Contribution of Wit to the Structure and Meaning of the Plot

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True to the legacy of the Irish raconteur, Oscar Wilde was a master of wit, famous for clever conversation peppered with epigrams. With his rolling, mellifluous voice, he was the center of attention at social gatherings, and is still considered one of the greatest conversationalists of his time. Lady Windermere’s Fan, his first play, was expected to follow on the heels of the success of his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray—and it certainly did.

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However, many critics, such as a reviewer at the Westminster Review, objected to the number of epigrams in the play. These critics complained that wit so overshadows plot in Lady Windermere’s Fan that the result is ‘‘scarcely a play at all’’ and that the characters do little more than ‘‘serve as mouths to enunciate the author’s exquisitely funny remarks on society.’’

Another critic called Wilde the prophet of ‘‘great God Paradox,’’ and maintained that ‘‘Mr. Wilde’s puppets chant his litany’’ in a dramatic world where all its inhabitants are ‘‘equally cynical, equally paradoxical, equally epigrammatic.’’

This condemnation troubled Wilde, who wanted his work to be dramatically fresh and interesting and also psychologically true to life. He openly paraded his genius at conversation, but he also held greater ambitions for his plays than as mere platforms for his wit.

In response to the criticism that his play was superficial, he snidely pronounced the opinion of the British public not ‘‘of the slightest importance.’’ They did not understand the depth of the final act, even though he considered it to be deeply ‘‘psychological’’ and ‘‘the newest, most true’’ moment of the play.

In the summation he wrote while at the nadir of his literary life and career—in prison and rejected by even his closest friends—he expressed confi- dence in his plays, and wrote that he had successfully produced ‘‘comedies that were to beat Congreve for brilliancy and Dumas fils for philosophy, and I suppose everyone else for every other quality.’’

Even Wilde himself failed to notice that not only was Lady Windermere’s Fan a unique combination of brilliant dialogue and philosophical depth, but that he organized the plot through the syntactic structure of wit. He does this through the structure of the paradoxical epigram, which is a statement that contains two opposing ideas in a balance.

The plot elements are a balanced structure of opposing elements, as though Wilde used the pattern to compose his plot as he did to compose his witty sayings.

Epigrams are pithy sayings that compress two antithetical ideas into one polished sentence. The best epigrams contain concise language that pre sents two antithetical ideas in a mirror-image format. For example, in Lady Windermere’s Fan, Cecil Graham exclaims, ‘‘whenever people agree with me, I always feel I must be wrong.’’

Here the antithetical ideas are Cecil’s opinions versus what people think of his opinions. Graham is saying that when his ideas meet with universal approval, he, paradoxically, decides to disagree with the majority—and disavow his own idea. Underlying his statement is a satire of the people whose opinions Graham so disrespects that their very agreement with him changes his mind.

Almost every character in Wilde’s plays and other works occasionally speak in epigrams. Wilde does not simply throw them in to display his own cleverness, but uses them to convey character and mood, and even to structure the plot itself.

The most simplistic of these is to establish character. The characters who use epigrams the most are Cecil Graham, Dunby, Lord Darlington, and Mrs. Erlynne. These characters are shown to be clever and haughty through their use of epigram.

For example, Lord Darlington and Cecil Graham banter about the contrast between a cynic (one who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing) and the sentimentalist (who sees an absurd value in everything and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing). Their definitions are humorous and cynical, establishing them as part of the ‘‘smart’’ or sophisticated set.

Lord Darlington’s comment that ‘‘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’’ also establishes him as a ‘‘smart’’ character, who finds it entertaining to be ‘‘bad.’’ His epigrams led at least one director to fail to see Lord Darlington’s sympathetic side.

In the 1893 New York production, Maurice Barrymore cast Lord Darlington as a villain. Wilde objected, saying, ‘‘Darlington is not a villain, but a man who really believes that Windermere is treating his wife badly, and wishes to save her.’’ In this case, the character’s witticisms caused him to be typecast.

On the other hand, not speaking in epigrams is a marker of sincerity. One clue that Lord Windermere is virtuous is that he never speaks paradoxically. His comments are straightforward and genuine.

His counterpart, Lord Darlington, is not always so sincere. Darlington’s style changes from being cynical to being sincere—symbolized by going from epigrammatic speech to more prosaic speech.

In the first scene, he appears as a dandy, with his blithe, epigrammatic sayings and suave compliments. Only when he begins to woo Lady Windermere in earnest does he drop the mask of cleverness and speak in a relatively straightforward manner.

However, his move toward sincerity is gradual. In the midway point, he uses the antithetical format, as when he suggests that ‘‘between man and woman there is no friendship possible. There is passion, enmity, worship but no friendship.’’

