On the surface, the nature of conflict in the play Lady Windermere's Fan by Oscar Wilde is between Lady Windermere and her husband. Lord Windermere loves his wife and knows a secret about her. She believes that her mother died when she was a small child and that, as a result, her father’s sister raised her. However, the truth is that her mother is a woman named Mrs. Erlynne, who is no longer accepted in society because of her indiscreet behavior. Lord Windemere knows the truth, has been helping Mrs. Erlynne financially, and has been trying to help her get back into society. He invites her to the party he throws for his wife, her daughter, and Lady Windermere is both morally outraged and jealous. This is the conflict on one level. This conflict, the marital conflict, is shown in the scenes in which Lady Windermere tells her husband that she will refuse to be gracious to Mrs. Erlynne.
However, on a deeper level, the conflict is between rigid and often hypocritical Victorian morality and more liberal, broader compassion and understanding of people. Lady Windemere is presented as a “Puritan,” with inflexible views and values and no tolerance for people who have made a social or moral mistake. She tells her husband that if he insists on having Mrs. Erlynne to their party, she will strike the woman with her fan.
Her husband is horrified, both because such behavior would be offensive and because he knows the true relationship between the two women. Lord and Lady Windemere face off over the rigid and inflexible values of the wife and the greater understanding of the husband. The flames of their conflict are fanned by meddling busybodies. Moreover, one busybody, Lord Darlington, means to cause trouble and also possibly show the hypocrisy he believes is inherent in many seemingly upstanding people.
Much of this conflict is shown between Lord and Lady Windermere, as well as between Lady Windermere and Lord Darlington. For instance:
Lord Darlington. [Still seated L.C.] Oh, nowadays so many conceited people go about Society pretending to be good, that I think it shows rather a sweet and modest disposition to pretend to be bad. Besides, there is this to be said. If you pretend to be good, the world takes you very seriously. If you pretend to be bad, it doesn’t. Such is the astounding stupidity of optimism.
Lady Windermere. Don’t you want the world to take you seriously then, Lord Darlington?
Lord Darlington. No, not the world. Who are the people the world takes seriously? All the dull people one can think of, from the Bishops down to the bores. I should like you to take me very seriously, Lady Windermere, you more than any one else in life.
Later in this same scene, Lady Windermere says to Lord Darlington, “You think I am a Puritan, I suppose? Well, I have something of the Puritan in me. I was brought up like that. I am glad of it.”
Lady Windermere claims that she knows “the difference that there is between what is right and what is wrong" and that she does not compromise. Furthermore, she says, life “is a sacrament. Its ideal is Love. Its purification is sacrifice.” This might also be Oscar Wilde’s nod to the hypocrisy often found in religious institutions.