Social criticism in Oscar Wilde´s Lady Windermere´s Fan

Seminar Paper, 2000

21 Pages, Grade: 1,5 (A)


Table of Contents

A. Social inequalities in the Victorian Age

B. How is Wilde´s attitude shown in his play “Lady Windermere’s Fan” ?
I. Mrs. Erlynne - a fallen woman with a past
II. Lady Windermere - a young Puritan
III. Lord Darlington - the dandy
IV. Other characters
a) Lord Windermere - a typical Victorian husband
b) The Duchess of Berwick - the aristocracy
c) Lady Agatha –a stereotyped daughter

C. The rebel Oscar Wilde and an outcast on other Wildean society plays


A. Social inequalities in the Victorian age

Victorian England was puritan and it stressed self-discipline, patriotism, family, sexual morality, work and capitalism. There was a predominant inequality in the treatment of the genders; women were discriminated against in many fields of social life.

Especially women of the upper and middle classes were not expected to be in employment but to marry and to rear the children. They had an extremely restricted choice of occupation as many professions refused entry to them, for example becoming doctors or bankers represented an impossibility. According to Professor George Peter Landow[1], the range of female occupation facilities generally did not go beyond domestic servant, dressmaker and milliner, factory worker, governess or teacher, member of religious order, nurse, writer or prostitute. Usually, female labour consisted only of running the household and offering a pleasant family home to their husbands.

Since they did not earn any money with the work as domestic servants who fulfil their duties as housewives and mothers, women were eager to get married and depended on their authoritarian husbands. Girls were brought up to ignore their sexual feelings and to obey their spouse as the head of the family. The whole education of young ladies focused on future marriage and the efforts of the season were to achieve this particular aim. Normally, the parents found the suitable partner for their child and they intervened in case of an undesirable liaison. In other terms, they made the decisions for their daughters. They thought mainly in commercial terms; the social status or the institution ´marriage´ itself seemed far more important than the husband-to-be as a person. Society marriage could be seen as a mere mercenary affair: “People did not marry for love so much as for the conveniences of the families concerned; all marriages were in this sense “arranged”.”[2]

Marriage is here seen as an economic transaction: the woman acquires security, and the wealth to maintain a conspicuous social position; in return, the man´ s sexual infidelities are condoned, or at least overlooked.[3]

With regard to marital loyalty, the Victorians had distinct ideas:

The Victorian family, they believe, was patriarchal, based on a double standard

of sexual morality according to which fidelity was demanded of the wife while

the husband pursued his extra marital career of sexual escapades among

prostitutes or expensive mistresses, depending on his social class.[4]

Even the law supported these different moral principles that granted men the right to have sexual relationships with other partners. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 allowed a man to dissolve the marriage in case of adultery on the part of his wife whereas a woman could only obtain a divorce if she proved her spouse guilty of both being unfaithful and cruel. In any case, “ the children became the man´ s property and the mother could be prevented from seeing her children.”[5] Besides, all her property and money belonged to her other half.

Taking into consideration this double moral, the idealization of marriage is most amazing. It is really hypocritical how faithful marriage and premarital chastity were praised though they did merely exist in real life. Kohl[6] emphasized that correspondingly to the ideal, women who had violated the accepted moral code were banished from society; the ostracism of these so-called “fallen women” was widely spread. Many of the expelled ladies saw suicide or prostitution as their only ways out.

Finally, we can conclude that in the prudish Victorian era, double standards were accepted: Women had a great deal to endure because they had hardly any rights. Therefore, they were bound to tolerate almost everything. On the other hand, society showed approval for men cheating on their wives without receiving an adequate punishment.

Oscar Wilde regarded rebellion as an absolutely necessary feature and for that reason, he supported the women´ s liberation movement. He committed himself to women´ s struggle for equal rights and he fought for a general change in the accepted social views. Wilde´ s critical attitude towards society certainly found expression in his work, too. Therefore, in this term paper, I would like to underline in which way this criticism left its mark in his play “Lady Windermere´ s Fan”.