In this phrase he still maintains the formal distance of the clever dandy wooing with words. When he drops even the antitheses, he is at his most sincere, simply telling Lady Windermere that he loves her. At this moment, the audience’s estimation of Lord Darlington increases.

Contrasted to Darlington’s development is Lady Windermere’s descent into paradox. She begins in earnest, telling Lord Darlington that she is a Puritan for her beliefs that rules must be hard and fast. Just as her in beliefs, her speech does not tolerate the ambiguity of paradox.

Yet the moment when she begins to distrust her husband, she begins to speak in paradox; she tells Lord Windermere, ‘‘You are jealous of Mrs. Erlynne’s honor. I wish you had been as jealous of mine.’’ Though she still views her world in black and white, she now pairs her phrases in the form of the epigram, with antithetical elements at odds in the same way she sees her husband’s attention to Mrs. Erlynne at odds with his duty to her.

She proceeds to duel in verbal paradoxes with her husband, and when she leaves him, she justifies her actions with another paradox, ‘‘He broke the bonds—I only break the bondage.’’ Ironically she is wrong about his having broken the bonds, and it will take another reversal on her part not to break the bonds herself.

Later, her conversation with Mrs. Erlynne is not epigrammatic, but intense and heartfelt; this conversation saves her. Then, as though she needs one last moment of darkness to appreciate her happiness, she indulges in a few more paradoxes while waiting for her husband’s return: ‘‘What a pity that in life we only get our lessons when they are of no use to us!’’

She drops this mode of thought once she feels assured of her husband’s affections. Speaking in epigrams indicates a character is angry, or cynical, or insincere. It is as though the epigram speaker judges things from the safe distance of the uninvolved.

Wilde uses wit to reveal a character’s internal state of mind in other ways, too. Mrs. Erlynne’s comment on the London fog (‘‘whether the fogs produce the serious people or whether the serious people produce the fogs, I don’t know’’) at the end of the play reveals that Mrs. Erlynne has regained her confidence after the fiasco of the evening be- fore, when she sacrificed her own reputation by stepping out from behind the curtain as a diversion so allow Lady Windermere to slip away undetected.

Her comment about the fog and seriousness not only shows her in witty form, but also contains her excuse for leaving town—it is too cold, both literally and metaphorically, in terms of her reception in society. In other cases, witty paradoxes comprise ‘‘epigrammatic duels’’ between characters.

These occur between Lord Darlington and Lady Windermere, between Lady Windermere and her husband, Lord Windermere, and, finally, between Mrs. Erlynne and Lord Windermere. In each case, the exchange ends in a barb aimed at the first speaker, whose character is called into question.

For example, Lord Windermere exclaims to Lady Windermere, ‘‘How hard good women are!’’ and she retorts, ‘‘How weak bad men are!’’ But besides being a verbal clue to their moods, the very syntax of the statements provides a pattern for reading their relationship. An extreme misunderstanding threatens the couple’s relationship: they are at polar odds.

Moreover, Lady Windermere’s comment is ironically inaccurate, in that Lord Windermere is not being weak, but strong—and is not bad, but good. This dramatic inversion is the basis of dramatic irony that underpins the whole play.

Lady Windermere’s Fan is about people who misunderstand or mistrust each other, whose opinions and trust lie at polar opposites, and who must maintain equipoise in the balance of a society that does not easily allow these differences to be aired.

Cecil Graham, an ancillary character whose only apparent purpose is to exemplify the generalized nature of male hypocrisy, proffers a clever definition of scandal, as ‘‘gossip made tedious by morality.’’ Here the paradoxical statement contributes to the play’s theme by voicing a criticism of a society that makes it difficult for people to trust and be trusted.

The message is presented by one of the most cynical characters in the play. This instance of an ironic paradox that seems like a toss-away comment is really one more perspective on the society the play satirizes.

Epigrammic speaking is ‘‘unnatural’’ in the sense that it sets up antithetical statements that seem not able to coexist (but do). The structure is comforting because of its symmetry; and disturbing, because of the internal tension between its elements.

In the same way, a character who reverses his or her opinions causes discomfort. The Duchess of Berwick at one moment proclaims her curiosity and pleasure in Australia and its darling kangaroos— until her daughter gets engaged to an Australian. Then she announces that she has no intention of letting her daughter go to that ‘‘vulgar’’ place with ‘‘horrid kangaroos.’’ Her character reversal is a ‘‘character paradox,’’ a signal of an insincere and untrustworthy character.

