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ISSN: 0974-892X


July, 2016



Battle of Sexes: A psychoanalytical perspective

Dr. Bulbul Gupta
Senior Assistant Professor, Department of English, Multanimal Modi College, Modinagar 
Dr. Bonani Misra
HOD, Department of English R.G.P.G. College Meerut

An Ideal Husband, one of the most serious of Oscar Wilde’s social comedies was received with unprecedented accolade and the greatest of enthusiasm at its opening at the Haymarket on January 3, 1895. The then Prince of Wales felicitated Wilde and conveyed his appreciation for the play by asking Wilde not to make any changes in it. The correspondent for The Freeman’s Journal writing on May 27, 1895 reported that on the first day of its staging, Wilde was “being flattered and lionized by a party of most distinguished persons.” ( George Bernard Shaw, while congratulating Wilde called him “our only thorough playwright (who) plays with everything; with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theatre.” (

An Ideal Husband stands apart in its central concern from Wilde’s earlier two social comedies vis-à-vis. Lady Windermere’s Fan and A Woman of no Importance. Whereas the earlier two plays were centered on sexual escapades and innuendos, and focused on a woman, An Ideal Husband is concerned with the power of money and politics centered upon a man. The plot of this play revolves around Robert Chiltern, the central character who, in a desperate search for power and wealth sells off a confident State secret to Baron Arnheim, an international financier.  Robert Chiltern’s smoothly camouflaged life is threatened by the arrival of Mrs. Cheveley who is fully aware of his shady deal and threatens to expose him, if he does not help her out in a tricky situation. In return for the letter that he had written years back to Baron about the State secret and that she still possesses, she asks him to back an overseas construction project that would result in huge financial profits for her. Robert is reluctant to help her but has to finally agree to escape scandal and ruin. But Lady Chiltern, his wife prevents him from supporting Mrs. Cheveley’s scheme. Robert tries to keep the truth of his scandalous act from his wife but eventually, Lady Chiltern discovers the truth. He is filled with apprehension and foresees an end to his marital life and political career. But his friend, Lord Goring stands by him, and is able to foil Mrs. Cheveley’s plans while convincing Lady Chiltern of her husband’s essential goodness.

The political situation of the play, however, provides an essential base for Wilde to do what he is best at: to probe into the deeper recesses of the human mind. For him, an understanding of hidden, psychological mechanisms was more than the mere superficial understanding of behavior. The play, An Ideal Husband exposes Wilde’s sustained interest in the complex, surreptitious and insidious workings of the mind. Thus, instead of following the beaten track of a conventional treatment of the plot, he deals with it through a psychological perspective. So eager was he on providing a psychological interpretation and analysis of the play that it offended him to see his critics overlook this very aspect. He voiced his annoyance in one of his interviews in which he was questioned as to what according to him was the chief point that critics had missed in his play. (Mikhail, 241) He answered thus: “Its entire psychology - the difference in the way in which a man loves a woman from that in which a woman loves a man; the passion that women have for making ideals (which is their weakness) and the weakness of a man who dare not show his imperfection to the thing he loves….” (Mikhail, 241)

Robert Chiltern, “a man of forty… clean-shaven, with finely-cut features, dark-haired and dark-eyed” (Complete Works, 485) is the protagonist of the play. He is the Under-Secretary of Foreign Affairs who occupies a position of deep respect and distinction in society. He represents ‘id’, which according to the psychoanalytical theory of Freud is the primary component of a personality besides ‘ego’ and ‘super-ego’. The ‘id’ includes all inherent “basic, instinctual drives.” ( It is ruled by the “pleasure principle” ( that strives for immediate gratification of all desires and cravings while showing a complete disregard to the consequences.

Robert Chiltern is an id-dominated individual whose behaviour and actions are solely governed by the pleasure principle. In Act II, in a conversation with his close friend, Lord Goring, he openly discloses his compelling desire to gain wealth at any cost, going to the extent of asserting that “to succeed one must have wealth. At all costs one must have wealth. (and) “the God of this century is wealth.” (Complete Works, 504)His friend Goring, however, opines that he could have been successful even without wealth to which Robert’s reply is that it would be too late to a life because by then, he would have lost his “passion for power.” (Complete Works, 504) He reiterates his inherent desire for money and glory saying that “youth is the time for success.” (Complete Works, 504) Recalling his past when he was an ambitious, twenty-two year old young man, he says “I wanted my success when I was young…. I couldn’t wait.” (Complete Works, 504)

Robert Chiltern finds himself inextricably caught up in self-gratification to such an extent that when he is offered a wonderful opportunity by Baron Arnheim, an international financier, he cannot resist it. The ‘id’ in him is easily attracted towards the Baron’s philosophy of power and the gospel of gold and he readily sells a confidential State secret to him, thus sacrificing the welfare of the country for his private gain. He is willing to undergo any kind of compromise with personal integrity and professional loyalty for the sake of the fulfillment of his lust for power and wealth. He behaves in a “disruptive and socially unacceptable” ( manner. According to Freud, these tendencies reveal a basic characteristic of an id-controlled person. 

