AN IDEAL HUSBAND
SUBJECTS — Drama/England; World/England;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Marriage; Families in Crisis; Friendship; Romantic Relationships; Justice; Redemption;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Responsibility; Caring.
AGE: 12+; MPAA Rating — PG-13 for brief sensuality/nudity;
Comedy; 1999; 97 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
This is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners about friends, spouses, a stock swindle, blackmail, and a rising young politician in England in the late 19th century.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
“An Ideal Husband” will introduce children to the artistry of Oscar Wilde and to “upper crust” English society at the turn of the 20th century. It’s the most modern and entertaining version of an Oscar Wilde play on film. The movie contains several positive moral messages and one important moral dilemma. It is very accessible to ages 12 and up.
SUBSTANTIAL. To understand and correct for the problem with this film one must know something about the plot. The film introduces an ambitious English politician, Sir Robert Chiltern. When he was a young assistant to a member of the British Cabinet, Chiltern had given a foreign investor advance notice of a government decision. This information permitted the investor to make a large amount of money. Chiltern’s fee for the information had made the young man moderately wealthy.
When the story opens, Chiltern is a rising member of Parliament with an impeccable reputation. The foreign investor has died and no one, or so Chiltern thinks, knows how he obtained his wealth. This includes his morally upright and self-righteous wife, to whom he is devoted. However, the foreign investor, while on his deathbed, had given evidence incriminating Chiltern to a lady friend. The woman, Mrs. Cheveley, has made a large investment in a proposal to build a canal in Argentina. The plan is really a stock swindle and she knows it. If the British government backs the plan the stock will rise in value. Mrs. Cheveley will be able to sell out before the scheme collapses and make a large profit. Chiltern, now an Undersecretary in the British Cabinet, has been assigned to investigate the canal project. Mrs. Cheveley contacts him. She offers to give him the incriminating evidence and a substantial amount of money if he makes a false report supporting the scheme. If Chiltern does not comply, Mrs. Cheveley will publish the evidence, disgrace him, and end his political career.
When Chiltern courageously condemns the canal swindle in Parliament, an action that he believes will lead to his own exposure and disgrace, an ingenious twist of the plot permits him to retain his money, his good name, and his career. However, the Chiltern character makes no attempt to atone for his past corrupt actions nor does he disgorge his ill-gotten gains. Instead, the film celebrates the fact that he will be permitted to escape censure because he has shown that he now has moral character and will not act corruptly again.
If “An Ideal Husband” merely entertained us with the foibles of English “society” (see e.g. The Importance of Being Earnest) the ethical issues would be trivial. However, the film has impressive strengths. The characters seem to break out of the artificiality of the usual comedy of manners. They show us that blackmail should be resisted, politicians should be courageous, spouses should be forgiving, and friends should stand by each other. But at the end of the film. the comedy of manners reasserts itself and Sir Robert escapes from disgrace, without even a thought about the moral implications of his position. The strengths of the earlier parts of the film and empathy for the characters may mislead a viewer into thinking that this is a morally acceptable result.
Therefore, parents and teachers should make some comment about the issue of whether Sir Robert should have continued his career without disclosing his corrupt past. For example, a class or children in the family can be asked, “Do you think that Sir Robert got off too easily? Should he at least have told the public what he had done in the past and given up the money he made by selling a state secret?” Explain that “An Ideal Husband” is unlike most comedies of manners because the viewer can take most of it seriously, except for the ending. If the children argue that it was alright for Sir Robert to continue his career while hiding his corrupt past, you have the kind of debate that will enliven classroom and family discussions and bring out the issues inherent in the movie. With this correction, “An Ideal Husband” has a lot to offer.
For information on the tragic life of Oscar Wilde, see Learning Guide to “The Importance of Being Earnest“.
Oscar Wilde’s witticisms are often merely entertaining, but sometimes they contain wisdom that pierces to the heart. Examples of epigrams from this play are:
It is not the perfect, but the imperfect, who have need of love.
It is when we are wounded by our own hands, or by the hands of others, that love should come to cure us – else what use is love at all? All sins, except a sin against itself, love should forgive.
Morality is simply the attitude we adopt toward people we dislike.
Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear.
To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.
In the old days, we had the rack. Now we have the press.
Scandals used to lend charm or interest to a man. Nowadays, they crush him.
Even you are not rich enough, Sir Robert, to buy back your past. No man is.
I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.
Wonderful woman, Lady Markby, isn’t she? Talks more and says less than anybody I ever met.
To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.
I love talking about nothing …. It is the only thing that I know anything about.