The syntax of character paradox is the same pattern as the epigram: antithetical ideas in balance causing tension. The character paradox makes one wary, because it cannot be predicted whether the character will reverse again.

The pattern of the paradox is repeated in the plot as well. Wilde’s play contains a series of internal plot paradoxes, in a kind of nested box structure. Lady Windermere thinks of life as a sacrament, and discovers that her husband has betrayed that belief, but she is really wrong—a paradox.

Her response—to betray him—is an ironic dramatic reversal, another paradox. That she might do so with a man she doesn’t even love is a reversal of character, because she had professed the values of the Puritan, who considers life a sacrament.

Another paradox lies in the fact that she is brought to her senses by the very woman who had betrayed her as a child. Being saved by the one who abandoned her is a reversal, or paradoxical pattern.

Mrs. Erlynne’s status is also a grand reversal. She begins as a social outcast desperate for acceptance into society, and ends as one who leaves it willingly.

Furthermore, her second ‘‘abandonment’’ of her daughter is a boon, not a betrayal. The audience, too, undergoes a reversal in its opinion of Mrs. Erlynne. The paradox is a pattern that organizes not only the witticism, but also the plot and the characters. The epigrams are not extraneous, but integral to a full comprehension of the play.

Perhaps Wilde’s natural penchant for epigrammatic speaking was a habit so deep that it formulated the structure of his plays and stories, just as it formulated the witty sayings he produced in his brilliant conversation.

Source: Carole Hamilton for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000. Hamilton is an English teacher at Cary Academy, an innovative private school in Cary, North Carolina.

Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan and Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession

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After Lady Windermere’s Fan was first performed on 20 February 1892, Oscar Wilde found himself a famous playwright. At the time, George Bernard Shaw was struggling to establish himself on the British stage after having failed as a novelist. Mrs. Warren’s Profession, his third play, was written in late 1893 and early 1894. Shaw’s play is a Shavian reworking of Wilde’s, an attempt to squarely face the issues that Wilde sidestepped. In a nutshell, it is Lady Windermere’s Fan intellectualized.

The situations of the two plays are remarkably similar, both built around confrontation between a bad mother and an innocent daughter. In both plays, the mother lives on the Continent and the daughter in England, and in both the daughter knows little about her mother and indeed harbors illusions about her. Both daughters confront the danger of becoming like their mothers, and both withdraw from the precipice after a brief period of confusion. In both plays, society is presented as corrupt, and morally innocent individuals are out of place.

In Wilde’s play, after leaving her husband and daughter, Mrs. Erlynne spends 20 years on the Continent with no visible means of support except her good looks. Lord Windermere calls her ‘‘a divorced woman, going about under an assumed name, a bad woman preying upon life’’ (act 4, 458). We are never told how she lived, but the assumption is that she seduced rich men like Lord Augustus and took their money. Certainly, she is presented as an accomplished seductress in the play, but Wilde bows to Victorian morality and leaves this aspect of her life obscure. A question forms in the reader’s or viewer’s mind: What did Mrs. Erlynne do during her 20 years on the Continent? Shaw picks up the question and answers it mercilessly in the figure of Mrs. Warren, who also uses an assumed name Miss Vavasour. Shaw bluntly unmasks Mrs. Warren as a prostitute who made a fortune in her profession.

Maupassant’s tale Yvette and Pinero’s The Second Mrs. Tanqueray are often cited as sources of Shaw’s play, and rightly so, but the chief and hitherto unrecognized source is Lady Windermere’s Fan. Toward the end of 1893 Wilde was taking the London stage by storm (his second social comedy, A Woman of No Importance, was first produced on 19 April 1893, and was also successful); the struggling Shaw must have felt a tinge of envy. The suspicion of envy is reinforced by Shaw’s negative review of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895 and his attempt some years later to re-create Lady Bracknell in the figure of Lady Britomart, Major Barbara’s mother. His reaction, then, in 1893–94 was to attempt to remold Lady Windermere’s Fan along Shavian lines.

There are many parallels and counterpoints between Lady Windermere and Vivie Warren. At the beginning of their respective plays, both women are innocents with a corrupt mother in the background whose corruption they are unaware of, and both have a strict set of morals. Lady Windermere’s values, however, are presented as too rigid, and as the play unfolds she becomes more lenient and forgiving. Vivie moves in the same direction, and by the end of act 2 she has forgiven her mother and accepted her as a persecuted woman who defeated terrible poverty in the only manner open to her. But Vivie soon realizes that her mother was wrong, reasserts her own values, and prefers isolation and poverty to Mrs. Warren’s tainted money. By the end of the play, Vivie is if anything more puritanical than at the beginning. Nor does Lady Windermere ever realize how corrupt her society is, whereas Vivie comes to realize ‘‘that fashionable morality is all a pretence’’ (act 4, 57) in capitalist Britain.

