“Oh, I love London society! I think it has immensely improved. It is entirely composed now of beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics” (Act I, p. 4).
Wilde’s characters speak in witty epigrams. Mabel Chiltern tells Lord Caversham, who complains about the decline of society, that it is, on the other hand, perfect because of its extremes. The Beautiful Idiots are the fashionable people who do not know anything, and the Brilliant Lunatics are those who have ideas, but in order to have them, they must transgress the norm.
“Really, now that the House of Commons is trying to become useful, it does a great deal of harm” (Act I, p. 7).
Lady Markby, one of the empty-headed elites of London Society, stands for blue blood and custom. She does not like all the earnest reform that politicians like her husband and Sir Robert Chiltern are making on behalf of the commoners.
“If one listens one may be convinced; and a man who allows himself to be convinced by an argument is a thoroughly unreasonable person” (Act I, p. 15).
Lord Goring is one of the “brilliant lunatics” who speaks in paradoxes, turning all social values upside down. He tells Lady Basildon that politics is a dangerous waste of time, while one could be living for pleasure instead. This implies that logic and politics are games people play.
“We women worship when we love; and when we lose our worship, we lose everything. Oh, don’t kill my love for you, don’t kill that!” (Act I, p. 35).
Gertrude Chiltern puts her husband on a pedestal and wants to worship him as a model. She is afraid when he decides to publicly support the fraudulent Argentine Canal Scheme in order to save his career. She is a rigid and unforgiving moralist.
“I tell you that there are terrible temptations that it requires strength, strength and courage, to yield to” (Act II, p. 44).
Sir Robert Chiltern explains to Lord Goring that he was not weak when he was young and did wrong; it took courage to give in to the temptation to sell a Cabinet secret in order to gain wealth and success.
“Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern. One is apt to grow old-fashioned quite suddenly” (Act II, p. 60).
Lady Markby speaks an ironic truth. Everyone in society wants to keep up with fashion, but as soon as they embrace some trend, they become outdated and look ridiculous.
“Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike” (Act II, p. 68).
Mrs. Cheveley announces to Gertrude a philosophy of moral relativism where one chooses one’s moral principles as a weapon against someone else. She is an opportunist and a cynic. She does not believe herself evil but a good businesswoman.
“My dear father, when one pays a visit it is for the purpose of wasting other people’s time, not one’s own” (Act IV, p. 102).
Lord Caversham accuses his son of paying a visit to the Chilterns out of idleness, but Lord Goring wittily claims he only wants to waste their time, not his own.
“Youth isn’t an affectation. Youth is an art” (Act IV, p. 104).
Lord Goring makes this quip after Lord Caversham urges his son to marry and be serious, for he is thirty-four and too old to be affecting to be a young man.
“An ideal husband! Oh, I don’t think I should like that. It sounds like something in the next world” (Act IV, p. 124).
Mabel Chiltern claims she does not want Lord Goring to be an ideal husband to her. She represents the sort of accepting and worldly woman he prefers to the coldly idealistic Gertrude Chiltern.