Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 460
Lord Windermere has given his wife a fan engraved with her name for her birthday, to be celebrated that night with a ball. That afternoon, the Duchess of Berwick calls and tells Lady Windermere that Lord Windermere frequently sees Mrs. Erlynne, about whom people gossip.
Lady Windermere refuses to believe this. She opens Lord Windermere’s desk, rifles his checkbook, and discovers that he has given Mrs. Erlynne sums of money. She confronts Lord Windermere with her discovery. He upbraids her for not trusting him. She denounces his infidelity.
Lord Windermere demands that his wife send Mrs. Erlynne an invitation to the ball. When Lady Windermere refuses, he himself sends one. His wife vows to strike Mrs. Erlynne with her fan if she attends, but instead drops her fan, flees the room, and leaves her husband a note saying that she is leaving him.
Typical of Victorian irony, this is exactly what Mrs. Erlynne did years before to her husband, abandoning him and her child, now Lady Windermere. She tries to intervene, and goes to Lord Darlington’s apartment, where Lady Windermere has fled.
Lord Windermere arrives unexpectedly, finds his wife’s fan there, and is appalled. Mrs. Erlynne, coming out of hiding, claims to have taken Lady Windermere’s fan accidentally. Lord Windermere and his wife are reunited, Mrs. Erlynne marries Lord Augustus Lorton, and Lady Windermere acknowledges Mrs. Erlynne as a good woman.
The play, crisp and witty, reflects typical Victorian attitudes about morality and portrays the hypocrisy of high society.
Brooks, Cleanth, and Robert B. Heilman. Understanding Drama: Twelve Plays. New York: Holt, 1945. An indispensable act-by-act analysis that points to problems in characterization and motivation, and measures Lady Windermere’s Fan against defined genres. Eloquently establishes the myopia of bringing predetermined standards to art.
Cohen, Philip K. The Moral Vision of Oscar Wilde. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978. The chapter on the comedies includes ten pages that read Lady Windermere’s Fan in terms of the shift from Old Testament to New Testament values.
Davidson, David. “The Importance of Being Ernst: Lubitsch and Lady Windermere’s Fan.” Literature/Film Quarterly 11, no. 2 (1983): 120-131. Highlights the unique potentialities and limitations of film in handling Lady Windermere’s Fan.
Powell, Kerry. Oscar Wilde and the Theater of the 1890’s. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Sets Wilde’s work within its theatrical and social contexts. The chapter devoted to Lady Windermere’s Fan provides the basis for comparisons made throughout the book.
Small, Ian, ed. Introduction to Lady Windermere’s Fan, by Oscar Wilde. New York: Norton, 1980. Explicates the differences in existing versions of the text. Discusses the role of deceit in both play and culture, drawing on contemporary etiquette handbooks to illustrate the protocols of London society.
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