Finally, in both plays, society as a whole is presented as corrupt. ‘‘I will have no one in my house about whom there is any scandal’’ (act 1, 424), asserts Lady Windermere, but when we meet her guests, it is clear that they are all immoral, from Cecil Graham, to Dumby, to Lady Plymdale and the others.

Whereas Lady Windermere’s Fan defines morality in primarily sexual terms, in Mrs. Warren’s Profession sexual corruption is part of the economic corruption that permeates every corner of British society and that only Fabian socialism can uproot. Money is a concern in both plays, but Wilde never questions the origins of Lord Windermere’s or anybody else’s fortune, whereas Shaw makes the origin of all fortunes his chief concern.

Given all these similarities and counterpoints between the two plays, then, it is fair to assert that Shaw’s play is a direct response to Wilde’s.

Source: Christopher Nasser, ‘‘Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan and Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession,’’ in Explicator, Spring, 1998, Vol. 56, no. 3, pp. 137–38.

Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Lady Windermere’s Fan

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In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian develops from childlike innocence to a state of serious depravity in four states. The first stage is when he is still twenty and posing for Basil Hallward. Here he is the innocent young man who has not yet come in contact with evil. The second is when he is in love with Sibyl Vane. At this state evil has entered his life, but he is still largely innocent. The third is what might be called the ‘‘limited corruption’’ stage. Basil and Wotton become the opposing forces within him. Although he clearly leans toward Wotton, he is still balanced between good and evil, for his conscience is still alive and there are certain crimes, such as deliberate murder, that he would shrink from committing. In the fourth stage, all control is lost. He murders Basil, then tries to kill his conscience, which he identifies with his picture. Instead, he himself dies: human nature is ‘‘gray’’ and no one can become completely evil.

In Lady Windermere’s Fan, Dorian Gray is fragmented and reincarnated in the four main characters, each of whom embodies one of the aforementioned stages, but within the framework and atmosphere of social comedy. Wilde often based his works on earlier works of his. In Dorian Gray, Dorian’s development mirrors the drift of Victorian life and art toward corruption. In Lady Windermere’s Fan, this same drift is shown in the juxtapositon of the four main characters, but it is simultaneously obscured by being cast in the mold of social comedy.

Dorian’s first stage, childlike innocence, is embodied in Lord Windermere. Although he exists in a corrupt late-Victorian environment, Windermere is wrapped in a cocoon of early-Victorian morality that is never penetrated by his immoral surroundings. He is the object of much slander in the play, and even his wife becomes convinced that he is having an affair with Mrs. Erlynne. But he remains moral from beginning to end. His interest is in ‘‘saving’’ Mrs. Erlynne and in protecting his wife.

The art he admires is also that of spiritual innocence and purity. In act IV, he attacks Mrs. Erlynne for having drifted away from a miniature of herself that his wife ‘‘kisses every night before she prays.—It’s the miniature of a young innocentlooking girl with beautiful dark hair.’’ This miniature typifies the kind of art that D. G. Rossetti produced in the 1850s and that Basil Hallward created in the picture of Dorian before it began to change. The Victorians have drifted away from such art, however, toward Pater’s Mona Lisa, decadence, and Dorian’s picture after its corruption. But Windermere has not developed with the age. He remains frozen at the state of purity and innocence.

In Lady Windermere we see the second stage of Dorian’s development, which began when he fell in love with Sibyl Vane and ended when he rejected her and she committed suicide. Dorian’s picture registers the change in him by adding lines of cruelty around the mouth, but it remains otherwise unaltered.

When we meet Lady Windermere, she is still pure and innocent, but during the play she rejects her husband, decides to become Lord Darlington’s lover, then draws back from this immoral decision and—with the help of Mrs. Erlynne—is able to return to her previous life and preserve her marriage. It is significant that as soon as she steps into the world of corruption she is overwhelmed by a sense of guilt and decides to withdraw: ‘‘No, no! I will go back, let Arthur do as he pleases. I can’t wait here. It has been madness my coming. I must go at once.’’ Mrs. Erlynne’s role is to open the trap and allow her daughter to slip away.

This episode changes Lady Windermere irrevocably. She becomes aware of an immoral streak in herself and as a consequence becomes more forgiving and stops categorizing people as good or evil. At the end of the play, she is tainted but still basically pure, much like Dorian’s picture after the suicide of Sibyl Vane. Her sense of guilt parallels Dorian’s after Sibyl’s death. And like Dorian, she hides her secret from the world.

