Lady Windermere’s Fan
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
OSCAR WILDE 1892
Lady Windermere’s Fan was Oscar Wilde’s first produced play, and it was an instant success on the London stage. Chronicling a series of misunderstandings and deceptions in the high society world of Victorian London, critics and audiences alike were charmed by Wilde’s trademark wit and intelligence.
In the play, Lady Windermere considers leaving her husband of two years when she believes he’s been unfaithful with a woman—who turns out to be her own mother. Remarkably, it will be the mother who sets her straight without ever revealing her identity.
In his letters, Wilde claimed that he did not want the play to be viewed as “a mere question of pantomime and clowning”; he was interested in the piece as a psychological study. Although the play has been deemed outdated by recent critics, Lady Windermere’s Fan continues to entertain audiences all over the world.
In 1854 Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin to affluent parents. His father was a prominent surgeon and archaeologist; his mother was a witty poet, Irish nationalist, and feminist.
Wilde excelled at the Portola Royal school and then at Trinity College, where he took the Gold Medal for Greek. In 1878 he won a scholarship to Magdalen College at Oxford.
Wilde attracted a crowd of admirers for his witty, intellectual lectures and his outrageous cult of “aestheticism.” He believed in art-for-art’s-sake, a philosophy he had learned from his association with John Ruskin, an art critic and Oxford don.
A very successful lecture tour of America in the early 1880s on “The Principles of Aestheticism” earned him much-needed income as well as an international reputation.
His marriage to Constance Mary Lloyd in 1884 produced two children; it was during this time he wrote his best works: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).
These works brought him financial success and the admiration of the literary circles. His reputation as an insightful, witty, and urbane playwright was established worldwide.
In the early 1890s, at the peak of his career, Wilde entered into a destructive romantic relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, nicknamed “Bosie.” After Bosie’s disapproving father, Lord Queensbeery, insulted Wilde, the playwright foolishly sued for defamation of character. Queensbeery’s return suit for “depravity” resulted in Wilde’s conviction for sodomy—and a two-year jail sentence.
After serving his sentence, Wilde emerged from jail bankrupt, scandalized, and spiritually bereft. He lived alone in France until his death from cerebral meningitis in 1900. His remains are buried in Paris.
The play opens in Lady Margaret Windermere’s home, where she is arranging roses for a party later that evening in celebration of her birthday. Lord Darlington visits, and Margaret chides him for flirting with her. He contends that a woman whose husband of two years is unfaithful has a right to “console herself.”
Lady Windermere fails to recognize his oblique reference to her husband, and calls herself a Puritan with “hard and fast rules” for fidelity. Lord Darlington continues to flirt with her, but she ignores him.
He leaves and the Duchess of Berwick and her daughter, Lady Agatha Carlisle, enter. The Duchess cattily reports that Lord Windermere has been spending time and money on a Mrs. Erlynne, whose social status is questionable. The Duchess admits that her own husband has had his “little aberrations,” and assumes all men are immoral.
Yet the Duchess is anxious to marry off her daughter Agatha, saying “a mother who doesn’t part with a daughter every season has no real affection.”
After they depart, Lady Windermere looks through her husband’s desk and discovers payments to Mrs. Erlynne in his secret bankbook. When he comes in and finds her looking at it, he gets angry. He demands that his wife invite Mrs. Erlynne to their party in order to help the woman back into society. Lady Windermere flatly refuses.
He addresses an invitation to Mrs. Erlynne himself. Outraged, Lady Windermere threatens to hit the infamous woman with her new birthday fan when she arrives. Lord Windermere protests and she storms offstage.
As the curtain drops, he agonizes over what to do about the situation. Apparently there is something to his relationship with Mrs. Erlynne, for he groans “I dare not tell her who this woman really is. The shame would kill her.”
The Windermere’s party is in full swing, and the guests are being announced. The Duchess of Berwick has advised Agatha to dance with Mr. Hopper of Australia, a prospective suitor.
Lord Augustus Lorton, brother of the Duchess, asks Lord Windermere how Mrs. Erlynne can gain respectability. It seems that Lorton hopes to marry her. He is reassured by her invitation to tonight’s ball, for it paves her way into “this demmed thing called society.”
Mrs. Erlynne appears and smoothly makes her way from guest to guest, especially the men. Their wives glare indignantly. In the meantime, Lady Windermere remains cold to her husband, and seeks comfort from Lord Darlington, who takes advantage of her mood by confessing his love and offering to take her away.
At first shocked, Margaret asks for time to see if her husband would return to her. Defeated, Lord Darlington announces that he will leave England the next day and bids her goodbye.
As the music stops and guests come back into the room, the Duchess of Berwick talks approvingly of Mrs. Erlynne to Margaret, yet advises her to get her husband away from the woman.
Agatha whispers to her mother that Mr. Hopper has proposed. With her goal in hand, the Duchess now takes full charge, insisting that the couple remain in London rather than return to Hopper’s home in Sydney.
Two gentlemen offer alternate views to Mrs. Erlynne’s presence at the ball: one says that Lady Windermere must have “common sense,” while the other credits Lord Windermere with cleverly hiding his indiscretion in the open.
Mrs. Erlynne informs Lord Windermere that Lord Lorton has proposed; in addition, he has asked for 2000 to 2500 pounds a year from him. Annoyed but compliant, Windermere exits with her to the terrace to discuss the details.
As the music strikes up again, Lady Windermere decides to run away with Lord Darlington and leave her husband. She leaves a farewell letter on her desk. Mrs. Erlynne enters and reads it.
