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...
(The entire section is 1053 words.)