In his recent biography of Oscar Wilde [entitled Oscar Wilde], Richard Ellman observed of Lord Darlington:

Lord Darlington, who has been taken as a man about town, and who talks like Lord Henry Wotton, differs from Wotton in his possession of deep feelings. . . . When the play was given in New York with Maurice Barrymore . . . in the role, Wilde complained that Barrymore had failed to see that ‘‘Darlington is not a villain, but a man who really believes that Windermere is treating his wife badly, and wishes to save her. His appeal is not to the weakness, but to the strength of her character (Act II): in Act III his words show he really loves her.’’ It is because of her that he is leaving England for many years; he is a better man than Windermere.

Darlington may not be a better man than Windermere, but there is more goodness in him than people have generally recognized. He sums up the third stage in Dorian’s development, and there is within him a very delicate balance between goodness and corruption. The two opposites struggle in Darlington throughout the play, and the battle is not resolved at its end.

As the play begins, Darlington is in love with Lady Windermere, a married woman, and wants her for his mistress. But his great paradox is that he loves Lady Windermere for her purity and innocence: through her, he wants to recapture his own lost innocence. He says of her: ‘‘She is a good woman. She is the only good woman I have ever met in my life.’’ And: ‘‘This woman has purity and innocence. She has everything we men have lost.’’ The moral situation of Darlington is captured in act 3, when he says to Cecil Graham and Dumby, ‘‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’’

But Darlington’s problem is that he cannot recover his lost innocence through Lady Windermere. She is already married, and if he wins her, he will only be dragging her into the gutter and corrupting her. Definitely not a fool, he realizes the impossibility of his situation but corruptly continues to pursue her. And yet part of the reason he appeals to her to leave her husband in act 2 and to go with him is quite moral: he is thoroughly convinced that Windermere is a monstrously corrupt man who does not deserve her for a wife. Darlington’s motives are a very complex and fascinating fusion of goodness and corruption, for black and white are mixed inextricably in him.

His final decision to leave England is ambiguous: he leaves as much for Lady Windermere’s sake as for his own. It is true he decides to leave after her apparent rejection of him, but it is also true that she is at her most vulnerable at the end of act 2 and that his chances with her have never been better. Indeed, that same night she reverses her decision and goes to his rooms. His hasty departure is both selfish and self-sacrificial. At least in part, he leaves because his stormy conversation with her leads him to realize how painful social disgrace would be for her. On the other hand, he does not want her to come to him mournfully, in tears, but with a smile and courageously or not at all. Even Lord Darlington’s name is ambiguous, marking him both as a dandy and a ‘‘darling.’’

Mrs. Erlynne represents the final stage in Dorian’s development. Although she does not commit any action quite as drastic as murder, she is nonetheless an immoral woman, devoted to leading a life of pleasure. In the play she discovers the goodness in herself and makes a major sacrifice to save her daughter. But she discovers that motherly love is too exhausting and strange an emotion for her, and she returns to the life of pleasure. She declares to the shocked Windermere: ‘‘I have no ambition to play the part of a mother. Only once in my life have I known a mother’s feelings. That was last night. They were terrible—they made me suffer— they made me suffer too much.’’ And: ‘‘No— what consoles one nowadays is not repentance, but pleasure’’ (act IV). Far from being the conventional fallen woman of Victorian melodrama, Mrs. Erlynne deliberately rejects the goodness in herself and returns to a life of corruption. As Ellmann has observed, ‘‘ Lady Windermere’s Fan is a more radical play than it appears. . . . Wilde . . . shelves the stereotype of the fallen woman: Mrs. Erlynne is singularly impenitent.’’ Wilde regarded this point as so basic that he wrote, in one of his letters, that her character is ‘‘as yet untouched by literature.’’

Mrs. Erlynne’s rejection of motherly love parallels Dorian’s attempt to destroy his conscience by stabbing his picture. Far from dying, however, she tricks the infatuated Lord Augustus into marrying her and travels with him to the Continent. She also retains an affection for her daughter, albeit from a distance: human nature being ‘‘gray,’’ the goodness in Mrs. Erlynne cannot be eliminated.

In The Critic as Artist, Wilde wrote:

To an artist as creative as the critic, what does subjectmatter signify? No more and no less than it does to the novelist and the painter. Like them, he can find his motives elsewhere. Treatment is the test. . . . [Criticism] works with materials, and puts them into a form that is at once new and delightful. What more can one say of poetry?

Treatment, then, or form, is what is vital in all art, not subject matter. In Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde applied this principle quite successfully. He took the raw subject matter of his novel and gave it a new form. The result was his first successful play.