She lies to Windermere about the letter’s contents and calls for her carriage. Lord Augustus enters with a bouquet for Mrs. Erlynne and proposes. Without responding, she instructs him to take Windermere to his club until morning, and he complies.
Alone in Lord Darlington’s rooms, Lady Windermere vacillates between staying and going back to her husband. When Mrs. Erlynne arrives, Margaret recoils in contempt of her rival. Mrs. Erlynne pleads with her to return to her husband, denying any relationship with him.
Lady Windermere is moved when Mrs. Erlynne reminds her of her duty to her child. She tearfully decides to go home, but upon hearing voices, they both hide behind the curtains. Lord Augustus (“Tuppy” to his friends), Lord Darlington, Dumby, Cecil Graham, and Lord Windermere arrive, having been turned out of the club.
The men speak cynically of women and society as they settle into a game of cards. This scene
displays Wilde’s wit as the men banter back and forth. Then Cecil sees Lady Windermere’s fan on a table. He shows it to Tuppy for a chuckle at Darlington, who has been moralizing, for apparently he has a woman in his rooms.
Windermere’s reaction to seeing his wife’s fan, however, is dramatic. He threatens to search Darlington’s rooms. Darlington refuses. Only the sudden appearance of Mrs. Erlynne, stepping out from behind the curtain, stops a probable fight. She pretends to having taken Lady Windermere’s fan by mistake. The men respond variously with contempt, astonishment, and mockery, as the curtain falls.
Back at home, Lady Windermere lies on a sofa, wondering why Mrs. Erlynne disgraced herself to save her reputation. Lord Windermere comes in and sympathetically suggests a visit to the country. He also expresses a change of heart about Mrs. Erlynne, whom he now considers “as bad as a woman can be.”
His wife defends her and insists on seeing her once more before they depart. Lady Windermere almost confesses the truth, but Parker interrupts them. He is carrying Lady Windermere’s lost fan and Mrs. Erlynne’s card on a tray. Margaret Page 214 | Top of Articletells Parker to invite her up, in spite of her husband’s protest.
Mrs. Erlynne enters, and apologizes for taking the fan. She announces that she is leaving England and wants a photograph of Margaret with her child. While Lady Windermere goes upstairs to find one, Lord Windermere confronts Mrs. Erlynne for causing his first quarrel with his wife, and for misrepresenting herself. It is revealed to the audience that Mrs. Erlynne is Margaret’s long-lost mother.
It is true that Mrs. Erlynne had been extorting money from him, but she has had a change of heart, too. She fails to convince him of her new sincerity, but revels in her new relationship with her daughter—who never learns that Mrs. Erlynne is her mother.
Before leaving, Mrs. Erlynne offers Lady Windermere a piece of advice: not to tell Arthur of nearly leaving him. Lord Augustus arrives and accepts Mrs. Erlynne’s explanation that she was only looking for him at Darlington’s home. He proposes to her again. Margaret comments that he is, indeed, “marrying a very good woman.”
Agatha is the daughter of the Duchess of Berwick. She is passive and only interested in getting married.
See Lady Jedburgh
Mrs. Cowper-Cowper is one of the society ladies who attends Lady Windermere’s ball.
Lord Darlington is in love with Lady Windermere, and hints of her husband’s apparent infidelity in order to gain her affection. When she does not return his love, he leaves town.
Duchess of Berwick
A manipulative woman, the Duchess of Berwick thrives on the pettiness of high society. She is the one who initiates the series of misunderstandings between Mrs. Erlynne and Lady Windermere by gossiping about Mrs. Erlynne and Lord Windermere.
At the same time, she masterfully orchestrates the marriage of her daughter to Mr. Hopper, an Australian visitor. Once she snags the young man, she begins her next project of making sure the new couple stays in London rather than going to Sydney.
The mysterious Mrs. Erlynne is Lady Windermere’s long-lost mother—a fact that is not revealed until the late in the play. Lady Windermere never learns her true identity.
Mrs. Erlynne wants desperately to be accepted within her daughter’s social circles. She has a reputation as a woman with a shady past, a “divorced woman, going about under an assumed name, a bad woman preying upon life.” In other words, she seems to be a woman with no substantial income, and therefore no right to socialize with the Windermeres and their circle.
However, Mrs. Erlynne reveals herself to be a woman of quality, who puts aside her own interests in favor of protecting her child. Having found herself capable of a mother’s devotion, she decides to escape in order to spare her daughter further embarrassment. Fortunately, Lord Lorton still loves her and offers his hand in marriage.
Cecil Graham is a cynic who trades witty barbs with his pals Windermere, Dumby, and Lorton. He is described as the experienced man about town. He is the one who discovers Lady Windermere’s fan in Darlington’s rooms.
Mr. Hopper is an Australian man who proposes to Agatha. Although he hopes to take her home to Sydney, the Duchess wants them to remain in England.
Lady Jedburgh is Cecil Graham’s dowager aunt.
Lord Augustus Lorton
The brother of the Duchess of Berwick, Tuppy is a rather simple fellow. He is in love with Mrs. Erlynne and is greatly relieved to learn that she has received an invitation to Lady Windermere’s ball, since this serves as an invitation into high society.
He is a very trusting man; he accepts Mrs. Erlynne’s excuses and does not rescind his marriage invitation after the scandal.
Parker is the Windermeres’ butler.
Lady Plymdale is the wife of Mr. Dunby. She disapproves of Mrs. Erlynne and of her husband’s visits with her.
Rosalie is Lady’s Windermere’s maid.
One of the society ladies who enjoy the social season.