When one pays a visit it is for the purpose of wasting other people’s time, not one’s own.
For more Wildean epigrams, see Learning Guide to “The Importance of Being Earnest“.
The positive moral messages in this film include: it is good to support and help friends in their time of need; there is no honor among thieves; spouses should forgive and support each other; husbands and wives should not expect perfection (because “it is not the perfect, but the imperfect, who have need of love”); blackmail should be resisted; it is unethical to use public office for private gain; and people can change.
An evaluation of what should happen to Chiltern requires the application of a number of conflicting moral precepts and assumptions. They include the following:
- People should not benefit from wrongful conduct and should not retain ill-gotten gains;
- Youthful errors and offenses should not be held against a person;
- We cannot tell for sure if someone has learned from his experiences or how he will act in the future when faced with a moral dilemma;
- People can learn and grow from their experiences;
- It is a virtue to forgive past transgressions if the wrongdoer admits error, apologizes, and disgorges any ill-gotten gains; and
- We do not want to lose a good political leader simply because of an isolated incident or a youthful indiscretion.
Put these factors into the analysis presented in the Learning Guide to “Pay it Forward” and see what comes out.
Oscar Wilde’s plays are often classified as “comedies of manners.” The comedy of manners is a literary genre which humorously examines the customs and foibles of the privileged classes. The stories often concern the romantic entanglements and courtships of fashionable young adults. An engagement is frequently included in the happy ending. The characters are often types rather than individualized personalities. Plots are artificially elaborate and very clever but the predominating elements of comedies of manners are satire, dialog, and atmosphere. The language is witty, polished and, in plays by Oscar Wilde, brilliant. Comedies of manners are concerned with the gap between reality and the outward conventional appearance of good order, which people strive to maintain. This discrepancy can be used to compare society’s code of conduct with how people actually live. Comedies of manners are most popular during periods of prosperity and moral latitude.
What steps should Chiltern have taken to redeem himself fully? Should he have given up his ill-gotten gains? Should he have given up his seat in Parliament?
The answer to the first two parts of the question is an easy “yes.” Wrongdoers should not be permitted to keep their ill-gotten gains. Chiltern had partially redeemed himself by resisting temptation and putting his career at risk, but he was still enjoying the wealth he had acquired by a criminal act. He should give the money back. If Chiltern cannot identify the victims of his crime then he should give the money to a charity or to the state. The answer to the third part of the question is more complex and there is no one right answer. One possible answer is that Chiltern had given in to temptation before and he might do it again, even though he had resisted Mrs. Cheveley’s proposition. Another way to look at it is that Chiltern had changed and that if he wanted to remain in Parliament, he could do so, but only after full disclosure and restitution of his ill-gotten gains. His position would be that his crime was a youthful indiscretion and that he was a different man now. He would point to his conduct in the Argentine canal matter as proof. Then the voters could decide.
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION #2:
Put a list of Oscar Wilde’s epigrams from this play on the board or display them on a screen. Ask the class which is the most profound. Have each person justify their answer and then have the class vote on which they prefer.
There is no one right answer to this question, but the debates will be fabulous.
2. Chiltern knew that information was power. He thought that Baron Arnheim would keep their secret in order to avoid exposing his own role in the affair. Chiltern didn’t count on the Baron giving the secret and Chiltern’s letter to a friend as a deathbed gift. What does this tell us about “honor among thieves”?
There is none.
3. Critics have said that Oscar Wilde patterned one of the characters on how Wilde wanted others to view him. Which character was it? Justify your answer.
It was Lord Goring. He was unmarried, witty, wealthy etc.
MARRIAGE AND FAMILIES IN CRISIS
1. Some people find Lady Gertrude fickle and unable to hold on to her moral convictions when it becomes inconvenient. Do you agree or disagree?
One could see it that way, however, Lady Gertrude’s original view (that one who had transgressed in the past could not be forgiven or trusted in the future) was too harsh and she should have abandoned it in any case.
2. At the end of the film Lord Goring warns Lady Gertrude that she is risking the loss of her husband’s affection if she insists that he give up his career in order to keep her love. What did Lord Goring mean by this? What does this scene say to us about the meaning and the limits of love?
Love can be lost by unloving and uncompromising behaviour.
3. Before the crisis, the Chilterns appeared to have an excellent marriage. But was it? What was its hidden flaw?
There were two. One was Chiltern’s secret and the other was Lady Gertrude’s uncompromising and self-righteous moral attitude.
