Act 3 is also important as it shows us a clear presentation of Lord Illingworth’s view of the world. There is a clear influence of Lord Illingworth on Gerald, which is shown in comments such as:
“He is a man who lives in the world and for it. Well, I would give anything to be just like Lord Illingworth.”
The appeal of Lord Illingworth to Gerald is from his success, high social status and respect from other members of the upper class Victorian society. By praising Lord Illingworth, Gerald’s ambitions to become highlighted, further emphasising his need to become a “successful” and “fashionable” man like Lord Illingworth, and because of this he questions his mother, and what she has taught him:
“You have always tried to crush my ambition, mother, haven’t you? You have told me that the world is a wicked place, that success is not worth having, that society is shallow, and all that sort of thing – well, I don’t believe it mother.”
Wilde shows us the confliction between Gerald’s ambitions and Mrs Arbuthnot’s morality to reveal the different moral attitudes within the upper class society. Whilst Gerald has high praise for Lord Illingworth who is quite immoral in both his behaviour and comments, Mrs Arbuthnot despises him. It is because of Lord Illingworth that she has been left to bring up Gerald alone. Men and women in the Victorian society were expected to marry if they wanted to have a relationship, and illegitimate children were frowned upon as it did not adhere to how people of the time were expected to live and behave.
Like Mrs Arbuthnot, Hester is a character who is also shown as moral and this is shown through her comments and when she is described as a “puritan”. Aware that she is not like the typical Victorian woman, Hester is drawn to Mrs Arbuthnot:
“When you came into the drawing-room this evening, somehow your brought with you a sense of what is good and pure in life.”
However, even though the both follow different moral codes to other characters of the upper class society, their views differ. Whilst they both believe that men and women should be punished equally for immoral behaviour, Hester thinks children should also be punished. Mrs Arbuthnot does not agree with this, describing it as “one of God’s terrible laws”. Through stage craft we are aware of Mrs Arbuthnot’s disagreement and discontentment:
“Moves away to fireplace.”
Wilde is showing us the controversial element of this, and also implies that Mrs Arbuthnot is moving towards danger. Hester’s biblical interpretation emphasises her puritan nature, and Wilde uses this to examine the tradition biblical morality, showing the reader that the conventional values of the world were quite different. Mrs Arbuthnot does not agree with the stigma of illegitimacy placed on the child, and does not want Gerald to suffer as she has, and this is why she has, and continues, to shelter him. Even after having withdrawn from society, Gerald’s character contrasts to Mrs Arbuthnot’s, as he still has “ambition” and wishes to conquer the world.
We can see the use of dramatic irony used in this section of the play. Hester thinks Mrs Arbuthnot is good and pure, but the reader is aware that Mrs Arbuthnot is not as pure as she looks. Wilde makes the reader question whether, if Hester knew, she would judge Mrs Arbuthnot differently. Through the use of subtext, Wilde allows us to question the meaning of purity, and whether it is as simple as Hester thinks.
It is in this section of Act 3, that Wilde highlights the double standards between men and women, making it important in context to the whole play. Having told Gerald her story, Mrs Arbuthnot is shocked to her his response:
“I dare say the girl was as much to blame as Lord Illingworth was.”
Wilde uses Gerald to judge Mrs Arbuthnot, saying that the blame should be placed on the woman as well as the man. This reaction, however, would be likely to change if Gerald knew the whole story – that Mrs Arbuthnot was the girl “who knew nothing about life” and Lord Illingworth is his father.
By having Mrs Arbuthnot tell Gerald this story, Wilde shows the reader the contracting consequences of immorality on men and women. Whilst Mrs Arbuthnot was left to suffer after being deserted – bringing up a child as a single mother and withdrawing from society – Lord Illingworth went on to build a career and high social status for him-self, becoming a well respected and admired male within the upper class Victorian society. Mrs Arbuthnot feels that she “suffered terribly”, leaving her as a ruined woman. Wilde uses a metaphor to show how she feels:
“The fire cannot purify her.”
This reflects her opinion of herself, showing that she feels sinful and dirty, and that nothing can remove the stigma. This is something that will be with her forever. It also shows her insecurity.
In the Victorian society, women were expected to be moral and the backbone of the family – allowing no room for them to make mistakes, where as life for men was easier, as they could get away with more and were not punished by society as much as women were. This is clear in Ruskin’s ideas at the time. In his lecture “Of Queens’ Gardens” he speaks of the roles of men and women, saying that men are “the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender” whilst a woman’s intellect is “for the sweet ordering, arrangement and decision.”
Wilde’s use of language conveys Mrs Arbuthnot’s emotions. The imperatives and commands such as “Gerald, come near to me” reflects how much she needs him. The possessive pronouns she uses in regards to him also emphasise this. The use of short sentences in her speech make it sound rapid, and by doing this Wilde is able to show us how much of a panic she is in, afraid that she will lose Gerald.
Another character trait of Mrs Arbuthnot shown by Wilde is self-pity:
“She will always suffer. For her there is no joy, no peace, no atonement.”
In this speech, she is reminiscing, which is shown through the completive language. She feels she has been hard done by, and as a result she is judging herself like she expects society will judge her. As a result of this, and the threat from Lord Illingworth to take away her son from her, we are able to see a very insecure character who thinks lowly of herself.
The end of Act 3 is a melodramatic presentation of the conflict of moral values, which contrasts to Gerald’s reply to Mrs Arbuthnot’s story as “very tragic”. Having told his mother that women are to blame for their mistreatment, Wilde then shows us his reaction to the mistreatment of Hester – which contradicts what he had just said:
You have insulted the woman I love most in the world with my own mother. As there is a God in heaven, I will kill you!”
His reaction is juxtaposition to his views stated earlier in the play. This not only emphasises the theme of morality, but shows lord Illingworth is not as great as Gerald thought him to be.
Through the use of stagecraft, Wilde shows us how immoral Lord Illingworth’s behaviour is:
“Enter Hester in terror, and rushes over to Gerald and flings herself in her arms.”
This, along with phrases such as “horribly insulted”, makes the reader realise that is considered as immoral behaviour, which is not accepted even within the upper classes. It also emphasises Lord Illingworth’s arrogance. Having said in Act 1 that “there is no woman in the world who would not be a little flattered if one made love to her”, he has been proved wrong, as this is not the case with Hester.
Wilde uses the kiss to represent the corruption of the upper class society, as the sexual advance shows immoral nature. The stage action dramatises the conflict of values in Gerald’s life, by calling into question his loyalty and admiration to Lord Illingworth and his love for Hester. Wilde reveals his revelation at this stage of the play as the audience, due to the heightened tension, knows it has to come out – this is another part of the play in which dramatic irony comes into effect.
From the end of Act 3, the reader is told the revelations that they were expecting, and through this, Wilde gives us an insight to the main issues raised throughout the play. We can see the double standards of men and women, which Wilde makes us question through Gerald, Mrs Arbuthnot and Hester and Gerald’s character also highlights the obsession and importance of social status at the time. This part of the play is also important as we can see the use of Wilde’s main techniques, such as dramatic irony and the use of subtext and stagecraft to reveal hidden meanings.