See Lord Augustus Lorton
Lord Arthur Windermere
For most of the play, it seems that Lord Windermere is having an affair with Mrs. Erlynne. Like his wife, Windermere is a sincere and generous person. He is also loyal: even when it is in his self-interest to tell his wife the truth, he keeps Mrs. Erlynne’s secret. His goodness and straightforward manner is symbolized by his plain way of talking.
Lady Margaret Windermere
Margaret is a beautiful, intelligent, and honorable woman who nearly leaves her husband because of a vicious rumor. At first, she rebuffs Lord Darlington’s advances and believes that her husband is not having an affair with Mrs. Erlynne. However,
she prepares to leave her husband when it appears that the gossip about her husband’s relationship with Mrs. Erlynne is true.
Hypocrisy can be defined as pretending to be something one is not or feigning to believe in something one does not. Most of the characters in Wilde’s play accept hypocrisy as a necessary component of their social world. People in high society must pretend, must conform to the social norm in order to maintain their position. Hypocrisy is the glue that holds together a complex web of relationships; if the truth were to come out, these relationships would fall apart.
Lies are a necessary tool to avoid conflict. For example, Dumby agrees with Mrs. Stutfield that the season has been “delightful,” and in the next breath agrees with the Duchess of Berwick that it has been “dreadfully dull.” Likewise, the Duchess of Berwick tells Lady Windermere that her nieces never gossip, then later declares that they always gossip.
Hypocrisy is distinguished from virtuous lies, which are told to protect someone else. To ease the comfort of others—even though this might require lying—was part of the upper class code of conduct. Encouraged by Tuppy’s remark that women with a past are “demmed interesting to talk to,” Lord Windermere withholds the truth of Mrs. Erlynne’s past in order to protect his friend from a truth that would ruin his marriage plans.
Mrs. Erlynne rises above hypocrisy when she sacrifices her own reputation for her daughter’s. Although she has lived a life of hypocrisy, and she is desperately trying to get back into the society that once rejected her, she throws it away out of love.
The Bad Mother
The role of women was changing in Victorian society. Women were seeking greater independence, and they were entering the workforce in increasing numbers. The suffragist movement attracted many supporters, as women petitioned for the rights to vote and to own property (any money or property of the wife belonged to her husband upon marriage).
This greater independence for women was opposed on all fronts: politically, socially, and culturally. Soon, the independent woman was being portrayed as a bad wife and a bad mother.
Many plays, stories, poems, and articles featured the image of the “bad mother”: the woman who abandons her children to pursue some selfish interest, such as a love affair or career. Such entrepreneurial social behavior was portrayed as dangerous and threatening to society in general.
Wilde’s play is unusual for its time in allowing the “bad mother,” Mrs. Erlynne, to make peace with her daughter (although without recognition of her motherhood) and to pursue her own life.
A screen scene is a scene in which an actor hides behind a drape or furniture and overhears the other actors. Melodrama, with its emphasis on secrets and their revelation, often makes use of the screen scene to allow a character to discover a secret. This discovery is a turning point in the plot.
In Lady Windermere’s Fan, Lady Windermere’s eavesdropping convinces her of her husband’s fidelity. Also Mrs. Erlynne’s sacrifice of her own reputation convinces her of the older woman’s virtue.
Part of the purpose of the screen scene is to allow a character to discover information he or she is not supposed to hear. At the same time, the risk of being discovered in the act of eavesdropping adds to the dramatic intensity of the scene.
Further adding to the dramatic intensity, the play often has the eavesdropper leave something behind in the room. The other characters see and recognize a glove, a fan, or other personal item. Only a clever diversion such as that undertaken by Mrs. Erlynne can prevent the eavesdropper from exposure.
Comedy of Manners
During the Restoration period (1660–1699), fashionable audiences flocked to comedies that poked fun at the foibles and witticisms of high society. Pompous characters were held up for ridicule as they indulged in the misbehaviors and pretensions of the sophisticated set.
During the Victorian era, more serious plays came into style. Therefore, Wilde’s comedy of manners was a refreshing change of style that revitalized comedy and set the stage for modern comic theatre.
The late nineteenth century “art-for-art’s-sake” movement was promulgated by Walter Pater (1839–1894), an Oxford don who tutored Oscar Wilde. Wilde became a living example of his teacher’s theory, which placed style and beauty above moral and social responsibility. Wilde’s adherence to this theory earned him the name “The Great Aesthete.”
According to Pater, the aesthete appreciated beautiful things and beautiful literature. Interest in art was facilitated by the rise in leisure time for the upper and middle class. The middle class adopted the values of the upper class and viewed the appreciation of art as part of their social training.
The aestheticism and Pre-Raphaelite movements opposed the Victorian obsession with industry, engineering, and efficiency. When Oscar Wilde declared to customs officials in America that “I have nothing to declare but my genius,” he alluded to the refinement of character that he nurtured for its own sake.
Wilde surrounded himself with art and sought to exemplify Walter Pater’s concept of the true critic, one with “a certain kind of temperament, the power of being deeply moved by the presence of beautiful objects.” Pater looked to the Renaissance era for a model of obsession with style.
Aesthetics valued the completely innocent person, such as the character Dorian Gray in Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). Gray was both pure and physically beautiful until corrupted by an older man.
Lady Windermere is another beautiful and simple character with a natural ability to appreciate art and true sentiment.
Three years before Oscar Wilde’s birth, England celebrated the triumphs of industry in The Great Exhibition of 1851, which was housed in the magnificent Crystal Palace. Inside, observers viewed the highest technical achievement of every nation, and England’s contributions put her in the forefront of scientific achievement.
