Reading the four comedies by Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, one finds that the women figures in these plays seem to resemble more or less. Wilde appears to like the use of simplified and stereotyped characters like the often occurring woman-with-a-past, some late Victorian domineering matron or the Puritan. With the impression these give, the reader comes to wonder how Wilde himself thought of them and why they are such recurring motifs. Might they be a mirror for the women in his own life or would that be too far-fetched?
I will try to proof in this essay that even though these four plays by Wilde as well as his woman figures give the impression as if they were really similar, they are at most alike, and the characters not easily comparable to persons in Wilde’s life.
The first three comedies all deal with someone who committed a secret sin in their past and is now confronted with this by meeting an old acquaintance. Though sinners they are in the end pardoned, because they remained good and pure in their hearts, which has to be proved most by Mrs Erlynne in Lady Windermere’s Fan.
She left her husband and baby to lead a life full of pleasure and returns half a year before her daughter’s coming of age, drawn by the wish to join or rejoin society and pressing money from Lord Windermere. He allows this because Lady Windermere would lose all her ideals if she found out about the true fate of her mother, whom she glorified all her life supposing she was dead. Mrs Erlynne sacrifices her reputation in Act III to save her daughter’s one, reminded of her own fault twenty years ago and motherly feelings having awoken not wanting her daughter to do the same mistake.
Mrs Erlynne: “I feel a passion awakening within me that I never felt before. What can it mean? The daughter must not be like the mother – that would be terrible. How can I save her? How can I save my child?”
Though she finds that she has a heart opposing her illusion, she still does not want her daughter to know her real identity, stating in Act III
“No, as far as I am concerned, let your wife cherish the memory of this dead, stainless mother. Why should I interfere with her illusions? I find it hard enough to keep my own. I lost one illusion last night. I thought I have no heart. I find I have, and a heart doesn’t suit me, Windermere.”
Oscar Wilde breaks with theatrical rules of the Victorian age, in which the fallen woman could only be sympathized if she is repentant, by making his Mrs Erlynne win a husband, “the one prize conventionally denied to the fallen woman”. She does have motherly feelings, but staying with her daughter revealing the truth would make her life of freedom and pleasure impossible, even more because these motherly feelings occur to her to make her suffer too much.
Mrs Arbuthnot from A Woman of No Importance led – after having committed the sin of bearing an illegitimate child - a completely different life from Mrs Erlynne’s. She sticked to the rules and devoted herself to good works and charity, which Mrs Erlynne even mocks by saying
“I suppose, Windermere, you would like me to retire into a convent or become a hospital nurse, or something of that kind, as people do in silly modern novels. That is stupid of you, Arthur; in real life we don’t do such things.”
The difference between Mrs Arbuthnot and Mrs Erlynne is that the one always wanted to get married to the father of her son but was rejected, and the other one left that sheltering home, wishing to break free, which seems to be even worse. For her lifelong repentance Mrs Arbuthnot is later on rewarded not with a husband but also with a better life, going abroad with her beloved son and her future daughter-in-law, the young American Puritan, Hester Worsley. After all, as it becomes clear in the last act, she has never regretted her sin, for what was the result of it was her son, whom she worships more than anything else.
A different woman-with-a-past occurs in An Ideal Husband – Mrs Cheveley, “a spirited but wayward adventuress”. Her big sin does lie less in the past but in the present, trying to blackmail the good-minded Sir Robert Chiltern with the one fault of his youth. Though she behaved wrongly ever since her childhood, which is told us by Lady Chiltern, her former schoolmate, she is now brought to fall by these comparably little sins, like lying and stealing, through Lord Goring, her former fiancé. He turns her blackmailing around by confronting her with evidence of one of her thefts. In this play she is the not pardoned villainess and not the converted sinner or the repentant fallen woman. It is rather Sir Robert Chiltern who embodies the person-with-a-past here and who has to be and is forgiven. It is clear from her first appearance that Mrs Cheveley will not be forgiven for anything she has done or will do, because of her unappealing and unpleasant façade.
The only woman who has some sort of secret in her past in The Importance of Being Earnest is Miss Prism, the nurse who was responsible of Jack Worthing’s being found in a handbag. She has quite a little role in the play, which shows that she cannot really be compared to the other women-with-a-past, even more because her mistake resulted from a little moment of unthoughtfulness rather than from any bad will.
So even though one must admit that there are similarities between these characters they cannot be called totally equal, because of too many albeit slight differences.
Another important figure in Wilde’s comedies seems to be the pure and good girl or woman, who has to change her mind during the play to be able to forgive a loved person. All of the first three dramas deal by some means with the failure of puritan uncompromisingness of these women.
It is Lady Windermere who states in the very beginning of the play, that “women who have committed what the world calls a fault should never be forgiven”. She was taught by her father’s sister, who brought her up, “to allow of no compromise”. Later she would have herself come into the situation where her husband had to forgive her an attempted sin, if it wasn’t for Mrs Erlynne to save her reputation and to keep Lady Windermere’s secret. Actually her husband, whom she accuses of adultery, was honest concerning that, while Lady Windermere will keep her secret for the rest of her life. She even pushes her guiltiness away by blaming it on life. She proclaims that “Life is terrible. It rules us, we do not rule it.” Nevertheless, in the end she has learned that “…people can (not) be divided into the good and the bad as though they were two separate races or creations.”
 Sos Eltis, p. 58
 Sloan, p. 115
- Quote paper
- Britta Fokken (Author), 2004, Recurring Images of Women in Oscar Wilde's Comedies, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/26578