a wrong thing.” This outlines Wilde’s views on using methods such as deceit for a person’s own self benefit as being perfectly valid, and that so long as it helps them, they are not going to consider their own actions as being foolish.Overall, Wilde presents methods such as masks, poses facades and deceptions as weapons in the battle of life throughout the play, however the key examples of this lie with Robert Chiltern, Mrs Cheveley, and Lord Goring. Robert Chiltern used the weapon of deception and dishonesty to become wealthier and more reputable. Mrs Cheveley used the pose of being “natural” to get herself into a position to manipulate Robert, and she deceived Lord Goring into thinking that she loved him when in reality she loved his wealth. Furthermore, she tried to deceive Lord Goring again when he showed Mrs Cheveley the stolen Brooch, however he was not fooled and deceived her himself, so as to save both his friend and his love life.
Masculine and Feminine Identity in An Ideal Husband
Identity is fluid. Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (first performed 1895), affirms this concept. The play asserts the notion that we, as humans, carve our own identity through conscious decision. In doing so, Wilde interrogates the idea of identity rigidity – that human beings are born with certain characteristics, that these are static, and create our character. Wilde also interrogates Victorian notions of gender identity. He uproots traditional concepts surrounding masculinity, and disparages the development of the ‘new woman’ during the late 19th century. He deconstructs Victorian idealised notions of the wife and husband, forwarding a new, imperfect identity for both.
Wilde, disputing Victorian notions of latent identity, depicts identity as mutable; shaped by human decision. This is evident through an examination of the characterisation of Lord Goring – the dandified bachelor of An Ideal Husband. He is said to be ‘clever’, ‘but he would not like to be thought so’, as well as ‘a flawless dandy, he would be annoyed if he were considered romantic’. These directives showing him as actively aware of how others perceive him, implying that he attempts to shape this perception. Lord Goring repeatedly downplays his intelligence, stating that he ‘knows nothing of practical life’ to Gertrude Chiltern, and telling Sir Robert to “never mind what I say”. However, he is then described as ‘showing the philosopher that underlies the dandy’. Through his characterisation, it is evident that Lord Goring actively shapes his identity, however false. An Ideal Husband’s interrogation of fixed identity is further emphasised by the character of Mrs Cheveley, the villainess of the play, as a shaper of her own identity. Although she ‘looks rather like an orchid’ and is ‘in all her movements extremely graceful’, Wilde makes it clear that this is a façade she has chosen to present. She refers to ‘being natural’ as “such a very difficult pose to keep up”. Even being ‘natural’ is a pose, showing her active creation of an identity. In Act Three, Mrs Cheveley’s true nature is revealed, when ‘a mask has fallen from her’ and ‘she is, for the moment, dreadful to look at’. Mrs Cheveley is described in stage direction as ‘a work of art, on the whole, but showing the influence of too many schools’, denoting the idea that an ‘artist’ – the person themselves – has created their own identity. This idea is epitomised in Lady Markby’s statement that “Indeed, as a rule, everybody turns out to be somebody else”. Identity is therefore represented as fluid, and interrogated as unchanging, by An Ideal Husband.
Wilde redefines set gendered identities, primarily through the contrast of characters Lord Goring and Sir Robert Chiltern. Chiltern is initially couched in masculine terms with a ‘firmly chiselled mouth and chin’ and ‘dark-haired and dark-eyed’ – the stereotypical ‘hero’ description. However, he is then repeatedly depicted ‘in a state of great mental excitement and distress’ uttering melodramatic statements such as ‘Oh, love me always, Gertrude, love me always!’ peppered with exclamations and repetition. This emotionality has typically been a female bastion. Lord Goring, on the other hand, is described in feminine terms – wearing ‘all the delicate fopperies of fashion’. However his dialogue is more ‘masculine’ – concise and witty, undercutting Sir Robert’s histrionics. For example, in the beginning of the second act, Sir Robert’s lengthy verses alternate with Lord Goring’s short statements such as ‘Personally I have a great admiration for stupidity. It is a sort of fellow feeling I suppose’. This juxtaposition reverses gender expectations, redefining the masculine identity.