Source: Christopher Nasser, ‘‘Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Lady Windermere’s Fan,’’ in Explicator, Fall, 1995, Vol. 54, no. 1, pp. 20–24.

When Formula Seizes Form: Oscar Wilde’s Comedies

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Though fantasy has been dismissed by many academics as a genre of marginal literary value, it attracts artists as well as readers. Indeed, one reason why a consensual definition of literary fantasy eludes us is that authors working in many genres draw upon it, smudging generic boundaries. Oscar Wilde was one of these writers.

Wilde appreciated the mind’s power to make its own meanings, and he was skeptical of epistemologies, including his own. He used fantastic techniques, particularly those underscoring epistemological questions, although for him problems of knowing the phenomenological world were less interesting than problems of understanding a literary text. Given the complex, irrational subjectivities of authors and readers, he argued, no literary work could be perfectly understood. Moreover, the ultimate inability of a reader to perceive an author’s exact meaning represented opportunities for both in expression and aesthetic pleasure. Wilde pursued such opportunities even in such seemingly conventional forms as the plays that made his fortune, temporarily, in the first half of the 1890s.

This discussion covers some of those plays. Often called Wilde’s comedies, they actually conform to conventions of the ‘‘well-made play’’ (sometimes called ‘‘society’’ drama) and a related type, the problem play. The typical well-made play involved the inexorable disclosure of secrets. The problem play, in the hands of an Ibsen, could be made to challenge the status quo; in it, a character facing a moral dilemma would examine his or her heart, which may have been obscured by a life spent subservient to social convention. Wilde’s imagination responded to the most conventional elements of these types of plays, particularly their sentimentalization of human nature while formally and ideologically suppressing it.

A discussion of the uses Oscar Wilde made of fantasy in these plays should clarify the differences between fantasy and any genre that is its host, yet critics disagree on fantasy’s definition. Fantasy is metamorphic. Like literature in general, it takes on issues and symbols that matter most to an author and her culture, so that many descriptions and prescriptions of fantasy are contaminated by ethnocentricity. Traditionally, fantasy has been defined, as it is in Holman and Harmon’s A Handbook to Literature, as a genre whose stories contradict reality by describing impossible events, creatures, and places. Such a definition does address what most readers intuit is fundamental to fantasy literature, yet ‘‘reality,’’ either as a word or concept, is an unstable criterion. Our understanding of the world is influenced by our education, our experience, and the religious and scientific axioms of our particular culture or society. Some critics concur with Jean- Paul Sartre [in ‘‘Aminadab, or the Fantastic Considered as a Language,’’] that magic and otherworldy settings are not essential to fantasy:

So long as it was thought possible to escape the conditions of human existence through ascesticism, mysticism, metaphysical disciplines or the practice of poetry, fantasy was called upon to fulfill a very definite function. It manifested our human power to transcend the human. . . . After the long metaphysical holiday of the post-war period, which ended in disaster, the new generation of artists and writers . . . had returned, with much ado, to the human. This tendency had an effect on fantasy itself . . . [which] in order to find a place within the humanism of our time . . . is going to become domesticated, will give up the exploration of transcendental reality and resign itself to transcribing the human condition.

Rosemary Jackson and Leo Bersani are among those to offer psychological, structural, and formal examination of nontranscendental fantasy.

Some critics and writers of fantasy regard it as a disruption of, or conflict between, rhetorical structures. For instance, Eric Rabkin describes fantasy as a text that introduces, then contradicts, ground rules governing how the reader interprets the fictional world. Drawing on Huizinga’s theory of play, W.R. Irwin defines a fantastic ‘‘world’’ as a place designated by a rigid set of rules and distinguished from those defining the reader’s culture. The focus of recent critics like these on the rule-making mind allows us to explore the operations of fantasy even where there is no magic or bizarre other world, as in Wilde’s comedies.

Lady Windermere’s Fan, produced in 1891, made Wilde’s fortune and enhanced his reputation. It is the story of a woman’s encounter with the mother who had abandoned her. Lady Windermere’s mother has come back, calling herself Mrs. Erlynne and blackmailing the husband, Lord Windermere, who wishes to spare his wife the truth about her mother. Believing that the two are having an affair, the angry Lady Windermere resolves to elope with an admirer, Lord Darlington. Mrs. Erlynne discovers her daughter’s plan, follows her to Darlington’s empty apartment, and convinces her to return home. Before they can leave, Darlington enters with his friends, including Lord Windermere and Lord Augustus, Mrs. Erlynne’s suitor. The women hide, but Lady Windermere leaves her fan behind. When the fan is discovered, Mrs. Erlynne comes out of hiding, allowing everyone to assume she has come to Darlington for an assignation, and explains that she had taken it by mistake. Wilde undermines the impact on the audience of this sacrifice when she mollifies the resentful Lord Augustus the next day. She and her ‘‘protector’’ depart for Paris without revealing her identity to her grateful daughter.

