Explain the role and portrayal of the fan in Lady Windermere's Fan

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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The use and portrayal of the fan in Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan is as varied as it is significant. A fancy communication tool mostly used in this specific time period, a lady's fan conveyed a language of its own combined with eye movements, hand movements, its placement, and even in the speed that it was waved. 

A lady would use her fan as a unique conduit of code language to convey messages to both men and women. A fan was an enforcer of communication. Arguably, the mere fact of holding the fan instilled in females almost the same level of comfort and security as a gun would have provided a man. In sum, the fan was a huge social facilitator because it was in itself a communicative device. Nowadays you can research anywhere in the Internet and find that "the language of the fan" was quite en-vogue during Wilde's time. 

This being said, the role of the fan in this particular play serves a similar purpose: the fan is often used by Wilde to foreshadow a situation, or to extend the meaning of Lady Windermere's expressions. The play begins on the day of Lady Windermere's "of- age" birthday. The fan is a gift form her husband, which she seems to cherish tremendously. 

Pretty, isn’t it!  It’s got my name on it, and everything...  It’s my husband’s birthday present to me...I’m of age to-day.  Quite an important day in my life.

However, as she learns about her husband's enigmatic monetary transactions with the mysterious Mrs. Erlynne, the fan becomes Lady Windermere's weapon of choice to bestow upon her potential rival the ultimate insult. 

[Picking up fan.]...  If that woman crosses my threshold, I shall strike her across the face with it.

As anger continues to invade Lady Windermere, she decides to cheat on her husband to get even. For this particular, she passes her fan to Lord Darlington in two separate occasions while saying

 A useful thing a fan, isn’t it? . . . I want a friend to-night, Lord Darlington: I didn’t know I would want one so soon.

So far the fan has served as a symbol of romantic connection. First, in the form of Lord Windermere's gift to his beloved wife, and then as Lady Windermere's sign to Lord Darlington to become her lover. However, the fan will also be a sign of trouble, as Lady Windermere clumsily forgets to retrieve her fan prior to being hidden by Mrs. Erlynne inside of Lord Darlington's place. Although Mrs. Erlynne tried to save Lady Windermere of social shame for visiting the man's home, the fan was still witnessed by Lord Darlington's visitors much to the shock and chagrin of Lord Windermere. 
Speak, sir!  Why is my wife’s fan here?  Answer me!  By God!  I’ll search your rooms, and if my wife’s here, I’ll -
As Mrs. Erlynne takes the blame for having taken the fan, she is twice the offender for also being in the rooms of Lord Darlington. She is guilty of neither offense, but it is the one sacrifice that she is willing to do on behalf of her daughter, Lady Windermere- a daughter whom she abandoned and who never knew who she really is.
By now the fan has become "soiled" in the eyes of Lord W. The sight of it in another man's house made him ill and he wants to get rid of it. Lady W offers her personalized fan to Mrs. Erlynne, shockingly realizing that both her and Mrs. Erlynne's names are "Margaret". 
This is a symbol of providence: mother and daughter meet again, Mrs. E re-enters society, and the token of this conversion will be, precisely, Lady Windermere's fan.   

 
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