The exhibition demonstrated the benefits of progress. England was at the height of prosperity, with income increasing exponentially through the efficiencies of industrialization. With a growing Page 218 | Top of Articleeconomy, a burgeoning middle class began to aspire to the fashions and habits of high society.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the newly affluent class was beginning to shoulder its way into formerly forbidden regions—in politics, clubs, and the workplace.
It was also a time of budding feminism, as women took more and more aggressive steps to win suffrage. In the magazine he edited for two years, The Women’s World, Wilde ran articles by women on both sides of the women’s suffrage issue. Wilde had also changed the title from The Lady’s World out of respect for the blurring lines between social classes.
Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan garnered much popular and critical controversy on its debut at the St. James Theatre in February 20, 1892. The audience was filled to capacity with the literary stars of the time: Frank Harris, Henry James, actress Lillie Langtry, and a host of critics.
However, according to Vyvyan Holland in the introduction to The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Wilde caused a furor of resentment when he came onto the stage with a cigarette in his gloved hand and his signature green carnation in his lapel and told the audience,
Ladies and Gentlemen. I have enjoyed this evening immensely. The actors have given us a charming rendition of a delightful play, and your appreciation has been most intelligent. I congratulate you on the great success of your performance, which persuades me that you think almost as highly of the play as I do.
The reviews the next morning focused on the playwright’s impertinence. Beckson states that Clement Scott accused Wilde of “condescension” and trying to “take greater liberties with the public than any author who ha[d] ever preceded [him] in history.”
In an interview, Wilde took full responsibility for deviating from the expected humility of the author: “I have altered all that. The artist cannot be degraded into the servant of the public: humility is for the hypocrite, modesty for the incompetent. Assertion is at once the duty and the privilege of the artist.”
The play ran for five months, then made a tour of the provinces and returned to London for another successful run. Although Henry James called the performance “infantine. . . both in subject and form,” George Bernard Shaw, who had not yet made his name in theater, admired it.
Beckson declares that A. B. Walkley maintained that the “plot is always thin,” that it is “full of... glaring faults” but was nevertheless a “good” play. Those who enjoyed the plethora of witty epigrams compared Wilde to Congreve and Sheridan, even though, in Wilde’s play, “all the men talk like Mr. Oscar Wilde.”
The play was produced a year later in New York City by Maurice Barrymore, but Wilde was not happy with the production because Lord Darlington was presented as a villain—not as a person intent on saving Lady Windermere from an unfaithful husband. The New York production ran for several successful months.
More recent critics have explored gender issues relating to Wilde’s homosexuality. Only recently Wilde’s plays have been treated as separate from his personal life.
The deconstructionist view (of the 1970s and 1980s) perceived an inversion of the Victorian melodramatic conventions. Others have focused on the possible influences on his work.
Lady Windermere’s Fan, with its somewhat outdated concern for the errant mother and its staging requirements (actors capable of sophisticated social banter and elaborate costumes and sets), is not often produced today. It is viewed as a period piece.
Hamilton is an English teacher at Cary Academy, an innovative private school in Cary, North Carolina. In the following essay, Hamilton explores how the wit in Lady Windermere’s Fan contributes to the structure and meaning of the plot, while also investing the play with a satirical jab at high society.
True to the legacy of the Irish raconteur, Oscar Wilde was a master of wit, famous for clever conversation peppered with epigrams. With his rolling, mellifluous voice, he was the center of attention at social gatherings, and is still considered one of the greatest conversationalists of his time.
Lady Windermere’s Fan, his first play, was expected to follow on the heels of the success of his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray—and it certainly did.
However, many critics, such as a reviewer at the Westminster Review, objected to the number of epigrams in the play. These critics complained that wit so overshadows plot in Lady Windermere’s Fan that the result is “scarcely a play at all” and that the characters do little more than “serve as mouths to enunciate the author’s exquisitely funny remarks on society.”
Another critic called Wilde the prophet of “great God Paradox,” and maintained that “Mr. Wilde’s puppets chant his litany” in a dramatic world where all its inhabitants are “equally cynical, equally paradoxical, equally epigrammatic.”
This condemnation troubled Wilde, who wanted his work to be dramatically fresh and interesting and also psychologically true to life. He openly paraded his genius at conversation, but he also held greater ambitions for his plays than as mere platforms for his wit.
In response to the criticism that his play was superficial, he snidely pronounced the opinion of the British public not “of the slightest importance.” They did not understand the depth of the final act, even though he considered it to be deeply “psychological” and “the newest, most true” moment of the play.
In the summation he wrote while at the nadir of his literary life and career—in prison and rejected by even his closest friends—he expressed confidence in his plays, and wrote that he had successfully produced “comedies that were to beat Congreve for brilliancy and Dumas fils for philosophy, and I suppose everyone else for every other quality.”
Even Wilde himself failed to notice that not only was Lady Windermere’s Fan a unique combination of brilliant dialogue and philosophical depth, but that he organized the plot through the syntactic structure of wit. He does this through the structure of the paradoxical epigram, which is a statement that contains two opposing ideas in a balance.
The plot elements are a balanced structure of opposing elements, as though Wilde used the pattern to compose his plot as he did to compose his witty sayings.
Epigrams are pithy sayings that compress two antithetical ideas into one polished sentence. The best epigrams contain concise language that presents
two antithetical ideas in a mirror-image format. For example, in Lady Windermere’s Fan, Cecil Graham exclaims, “whenever people agree with me, I always feel I must be wrong.”
Here the antithetical ideas are Cecil’s opinions versus what people think of his opinions. Graham is saying that when his ideas meet with universal approval, he, paradoxically, decides to disagree with the majority—and disavow his own idea. Underlying his statement is a satire of the people whose opinions Graham so disrespects that their very agreement with him changes his mind.
