Please explain the themes of Lady Windermere's Fan and provide possible test questions.  

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durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the high society of Lady Windermere's Fan, wherein we find Lord and Lady Windermere, appearances are everything. Having been mistakenly exposed for having an affair, Lord Windermere must find a way to explain himself without revealing the real truth to his wife - ‘‘I dare not tell her who this woman really is. The shame would kill her.’’  The woman is, in fact, her mother.

Marrying well is paramount and reputation must be preserved in ‘‘this demmed thing called society.’’ The characters are shallow and hypocritical, just as long as they can keep up appearances. Lady Windermere is shocked when Mrs Erlynne, whom she supposes is her rival for her husband's affections, is prepared to risk her own reputation to save Lady Windermere's after she  impulsively decided to leave her husband of two years and run away with Mr Darlington.

Mrs Erlynne is the arch-typical "bad mother" that Victorian society judges so harshly without consideration of any circumstances. However, Margaret (Lady Windermere) now has a soft spot for this woman - without any knowledge of who she is - but her husband is more cautious than ever of her as he is confused by her appearance at Mr Darlington's and claims that Mrs Erlynne is " ‘‘as bad as a woman can be.’’ Mrs Erlynne has been extorting money from Lord Windermere, blackmailing him to ensure that her identity is not revealed to her daughter. His intentions are good but now Mrs Erlynne also has a change of heart and is thankful that she has actually met her daughter. She gives some motherly advice to Margaret, urging her not to tell Lord Windermere about her proposed tryst with Mr Darlington.

As ever, appearances  can be deceiving. Mrs Erlynne has her own marriage proposal and will herself be able to join the echelons of society that she previously took advantage of - when she  blackmailed Lord Windermere so he could protect his wife's reputation and sensitivities.

Questions should revolve around the themes of appearances, the hypocrisy of society which judges others but never itself and the concept of the "bad mother." You could ask the following:

  1. What is the real relationship between Margaret and Mrs Erlynne as compared to the "perceived" relationship? (mother / husband's mistress)
  2. Why could Mrs Erlynne be described as a "bad mother" and what steps does she take to change this perception? (She was blackmailing Lord Windermere but saves Margaret's reputation at the risk of her own)
  3. Why does Lord Winderemere keep the "secret" from his wife?(He does not think she is strong enough to know the truth)
  4. What does this reveal about the concept of the "fragile" woman? (In this era, women's sensitivities were vehemently protected by men who thought they were weak.) 
  5. How does Lord Windermere's "secret" reflect the attitude of the society at the time? (Stereotypes were accepted in high society and maintained the perceived balance in society circles)
  6. Do you think a modern audience can relate to the circumstances here? (Many possible answers would be acceptable with supporting explanations: yes because we still live in an environment where lies are tolerated. No because women have a far larger role to play than the "pretty wife" and the "bad mother" concept has many mitigating circumstances and considerations.