4. While there are very strong arguments that society and the political establishment should have shunned Chiltern for what he did, the consensus would probably be that Mrs. Chiltern should have stood by her husband. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
Families should stand by one another, even if one fails in public life. The standards for families and public office are different and are not softened by the love that family members feel for each other.
5. Should husbands and wives expect and demand perfection from each other? What are the limits of the forgiveness between spouses?
Oscar Wilde sums it up neatly in one of his epigrams: “It is when we are wounded by our own hands, or by the hands of others, that love should come to cure us – else what use is love at all? All sins, except a sin against itself, love should forgive.”
6. What is the relationship between love and the flaws of a loved one? Does this depend on the relationship, such as parental (both parent/child and child/parent), spousal, filial?
Oscar Wilde sums it up neatly in one of his epigrams: “It is not the perfect, but the imperfect, who have need of love.”
For more questions on this topic see the “Caring” section below.
7. Lord Goring is a true friend to both the Chilterns. List the ways in which he demonstrated that friendship.
8. If you had a friend who committed a crime, should that affect your friendship? Suggested Response: It would depend upon the crime and the circumstances.
9. Can you be friends with a person who has moral flaws? Suggested Response: It’s possible, but it depends upon the flaws and the situation. One needs to be careful not to be induced to adopt the flaws by peer pressure or because of friendship.
For more questions on this topic see the “Caring” section below.
10. Describe the course of the romantic relationship between Lord Goring and Chiltern’s sister.
11. Describe the course of the romantic relationship between Lord Goring and Mrs. Cheveley.
12. Compare Lord Goring’s rejection of Mrs. Cheveley and the reasons for that rejection with Mrs. Chiltern’s acceptance of her husband after she knew of his moral lapse in the past. What does this tell us about when moral flaws disqualify someone from a romantic relationship and when they do not?
For more questions on this topic see the “Caring” section below.
13. An example of how important and complex issues of justice and morality in public life can become is shown in a comparison of two morally flawed recent U.S. Presidents. In the Watergate Scandal, Richard Nixon was forced to resign because he and his assistants had used the power of his high office to illegally gain an advantage against his opponent (George McGovern) in the 1972 election. They then tried to cover up what they had done through additional illegal actions. Nixon was impeached by the House of Representatives and, had he not resigned, he most certainly would have been convicted by the Senate and removed from office. In the 1998 Monica Lewinsky scandal, the House of Representatives impeached President Clinton for having an adulterous sexual affair with a White House intern and then lying about it under oath. While they condemned Clinton’s actions, the public and the U.S. Senate rejected the effort to remove him from office. What were the differences, if any, between these situations? Do you agree or disagree with the way that they turned out? Explain why.
What President Nixon and his henchmen did in 1972 affected the outcome of an election. The crime went to the very heart of the democratic process. In the Lewinsky scandal, President Clinton was caught in a private sexual affair. Many people thought that the matter reflected very poorly on him as a person and as a leader, but that it should have been left as a personal matter since it did not directly affect the performance of his duties. They felt that he should not have been asked questions about the incident in a deposition. There were several other factors operating that helped Clinton. At that time, the highest Republican office holder was the Speaker of the House of Representatives. During the scandal two Republicans who held that position were forced from office due in part to apparent sexual misconduct. In addition, the lawsuit in which Clinton had been forced to testify was promoted by Republicans intent on destroying Clinton. Finally, many people believed that the effort to impeach Clinton was simply an effort to destroy a popular Democratic President by a Congress controlled by the other party, not because of the Lewinsky scandal but because they disagreed with his policies. There were concerns that the balance of power between the branches of the federal government would be drastically changed if President Clinton were impeached. There is no one right answer to the second and third parts of this question. [You might also want to add to the mix the question of whether Ronald Reagan should have been impeached due to his actions in the Iran/Contra affair. It appears that Reagan approved sending arms to the Contra guerillas in Nicaragua in violation of a specific law prohibiting that action. His administration hid the expenditure by using money made from secretly selling arms to an enemy of the U.S., Iran. Reagan’s activity violated the law, directly dealt with his duties and President, was surreptitious and in that sense dishonest, and aided an enemy of the U.S. There was no move to impeach him. The question is why? First, he was very popular. Second, Nicaragua and Iran were not central to U.S. interests at the time. Third, while it was clear that people in Reagan’s administration had broken the law, it was not crystal clear that Reagan knew what was going on.]
14. If you didn’t think President Clinton should have been removed from office for his actions in the Lewinsky scandal, how would his actions have affected a decision to vote for him if he could have run for a third term as President?
