MRS. CHEVELEY. […] Years ago you did a clever, unscrupulous thing; it
turned out a great success. You owe to it your fortune and position.
And now you have got to pay for it. Sooner or later we have all to pay
for what we do. You have to pay now. Before I leave you to-night, you
have got to promise me to suppress your report, and to speak in the House
in favour of this scheme.
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. What you ask is impossible.
MRS. CHEVELEY. You must make it possible. You are going to make it
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. Stop! You want me to withdraw the report and to
make a short speech stating that I believe there are possibilities in the
MRS. CHEVELEY. (Sitting down on the sofa.) Those are my terms.
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. (In a low voice.) I will give you any sum of
money you want.
MRS. CHEVELEY. Even you are not rich enough, Sir Robert, to buy back
your past. No man is.
In context, the quote is not exactly saying, “No man can buy back his past.” What Mrs. Cheveley is saying is probably closer to, “Money isn’t enough to buy back your past sins.” An action, however, seems to be enough, at least in a practical sense.
Here is some of what follows, just so you can see that there is a very different sense of a transaction here, just not for money:
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. I will not do what you ask me. I will not.
MRS. CHEVELEY. You have to. If you don’t . . . (Rises from the sofa.)
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. (Bewildered and unnerved.) Wait a moment! What
did you propose? You said that you would give me back my letter, didn’t
MRS. CHEVELEY. Yes. That is agreed. I will be in the Ladies’ Gallery
to-morrow night at half-past eleven. If by that time—and you will have
had heaps of opportunity—you have made an announcement to the House in
the terms I wish, I shall hand you back your letter with the prettiest
thanks, and the best, or at any rate the most suitable, compliment I can
think of. I intend to play quite fairly with you. […
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN. Don’t go. I consent. The report shall be
withdrawn. I will arrange for a question to be put to me on the subject.
MRS. CHEVELEY. Thank you. I knew we should come to an amicable
agreement. I understood your nature from the first. I analysed you,
though you did not adore me. And now you can get my carriage for me, Sir
Robert. I see the people coming up from supper, and Englishmen always
get romantic after a meal, and that bores me dreadfully.
There are themes overall in the play of forgiveness and memory, of expectations within a relationship of honorable behavior, and even questions over whether or not to judge people by their past (as in exchange between Sir Robert and his wife, in which she suggests that there is no other measure for people other than their past deeds, to his great chagrin). The exchange in which this quote comes from suggests the inevitability of paying a price for your past misdeeds and advises that financial riches are not of sufficient value to pay that price.
That is a far cry from, perhaps even in total opposition to, the quote’s popular usage within the realm of self-help advice and feel-good encouragement. In one sense, both suggest the intractability of the past, but Wilde’s quote is much more cynical and disillusioned. Popular use transforms it into something more glibly uplifting. Just check Twitter for a start.
For example, Coffman 2013 uses it to argue that there is therefore no point in worrying about the past, that we are all on equal footing in regards to the past, and that memories are something precious that money cannot buy. Mason 2008 uses the quote as a prompt to stop worrying and relax because future happiness is greater than past bleakness. Habyarimana includes the quote in a section whose overall message is an encouragement to live in the present. Sopani 2016 uses it to encourage leaving heartbreak and trauma in the past as part of a process of emotional healing.
And it goes on like that almost endlessly with minor variations on the theme. The message is pretty consistent: the quote encourages you to stop dwelling on the past because you can’t do anything about it.
The quote is extremely common, in the popularized form, in books of Wilde aphorisms, including The Wit and Humor of Oscar Wilde, Oscar Wilde’s Wit and Wisdom, 101 Amazing Facts About Oscar Wilde, and others, including Epigrams of Oscar Wilde.
But it was not an epigram.
It has been turned into one, but it was actually part of dramatic dialogue, which means it had context that gave it meaning.
There may be wisdom to gain from the exchange in the play, but the source material has nothing to do with defeating worry, looking forward, or overcoming emotional trauma. It is quite specifically in reference to a person’s own wrong-doings.
And the moral of the quote in the play is not to set aside your feelings of guilt and stop dwelling on them.
The moral of the quote in the play is that when you have to pay the piper, it’s going to take more than money.