Almost every character in Wilde’s plays and other works occasionally speak in epigrams. Wilde does not simply throw them in to display his own cleverness, but uses them to convey character and mood, and even to structure the plot itself.
The most simplistic of these is to establish character. The characters who use epigrams the most are Cecil Graham, Dunby, Lord Darlington,” and Mrs. Erlynne. These characters are shown to be clever and haughty through their use of epigram.
For example, Lord Darlington and Cecil Graham banter about the contrast between a cynic (one who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing) and the sentimentalist (who sees an absurd value in everything and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing). Their definitions are humorous and cynical, establishing them as part of the “smart” or sophisticated set.
Lord Darlington’s comment that “so many conceited people go about society pretending to be good, that I think it shows rather a sweet and modest disposition to pretend to be bad” also establishes him as a “smart” character, who finds it entertaining to be “bad.” His epigrams led at least one director to fail to see Lord Darlington’s sympathetic side.
In the 1893 New York production, Maurice Barrymore cast Lord Darlington as a villain. Wilde objected, saying, “Darlington is not a villain, but a man who really believes that Windermere is treating his wife badly, and wishes to save her.” In this case, the character’s witticisms caused him to be typecast.
On the other hand, not speaking in epigrams is a marker of sincerity. One clue that Lord Windermere is virtuous is that he never speaks paradoxically. His comments are straightforward and genuine.
His counterpart, Lord Darlington, is not always so sincere. Darlington’s style changes from being cynical to being sincere—symbolized by going from epigrammatic speech to more prosaic speech.
In the first scene, he appears as a dandy, with his blithe, epigrammatic sayings and suave compliments. Only when he begins to woo Lady Windermere in earnest does he drop the mask of cleverness and speak in a relatively straightforward manner.
However, his move toward sincerity is gradual. In the midway point, he uses the antithetical format, as when he suggests that “between man and woman Page 221 | Top of Articlethere is no friendship possible. There is passion, enmity, worship but no friendship.”
In this phrase he still maintains the formal distance of the clever dandy wooing with words. When he drops even the antitheses, he is at his most sincere, simply telling Lady Windermere that he loves her. At this moment, the audience’s estimation of Lord Darlington increases.
Contrasted to Darlington’s development is Lady Windermere’s descent into paradox. She begins in earnest, telling Lord Darlington that she is a Puritan for her beliefs that rules must be hard and fast. Just as her in beliefs, her speech does not tolerate the ambiguity of paradox.
Yet the moment when she begins to distrust her husband, she begins to speak in paradox; she tells Lord Windermere, “You are jealous of Mrs. Erlynne’s honor. I wish you had been as jealous of mine.” Though she still views her world in black and white, she now pairs her phrases in the form of the epigram, with antithetical elements at odds in the same way she sees her husband’s attention to Mrs. Erlynne at odds with his duty to her.
She proceeds to duel in verbal paradoxes with her husband, and when she leaves him, she justifies her actions with another paradox, “He broke the bonds—I only break the bondage.” Ironically she is wrong about his having broken the bonds, and it will take another reversal on her part not to break the bonds herself.
Later, her conversation with Mrs. Erlynne is not epigrammatic, but intense and heartfelt; this conversation saves her. Then, as though she needs one last moment of darkness to appreciate her happiness, she indulges in a few more paradoxes while waiting for her husband’s return: “What a pity that in life we only get our lessons when they are of no use to us!”
She drops this mode of thought once she feels assured of her husband’s affections. Speaking in epigrams indicates a character is angry, or cynical, or insincere. It is as though the epigram speaker judges things from the safe distance of the uninvolved.
Wilde uses wit to reveal a character’s internal state of mind in other ways, too. Mrs. Erlynne’s comment on the London fog (“whether the fogs produce the serious people or whether the serious people produce the fogs, I don’t know”) at the end of the play reveals that Mrs. Erlynne has regained her confidence after the fiasco of the evening before,
when she sacrificed her own reputation by stepping out from behind the curtain as a diversion so allow Lady Windermere to slip away undetected.
Her comment about the fog and seriousness not only shows her in witty form, but also contains her excuse for leaving town—it is too cold, both literally and metaphorically, in terms of her reception in society. In other cases, witty paradoxes comprise “epigrammatic duels” between characters.
These occur between Lord Darlington and Lady Windermere, between Lady Windermere and her husband, Lord Windermere, and, finally, between Mrs. Erlynne and Lord Windermere. In each case, the exchange ends in a barb aimed at the first speaker, whose character is called into question.
For example, Lord Windermere exclaims to Lady Windermere, “How hard good women are!” and she retorts, “How weak bad men are!” But besides being a verbal clue to their moods, the very syntax of the statements provides a pattern for reading their relationship. An extreme misunderstanding threatens the couple’s relationship: they are at polar odds.
Moreover, Lady Windermere’s comment is ironically inaccurate, in that Lord Windermere is not being weak, but strong—and is not bad, but good. This dramatic inversion is the basis of dramatic irony that underpins the whole play.
Lady Windermere’s Fan is about people who misunderstand or mistrust each other, whose opinions and trust lie at polar opposites, and who must maintain equipoise in the balance of a society that does not easily allow these differences to be aired.
Cecil Graham, an ancillary character whose only apparent purpose is to exemplify the generalized nature of male hypocrisy, proffers a clever definition of scandal, as “gossip made tedious by morality.” Here the paradoxical statement contributes to the play’s theme by voicing a criticism of a society that makes it difficult for people to trust and be trusted.
