In this section the women are served with after dinner coffee in the drawing room, whilst the men are having their port. They speak here with much more frankness than when in the presence of men, they feel able to relax, and the conversation turns on to the topic of how to keep men under control. They conclude that the middle classes have happier marriages than the gentry but are not certain why.
The opening of Act II provides an amusing contrast to Act I and the tone is totally different.
This scene establishes the women’s viewpoint of the struggle between the sexes, interestingly they all assume without question that there is in fact a struggle, this would highlight the issue to the audience and ensure they took in what Wilde subtly revealed through his character and reveals the main theme of the play.
Mrs Allonby sees marriages and relationships in terms of ownership, with men ‘always trying to escape from us’; Lady Caroline sees marriage as a tool to control men and to keep them ‘in their proper place’ and Lady Stutfield uses dependency in order to flirt ‘Men are so very, very heartless’, and Hester keeps out of this part of the conversation- perhaps emphasising her naivety in the world of men and women whilst Lady Hunstanton just seems to back up Mrs Allonby and Lady Caroline’s ideas.
The after-dinner separation of the sexes would be familiar to Wilde’s audience; not only does it create an opportunity for the women to speak amongst themselves about the men, thus highlighting one of the key issues of the play- sexual equality, but it is also part of an elaborate code of manners with it’s own conventions. For instance, none of the women are inhibited by the servants serving coffee and do not take any notice of them, although the stage would be alive with the servants bustling about.
Mrs Allonby continuously challenges the boundaries of what is acceptable to be spoken about in polite society. Wilde himself is also challenging the boundaries, there is a subtext here of Mrs Allonby’s sexual boredom. She goes on about the size and shape of Earnest’s chin which almost makes it seem like the women are speaking in code about male sexual inadequacy.
She complains of her own marriage; she finds it stale yet she cannot accuse her husband of anything worse than being calm, faithful and uninteresting. When she speaks of the Ideal man, she follows an old stage tradition in the comedy of manners; a witty drama grounded in the battle of the sexes within which the humour chiefly verbal; where the heroine spelt out to her promised what she wanted from the marriage in what was called a proviso scene.
Here however, her demands for the ideal man are appropriate to a lover not a husband, and she states outright of marriage that ‘The institution is wrong’. The allusion to the comedy of manners would have been familiar to Wilde’s audience and this modification would make them laugh and see Mrs Allonby is not articulating deep personal emotions about sexual frustration or the confinements of domesticity.
Her preference for manipulating men rather than having blatant affairs as Lady Stutfield does implies that she won’t risk her status by getting ‘burned’. She acknowledges the pressures created on men and women by the conventions of aristotic marriage grounded in status rather than love. The audience know the pressures well and to here her charming and elegant figure mock the rules of society would amuse them without insulting them.
Not one of the group of women has any interest in social change- although at the time the play was being shown, the fourth Married Women’s Property Bill was being debated, previously a wife could own nothing, not even inherited property or anything she earned herself; she was not seen as needing anything for herself, and Mrs Allonby’s topical allusion reminds the audience that these women live in a changing world- rich Englishwomen would soon have some of the economic power and liberty that Hester possesses.
Hester has remained quiet for all of the women’s talk about marriage and the battle of the sexes. Wilde uses Hester to demonstrate the benefits of society without social classes and much less of a divide between the sexes (yet not totally equal) and Wilde’s hope for a society of purpose, passion and principle. Mrs Allonby seems to have noticed Hester’s silence and makes the cool remark, ‘that will do her so much good!
‘ Seemingly trying to deliberately shock her and isolate her even more creating tension on stage and also adding tension to the subplot of Lord Illingworth and Mrs Allonby’s wager to ‘kiss the Puritan’. The theme of manners is up kept here when Lady Hunstanton struggles to defuse the situation by explaining that she need not ‘believe’ all the opinions. Hester totally isolates herself from the clique by effectively calling the women liars and is offered a chance to fit back in and improve her manners by engaging in politely formal conversation about America, yet Hester refuses it.
Hester makes a speech, contrasting everything she has heard wit h the democracy and directness of America which offends the aristocracy, claiming it is ‘shallow, selfish, foolish’ and ‘it is all wrong, all wrong’, and ‘like a leper in purple’ interestingly that particular line was cut after the first showing as it was heavily booed, however Wilde kept it in the published edition of the play- he obviously felt the insult necessary.
Wilde is clever here as he makes this point however makes it easier for the very people Hester is insulting (the audience) to take, as Lady Stutfield responds that they shouldn’t know of these things as it is not very nice, which illustrates Hester’s very point that they ignore the problems, yet makes it easier for the audience to contemplate her point, without being insulted; which would not get Wilde’s point across at all. Hester also scorns Lord Henry Watson, a corrupt aristocrat who has caused the ‘ruin’ of many women- although she says that these women too should suffer ‘Let all women who have sinned be punished’.
She preaches an egalitarian view, yet the lengthy speeches and the imperative way in which she speaks makes her seem pompous and judgemental. Much of Wilde’s audience would not have agreed and condemned the outsiders view however Wilde once again subtly makes it easier for the audience to take, Hester’s loft moral tone is undermined by Lady Hunstanton who remarks ‘you looked very pretty whilst you said it, which is much more important’.
She puts Hester at further disadvantage by pointing out that Lord Watson is Lady Caroline’s brother, yet the women even agree he is ‘infamous, absolutely infamous’ but that is okay because he is excellent company. Wilde is satirising the shallow nature of the aristocracy and demonstrating the double standards for men and women- a fallen women would still be socially vilified even if she was the most excellent company in the country! Hester’s isolation gives her the opportunity to observe Mrs Arbuthnot closely.
The character slips is, almost ghostly with her mysterious veil, and is just as dramatic as Lord Illingworth’s built up and extrovert entry. The way she arrives without being announced make sure that the audience pay close attention to her, especially as they know her to be the ‘woman of no importance’. This section is key to the play as it links together almost all the themes the play is trying to convey. The battle of the sexes is played upon greatly, creating dramatic tension for the audience as they want to know how events will turn out when the men and women reunite.
The arrival of Mrs Arbuthnot triggers the key action of the play, and Hester’s isolation demonstrates the aristocracy’s ability to ostracise anyone they do not approve of. Wilde does not bombard the audience with instructions of how they should live their lives and that they are all terrible human beings, but subtly entwines within the witty banter the faults of the current society and the audience by the end are likely to at least consider Hester’s moral standing and question the way they treat people.
Cite this essay
The ideal Husband essay. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/ideal-husband-essay-2697-new-essay