What are the ideas of gender and the marginalization of women in Lady Windermere's Fan by Oscar Wilde?
Oh, men don't matter. With women it is different.
The above dialogue by the Duchess of Berwick goes lengths to tell us about the discrimination in treatment of mena nd women in the Victorian era. 'Lady Winderemere's Fan' by Oscar Wilde provides a great insight into the upper class society. Wilde makes clever use of wit and satire to highlight the discrepancies of the society, particularly in its treatment of men and women. The play starts on the birthday of Lady Windermere who has been happily married for an year to Lord Windermere. They both love each other and have no secrets. Until a well-wisher informs Lady Windermere about her husband's supposed affair with a notorious 'woman with a past' Mrs. Erlynne. Lady Windermere, a Puritan is shocked and shattered by this disclosure about her hitherto faithful husband. The play focuses on how the society around them views this affair. For most people it is a common event, one which they have taken for granted. Lady Plymdale says:
I assure you, women of that kind are most useful. They form the basis of other people's marriages.
Thus, in her experience all marriages have a third party attached to the couple. The man has a wife, who stays at home and produces legitimate heirs and also has a lady friend. The Duchess of Berwick advices Lady Windermer:
Yes, dear, these wicked women get our husbands away from us, but they always come back, slightly damaged of course. And don't make scenes, men hate them!
We can see here that Duchess of Berwick has a good knowledge on the character of men. She knows her husband strays: before the year was out, he was running after all kinds of petticoats, every colour, every shape, every material. She feels this to be a normal course of events. Men have affairs, but they always come back to their wives and the women are supposed to forgive them and take them back. However, the rules for women are quite the oppostie. The readers are introduced to Mrs. Erlynne, a woman with a past. In an era, where most women are supposed to be meek and submissive, the weaker vessel, while men gallant and chivalrous are bound to be their protectors and look after their weak wife, Mrs. Erlynne is woman with a rebellous streak in her. She is a practical lady and knows that she does not need her husband to take care of her. She finds herself confined within the walls of her house, and in her desperation opts for the same course a man would take if he found himself like her in a confininf marriage that offers no happiness - she has an affair. The only difference being she is a woman, and is thus ostrasized from the society and becomes an outcast. She is forced to leave her husband and infant daughter, in punishment of a crime which is considered normal for men but not for women. Oscar Wilde cleverly potrays this distinction, and the readers can't help but feel sorry for Mrs. Erlynne. In the last act Lady Windermere acting as Wilde's mouthpiece says:
There is a bitter irony in things, a bitter irony in the way we talk of good and bad women.
Surprisingly, the Victorian society was one budding with feminism. Although clearly woman were not considered the equals they are today, during the Victorian age woman started to assert themselves, especially well read, educated women. Oscar Wilde supported the feminist movement, he even edited a magazine called The Woman's world, which published articles on each side of the suffrage issue. The suffrage issue gained huge momentum during this time. You can see, by Wilde's writing, however, that the pervasive view of women who only gossiped and waited to get married, still existed. In Lady Winderemere's fan, look at Agatha. However, Wilde offsets this by how ridiculous he makes them. He makes the play a hypocrisy. Both the women and the men do not escape this. However, the difference between them can be seen in the different reaction to affairs in the society. Look at the reaction when it is thought that Lord Windermere is having an affair. The Duchess tells Lady Winderemere to ignore it, and that all men have their own "dalliances." However, when it is thought that Mrs. Erlynne is at the house of another man (even though she has only been engaged for an hour) her honor is ruined forever, and she has to leave London.
In the beginning of the play, she had remarked about life:
It is a sacrament. Its ideal is Love. Its purification is Sacrifice.
The irony of the play starts here, as it is Mrs. Erlynne who lives by these ideals, but is not given a chance to explain herself. Lady Windermere's views of the world to be divided into only good and bad have changed by the end of the play. She has now realized the hypocrisy lying underneath the society's so called moral code.
I don't think now that people can be divided into the good and the bad as though they were two separate races or creations. What are called good women may have terrible things in them, mad moods of recklessness, assertion, jealousy, sin. Bad women, as they are termed, may have in them sorrow, repentance, pity, sacrifice.
The above dialogue is the crux of the play, clearly highlighting the injustice done to women in this era in the name of morality.