The message is presented by one of the most cynical characters in the play. This instance of an ironic paradox that seems like a toss-away comment is really one more perspective on the society the play satirizes.
Epigrammic speaking is “unnatural” in the sense that it sets up antithetical statements that seem not able to coexist (but do). The structure is comforting because of its symmetry; and disturbing, because of the internal tension between its elements.
In the same way, a character who reverses his or her opinions causes discomfort. The Duchess of Berwick at one moment proclaims her curiosity and pleasure in Australia and its darling kangaroos—until her daughter gets engaged to an Australian. Then she announces that she has no intention of letting her daughter go to that “vulgar” place with “horrid kangaroos.” Her character reversal is a “character paradox,” a signal of an insincere and untrustworthy character.
The syntax of character paradox is the same pattern as the epigram: antithetical ideas in balance causing tension. The character paradox makes one wary, because it cannot be predicted whether the character will reverse again.
The pattern of the paradox is repeated in the plot as well. Wilde’s play contains a series of internal plot paradoxes, in a kind of nested box structure. Lady Windermere thinks of life as a sacrament, and discovers that her husband has betrayed that belief, but she is really wrong—a paradox.
Her response—to betray him—is an ironic dramatic reversal, another paradox. That she might do so with a man she doesn’t even love is a reversal of character, because she had professed the values of the Puritan, who considers life a sacrament.
Another paradox lies in the fact that she is brought to her senses by the very woman who had betrayed her as a child. Being saved by the one who abandoned her is a reversal, or paradoxical pattern.
Mrs. Erlynne’s status is also a grand reversal. She begins as a social outcast desperate for acceptance into society, and ends as one who leaves it willingly.
Furthermore, her second “abandonment” of her daughter is a boon, not a betrayal. The audience, too, undergoes a reversal in its opinion of Mrs. Erlynne. The paradox is a pattern that organizes not only the witticism, but also the plot and the characters. The epigrams are not extraneous, but integral to a full comprehension of the play.
Perhaps Wilde’s natural penchant for epigrammatic speaking was a habit so deep that it formulated the structure of his plays and stories, just as it formulated the witty sayings he produced in his brilliant conversation.
Source: Carole Hamilton for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
In the following essay, Nasser argues that George Bernard Shaw modelled his Mrs. Warren on Wilde’s Lady Windermere.
After Lady Windermere’s Fan was first performed on 20 February 1892, Oscar Wilde found himself a famous playwright. At the time, George Bernard Shaw was struggling to establish himself on the British stage after having failed as a novelist. Mrs. Warren’s Profession, his third play, was written in late 1893 and early 1894. Shaw’s play is a Shavian reworking of Wilde’s, an attempt to squarely face the issues that Wilde sidestepped. In a nutshell, it is Lady Windermere’s Fan intellectualized.
The situations of the two plays are remarkably similar, both built around confrontation between a bad mother and an innocent daughter. In both plays, the mother lives on the Continent and the daughter in England, and in both the daughter knows little about her mother and indeed harbors illusions about her. Both daughters confront the danger of becoming like their mothers, and both withdraw from the precipice after a brief period of confusion. In both plays, society is presented as corrupt, and morally innocent individuals are out of place.
In Wilde’s play, after leaving her husband and daughter, Mrs. Erlynne spends 20 years on the Continent with no visible means of support except her good looks. Lord Windermere calls her “a divorced woman, going about under an assumed name, a bad woman preying upon life” (act 4, 458). We are never told how she lived, but the assumption is that she seduced rich men like Lord Augustus and took their money. Certainly, she is presented as an Page 223 | Top of Articleaccomplished seductress in the play, but Wilde bows to Victorian morality and leaves this aspect of her life obscure. A question forms in the reader’s or viewer’s mind: What did Mrs. Erlynne do during her 20 years on the Continent? Shaw picks up the question and answers it mercilessly in the figure of Mrs. Warren, who also uses an assumed name Miss Vavasour. Shaw bluntly unmasks Mrs. Warren as a prostitute who made a fortune in her profession.
Maupassant’s tale Yvette and Pinero’s The Second Mrs. Tanqueray are often cited as sources of Shaw’s play, and rightly so, but the chief and hitherto unrecognized source is Lady Windermere’s Fan. Toward the end of 1893 Wilde was taking the London stage by storm (his second social comedy, A Woman of No Importance, was first produced on 19 April 1893, and was also successful); the struggling Shaw must have felt a tinge of envy. The suspicion of envy is reinforced by Shaw’s negative review of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895 and his attempt some years later to re-create Lady Bracknell in the figure of Lady Britomart, Major Barbara’s mother. His reaction, then, in 1893-94 was to attempt to remold Lady Windermere’s Fan along Shavian lines.
There are many parallels and counterpoints between Lady Windermere and Vivie Warren. At the beginning of their respective plays, both women are innocents with a corrupt mother in the background whose corruption they are unaware of, and both have a strict set of morals. Lady Windermere’s values, however, are presented as too rigid, and as the play unfolds she becomes more lenient and forgiving. Vivie moves in the same direction, and by the end of act 2 she has forgiven her mother and accepted her as a persecuted woman who defeated terrible poverty in the only manner open to her. But Vivie soon realizes that her mother was wrong, reasserts her own values, and prefers isolation and poverty to Mrs. Warren’s tainted money. By the end of the play, Vivie is if anything more puritanical than at the beginning. Nor does Lady Windermere ever realize how corrupt her society is, whereas Vivie comes to realize “that fashionable morality is all a pretence” (act 4, 57) in capitalist Britain.