The movement from ‘id’ to ‘ego’ in Robert Chiltern is a very fluid one. Ego, according to Freud, “… is that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world.” (Freud, The ego & the id, 15)The ‘ego’ “endeavors to substitute the reality-principle for the pleasure-principle which reigns supreme in the id.” (Freud, The ego & the id, 15) In describing the pleasure-principle, Freud states that “… our entire psychical activity is bent upon procuring pleasure and avoiding pain… pleasure is in some way connected with lessening, lowering, or extinguishing the amount of stimulation present in the mental apparatus; and pain involves a heightening of the latter.” (Freud, A General Introduction, 365)The reality principle, as described by Freud is “the capacity to renounce immediate pleasure temporarily in order to guarantee future pleasure or pain avoidance.” (Sherman, 292)

With the appearance of Mrs. Cheveley at his reception, Robert Chiltern’s ‘id’ transforms into ‘ego’. This transformation in him occurs when he declines to concede to Mrs. Cheveley’s demand to support the Argentine Canal Scheme. When Mrs. Cheveley threatens to reveal his past sin of selling to a Stock Exchange Speculator a Cabinet secret and building his fortune out of it, he finds himself in a tricky situation. This external influence in the shape of Mrs. Cheveley modifies ‘id’ into ‘ego’ in Robert. The ‘ego’, on being confronted with Mrs. Cheveley’s threats, replaces the erstwhile pleasure-principle in Robert with the reality principle. The pleasure-principle would have instigated him to present his report before the House proving the Argentine Scheme a swindle. It would have further secured for him a seat in the Cabinet and resulted in an escalation of his political and social status. But the ‘ego’ coerces him to act upon the reality principle and forbids him from presenting the report. The reality principle makes him forego his desire for further power and safeguard his present social as well as political status.

If Robert Chiltern is a prime case of comprising id & ego, then, Lady Chiltern, Robert Chiltern’s wife is a representative of ‘super-ego’, the third component of personality in the Freudian Structural Theory. (Sherman, 312) She is introduced by Wilde as “a woman of grave Greek beauty, about twenty-seven years of age,” (Complete Works, 482) and acts as the “leading lady” (Hart-Davis, 127) of the play.

The ‘super-ego’, according to Freud, is “the moral and judicial branch of personality” (and is) “an embodiment of all social restrictions and moral ethical values.” (Mohanty, 32) It incorporates the do’s and don’ts of the society and strives for perfection rather than for reality or for pleasure.

In such a Freudian sense, Lady Chiltern represents ‘super-ego’. Her stiffly upright character and strict moralism is a display of her super-ego. Mrs. Cheveley, Lord Goring and Robert Chiltern have occasionally commented upon the super-egotistical facet of her personality. In Act I, when Mrs. Cheveley is introduced to Lady Chiltern at the latter’s party, she immediately recalls their school days’ associates. But what she remembers perfectly well about Lady Chiltern is her ingrained sense of morality and socially appropriate ways of life. She further attests to Lady-Chiltern’s super-ego by saying that she has a distinct recollection of Lady Chiltern (her) always getting the good conduct prize in school.

Lady Chiltern’s husband also reinforces her “aggressively virtuous” (Bird, 153) character. In Act II, in a private conversation with Lord Goring, he speaks of her as a perfect lady who would have turned from him in “horror and in contempt” (Complete Works, 503) had she known his sinful act of selling a Cabinet secret in lure of wealth and power. Lady Chiltern proudly claims upholding an unyielding, puritanical attitude towards life. In another incident, while explaining his intention to support the Argentine Canal Scheme, Robert Chiltern says that “circumstances alter things” (Complete Works, 501) to which Lady Chiltern retorts: “Circumstances should never alter principles.” (Complete Works, 501) On another occasion, she stubbornly reiterates her inflexible notions about right and wrong. This is seen towards the end of the second act where, while holding a dialogue with Mrs. Cheveley, she says that had she been aware of her duplicitous and unethical character, she would have never liked to associate herself with her. Mrs. Cheveley, who is taken aback by the insult, observes that Lady Chiltern has retained all her obstinate and obdurate righteousness ever since her school days. To this, Lady Chiltern pompously and resolutely replies: “I never change.” (Complete Works, 519) 