Furthermore, the plays positive depiction of Lord Goring represents the ‘dandy’ as a valid male identity. The fringe aesthetic movement, of which Wilde was a key member, was frequently satirised by the conventional press, therefore Wilde interrogates Victorian gender identity expectations. The audience is endeared to Lord Goring through his comic dialogue–for example Lord Goring’s insistence in Act Three that his buttonhole is ‘too trivial’ and that it makes him look ‘a little too old’, combined with the Butler Phipps’ ‘yes, my lord’ replies is highly amusing. He also states whilst ‘looking at himself in the glass’ that “My father tells me that even I have faults. Perhaps I have. I don’t know”. To an audience watching the play, this image is extremely funny. Lord Goring is the source of many paradoxical statements, such as the famous ‘I love talking about nothing, father. It’s the only thing I know anything about’. Therefore, through Wilde’s use of comedy, he endears us as audiences to the character of Lord Goring. Wilde’s humour makes the ‘dandy’ as an identity more palatable for a Victorian audience, thereby interrogating the traditional powerful ‘hero’ identity of men.
Although Wilde is progressive in this respect, he is conservative in his interrogation of the ‘New Woman’ identity, foregrounded through the character of Lady Chiltern. Lady Chiltern ventures into the public sphere, involving herself with the Women’s Liberal Association and issues such as “Factory Acts, the Parliamentary franchise” and championing “the higher Education of women”. However, Wilde debunks this blossoming Victorian women identity. In the end of the play,. Lady Chiltern in dialogue disturbingly (for a modern audience) parrots Lord Goring’s statement that ‘a man’s life is of more value than a woman’s’, stating that “how women help the world” is through forgiving their men. The curtain closes upon the image of Lady Gertrude ‘leaning over the back of the chair’ her husband, Sir Robert, is seated upon – an image which could be interpreted as Lady Chiltern’s relegation to the role of supporter of her husband. It implies that Lady Chiltern will no longer attempt to influence her husband in the public sphere due to the havoc this has caused, ending on a resoundingly conservative note lamenting the growing political influence and ‘new woman’ identity.
Some may point to Mrs Cheveley, the villainess of the play, as evidence of Wilde’s encouragement of a strong female identity. Initially, Mrs Cheveley is characterised as independent– manipulating the male characters when she ‘drops her fan’ and Sir Robert is required to pick it up for her. She is depicted as powerful as seen in her position in Act One where she is ‘leaning back on the sofa’ in languid arrogance, as well as her militaristic dialogue where she refers to the ‘war’ she is winning against her ‘enemy’, Sir Robert in the ‘game of politics’ However, Mrs Cheveley is ultimately punished by Wilde, as a result of her attempts to exert agency in the ‘man’s world’ of politics. After the failure of her manipulations, she is silenced for the entirety of Act Four, implying her banishment from polite society, and evincing Wilde’s interrogation of the ‘new woman’ identity of women engaged in political life.
The Victorian era was infamous for its moral absolutes, one aspect of which was the idealisation of the ‘wife’ and ‘husband’ identity – an idealisation Wilde interrogates through his forwarding of a new, imperfect identity. Lady Chiltern in the play repeatedly makes idealised statements of her husband such as that “Robert is as incapable of doing a foolish thing as he is of doing a wrong thing”, whilst the audience is well aware that this was not the case due to his sale of a Cabinet secret for great personal gain. Wilde’s use of dramatic irony therefore portrays Lady Gertrude as naïve, ridiculing these repeated statements. She then undergoes a character development at the hands of Wilde, ‘reforming’ in the end to forgive her husband, and blaming herself for “setting him up too high”, affirming the idea that we should not expect our partners to be perfect in the resolution. This idea is epitomised in Mabel Chiltern’s statement at the end of the play that she would not like “an ideal husband”, stating that “he can be what he chooses” and that all she wants to be is “a real wife”. The resolution of the play is the message the play wishes to leave, and it is clear that Wilde is advocating for an ‘imperfect’ identity in marriage, with acceptance and acknowledgement of faults forming our perception of our partner – their identity.