Finally, in both plays, society as a whole is presented as corrupt. “I will have no one in my house about whom there is any scandal” (act 1, 424), asserts Lady Windermere, but when we meet her guests, it is clear that they are all immoral, from Cecil Graham, to Dumby, to Lady Plymdale and the others.
Whereas Lady Windermere’s Fan defines morality in primarily sexual terms, in Mrs. Warren’s Profession sexual corruption is part of the economic corruption that permeates every corner of British society and that only Fabian socialism can uproot. Money is a concern in both plays, but Wilde never questions the origins of Lord Windermere’s or anybody else’s fortune, whereas Shaw makes the origin of all fortunes his chief concern.
Given all these similarities and counterpoints between the two plays, then, it is fair to assert that Shaw’s play is a direct response to Wilde’s.
Source: Christopher Nasser, “Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan and Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” in Explicator, Spring, 1998, Vol. 56, no. 3, pp. 137–38.
In the following essay, Nasser suggests that Wilde reworks the four stages of Dorian Gray’s life by embodying them in the four main characters of Lady Windermere’s Fan, but this reworking is set within the framework and atmosphere of social comedy.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian develops from childlike innocence to a state of serious depravity in four states. The first stage is when he is still twenty and posing for Basil Hallward. Here he is the innocent young man who has not yet come in contact with evil. The second is when he is in love with Sibyl Vane. At this state evil has entered his life, but he is still largely innocent. The third is what Page 224 | Top of Articlemight be called the “limited corruption” stage. Basil and Wotton become the opposing forces within him. Although he clearly leans toward Wotton, he is still balanced between good and evil, for his conscience is still alive and there are certain crimes, such as deliberate murder, that he would shrink from committing. In the fourth stage, all control is lost. He murders Basil, then tries to kill his conscience, which he identifies with his picture. Instead, he himself dies: human nature is “gray” and no one can become completely evil.
In Lady Windermere’s Fan, Dorian Gray is fragmented and reincarnated in the four main characters, each of whom embodies one of the aforementioned stages, but within the framework and atmosphere of social comedy. Wilde often based his works on earlier works of his. In Dorian Gray, Dorian’s development mirrors the drift of Victorian life and art toward corruption. In Lady Windermere’s Fan, this same drift is shown in the juxtapositon of the four main characters, but it is simultaneously obscured by being cast in the mold of social comedy.
Dorian’s first stage, childlike innocence, is embodied in Lord Windermere. Although he exists in a corrupt late-Victorian environment, Windermere is wrapped in a cocoon of early-Victorian morality that is never penetrated by his immoral surroundings. He is the object of much slander in the play, and even his wife becomes convinced that he is having an affair with Mrs. Erlynne. But he remains moral from beginning to end. His interest is in “saving” Mrs. Erlynne and in protecting his wife.
The art he admires is also that of spiritual innocence and purity. In act 4, he attacks Mrs. Erlynne for having drifted away from a miniature of herself that his wife “kisses every night before she prays.—It’s the miniature of a young innocent-looking girl with beautiful dark hair.” This miniature typifies the kind of art that D. G. Rossetti produced in the 1850s and that Basil Hallward created in the picture of Dorian before it began to change. The Victorians have drifted away from such art, however, toward Pater’s Mona Lisa, decadence, and Dorian’s picture after its corruption. But Windermere has not developed with the age. He remains frozen at the state of purity and innocence.
In Lady Windermere we see the second stage of Dorian’s development, which began when he fell in love with Sibyl Vane and ended when he rejected her and she committed suicide. Dorian’s picture registers the change in him by adding lines of cruelty around the mouth, but it remains otherwise unaltered.
When we meet Lady Windermere, she is still pure and innocent, but during the play she rejects her husband, decides to become Lord Darlington’s lover, then draws back from this immoral decision and—with the help of Mrs. Erlynne—is able to return to her previous life and preserve her marriage. It is significant that as soon as she steps into the world of corruption she is overwhelmed by a sense of guilt and decides to withdraw: “No, no! I will go back, let Arthur do as he pleases. I can’t wait here. It has been madness my coming. I must go at once.” Mrs. Erlynne’s role is to open the trap and allow her daughter to slip away.
This episode changes Lady Windermere irrevocably. She becomes aware of an immoral streak in herself and as a consequence becomes more forgiving and stops categorizing people as good or evil. At the end of the play, she is tainted but still basically pure, much like Dorian’s picture after the suicide of Sibyl Vane. Her sense of guilt parallels Dorian’s after Sibyl’s death. And like Dorian, she hides her secret from the world.
In his recent biography of Oscar Wilde [entitled Oscar Wilde], Richard Ellman observed of Lord Darlington:
Lord Darlington, who has been taken as a man about town, and who talks like Lord Henry Wotton, differs from Wotton in his possession of deep feelings.... When the play was given in New York with Maurice Barrymore... in the role, Wilde complained that Barrymore had failed to see that “Darlington is not a villain, but a man who really believes that Windermere is treating his wife badly, and wishes to save her. His appeal is not to the weakness, but to the strength of her character (Act II): in Act III his words show he really loves her.” It is because of her that he is leaving England for many years; he is a better man than Windermere.
Darlington may not be a better man than Windermere, but there is more goodness in him than people have generally recognized. He sums up the third stage in Dorian’s development, and there is within him a very delicate balance between goodness and corruption. The two opposites struggle in Darlington throughout the play, and the battle is not resolved at its end.