There is no one right answer to this question. Good answers will refer to: (1) the fact that leaders are role models and good leaders behave ethically; (2) Clinton’s transgression was personal and didn’t relate directly to his duties in office.
15. Should Chiltern have been required to make restitution and give up his ill-gotten gains? To whom would he have made restitution? Would it have mattered if there were specific victims that he had taken money from?
Clearly, it was not a good result that Chiltern was able to keep his ill-gotten gains. Ethics mean nothing if people are permitted to keep what they steal. However, it is not clear to whom restitution should be made. There were no direct victims that could be easily identified. The answer is the state. Chiltern should have paid the money into the public treasury.
For more questions on this topic see the “Responsibility,” section below.
16. See the Quick Discussion Question #1.
17. How would you feel about Chiltern as a public official if he retained his wealth and position but, after the speech in Parliament, or perhaps in the speech, he went public with the entire situation, including his own past, the attempt to blackmail him and his refusal to give a false report to Parliament?
There is no one right answer to this question. The competing issues are whether the one act in his youth made him unfit for public office. Our feeling is that generally, he should have been forgiven, had he made restitution of his ill-gotten gains.
18. We are told in this film that the Chiltern character has changed and will not act corruptly in the future. In real life, can we make that assumption about a person whose ambition is so strong that at one time it overwhelmed his moral sense? Or do you agree with Lady Gertrude’s comment early in the film that “a person who has once been guilty of a dishonest and dishonorable action may be guilty of it a second time, and should be shunned”? Lady Gertrude later abandons this position. Which do you agree with? Why?
19. Does Chiltern’s relative youth when he succumbed to temptation make a difference in your answer? If you would forgive him because of his age, at what age would you stop forgiving him?
There is no one right answer to this question. A good answer will include some of the following concepts: people are allowed some leeway in their youth; an important issue is whether this is one isolated incident or whether it is part of a pattern; patterns of behavior are harder to change than one isolated incident; another question is whether the person has, since the occasion of his or her lapse, displayed character in other difficult situations; another question is whether a similar situation is likely to occur again; people do change and mature and it is not only young people who can change their actions; there is the question of whether the motivation has changed; and did the person acknowledge their action, make amends or restitution, and attempt to redeem him or herself in some way.
20. Why is it good to resist blackmail?
21. Can people change from being immoral to moral?
For more questions on this topic see the “Responsibility,” and “Caring” sections below.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
1. Do you agree or disagree with the analysis of the ethical issues contained in the Helpful Background section?
2. Describe why the plot of this film demonstrates that determinations of ethics, morality and justice can be extremely difficult.
(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends and country)
3. Should Chiltern have simply given in to Mrs. Cheveley’s demands, accepted her money, and supported the Argentine Canal project?
4. What was wrong with selling the cabinet secret? Who was harmed? Do Chiltern’s actions pass the tests of “the Golden Rule” and “universality”?
For more questions on this topic see the “Justice” and “Redemption” sections above.
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
5. Do you think that Chiltern was held accountable for his actions at the conclusion of this film or did you feel that he got off lightly?
For more questions on this topic see the “Justice,” and “Redemption” sections above.
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
6. Should Chiltern have been forgiven by Lady Chiltern? By his friend Lord Goring? By Mrs. Cheveley? By the electorate (if he had disclosed his crime)? By the government (if he had disclosed his crime)? Should different standards be used by each of the above in deciding whether or not to forgive Chiltern?
7. Do you think Lady Gertrude was influenced by a desire to maintain her position in society when she decided to be magnanimous and forgive her husband?
8. When Mrs. Cheveley was attempting to blackmail Chiltern, who should have helped him? Who did?
For more questions on this topic see the “Marriage/Families in Crisis,” “Friendship” and “Redemption” sections above.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
2. There are substantial differences between the film and the play. Have students read the play before or after they see the film. Have them describe the differences between the two, especially the comments concerning the role of women.
3. Various portions of the play can be read by the class or by groups of students with different individuals assigned various parts.
4. Have students singly or in small groups write a new ending in which: (a) Sir Robert gives in to Mrs. Cheveley and supports the Argentine Canal scheme which later collapses; or (2) in his speech to Parliament Sir Robert lays out the whole set of circumstances, his youthful “indiscretion”, the attempt to blackmail him, and his report that the scheme is a swindle.
5. Separate the class into groups and have one side defend the position that Chiltern did the right thing and have another contest this position.
BRIDGES TO READING
Parliament, British Cabinet, Cabinet minister, undersecretary, swindle, epigram, and scheme.
MOVIES ON RELATED TOPICS:
The Importance of Being Earnest is another play by Oscar Wilde.