B. How is Wilde´s attitude shown in his play “Lady Windermere’s Fan” ?

I. Mrs. Erlynne – a fallen woman with a past

The first protagonist I want to analyse is actually the true main character of the whole play. Mrs. Erlynne impersonates at first sight the typical “fallen woman” of the Victorian era. She is a beautiful, elegant, middle-aged woman who is the victim of mean gossip due to her dubious past. As the Duchess of Berwick puts it: “Many a woman has a past, but I am told that she has at least a dozen, and that they all fit. (…) Not that many ladies call on her, dear, but she has a great many disreputable men friends.”[7] (p.20) For these reasons, Mrs. Erlynne has a bad and despicable reputation in English society and the women “are very down on her” (p.31) whereas the men are extremely attracted to her. On account of her past, she is considered to be “absolutely inadmissible into society.”(p.20)

Only the audience gets to know the true story of her sad life. “Mrs. Erlynne was once honoured, loved, respected. She was well born, she had position – she lost everything – threw it away” (p.25). Owing to a misunderstanding, she had left her husband and her little daughter about twenty years ago and she had lived abroad. This fatal mistake of her youth brought about her hard expulsion from society. By accident, the fallen woman heard about her child having married a rich man – Lord Windermere - and she decided to use this marriage as her stepping-stone back into English society. Now, she blackmails Lord Windermere by threatening that she will reveal her true identity in public. The young husband is afraid of a scandal and wants to spare his wife the bitter truth about her dead mother whom she expected to have died twenty years ago. As a result, he agrees to give away large sums of money to Mrs. Erlynne so that she can have a high standard of living. Her next demand is an invitation to Lady Windermere’s birthday ball because she thinks it might be the best way to enter the social territory “ball room”. As an outsider, she wants to re-enter good society and be accepted by it. According to Kohl’s work[8], her aim to be integrated into established society will only be achieved if she conforms decently to the behaviour patterns of the noble circles. She must live selfishly in an egotistic society.

Being selfish obviously includes that she appears unscrupulous with regard to her own daughter: She deserted her as a child and now, she does not shy away from blackmailing her son-in-law. Mrs. Erlynne does not meet the social expectations of a mother for she neglected her maternal impulse. But in the course of the story, she has to undergo an emotional crisis. Since Lady Windermere is misled into thinking that her spouse has an affair with Mrs. Erlynne, she acts according to her acquaintance Lord Darlington’s advice: She abandons her family, willing to throw herself into the arms of that friend and all she leaves her husband is a message. By chance, Mrs. Erlynne finds this letter and she is moved because her daughter’s behaviour reminds her completely on her own situation twenty years ago. In despair, she complains about this tragedy:

Oh, why does this horrible fancy come across me? Why do I remember

now the one moment of my life I most wish to forget? Does life repeat its

tragedies? (…) The same words I wrote twenty years ago to her father! and

how bitterly I have been punished for it! No; (…) my real punishment is tonight,

is now! (p.43)

Suddenly, for the first time in her life, Mrs. Erlynne becomes aware of her maternal feelings; a “passion awakening within [her] that [she] never felt before.” (p.44) She realizes the enormous danger her daughter is in so that she follows her to Lord Darlington’s house in order to save her. As a protectress, it is her desire to make Lady Windermere return to her husband. Unfortunately, her daughter does not fall in with her authoritative suggestion and refuses defiantly to go back. In despair, Mrs. Erlynne persists stubbornly on her demand and begs Lady Windermere to obey. She knows from her own bitter experience what it is like to be a fallen woman. Although she is aware of all the weaknesses of Philistine society, she suffers from ostracism and warns her daughter. Being sure that her child is not strong and self-assured enough to stand the gossip, she tries to rescue her. “She believes her daughter to be internally weaker than herself, less able to withstand the assaults of intolerant society than herself”.[9] Therefore, she makes an attempt to persuade Lady Windermere by telling her about her own terrible fate:


[1] George Peter Landow, Occupation and employment, Brown University, online, available:, 20 August 2000.

[2] Christopher Lasch, Divorce and the Family in America, November 1966, online, available:, 15 August 2000.

[3] Peter Raby, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997),p.146.

[4] C. Lasch, Divorce and the Family in America.

[5] Marriage,online,available:, 20 August 2000.

[6] Norbert Kohl, Oscar Wilde: Das literarische werk zwischen Provokation und Anpassung(Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag,1980),p.383.

[7] All citations of the play are taken from: An Ideal Husband and other plays. London: Penguin Group, 1999.

[8] N. Kohl,p.353.

[9] Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays(Englewood Cliffs/New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc., 1969),p.164.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Social criticism in Oscar Wilde´s Lady Windermere´s Fan
University of Trier  (Literature Studies)
Proseminar Oscar Wilde
1,5 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
482 KB
Social, Oscar, Wilde´s, Lady, Windermere´s, Proseminar, Oscar, Wilde
Quote paper
Simone Conen (Author), 2000, Social criticism in Oscar Wilde´s Lady Windermere´s Fan, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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