Social Criticism in Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan

Seminar Paper, 2003

13 Pages, Grade: 2 (B)




1.Good and Bad
1.1. Characterisation Techniques (1) : Lady Windermere the “Good” Woman
1.2. Development: Allusions Then Concrete Suspicion
1.3. Contrast Relationship(1): Mrs Erlynne the “Bad” Woman
1.3.1.Characterisation techniques (2)
1.3.2. Suspense-structure
1.4. The Change
1.5. Contrast Relationship(2):Mrs Erlynne’s sacrifice
1.5.1. Space: Lady Windermere’s Impasse
1.5.2. Lead of Information
1.5.3. Mrs Erlynne’s Sacrifice
1.5.4. Irony
1.6 Conclusion(1)

2. Exclusiveness of Society
2.1. But Why Is It So Difficult to Belong to It?
2.2.The Exception Proves the Rule.

3. Hypocrisy and Superficiality
3.1. The Speech Behaviour as a Mirror of Society
3.1.1 Monologized Dialogue/ One-way Conversation
3.1.2 Change of View
3.2. Conclusion (2)



0. Introduction

Today almost everything is accepted in modern society. It does not matter if a person is homosexual, bisexual or transsexual. Further, everyone can do even almost everything that pleases him. So, a lot of men “try” women –the more, the more they are famous, rich or successful. And even today’s women have broken free from their traditional tasks: raising a family, staying at home and doing the cooking. Instead, it is fashion to live a man’s life: going to parties, having a lot of affairs and neglecting the morals. Today’s women are as bad as their masculine fellow men. And even they have become worse- if you want to believe in what the older generation says about our youth. Maybe,

this is true. If you compare it to the Victorian Age, so much seems to have changed.

Thinking of Oscar Wilde, you will soon realise that he could have lived a much easier life in today’s world. He was an “enfant terrible” of his time. Not only that his artistic and theatrical views did not fit into society at all, but it were especially his sexual preferences that caused his main problems. In contrast to the latest tendency of accep- tance for homosexuality, it was a real crime about the year 1900 and so he had to spend a certain time in prison. “The double life that it entailed was by no means a simple mat- ter of deceit and guilt for Wilde: it suited the cultivation of moral independence and de- tachment from society that he considered essential to art.”[1] (Small:1999,xiv/xv). With

his behaviour he offended the leaders, institutions and press of his Philistine country. Yet, he always tried to be accepted by Society, but his attempts were mostly answered with exclusion.As Wilde lived for art, his works are a mirror of his own disappointment and frustration about the contemporary value system. So it is certainly very interesting to examine his play Lady Windermere’s Fan in regard to social and moral views.

1. Good and Bad

One of the central topics is the theme “What is good and what is bad ?”, which is echoed in the subtitle A Play about a Good Woman.

1.1. Characterisation Techniques (1) : Lady Windermere the “Good” Woman

Right at the beginning, the reader or the audience is confronted with Lady Windermere. Wilde uses three characterisation techniques in order to create her picture. Explicit figural-characterisation works together with explicit and implicit self-characterisation:

So on the one hand, many things are said (for example that she is a lady (compare Wilde:1999,page 5,line 1[2] ))by other characters, i.e. her servant, Lord Darlington or Lord Windermere. So you get a number of information about her via the explicit figural-characterisation. But she characterises herself furthermore explicitly: Saying “Well ,I have something of the Puritan in me. I was brought up like that. I am glad of it.(…)” (p.9,l.73-75) enlarge the knowledge about her. And besides, our sympathies are also directed by the way she talks, the way she acts, the way she looks, etc. These factors of implicit self-characterisation enforce the impression you get from what is said.So Wilde uses three totally different perspectives to guide the sympathy: the opinion of the other characters’, her own view of herself and finally the estimation of the audience itself.

