Lady Windermere's Fan

by Oscar Wilde

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What kind of woman is Mrs. Erlynne in Lady Windermere's fan?

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The protagonist of Lady Windermere's Fan by Oscar Wilde is Lady Margaret Windermere. She is the daughter of a man whose wife left him for another man, but she believes that her mother died when she was a baby because her father has not told her that her mother is, in fact, still alive. She is currently married to the wealthy and respected Lord Windermere.

When the audience initially hears of Mrs. Erlynne, she is revealed as someone taking payments from Lord Windermere. She appears on the surface an example of a "fallen woman," one who sacrificed upper-class respectability in order to commit adultery. Lady Windermere thinks that Lord Windermere is having an affair with Mrs. Erlynne. The actual facts are more complicated, as the audience gradually discovers. In fact, Mrs. Erlynne is actually Lady Windermere's mother.

In the play, she appears to regret her earlier actions, but she has also developed a sort of world-weary pragmatism. She sees through many social conventions, finding them grounded in prejudice rather than in reality. In the end though, she sacrifices her own reputation to save her daughter and urges her daughter to remain respectably married. Thus, despite her initial portrayal as a "fallen woman," she eventually redeems herself as a conventional and self-sacrificing mother.

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Mrs. Erlynne is regarded by so-called respectable society as what used to be called a "fallen woman." Given the intensely restrictive nature of Victorian society, this was a term quite broadly applied; just about any woman could be deemed "fallen" if she transgressed the acceptable boundaries of what was considered appropriate female behavior.

However, it soon becomes clear that the black-and-white moral portrait that society has painted of Mrs. Erlynne is something of a travesty. For one thing, she only did what the supposedly respectable Lady Windermere is ready to do: leave her husband. Mrs. Erlynne's sudden, unwelcome arrival on the scene forces Lady Windermere to confront her smug, complacent morality, which she comes to see is mired in self-righteousness.

The good Lady's wayward mother is by no means a saint, to be sure. Unlike her daughter, however, she is prepared to accept the consequences of her transgressions. Because of this, she's better able to help Lady Windermere save her marriage and remain a member of respectable society. The "fallen woman" has given the "respectable lady" a valuable lesson in the true meaning of goodness, and in doing so has radically subverted the prevailing standards of morality and propriety.

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Mrs. Erlynne, the real mother of Lady Windermere is what we can catalogue as an AMORAL person. We could argue that she is innately a bad person because she is a blackmailer, after all, has very little interest in making a meaningful connection with her daughter and, most importantly, has a very tainted past which ended in her expulsion from the acceptable society.

However, we cannot completely render this veredict as one and only, because in her mind Mrs. Erlynne simply does not see those things as good or evil, but merely as tactics for social survival.

Therefore, although Mrs. Erlynne is certainly not a good woman, we cannot say that she is bad. She is amoral in that she does the things that she does "just because". She needs money? she gets it the easiest way. She wants company? She manipulates people to get it for her. But her lack of worry and lack of guilt helps us realize that, to her, none of those things are unacceptable, but reasonable to consider.

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