An Exploration of Differing Conceptions of Love and Friendship in An Ideal Husband
Love and friendship were major themes for Society Drama during the 1890s. An established ‘stock storyline’ of the period was that of domestic life affected by a predicament, concluding in the reassertion of common ideas: fidelity, duty, forgiveness, etc. Although An Ideal Husband adopts these motifs, it also parodies them through the exaggerated conceptions of love and friendship each character represents. The play therefore accomplishes an exploration of differing conceptions through the assorted types of love the characters embody. The stage directions upon introducing the characters initiate this idea. For example, Lady Chiltern is a ‘grave Greek beauty’ , highlighting her serious nature and foreboding her strict ideals regarding loving her husband. On the other hand, Lord Goring is a ‘flawless dandy’, linking his ‘type’ with the freer ideas of beauty, style and art – more representative of Wilde’s own view on life and love. The stark contrast between each character allows Wilde to explore their individual conceptions of love and highlight the advantages and flaws of each accordingly.Lady Chiltern’s conception of love appears to alter Wilde’s message within the play. Her notion of love in the beginning is overtly feminine and Wilde exaggerates her view of her husband until it borders on the ridiculous. She claims she ‘worshipped him’ and that he was the ‘ideal of her life’. In making Lady Chiltern so morally upstanding that she threatens to leave Sir Robert because he has stained his otherwise stainless character, she appears laughable to the audience. ‘We women worship when we love; and when we lose our worship, we lose everything’ is one such hyperbolic statement used to highlight the unreasonable nature of her love. ‘Worship’ is linked inextricably to ‘everything’ within the line, implying there is nothing else within her love for Sir Robert, additionally revealing her view on friendship as an element of love – it is non-existent, there is only idealism. She also speaks for all women (‘we’), again furthering the idea that she is a type, representative of all feminine love in Wildes view. Parodying her view of love guides the audience to see her high-moral standing is not approved by Wilde, implying An Ideal Husband serves to highlight the flaws of such a conception of love. This is contrasted by the apparent change in her views at the end of the play when she comments ‘We have both been punished. I set him up too high’ , reflecting the ‘lesson’ the ordeal has taught her. By allowing her to realise her mistake Wilde explores her flawed notion of love and suggests to the audience that they should not make the same error. He champions his own inverse conception of love, that of passion and forgiveness, without such strict morals. An Ideal Husband also appears to comment on the modern feminine role within relationships. Although Wilde encouraged the idea of the “new Victorian woman” – someone who is morally upstanding and intellectually supportive of her husband’s career – he conveys through Lady Chiltern that such high morals need not be applied to love. While accepting her intelligence has an ‘ennobling effect on life’ , her moral standing towards love brings ‘ruin’ to the life of Sir Robert, suggesting it is flawed. A further exploration of feminine love is illustrated through the comments of Mrs Marchmont and Lady Basildon. They both ‘have the most admirable husbands in London’ but are ‘well punished for it’, demonstrating again that ideals are not as important as passion. Wilde combines both the old (Mrs Marchmont and Lady Basildon) and new (Lady Chiltern) generation of femininity and through exploring their conceptions of love he shows neither to be happy in passionless love. In suggesting they have unexciting marriages, ‘there is not the smallest element of excitement in knowing him’ and highlighting the flaws of Lady Chiltern’s notion of love Wilde again appears to advocate his own, more natural concept. Idealising is also rejected in another of Wildes plays. Mrs Erlynne of Lady Windermere’s Fan observes that ‘ideals are dangerous things. Realities are better. They wound, but they’re better ’(4.1.308). Lady Chiltern’s transformation throughout the play reinforces this idea, she is indeed ‘wounded’ by the idea her husband is not what she set him up to be. However, I would argue that the Chiltern’s marriage is ‘better[ed]’ by their new openness, and with forgiveness now part of their love they experience a higher level of love and trust. Lady Chiltern says it is ‘love and only love’ she feels for her husband now, a contrast to her cold moral feeling at the beginning of the play. Thus the play operates to highlight the effect of forgiveness on love using her transition between differing conceptions within the playSir Robert Chiltern, however, represents a different concept of love entirely, one that can be interpreted as masculine (in his own words: ‘man’s love’). This offers a different understanding of love, when ‘[men] love women [they] love them knowing their weaknesses, their follies, their imperfections, and love them more for it’. It acts in stark contrast to Lady Chiltern’s strict idealistic view and conveys to the audience key themes of the play – forgiveness and the imperfection of human nature. If the couple had followed this masculine conception of love from the start of their marriage Sir Robert would have felt comfortable enough to reveal his faults to his wife earlier, and have her love him all the more for it. The contrast in views of the couple offers evidence as to how and also why An Ideal Husband is an exploration of differing conceptions of love. It is forgiveness within love that Wilde is promoting, and through exploring the flaw of the feminine concept he conveys through Sir Robert that forgiveness and love should prevail over false worship and high morality. ‘Love should forgive’ is the sentiment at the centre of Chiltern’s melodramatic speech at the end of act two, ultimately the representation Wilde is encouraging. Moreover, Sir Robert lacks the ‘courage’ to ‘come down and show [Lady Chiltern] his wounds’ he feels he needs to remain the perfect English gentleman in both public and private life. This was a particularly relevant theme of society at the time, and by exploring this ‘purity’ through the concept of love, Wilde is also making a personally significant observation on society. He himself gave the