Though this plot contradicts certain clichés, it does not disorient us or contradict the world view of any but the most authoritarian and rigorous of puritans, and so it is not in itself fantastic. In fact, the plot enacts an assumption conventional to both the problem play and the well-made play, that human beings have an essence, an identity, often concealed behind social masks. To uncover this essence, the plot delivers Mrs. Erlynne’s moment of maternal protectiveness, supported by some of the stage directions: ‘‘For a moment she reveals herself’’ and ‘‘Hiding her feelings with a trivial laugh.’’ The woman, uncovered, is loving, distressed by her alienation from the human community but brave enough to resist a temptation to claim a love that would cause the beloved pain.

If we look more closely at Mrs. Erlynne and some of the other characters, however, we find that their identities may not have been uncovered after all. Lady Windermere, the one character on stage who comes to see Mrs. Erlynne as good, is untrustworthy. As Morse Peckham has observed [in ‘‘What Did Lady Windermere Learn’’], Lady Windermere’s change of heart is superficial: ‘‘She is one of those who cannot tell the difference between ideals and illusions . . . and she is therefore incapable of true moral growth.’’ Moving Mrs. Erlynne over into the category of goodness does not change Lady Windermere’s puritanical division of people into good and bad. She merely excuses Mrs. Erlynne’s past, rather than confront and understand it. This morally immature character, kept in the dark to the last on the grounds that she does not have the temperament for truth, brings the play’s very axioms into question, since the only character to unmask an identity does so in the unexamined, narrow terms of her idealistic culture. Wilde does not emphasize this irony, and so many spectators simply understand the play’s conclusion as further manifestation of Mrs. Erlynne’s generosity. Yet the coexistence of ironic and traditional structures examining identity, or character, creates an epistemological ambiguity common in fantasy, for neither human nature nor the nature of the play can be decided.

Mrs. Erlynne’s comments further undermine the traditional epistemology of this kind of play. Rejecting the characterization of her that the plot has been making, she cavalierly denies that the moment when she nearly sacrifices herself to save her daughter defines her: ‘‘I lost one illusion last night. I thought I had no heart. I find I have, and my heart doesn’t suit me, Windermere.’’ We can read ‘‘my heart doesn’t suit me’’ as a pathetic cynicism, a protest against the pain that comes with living, but ‘‘my heart doesn’t suit me’’ has another implication. Though she does not regret saving her daughter (partly because she does not suffer materially), she is openly repelled by her spontaneous gesture, which, ironically, threatens to encapsulate her— inside an identity. ‘‘I want to live childless still,’’ she cries, denying the power of physical fact to force an identity on her. What she did was an emotional impulse, and impulses, she insists, do not necessarily define oneself.

The lack of identity that Mrs. Erlynne preserves is, like her childlessness, an emptiness that is filled incessantly by experimental play. That is, she is a fantasist, responding to the lack implied in the ideal Victorian identity by creating a character for herself the audience would consider impossible, a woman who is all potential because she is without essence. Repeatedly she alludes to herself as a role-player. Gazing at a picture of herself as a young woman, she muses, ‘‘Dark hair and an innocent expression were the fashion then, Windermere!’’ To the spectator, experienced in the kinds of assumptions about human nature promulgated by this sort of play, that photograph is a memento of authenticity, lost when the ingenue entered a hypocritical, dangerous society. But Mrs. Erlynne only claims to see a frame and a pose. To her mind, frame and pose record her as accurately as she can be recorded, for she has no identity, only epochs. Mrs. Erlynne underscores the artificiality of theatrical conventions that purport to disclose the essence of human nature: ‘‘Oh, don’t imagine that I am going to have a pathetic scene with her, weep on her neck and tell her who I am, and all that kind of thing. I have no ambition to play the part of a mother.’’ The crafty and witty demimondaine may be a mask, but so is the weeping, loving mother that the audience has been expecting to see emerge as the ‘‘real’’ Mrs. Erlynne.