As the play begins, Darlington is in love with Lady Windermere, a married woman, and wants her for his mistress. But his great paradox is that he loves Lady Windermere for her purity and innocence: through her, he wants to recapture his own Page 225 | Top of Articlelost innocence. He says of her: “She is a good woman. She is the only good woman I have ever met in my life.” And: “This woman has purity and innocence. She has everything we men have lost.” The moral situation of Darlington is captured in act 3, when he says to Cecil Graham and Dumby, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
But Darlington’s problem is that he cannot recover his lost innocence through Lady Windermere. She is already married, and if he wins her, he will only be dragging her into the gutter and corrupting her. Definitely not a fool, he realizes the impossibility of his situation but corruptly continues to pursue her. And yet part of the reason he appeals to her to leave her husband in act 2 and to go with him is quite moral: he is thoroughly convinced that Windermere is a monstrously corrupt man who does not deserve her for a wife. Darlington’s motives are a very complex and fascinating fusion of goodness and corruption, for black and white are mixed inextricably in him.
His final decision to leave England is ambiguous: he leaves as much for Lady Windermere’s sake as for his own. It is true he decides to leave after her apparent rejection of him, but it is also true that she is at her most vulnerable at the end of act 2 and that his chances with her have never been better. Indeed, that same night she reverses her decision and goes to his rooms. His hasty departure is both selfish and self-sacrificial. At least in part, he leaves because his stormy conversation with her leads him to realize how painful social disgrace would be for her. On the other hand, he does not want her to come to him mournfully, in tears, but with a smile and courageously or not at all. Even Lord Darlington’s name is ambiguous, marking him both as a dandy and a “darling.”
Mrs. Erlynne represents the final stage in Dorian’s development. Although she does not commit any action quite as drastic as murder, she is nonetheless an immoral woman, devoted to leading a life of pleasure. In the play she discovers the goodness in herself and makes a major sacrifice to save her daughter. But she discovers that motherly love is too exhausting and strange an emotion for her, and she returns to the life of pleasure. She declares to the shocked Windermere: “I have no ambition to play the part of a mother. Only once in my life have I known a mother’s feelings. That was last night. They were terrible—they made me suffer—they made me suffer too much.” And: “No—what
consoles one nowadays is not repentance, but pleasure” (act 4). Far from being the conventional fallen woman of Victorian melodrama, Mrs. Erlynne deliberately rejects the goodness in herself and returns to a life of corruption. As Ellmann has observed, “Lady Windermere’s Fan is a more radical play than it appears.... Wilde. . . shelves the stereotype of the fallen woman: Mrs. Erlynne is singularly impenitent.” Wilde regarded this point as so basic that he wrote, in one of his letters, that her character is “as yet untouched by literature.”
Mrs. Erlynne’s rejection of motherly love parallels Dorian’s attempt to destroy his conscience by stabbing his picture. Far from dying, however, she tricks the infatuated Lord Augustus into marrying her and travels with him to the Continent. She also retains an affection for her daughter, albeit from a distance: human nature being “gray,” the goodness in Mrs. Erlynne cannot be eliminated.
In The Critic as Artist, Wilde wrote:
To an artist as creative as the critic, what does subject-matter signify? No more and no less than it does to the novelist and the painter. Like them, he can find his motives elsewhere. Treatment is the test.... [Criticism] works with materials, and puts them into a form that is at once new and delightful. What more can one say of poetry?
Treatment, then, or form, is what is vital in all art, not subject matter. In Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde applied this principle quite successfully. He took the raw subject matter of his novel and gave it a new form. The result was his first successful play.
Source: Christopher Nasser, “Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Lady Windermere’s Fan,” in Explicator, Fall, 1995, Vol. 54, no. 1, pp. 20–24.
Susan Taylor Jacobs
In the following essay, Jacobs examines Wilde’s use of fantasy in exploring the question of cultural identity.
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Source: Susan Taylor Jacobs, “When Formula Seizes Form: Oscar Wilde’s Comedies,” in Staging the Impossible: The Fantastic Mode in Modern Drama, edited by Patrick D. Murphy, Greenwood, 1992, pp. 15–29.
Beckson, Karl, ed. Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage, Alfred A. Knopf, 1970, 434 p.
Wilde, Oscar. The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde; with an introduction by Vyvyan Holland, Harper & Row, 1989 (1966).
Bloom, Harold, ed. Oscar Wilde, Chelsea House, 1985, 146 p.
An anthology of recent scholarship on Wilde, with a brief commentary by Bloom in which he concerns himself with the “anxiety of influence” (Bloom’s term for a writer’s struggle to create something fresh and new) in Wilde.
Coakley, Davis. Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Irish, Town House, 1995, 246 p.
Explores the role of the Irish raconteur in Wilde’s family and in his social life.
Ellman, Richard. Oscar Wilde, Alfred A. Knopf, 1988,632 p.
The definitive Wilde biography.
Freedman, Jonathan. Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1995, 257 p.
Essays, brief biography, and selected bibliography.
Holland, Vyvyan Beresford. Oscar Wilde: A Pictorial Biography, Viking Press, 1960, 144 p.
An intimate biography written by Oscar Wilde’s son.
Knox, Melissa. Oscar Wilde: A Long and Lovely Suicide, Yale University Press, 1994, 185 p.
A psychoanalytic biography that explore Wilde’s childhood experiences and their effect on his later life.
McCormack, Jerusha, ed. Wilde the Irishman, Yale University Press, 1998, 205 p.
Essays on aspects of Wilde’s works.
Powell, Kerry. Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s, Cambridge University Press, 1990, 204 p.
Places Wilde into a literary and historical context.
Raby, Peter, ed. Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde, Cambridge University Press, 1997, 307 p.
Examines the defining themes of Wilde’s work.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693400020