appearance of being a happily married Victorian father; in reality he was leading a homosexual double life – in his own phrase, ‘feasting with panthers ’. Chiltern’s view on love and the manner it is explored arguably represent Wilde’s own disdainful view of society, he is built up on a pedestal with his talent, but society’s supposed moral view on love restricts him being his true self. Further personal similarities between playwright and character can also be observed in Lord Goring and his conception of love, friendship and life. Goring’s view on love is inherently based on Aestheticism, a movement supported by Wilde that encouraged style and passion whilst rejecting Victorian moral structures. Lord Goring ‘plays with life’ and states ‘it is love, and not German philosophy, that is the true explanation of this world’ , showing that he is as distanced from the moral ideals of Lady Chiltern as possible, and instead lives his life through feeling. By exploring this different conception of love Wilde emphasises love as a theme within the play by showing it to override all adversity through honesty and forgiveness – represented by Goring. He encourages both Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern to revert to aesthetic love, as opposed to their own differing conceptions. The former he entreats to be honest with his wife and to break her ‘ideal’, ‘you must begin by telling you’re wife the whole story’, as he knows the power of forgiveness within love. To the latter, Goring relates the value of forgiveness by advising her ‘Women are not meant to judge us, but to forgive us when we need forgiveness’ , sparking the positive transition observed within Lady Chiltern. Furthermore, throughout the play Goring guides Lady Chiltern away from her ideal notion of love, ‘often you don’t make sufficient allowances. In every nature there are elements of weakness’. These examples encompass Goring’s understanding that the act of forgiveness is a crucial part of marriage, whereby human imperfection is acknowledged. It is plausible that Wilde had no intention of exploring differing conceptions of love in this way. He was himself an aesthete and advocated beauty over meaning, leading him possibly to have written the play as ‘art for art’s sake’, however I would disagree. Fundamentally, An Ideal Husband explores the other character’s conceptions of love and highlights their faults, ultimately conveying natural, forgiving love – advocated throughout by Goring – prevailing over unnecessary morality. Nevertheless, the play does not seem to explore as many differing conceptions of friendship as it does with love, and does so less didactically. Lord Goring is described by Sir Robert as his ‘best friend’ and constantly supports him throughout the play, eventually saving him from ruin. His conception of friendship appears heroic, providing support for Sir Robert by reiterating ‘you’re wife will forgive you’ in Sir Robert’s darkest moments and serving as the ‘one friend [Sir Robert] can trust’ . There are hints of distrust though, such as Goring imploring Lady Chiltern to ‘come to me at once’ , however this seems to serve as a dramatic device for Wilde to create doubt regarding his character’s integrity. Eventually this enhances Lord Goring in the view of the audience as we see his good intentions as a friend. Conversely, these examples act more to support Wilde’s positive representation of Dandyism, characterised by Goring, than to thoroughly explore differing conceptions of friendship. The only alternative conception offered is through the characters of Baron Arnheim and Mrs Cheveley. The Baron uses his friendship to corrupt Sir Robert into believing his ‘gospel of gold’ and it is further hinted that his friendship with Mrs Cheveley is based on money. In addition, Mrs Cheveley reduces the idea of marriage to a purely mercantile state by abusing Goring’s friendship and effectively blackmailing him (however this serves more as an exploration of a different love concept, one void of any feeling, morally or passionately). I would argue that these differing conceptions of friendship are utilised merely as a plot device. Lord Goring’s notion of friendship, as the supposed ‘hero’ of the play is based on trust and guidance, whereas Mrs Cheveley, very much the villain, is keen on advancing herself financially. Thus, the idea of friendship within the play is used more to highlight the particular characteristics and intentions of characters rather than serving to explore differing conceptions of friendship in detail.Perhaps the most differing conception of love and friendship is the pairing of Lord Goring and Mabel Chiltern. They act as polar opposites to Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern, by combining both friendship and unconditional love. Goring comments in his usual ironic manner that ‘affection comes when people thoroughly dislike each other’ , a remark that reflects the playful sentiment between the two throughout the play. They reject the notion of the ideal, thus reversing the Chiltern’s idea of love, both embracing their imperfections. Mabel states ‘I delight in your bad qualities. I wouldn’t have you part with one of them’ whilst also wanting to be a ‘real wife’ , not a stainless, perfect one. Through such a contrast Wilde seems to comment that humanity will always fall short of its ideals, but love will still prevail. Wilde once observed, ‘”Women have always had an emotional sympathy with those they love[;] intellectual sympathy [is now] also possible.” He was commenting on the changes in society at the time with regard to women and I believe Mabel Chiltern is a reaffirmation of this idea; she is both younger and prettier than Lady Chiltern, representing a positive change. Wilde is advocating that women should now love men passionately and not make false idols of them. Furthermore, Mabel is intelligent, however she still rejects an ‘ideal husband’, thinking the idea to be ‘something in the next world ’. It appears however, to be in the past world, with Wilde now promoting a fresher outlook on relationships.To conclude, Wilde does explore differing conceptions of love within the play, demonstrating the flaws of existing concepts within society and highlighting the benefits of his own Wildean model through Lord Goring and Mabel Chiltern. I would disagree with the notion that he explores differing conceptions of friendship; rather he champions a movement towards a combination of natural love and trusting friendship.