Lady Chiltern’s ‘super-ego’ becomes more pronounced the moment she gets acquainted with Robert’s intention to support the Argentine Canal Scheme. Her interaction with Robert generates a pattern of conflict and antagonism similar to that of the two opposing mental forces of super-ego and id respectively. The super-ego always works to “suppress all unacceptable urges of the id” ( and makes the ego act upon idealistic standards rather than upon realistic principles. Similarly, Lady Chiltern opposes Robert’s decision to support the Argentine scheme and gratify his ‘id’, and compels him to adhere to her own moral and idealistic view of life. She takes charge of his political career in conformity with the ‘oughts’ and ‘ought nots’ of the super-ego without allowing him a free hand to his ‘ego’. In the opening Act itself, this is reflected in Robert Chiltern’s endeavor to speak kindly of Mrs. Cheveley suggesting that she may have changed for the better. He adds that “no one should be entirely judged by their past.” (Complete Works, 500) But the super-ego in Lady Chiltern which is highly judgmental in attitude dominates over him, and makes her pronounce the unalterable verdict that “one’s past is what one is. It is the only way by which people should be judged.” (Complete Works, 500) The parental and societal values are so firmly embedded in her psyche that, despite Robert’s pleadings, she continues to judge Mrs. Cheveley as untruthful and dishonest showing an uncompromisingly rigid and unforgiving stance towards life in general. Her behavior and reactions to this situation is in complete synchronization with the ‘super-ego’ which knows only judgment, not understanding. There is absolutely “no pardon in her, no belief in redemption, no likelihood in her world that the penitent shall be permitted to work out his sentence and try to make amends.” (Ervine, 269)

Lady Chiltern has the same inflexible and uncompromising attitude towards her husband, Robert. Owing to her dogged and irrevocable attitude, she cannot understand his change of mind regarding the Argentine Canal Scheme. In her characteristic stern and authoritative way, she questions his reason for lending support to a scheme that had been earlier stated by him “as the most dishonest and fraudulent scheme there has ever been in political life.” (Complete Works, 500) When Robert replies that he was mistaken in the earlier view that he took of the scheme, she refuses to accept it. She is solely dominated by super-ego which is intolerant of such mistakes. She does not even bother to find out the causes or reasons that brought about this abrupt and drastic change of his mind.

The super-ego constituent of personality in Freud’s structural theory always strives for perfection, even though this perfection ideal may be quite far from reality or possibility. Lady Chiltern does not consider either the drives or fantasies of a person or the role of fluctuating circumstances. She embodies the traits of the super-ego. Her primary and only concern is to preserve the idealized and flawless image of Robert in public as well as private life. Robert’s viewpoint of the necessity of a demarcation between a person’s public and private life does not meet with her approval. When he tries to argue with her that public and private life are different things that “have different laws and move on different lines,” (Complete Works, 500) she upholds her perfectionism, replying: “They should both represent man at his highest.” (Complete Works, 500) As such, she refuses to see any difference between them as proposed by Robert.

In the same conversation, Robert Chiltern further tries to apprise Lady Chiltern of the ground realities of politics. He reasons with her on the basis of the complexities of the political world that call for a certain degree of compromise. But the perfectionist aim in her repudiates the term ‘compromise’ as a derogation to as honest and upright a man as Robert. Recalling the past when Robert had been “an ideal always… to the world, as to myself (herself),” (Complete Works, 501) she entreats him to always be that ideal. Her entire focus here is to inspire him to achieve a state of perfection without regard for the variable situations of life. In this context, Epifanio San Juan Jr., a critic has defined Lady Chiltern as a lady who “often forgets the harsh prosaic facts of experience which are necessary to obtain an adequate understanding of human nature.” (San Juan Jr.,175)

Lady Chiltern’s interaction with her husband is constantly influenced by her ‘conscience’ and ‘ego ideal’ which are the two subsystems of super-ego. (Sherman, 317) Conscience is that aspect of the super-ego that includes information about things that are viewed as bad by parents and society. It is an internalization of all those behaviors that are forbidden and lead to bad consequences, punishments, or feelings of guilt and remorse. The conscience of Lady Chiltern encourages Robert to uphold his untainted and immaculate self. By quoting instances of such men who have to face shame and disrepute due to some secret and in “some critical moment have to  pay for it, by doing some other act of shame,” (Complete Works, 501) she forbids him from harbouring any secret in his own life.

The ‘ego-ideal’ of Lady Chiltern is brought to the fore in her further dialogue with Robert Chiltern. The ‘ego-ideal’ is another subsystem of super-ego besides the ‘conscience’ that provides rules for good behaviour, and standards of excellence towards which the ego must strive. The ego-ideal drives Lady Chiltern to compel Robert to act in a socially appropriate manner which is to turn down Mrs. Cheveley’s demand to favour the fraudulent scheme of hers.

