“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.
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