One Has to Compromise… Everyone Does
In “Anatomy of Criticism”, Northrop Frye explains a formula that describes the structure of dramatic comedy. Two key points in the formula are the use of “obstructing characters” and the “movement from pistis to gnosis”. An “obstructing character” is anything physical or intangible that blocks a relationship, and “pistis to gnosis” is a shift from belief to knowledge. In Oscar Wilde’s play “An Ideal Husband”, Wilde effectively incorporates both of these elements.Mrs. Cheveley is a character in “An Ideal Husband” who attempts to obstruct the marriage of Robert and Lady Chiltern. Robert Chiltern is “deeply respected by…many” (183), especially his wife; Lady Chiltern states that to her, he has “been an ideal always” (204). However, Lady Chiltern is unaware of the “fraud” (229) that made her husband’s fortune. “Out of malice” (249), Mrs. Cheveley reveals the fraud to Lady Chiltern: “Get him to tell you how he sold to a stockbroker a Cabinet secret” (229). This is a major blow to the marriage of Robert and Lady Chiltern, as “break[ing] her idol…put poison in her heart” (249). The union of Robert and Lady Chiltern is not the only relationship Mrs. Cheveley tries to obstruct: together, Mrs. Cheveley and Tommy Tafford hope to disrupt the relationship between Mabel Chiltern and Lord Goring. Mabel and Lord Goring have strong romantic feelings for each other: Lord Goring states that Mabel is “the one person in London I really like” (257), and Mabel wishes to “remain with” Lord Goring (258). Unbeknownst to Mabel, Lord Goring and Mrs. Cheveley had a relationship some time ago: “Arthur, you loved me once…and asked me to be your wife” (246). Once again interested in Lord Goring, Mrs. Cheveley tries to convince him to “marry” (247) her, but he “decline[s]” (248). Tommy Tafford is a man who “does nothing but propose” (220) to Mabel, but is cordially turned down at every proposal, as Mabel “make[s] it a rule never to accept Tommy” (259). In the spirit of comedy, the obstructed lovers prevail (Creese), and Mabel accepts Lord Goring’s proposal: “I am so glad” (258). Not all of the obstructions in “An Ideal Husband” are physical. For example, Mrs. Cheveley’s infidelity is what obstructs her relationship with Lord Goring. Some time ago, Mrs. Cheveley and Lord Goring had a serious relationship: “I did love you…and you loved me” (247), and Goring went so far as to ask Mrs. Cheveley to “be [his] wife” (246). However, the relationship came to an abrupt end after Lord Goring witnessed Mrs. Cheveley “trying to have a violent flirtation” (246) with Lord Mortlake. Mrs. Cheveley’s infidelity ruined her past relationship with Lord Goring, and made any future relationship impossible: he states that he “cannot forgive” (249) her. Frye’s formula is also exemplified in “An Ideal Husband” in the movement from pistis to gnosis, shown through Sir Robert Chiltern’s transformation from a dishonorable man to an honorable one. Early in Chiltern’s career, he took part in a “very nasty scandal” (196) by “selling a Cabinent secret” (195), something that he admits “most men would call shameful and dishonorable” (208). He continues his dishonorable ways by refusing to tell his wife the truth of his past: “There is nothing in my past life that you might not know” (205). However, as his wife discovers that he “began [his] life with fraud” (230), Chiltern faces reality and accepts that he will eventually die “a lonely dishonored death” (231). It is at this point that Chiltern becomes honorable. Whereas before he planned on making a “rational compromise” (204) and giving his “public support of the Argentine scheme” (196) to keep Mrs. Cheveley from ruining his name, Chiltern instead does the right thing and discredits the scheme in his “speech…at the House” (264), even knowing that “public disgrace might be the result” (264). Instead, he finds “public honor” (264). The movement from pistis to gnosis is also shown through the beliefs of Lady Chiltern: Lady Chiltern shifts her beliefs from strict Puritinism to open-minded understanding. Lady Chiltern is a “noble and gentle” (249) woman, one whose strict beliefs are characterized by her statement “circumstances should never alter principles” (204). Lady Chiltern holds her husband in high regard; to her, he is “a thing pure, noble, honest, [and] without stain” (230). She thus refuses to believe that he could commit any immoral action, and even requests that he “lie to [her]” (230) when she finds out the truth about his past. However, Lady Chiltern transforms into an accepting and understanding person after her husband tells her that she “ruined” (231) his life by placing him on a “monstrous pedestal” (231). As evidence of this change, she later tells Robert Chiltern that she still “admire[s] him immensely” (266), even though he acted immorally in the past.In “An Ideal Husband”, Wilde is clearly trying to stress his belief that everyone, no matter how seemingly perfect, is flawed (Creese). Mrs. Cheveley, an obviously evil and flawed woman, fails at everything she does. Chiltern is threatened with losing everything he has gained because he will not admit to his flawed past, and does not find happiness until he accepts the possibility of failure. Most importantly, Lady Chiltern finds flaws in her uncompromising Puritan belief system: perhaps the most controversial point that Wilde hoped to impress upon his Victorian audience.
