Oscar Wilde, the celebrated dandy of the Victorian fin de siècle, described Lady Windermere’s Fan, his first financially successful theater piece, as “one of those modern drawing-room plays with pink lampshades.” Although such a classification might initially appear to be frivolous, when this remark is placed in the context of Mrs. Erlynne’s statement, “I have never admitted that I am more than twenty-nine, or thirty at the most. Twenty-nine when there are pink shades, thirty when there are not,” it can be seen that Wilde viewed his play as generously contributing to society’s ability to pose what the careful observer might call an illusion. Wilde’s own description demonstrates how his play marshals witty epigrams to dismiss itself as fluff, foster society’s illusions about itself, and reveal—to those careful about construing his meaning—how what is seen is pure fabrication. With or without pink shades, Mrs. Erlynne is nearing forty, but given her society’s values, to present herself as forty would severely limit her options.
Mrs. Erlynne will hardly limit her options unnecessarily, since Wilde wishes her—as a fallen woman and beautiful adventurer—to represent the role he would have art play in the world. For the timid, such as Lord and Lady Windermere, who can function adequately only in a world of illusion, art hides the truths that would ravage their lives while saving them from ruinous mistakes by living those mistakes for them. For those reckless enough to know more, art can help them to understand and find peace with the complexities and compromises necessary to achieve wider vision and greater—as Wilde would put it—individualism.
Mrs. Erlynne sees and understands more than any of the other characters in Lady Windermere’s Fan, which she can do because she has fallen. She has seen and embraced the other side of life, so she can face the reality of both good and evil, dealing with each appropriately without letting society’s definitions rule her. She can cross the line because she has already crossed the line and survived. She can blackmail Windermere and bamboozle Lord Augustus because she does not fear falling anymore. She can get what she wants from those who have the power to refuse her—although they choose not to—in contrast to the duchess of Berwick, who, tied up in society’s knots, must get what she wants by dominating her powerless daughter and devastating other inexperienced women through gossip and cynical sexism.
This contrast between Mrs. Erlynne and the duchess reveals the beauty of the freedom Mrs. Erlynne has. She can live her own life while allowing others to live theirs. If, in Lord Darlington’s apartment, she decides Lady Windermere’s fate for her, she does so with the understanding of the fate Lady Windermere would prefer for herself but thinks she has lost. If she decides Lord Augustus’s fate, she does so knowing that he believes “she is just the woman for me. Suits me down to the ground.” When she gets each of them what they want, she does so fully aware that she is compromising some of her own needs but meeting others. She can thus sacrifice without eliciting from them a guilty sense of debt: “Then pay your debt by silence. That is the only way in which it can be paid.”
Because she can compromise, she can find a certain contentment in a future abroad, which Lord Darlington, who gives up and leaves the country in a fit of romantic torpor, lacks the maturity to understand. She can take pleasure in a man who loves her. In contrast, when Lord Darlington is rejected by Lady Windermere, “all...
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other women in the world become absolutely meaningless” to him. The dandy’s delights, which Lord Darlington had previously avowed, disintegrate in the face of defeat. Lord Darlington has only assumed the dandy’s pose, not learned to live it. Mrs. Erlynne, on the other hand, knowing full well that life consists of nothing but poses, can deftly lie to snatch victory from the reversals that structure the play as a whole.
Mrs. Erlynne’s consummate gift for lying with total awareness and fully conscious control not only distinguishes her from the rest of her society but also most clearly identifies her with Wilde’s realm of art. Wilde has courage enough to break free from earlier theorists who sought to validate art on the basis of its access to fictional truth, to a truth that goes beneath and beyond ordinary perceptions of reality. Wilde is not afraid to face the truth that all societies base themselves on an ideology of lies and that cultures cannot be preserved and purified through truth—which is seldom conclusively definable and often downright harmful—but only through lies, though not typical, everyday, vapid lies, such as the exchanges among the guests when they first arrive at the ball, although those have their place. What are needed are artful, daring, perceptive lies that create new possibilities for a social order that allows as many people as possible the chance to live more happily than before.
Wilde recognizes that lies will always rule the world, so instead of attempting to conquer self-serving and decayed lies with an unconvincing “truth,” he proposes surpassing them with better and more beautiful lies that will lead to a more general good. The belief that Lady Windermere holds at the end of the play, that Mrs. Erlynne is a very good woman, remains debatable as truth. Wilde takes great care to show Mrs. Erlynne rejecting her newly discovered maternal instincts and threatening Lord Windermere that she will “mar every moment of [Lady Windermere’s] life” should he divulge Mrs. Erlynne’s identity. Such a scene helps the audience to resist sentimentalizing Mrs. Erlynne as Lady Windermere does. Nevertheless, one must question whether Mrs. Erlynne really means her threat or whether this is just another pose to accomplish a goal. If she means it, then she might be considered truly bad, but if she is lying, then she is truly very good. Lady Windermere’s Fan forces the audience to recognize the logical impossibility of clearly separating good from evil and offers a marvelous illustration of what Wilde proposes as the ideological role of art.