1. Truth vs. Lying
Is society built on truth and trust as Lady Chiltern asserts in her idealism: “It can never be necessary to do what is not honorable” (Act I, p. 35)? Gertrude claims that her husband has “brought into the political life of our time a nobler atmosphere . . . higher ideals” (Act I, p. 37). Sir Robert admits to his friend Arthur, however, that he is not the ideal husband his wife thinks: “I would to God that I had been able to tell the truth . . . to live the truth” but “The truth has always stifled me” (Act II, p. 51). He claims that his wife’s insistence on his ideal behavior has ruined him by making him have to refuse the blackmail deal of Mrs. Cheveley, thus exposing himself to scandal.
It is a typical Wilde paradox that leads to the moral conclusion that lying is what makes society run and truth leads to disaster. Sir Robert tries to tell his wife “truth is a very complex thing . . . There are wheels within wheels . . . one has to compromise” (Act I, p. 34). Ironically, Sir Robert tells Arthur that he cannot tell his wife the truth about his past because she is too perfect herself to understand the failings of others. Mrs. Cheveley echoes this paradox by telling Gertrude that there are “chasms” between her and her husband because she is too honest. As his enemy, however, Mrs. Cheveley is closer to him because “like meets with like” (Act II, p. 69). People who lie get along together just fine. They know how to play the game.
Gertrude is so upset her life is falling to pieces that she actually begs her husband, “Oh, tell me it is not true! Lie to me!” (Act II, p. 70). Lord Goring and Mabel Chiltern demonstrate the basis of society in lies in a lighter more humorous vein, since they consciously lie to one another and expect it in return. Arthur may tell someone he is not at home or swear on his honor nobody is in the other room, but his lies are for the purpose of keeping others happy. He does not seem to believe in absolute truth since some truth is a lie, and some “falsehoods the truths of other people” (Act III, p. 74). Sir Robert tells his wife “public and private life are different things. They have different laws” (Act I, p. 33). He is comfortable with double standards. In the end, Gertrude has to learn to live with the idea that life is not all truth and that it would be a very miserable business if it were.
2. Forgiveness vs. Moral Judgment
Mrs. Cheveley tells Sir Robert that Puritanism has ruined England with “our modern mania for morality” (Act I, p. 25). Wilde here criticizes England for its narrow Puritan ideals of ideal family life and absolute sexual purity set forth by Queen Victoria. This ideal pattern does not make people more virtuous, Wilde points out; it only makes them pretend. And then, as Mrs. Cheveley says, “You all go over like ninepins” with one scandal after the other, since no one can live up to these Puritan ideals (Act I, p. 25). Arthur tells Robert to confess his past to his wife, but Robert is afraid, because Gertrude threatens to withdraw her love if she finds out he is not an ideal husband that she can worship: “when we lose our worship, we lose everything” (Act I, p. 35).
Sir Robert never seems to be sorry for his mistake of the past, only that it was found out. He claims it is unfair for others to judge him when “each one of them, have worse secrets in their own lives” (Act II, pp. 40, 41). Lord Goring agrees “Nobody is incapable of doing a foolish thing” (Act II, p. 54). He tells Gertrude “All I do know is that life cannot be understood without much charity, cannot be lived without much charity” (Act II, p. 54). He tries to tell her that it is human nature to have some weakness: “perhaps you are a little hard in some of your views on life” (Act II, p. 53).
Robert echoes this point as he begs Gertrude, “Why can’t you women love us, faults and all?” (Act II, p. 71). He continues, “It is not the perfect, but the imperfect, who have need of love . . . Love should forgive” (Act II, p. 71). He claims that men are capable of a more human and forgiving love. This is a debatable point since Victorian morality was often hardest on women, often condoning a double sexual standard.
Mabel turns out to be the most admirable woman in the play, from Wilde’s point of view, since she is witty and not too serious. She says to Arthur: “I delight in your bad qualities. I wouldn’t have you part with one of them” (Act I, p. 13). She insists she does not want Arthur to be an ideal husband. The final lesson that Gertrude learns from Lord Goring is that “Women are not meant to judge us, but to forgive us when we need forgiveness. Pardon, not punishment, is their mission” (Act IV, p. 119). Gertrude finally lays aside her morality and worship, deciding instead to simply love and accept her husband.
3. Paying the Piper
Mrs. Cheveley announces to Sir Robert that he is in his current powerful position because he cheated early in life: “And now you have got to pay for it. Sooner or later we all have to pay for what we do” (Act I, p. 26). Like Satan arriving for the sinner’s soul, she announces he is not going to get away with his crime. He ends up agreeing to give her what she wants to avoid a scandal. He will have to commit a second crime to cover up the first one.
Later in the scene Lady Chiltern warns her husband to stay away from Mrs. Cheveley because in the past “she was untruthful, dishonest, an evil influence on everyone whose trust or friendship she could win” (Act I, p. 33). Defensively, thinking of himself, he says, “No one should be entirely judged by his past” (Act I, p. 33). She disagrees: “One’s past is what one is” (Act I, p. 33).
He tries to explain that life involves compromise when she speaks of principles. Lord Goring tells Sir Robert “Everything is dangerous, my dear fellow. If it wasn’t so, life wouldn’t be worth living” (Act II, p. 40). Robert agrees, admitting it took a lot of courage for him to sell the Cabinet secret to Baron Arnheim. He did it to get power, to get a future in politics. Scandal, however, as Lady Markby excitedly notes, is never far away in society. People are waiting for someone else to fall or make a mistake.
These prophetic statements about having to pay for the past were written by Wilde just months before he himself was convicted of the felony of homosexuality and sent to prison. Interestingly, in the play, he lets Robert Chiltern get away with his past, while he himself was caught and had to pay the price in real life. Chiltern gets away with his past because Lord Goring blackmails Mrs. Cheveley with her past. This implies no one is without sin.
The play makes a plea for social tolerance, yet the characters, like Wilde himself, are always playing a dangerous game, testing the boundaries of social sympathy. Just how much can one get away with? One would suppose the Wilde mouthpiece, Lord Goring, with his decadent lifestyle, would be more in danger of public censure than the ideal politician, Sir Robert, whose reputation is sterling. He complains to Arthur, “Is it fair that the folly, the sin of one’s youth . . . should wreck a life like mine?” He had tried to buy off fate, he explains, by giving money to charity and living a blameless life since then. “Life is never fair” Arthur tells Robert when Mrs. Cheveley shows up threatening to reveal his past (Act II, p. 41).
The play creates sympathy for the poor sinner, Sir Robert, since he is at heart a good man caught in a wicked world. He claims he is not remorseful because he simply played the world’s game. Yet he was always afraid of being caught: “when the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers” (Act II, p. 45). Greek tragedy seems just underneath the skin of this comedy, and if one reads it as a parable of Wilde’s own life, he had to pay for his hubris, even if his character, Sir Robert, got away with his.