Compassion and Forgiveness: Wilde’s Insincerity
In ‘An Ideal Husband’ Wilde effectively portrays compassion and forgiveness as very important qualities. He emphasizes how these characteristics can save relationships, proving that Robert and Lady Chiltern can recover their marriage. Robert and Lord Goring urge Gertrude to reconcile with her husband, imploring her to disregard her moral principles in order to preserve a happy marital life, a highly ironic demand given that they are unable to provide forgiveness themselves.
Wilde presents Lord Goring as a character who understands the importance of compassion and forgiveness, especially when placed in the context of marriage. In Act 3 he reassures Robert Chiltern, stating ‘your wife will forgive you … She loves you, Robert. Why should she not forgive?’. This comment demonstrates Goring’s belief that love and forgiveness are inseparable from one another, a duality which he views as crucial for a happy and sustainable marriage. Lord Goring’s faith in Gertrude’s capacity to forgive is expressed through his use of the word ‘will’, a modal verb which creates a sense of certainty in Goring’s tone. Indeed, Lord Goring views forgiveness as essential to the development of men within society, attributing their growth to womankind’s compassion and clemency towards their husbands. He claims that ‘women are not meant to judge us, but to forgive us when we need forgiveness. Pardon, not punishment, is their mission.’ This declaration outlines how women were viewed by men in the patriarch of Victorian society. Their role was to support their husbands, remaining submissive and meek, trapped in a chauvinistic culture which encouraged the oppression of women’s personal opinions. This is emphasized through the alliteration of ‘pardon’ and ‘punishment’, two concepts which are juxtaposed in Lord Goring’s speech, thereby condemning women who actively criticise their husbands’ moral imperfections. Certainly, Goring recognizes that forgiveness is essential for our acknowledgement of universal human imperfection, a message which he forces onto Lady Chiltern. However, despite Goring’s appraisal of forgiveness, he is unable to pardon Mrs. Cheveley of her selfish actions. In Act 3 he confronts her saying, ‘I cannot forgive you. That was horrible. For that there can be no forgiveness.’ The repetition of ‘forgive’ highlights Goring’s hypocritical stance, because, although he promotes notions of reconciliation and absolution, he is unable to grant them himself. His response also seems to indicate that there is a hierarchy of moral wrongdoings, in which some actions are more worthy of forgiveness than others.
While Lord Goring views Lady Chiltern’s reluctance to forgive as a betrayal of her duty as a woman, Robert Chiltern regards his wife’s unyielding moral outlook as unfair. At the end of Act 2 he appears to lose patience with Gertrude, claiming ‘Love should forgive. All lives, save loveless lives, true Love should pardon.’ Robert’s desperate tone is highlighted by the use of short clauses which speeds up the pace of his fraught speech. He seems to view Lady Chiltern’s rigid stance as an anomaly to marriage and love itself, her horror causing him to become angry and rash. His condemnation of Gertrude’s suffocating morality is further enhanced in Act 3 when he describes how ‘she stands apart as good women do – pitiless in her perfection – cold and stern and without mercy.’ This comment suggests that Robert views his wife as callous and cruel in her unforgiving attitude. The use of alliteration and tricolon accentuates the sense that Robert views Gertrude’s reaction as unjust. He also aligns her lack of forgiveness with very negative qualities, forging the feeling that he has overlooked her moral principles in his own personal distress. Yet, despite his anguish, Robert seems to have instinctively known that his wife would find it difficult to feel compassion towards him once she discovered his wrongdoings, even claiming that it ‘would kill her love’ for him’. His use of emotive language implies that he foreshadowed a brutal split in their relationship once the truth emerged. This makes his outrage at Gertrude’s reaction seem false as he was already anticipating her lack of forgiveness and sympathy.