All in all, everything that you get to know about her at the beginning of the play is highly positive: she shares Puritan values, is a young, beautiful, married lady and moreover a “good woman”. A person everyone would like. And furthermore, her values are very strict. She does not even want Lord Darlington to make her compliments, for example.

1.2. Development: Allusions Then Concrete Suspicion

But this is not the only statement about her. Besides, you get to know that her perfect world is endangered: First of all, Wilde lets Lord Darlington make allusions about her situation:

Do you think then- of course I am only putting an imaginary instance- do you think

that in the case of a young married couple, say about two years married, if the

husband suddenly becomes the intimate friend of a woman of- well, more than

doubtful character, is always calling upon her, lunching with her, and probably

paying her bills- do you think that the wife should not console herself? (p.10ff).

Here, you consider this rather as a kind of flirt, as Lord Darlington is the personified dandy in this situation. You do not see the connection to Lady Windermere’s situation yet. This changes, when the Duchess of Berwick becomes more concrete: … “this terrible woman has taken a house in Curzon Street,[...]-such a respectable street, too. I don’t know what we’re coming to! And they tell me that Windermere goes there four and five times a week” (p.17,l.254,ff). Now everyone knows that the “good” woman is betrayed by her husband. So, the audience’s sympathy is complemented with compa- ssion which increases the identification with her.

1.3. Contrast Relationship: Mrs Erlynne the “Bad” Woman

Wilde confronts this thoroughgoing “good” person with the obvious epitome of a “bad” woman. Mrs Erlynne is like a stock figure or the personification of a “woman with a past”.

1.3.1.Characterisation techniques (2)

In contrast to Lady Windermere, Mrs Erlynne is above all characterised via an explicit figural-characterisation before her first appearance. The other characters slander and gossip about her in the worst way. They are so preju-diced against her that they do not even try to hide their antipathy, like the Duchess of Berwick for example (compare p.16,l.215-221 and p.17,l.244-p.18,l.265). Both her bad past is implied and her probable affair with Lord Windermere. Everyone seems to be so sure that this must correspond with the truth that this knowledge about Mrs Erlynne’s character is transmitted to the audience.

1.3.2. Suspense-structure

Wilde underlines this first impression you get from Mrs Erlynne with another effective medium: suspense.

Mrs Erlynne is called a “horrid woman” (p.16,l.215), to be “inadmissible into society” (p.16,l.220), to be worse than all the other women with a past (compare p.16,l.220f), to have “many disreputable men friends” (p.17,l.245f) and that “this woman has got a great deal of money out of somebody” (p.18,l.262f). So when you meet her for the first time, you only know that she is thoroughgoing “bad”. But you do not know exactly what she has done and what has happened. You only seem to know that she might work as a prostitute and that she has been destroying the Windermeres’ happy relationship. This woman becomes even more enigmatic when Lord Windermere starts to defend her. He says that she “was once honoured, loved, respected.(…)She had been a wife for even less time than you.”(p.24,l.399-406),but the curiosity is increased as he refuses to “give […]any details about her life”. (p.24,l.398). In the following, he thinks about telling his wife the truth. But the audience does not know the truth-at first-, either. So you could talk about discrepant awareness: Lord Windermere and Mrs Erlynne share a secret. Of course, her mysteriousness enforce the impression that she is in fact a “bad” woman.


[1] Ian Small, “Introduction,” Ian Small (ed.), Lady Windermere’s Fan. A Play About a Good Woman

(London: New Mermaids,1999) xiv/xv.

[2] Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan: A Play About a Good Woman. ed. Ian Small.2nd ed. London: New Mermaids, 1999. (All further quotations or references that are not explicitly announced to be taken from any other source refer to this book!)

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Social Criticism in Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan
University of Tubingen  (English Philology)
Proseminar I: Introduction to Drama
2 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
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426 KB
Social, Criticism, Oscar, Wilde, Lady, Windermere, Proseminar, Introduction, Drama
Quote paper
Christina König (Author), 2003, Social Criticism in Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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