Certainly the play encourages us to see Mrs. Erlynne as revealing a deeper, better self. Yet Mrs. Erlynne’s refusal to be a Stella Dallas cannot be entirely dismissed as mere denial. Though in some ways pathetic, deprived of family and dependent economically on men, she is also creative. Hers are the metamorphoses we have seen in myth and fantasy; she makes herself an ingenue, a demimondaine, a powerful mother, and, yes, a Stella Dallas. What Leo Bersani says about ‘‘fantasy as a phenomenon of psychic deconstruction’’ [in Baudelaire and Freud] applies to Wilde as well: ‘‘he can be located at that critical moment in our culture’s history when an idealistic view of the self and of the universe is being simultaneously held onto and discredited by a psychology (if the word still applies) of the fragmented and the discontinuous.’’ Mrs. Erlynne’s dramatic function in the play similarly deconstructs and nostalgically holds onto the culture’s idealistic assumptions about identity.

Mechanisms of fantasy often operate through Wilde’s epigrams, which can deny the play’s premises by creating a bizarre world dominated by surface and style, not heart, or identity. In the Windermere world human nature is constrained by ‘‘an idealistic view of the self.’’ Windermere language acknowledges only certain experiences and events, interpreting them only from certain (moral) perspectives. The spontaneous revelation of self that people believe they see in the Windermere world is thus a delusion. The heartlessness, in The Importance of Being Earnest, that Mary McCarthy complained of is here as well, but not in a moral sense. Heartlessness in the epigrammatic characters is an impersonal wit, with surface and style elevated, in fantasy’s exaggerated way, in response to the Windermere idea of heart.

Wilde’s contemporary A. B. Walkley noticed [in the Review of Lady Windermere’s Fan] that the conversation of dandies in Darlington’s rooms took place in a secondary world within the play. Action ceases during the scene, he reported, ‘‘but you do not notice its length, for it is a perpetual coruscation of epigrams. Just before the epigrams get boring, the action returns.’’ When action freezes and epigrams take over, the epistemology gestured to by the framing play is replaced by another. The dandies form a community based on epigrams, their conversation a ritual during which they touch and acknowledge one another without learning anything about one another’s personal histories or sentiments. There are two exceptions: Lord Darlington, whose love for Lady Windermere has suddenly made him open and earnest, and Lord Windermere, troubled by his blackmailing mother-in-law and furious wife. Neither man speaks or interacts with the other dandies.

An otherwise minor figure, Cecil Graham, underscores the difference between the ludic dandy world and the world of the play enclosing it. When the play is staged rather than read, Graham’s importance is clear; besides generating the greatest number of epigrams, he takes up a great deal of space. Starting with the directions ‘‘Cecil Graham comes toward him laughing,’’ Wilde sets the character off on peregrinations the principals do not follow. He moves back and forth, lights a cigarette, puts a hand on another man’s shoulder, and preens in front of the fireplace. The audience follows his movements, a choreographed display of meaninglessness, and listens to epigrams that reveal nothing about the man inside. During this time, the plot is suspended: Windermere sits thoughtfully, while Darlington writes letters, philosophizes to himself, and finally exits. Only Graham and his frivolous cohorts seem animate in the world that has suddenly come into being, where wit and style, but not heart, dominate. It is the restless Graham who finds the fan and turns it over to Windermere, who exclaims melodramatically over it. Thus the play is handed back to its principals and its principles. Graham moves away and grows still, smirking—perhaps maliciously— from the sidelines.

If Wilde had any reason for giving Graham the name of the friend who commits suicide in ‘‘The Portrait of Mr. W.H.,’’ it is that both are alienated from the perspective that informs Lady Windermere’s Fan. One Graham, the suicide, devotes himself to Shakespeare’s poetry and to a theory that articulates stylishly the aesthetic merits of Shakespeare’s presumed pederasty. The second, sunny-tempered Graham has an appreciation of comic style that replaces the preoccupations of the rest of the play. Spouting his silly epigrams, this Graham exalts a well-timed jest over moral earnestness and the search for a human essence. The scene at which he is the central figure is thus more than a collection of amusing epigrams: it is a fantastic world insubordinate to the culture’s will to define identity, or heart.

At times, then, Lady Windermere’s Fan contradicts all that the conventional plot encourages us to believe. The play’s epistemology is undermined by the fantastic vision that, intruding into it, perceives its subjects from different angles, introduces different assumptions into the story, and in general subverts its structure and direction. The plot concerns a quest for identity, while other elements in the play suggest that identity, at least as it is imagined by the plot, neither exists nor matters. Only the audience’s self-delusion, fostered by the more sentimental conventions within the play, can let it believe that at the end it has seen past the facades of the Windermeres and Mrs. Erlynne. . . .

Source: Susan Taylor Jacobs, ‘‘When Formula Seizes Form: Oscar Wilde’s Comedies,’’ in Staging the Impossible: The Fantastic Mode in Modern Drama, edited by Patrick D. Murphy, Greenwood, 1992, pp. 15–29.

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Critical Overview