In Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere believes her husband is having an affair. As “proof” of his unfaithfulness, Lord Windermere invites Mrs. Erlynne to his wife’s ball. Outraged, Lady Windermere leaves him for Lord Darlington, who claims that he truly loves her. Hoping to persuade her to return home, Mrs. Erlynne follows Lady Windermere to Lord Darlington’s and, due to circumstance, they end up hiding. For unknown reasons to Lady Windermere, her reputation and marriage is saved by Mrs. Erlynne.
First produced in 1892, the four act comedy is a satire about Victorian England, where a scandal is among the worst things that could happen. Wilde rebukes the different social laws that men and women are expected to follow, especially in regard to marriage. While a husband’s affair is kept quiet and publicly frowned upon, a wife’s reputation would be utterly destroyed and she would be shamed. Society’s view, as told by Lady Windermere is that:
“If a woman really repents, she never wishes to return to the society that had made or seen her ruin”.
Wilde calls Society out on its falseness through Lord Darlington’s line:
“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. Besides, there is this to be said. If you pretend to be good, the world takes you very seriously. If you pretend to be bad, it doesn’t. Such is the astounding stupidity of optimism.”
The script works well for the characters, their moral standing, and how some of their views change through the play. The puritanical Lady Windermere, who believes that life “is a sacrament. Its ideal is Love. It’s purification is sacrifice”, says near the play’s end:
“I don’t think now that people can be divided into the good and the bad as though they were two separate races or creations. What are called good women may have terrible things in them, bad moods of recklessness, assertion, jealousy, sin. Bad women, as they are termed, may have in them sorrow, repentance, pity, sacrifice”.
Mrs. Erlynne is shunned and the subject of gossip because she cast aside married life. She prefers living under the hospitality of others outside of England and away from strict Society. While talking about Mrs. Erlynne and her scandalous past, Lord Darlington says:
“Misfortunes one can endure- they come from outside, they are accidents. But to suffer for one’s own faults-ah!-there is the sting of life”.
The satire’s humor is more apparent through the characters’ actions and behaviors than their lines. It could possibly be funnier if seen by actors over-acting and really reflecting Wilde’s views on the absurdity of Society. Overall, Lady Windermere’s Fan is a pretty good, quick read.
Sixth and first reading for the Drama and GLBT challenges done.
- “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.”
- “Actions are the first tragedy in life, words are the second. Words are perhaps the worst. Words are merciless.”
- A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. A sentimentalist is a man who sees the absurd value in everything and doesn’t know the market price of a single thing.