(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Lady Windermere’s Fan, the first of Wilde’s social comedies, opened on February 20, 1892, in London to lukewarm reviews. A four-act play that employs what are often regarded in drama as cheap tricks—mistaken identity, the lost child restored to the rightful parent, the conversation overheard while hidden, and the romantic triangle—this play ultimately succeeds because it twists the clichés with which it is working. The mistaken identity remains mistaken, the lost child (Lady Windermere) never knows that Mrs. Erlynne is her true mother, and the romantic triangle is really not a romantic triangle, but only appears to be.

The play revolves around Lady Windermere’s twenty-first birthday. Her husband is giving a ball in honor of the occasion. Lady Windermere, trusting and innocent, receives information that “poor, dear Windermere” has been seeing another woman and has apparently set her up in style. At first, Lady Windermere does not believe the reports, but the seed of suspicion has been sown.

Hoping to prove her husband innocent, she goes to his desk and looks into his checkbook, finding nothing untoward. Her mind is relieved, but then she notices a second checkbook, this one locked. She breaks the lock, opens the checkbook, and, to her horror, finds that Windermere has written large and regular checks to Mrs. Erlynne, a woman with a past.

When she confronts her husband with this information, he is horrified that she has broken into his checkbook and defends Mrs. Erlynne, who is, as only Windermere knows, Lady Windermere’s real mother. Not only does he defend this fallen woman, but he insists that Lady Windermere invite her to the birthday ball to give her a chance to regain some of her squandered social stature. When Lady Windermere refuses, Windermere himself delivers an invitation to Mrs. Erlynne. Lady Windermere threatens to strike Mrs. Erlynne with her fan, a birthday gift from Windermere, if she comes to the ball.

In the next scene, the ball is under way. The butler...

(The entire section is 835 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

On Lady Windermere’s birthday, Lord Windermere presents her with the gift of a beautiful, delicately wrought fan with her name, Margaret, engraved on it. She intends to carry the fan at a ball she is giving that evening, a ball to which everyone of importance in London has been invited. That afternoon, the duchess of Berwick calls on Lady Windermere to tell her friend of a rumored affair between Lord Windermere and Mrs. Erlynne, a fascinating but notorious woman not received in the best houses. According to the duchess’s story, Lord Windermere has for some months been supplying Mrs. Erlynne with funds for her support. The old dowager suggests that Lady Windermere take immediate steps to learn the nature of the relationship between the two.

Lady Windermere, upset, is determined to find out if there is any truth to the gossip. She finds a locked bankbook in her husband’s desk, and, ripping it open, discovers evidence of her husband’s duplicity, a record of checks issued to Mrs. Erlynne over a long period of time. Angry and hurt at Lord Windermere’s apparent failure to appreciate love and virtue, she turns on him the moment he appears. His main concern is annoyance that his wife has dared tamper with his property behind his back. He informs her that his relations with Mrs. Erlynne are perfectly honorable, that she is a fine but unfortunate woman who wishes to win the regard of society once more. Moreover, Lord Windermere explicitly orders his wife to send Mrs. Erlynne an invitation to the ball. When Lady Windermere refuses, her husband writes an invitation. Angered at his act, Lady Windermere threatens to strike Mrs. Erlynne with her new fan if she dares cross the threshold of Windermere House.

When Mrs. Erlynne appears at the ball, Lady Windermere loses her resolution and lets the fan drop to the floor. The guests, believing that Mrs. Erlynne has been invited by Lady Windermere herself, accept her. She is lionized by all the men, and the women, curious because of the many stories they have heard, want to see at first hand what she is really like. Among Mrs. Erlynne’s special admirers is Lord Augustus Lorton, the duchess of Berwick’s disreputable brother, to whom she has just become engaged to be married.

Mrs. Erlynne is not the only woman greatly admired that evening. Lord Darlington is persistently attentive to Lady Windermere. Having...

(The entire section is 975 words.)