Lady Chiltern may initially refuse to pardon Robert of his morally dubious actions, yet by the play’s conclusion she manages to overcome her moral inflexibility and forgive him. In Act 2 Lord Goring recognizes Gertrude’s firm moral nature and tries to soften her rigid rules on morality, hoping that this persuasion will spare Robert from her disappointment. He tells her that he has ‘sometimes thought that … perhaps you are a little too hard in some of your views on life.’ The ellipsis in this line throws weight onto Goring’s careful approach, yet his message is still clear, emphasizing how Lady Chiltern is recognized as unbendingly honorable and moral. However, Gertrude seems to have taken heed of Goring’s advice by Act 4, exclaiming ‘I forgive. That is how women help the world. I see that now.’ Through this comment Lady Chiltern reveals the transformation she had undergone, highlighting how she will no longer idealize men. However, her change in opinion is worrying as she seems to have been indoctrinated by Lord Goring’s view that a woman’s duty is to forgive and empathize with their husbands, a view which feeds the misogynistic tendencies of the Victorian society.
Overall, despite Wilde’s attempts to stress the importance of forgiveness and compassion, his message falls short. Wilde seems to suggest that men are exempt from granting their pardon, even though they advocate this quality in women. This hypocritical view is encapsulated in Lord Goring who encourages Lady Chiltern to forgive her husband, while simultaneously refusing to forgive Mrs Cheveley. Robert Chiltern anticipates his wife’s lack of sympathy, yet still finds her treatment unfair, accusing her of being heartless and unfeeling. Lady Chiltern herself upholds her moral values until Lord Goring persuades her to forgive Robert, creating the feeling that forgiveness and compassion can change a person’s character. In the end, forgiveness saves Robert and Gertrude’s marriage, even if this happiness is forged at the cost of Lady Chiltern’s autonomy.
Power and Love in Marriage: A Comparison of An Ideal Husband and The Canterbury Tales
Chaucer and Wilde, although writing 500 years apart, both present power as an intrinsic aspect of marital life in Medieval and Victorian patriarchal societies. January sexually dominates May in ‘The Merchant’s Tale’, while in ‘An Ideal Husband’ it is Lady Chiltern who exerts domestic power over her husband. Though May gains independence from January, deceiving him in a manner which conforms to the fabliau tradition, Lady Chiltern’s reconciliation with Robert comes at the price of her marital power and autonomy.
In ‘The Merchant’s Tale’, January’s uses the sacrament of marriage as an excuse to exert carnal power over May. Chaucer describes how ‘the bride was broght abedde as stille as stoon’, a use of alliteration and sibilance which emphasizes May’s unresponsive state, portraying her as submissive to January’s advances. This passivity acts in juxtaposition to January’s lusty excitement, especially when he explains how he ‘moot trespace // to yow, my spouse, and yow greetly offende’. Medieval society held the view that once a marriage was consummated it was permanent, a notion which explains January’s haste to sexually dominate May. Indeed, January’s use of the modal verb ‘moot’ suggests that he regards sex as a necessity. This stance is reflective of a 14th century view that a wife’s primary role was to produce an heir who could inherit the family’s fortune through the law of primogeniture. However, January anticipates that the experience of sex will be unpleasant for May, a realization which heightens that sense that January ‘seeks to take control of May’s sexuality’ (Fiona Dunlop) for his own personal gain. Certainly, we are never given an insight into May’s thoughts, with Chaucer drawing attention to this fact by exclaiming that ‘God woot what May thought in hir herte’. This statement once again draws attention to May’s compliant nature, highlighting how women were regarded as inferior to men in Medieval society, being expected to remain subservient to their husbands at all times. January’s sense of ownership over May’s body is examined further when requests ‘hire strepen hire al naked’, forcing her to ‘obeyeth, be hire lief or looth’. Chaucer’s use of alliteration throws weight onto how we are never given May’s perspective of events, strengthening the feeling that she is sexually submissive to her husband. Indeed, January’s affection towards his wife seems to be founded in his sexual superiority and control, a revelation which suggests that Medieval marriages were more concerned with power than love.