The two subsystems of super-ego - conscience and ego-ideal “communicate their requirements to the ego with feelings like pride, shame or guilt.” ( Lady Chiltern also enforces her idealistic standards upon Robert by inflicting similar feelings of pride and guilt. When ego-ideal finds that the ego behaves in a manner that is consistent with its moralistic demands, the ego is rewarded by the super-ego. (Sherman, 317) Lady Chiltern who has been harsh with Robert till now changes her stance towards him. On being successful in making him write to Mrs. Cheveley declining his support to her scheme, she rewards him by reassuring her love for him: “I  will  love you always because you will always be worthy of love.” (Complete Works, 502)

When the super-ego is able to alter ego’s behaviour according to its rules of conduct, it experiences emotions of “pride” (and) “self-love.” (Sherman, 317)  No sooner does Lady Chiltern send the letter of denial written by Robert to Mrs Cheveley than she undergoes an enormous sense of self-pride. In her self-proclamatory manner, she declares before Robert that by inhibiting his decision to stand by Mrs. Cheveley in the duplicitous scheme, she has actually prevented public disgrace from tarnishing his reputation. Her exhilaration knows no bounds as she expresses that she is the one who is instrumental in saving him from something that might have been a danger  to him or that might have made men honour him less than they do.

If the super-go rewards the ego for acting according to its idealistic principles, “transgressions of internalized moral standards bring upon the ego the punishment of guilt.” (Sherman, 318) Lady Chiltern, who had turned compassionate towards Robert on directing his life according to her ethical standards, turns harsh and punitive once again. Her severe and hard disposition resurfaces when she discovers the corrupt and degenerate means by which he had climbed the social ladder. She inflicts upon him the punishment of shame and guilt by making him realize that he had virtually sold off his conscience to attain wealth and power.  She is vehement and vociferous in her reproaches for him as she exclaims: “You sold yourself for money….  You put yourself up to sale to the highest bidder! You were bought in the market.” (Complete Works, 520) She strips him off of all his self-esteem and worth. She accuses him of shattering that ideal image of his which she has been cherishing since long. She says that to her, he was “something apart from common life, a thing pure, noble, honest, without stain.” (Complete Works, 521) She had unreservedly raised him to a pedestal of absolute devotion and veneration. She was so sure of his goodness and purity of thought and conduct that she found it impossible for him to commit any wrong. But after having discovered his shameful secret of selling a Cabinet confidential report, she feels ashamed to have regarded a dishonorable man like him the ideal of her life.

Explaining the characteristic of a “strong” super-ego, Freud states that, at times, it “rages against the ego with merciless fury.” (Sherman, 318) Lady Chiltern exemplifies a ‘strong’ super-ego as her criticizing faculties become sharper than before. Even when the threat of blackmail by Mrs. Cheveley is removed by Lord Goring, she persists in her severity towards Robert Chiltern. Rather she acts in an even greater ruthless manner when she demands from Robert his resignation from political life as a just retribution for his sin. Towards the end of the play, when he anxiously asks her if he should retire from public life, she firmly proclaims: “Oh, yes, Robert, you should do that. It is your duty to do that.” (Complete Works, 545)

Thus, the matrimonial relationship between Lady Chiltern and Robert Chiltern goes through a series of conflicts with the reigning power residing in the hands of Lady Chiltern. The true nature of their relationship is succinctly expressed by Mrs. Cheveley: “Between you (Lady Chiltern) and him (Robert Chiltern) there are chasms.” (Complete Works, 519) This vast gulf is a result of their mutually antagonistic personalities of super-ego and id respectively. The gulf is bridged and the couple find themselves closer to each other towards the end of the play. It is only when the realization of a ‘strong’ super-ego dawns upon Lady Chiltern that she softens towards Robert and reconciles with his inadequacies: “We have both been punished. I set him up too high.” (Complete Works, 536)

Works Cited:
Bird, Alan. The Plays of Oscar Wilde. London: Vision Press Ltd., 1977. Print.
Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. London and Glasgow: Collins, 1971. Print.
Ervine, St. John. Oscar Wilde: A Present Time Appraisal. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1951. Print.
Freud, Sigmund. A general introduction to psychoanalysis. New York: Washington square Press, 1952(a). Print.
Freud, Sigmund. The ego & The id. New York: Norton, 1960(b). Print.
Hart-Davis, Rupert. Selected Letters of Oscar Wilde. Oxford & New York: Oxford UP, 1979. Print.
Mohanty, Girishbala. Text Book  of Abnormal Psychology. West Bengal: Kalyani Publishers. 2004. Print.
Mikhail, E.H. Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections, Vol.1. London & Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press Ltd. Print.
San Juan Jr., Epifanio. The Art of Oscar Wilde. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1967. Print.
Sherman, Mark. Personality: Inquiry & application. New York: Pergamon Press, 1979. Print.
Walshe, Eibhear. “An Ideal Husband.” The Oscholars Library. Web. 18 April. 2016. 22 April. 2016. 27 April. 2016.