While January exerts sexual power over May in ‘The Merchant’s Tale’, it seems that Lady Chiltern holds the power to influence her husband’s decisions in ‘An Ideal Husband’. At the end of Act 1, Robert tells Lady Chiltern of his plans to support the fraudulent Argentine canal scheme. Gertrude responds to this disclosure in horror, dictating that Robert ‘must never see (Lady Chiltern) again’, and instructing him to ‘write that (he) declines to support this scheme of hers’. Gertrude’s use modal verbs and imperatives suggests that she holds authority over Robert’s actions, forging the feeling that her control over her husband could potentially permeate his political choices. This would have appalled Victorian audiences, especially seeing as wives were expected to confine themselves to the domestic sphere, supporting their husbands in all decisions, and not concerning themselves in the politics of the patriarchal public sphere. Lady Chiltern’s power over Robert is also explored through her idealization of him. Indeed, Gertrude’s veneration of Robert prompts Sos Elitis to observe that ‘both (Robert’s) marriage and the country’s financial integrity are rendered vulnerable through an insistence upon unrealizable standards of morality’, a realization which accentuates the far-reaching implications of Lady Chiltern’s control over her husband. Gertrude’s domestic power is also examined when Lord Goring implores to her that Robert’s life and love are ‘in your hands’. This phrase is repeated twice, emphasizing how Lady Chiltern has the ability to alter Robert’s future due to the control she wields over him from her position as his wife. Certainly, Gertrude’s marital power seems to govern her marriage to Robert, however there is also a sense that her influence over him would not be possible without a basis of love, thereby suggesting that power and love are inextricably linked within marriage.
Just as Lady Chiltern exerts her domestic power over Robert, May is able to control aspects of her marriage to January through various acts of deception. After discovering Damyan’s feelings of courtly love towards her, May ‘taketh him by the hand, and hard him twiste’. This line employs a harsh assonance, enhancing the sense of May’s growing assertiveness. Her actions are cunning and secretive, revealing her duplicitous character, and accentuating her willingness to find a reprieve from her unsatisfying marriage to January. Maurice Hussey comments that May’s quest for independence ‘shows the gradual dominance of the bride, who takes a lover and deceives her old husband until the end of the story’, conforming to the fabliau tradition. However, May’s increasing autonomy and violation of one of the Ten Commandments, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’, would have shocked Chaucer’s contemporary readers. On the other hand, modern feminist readers would applaud May for pursuing independence from January, aligning her defiance against Medieval conventions with examples of females exerting power within a patriarchal society. When January catches May having sex with Damyan, she maintains a mask of deceit to disguise her immoral act, thereby demonstrating her shrewd control of the situation. She cunningly tricks January into believing that she ‘dide it in ful good entente’, an excuse which he foolishly believes. Therefore, January’s naïve acceptance of May’s explanation increases the sense that she has taken control of their loveless marriage.
Likewise to May, Wilde depicts Lady Chiltern as exerting power over her husband, however while May’s control grows stronger towards the end of ‘The Merchant’s Tale’, Lady Chiltern’s power is significantly diminished at the conclusion of ‘An Ideal Husband’. Gertrude loss of independence and autonomy is demonstrated when she exclaims that ‘a man’s life is of more value than a woman’s’. This comment is a direct repetition of Lord Goring’s chauvinistic speech which ‘consigns women to a purely domestic and supportive role’ (Sos Eltis), highlighting how Lady Chiltern has submitted to Victorian patriarchal views. While Wilde’s contemporary audiences would have accepted this view of women as inferior and subordinate to men, a modern feminist audience would be outraged at such a comment, seeing it as a tragic loss of Gertrude’s autonomy within her marriage. Certainly, Lady Chiltern seems to have conformed her role as wife to the Victorian ideal portrayed in Coventry Patmore’s ‘The Angel in the House’, becoming submissive and obedient to her husband. It seems that Gertrude’s compliance is an essential aspect of her reconciliation with Robert. In the play’s final line, Lady Chiltern declares that it is ‘love, and only love’ she feels for her husband, exclaiming that ‘for both of (them) a new life is beginning’. The optimism of their ‘new life’ seems to be inextricably linked to Gertrude’s loss of marital power, suggesting that love cannot survive in a relationship in which the wife has control over her husband, especially within the patriarchy of Victorian society.
Overall, power is a fundamental aspect of all the marriages in ‘A Merchant’s Tale’ and ‘An Ideal Husband’. May is originally sexually dominated by January, yet she gradually gains control of her own sexuality, increasing her independence by deceiving her husband and committing adultery, proving the loveless nature of their marriage. However, while Lady Chiltern initially idealizes her husband and holds a significant amount of domestic power over him, this is reversed by the end of the play when Gertrude submits Robert and Victorian patriarchal ideals, allowing for love to flourish.