Lady Windermere's Fan

by Oscar Wilde

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Places Discussed

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Windermere house

Windermere house. Home of Lord and Lady Windermere in the real and fashionable Carlton House Terrace adjacent to St. James’s Park in central London that serves as the setting for three of the play’s four acts. The play opens and closes in the morning room, one of the grand rooms used for entertaining by the Windermeres, who are important members of British society. As with all the aristocracy of the time, they have servants; only one butler, one maid, and a nonspeaking footman appear in the play, but at least another six or eight servants might be expected. The morning room should be large and immaculately decorated, containing more furniture than the few items specified for plot purposes. Among the pieces of furniture specified in the play’s stage directions are a bureau, in which Lady Windermere finds a bank book of her husband’s that contains apparently incriminating evidence; a table used by Lady Windermere to arrange flowers; a sofa used for seating; and a small table on which tea is served. French windows open onto a terrace, to which an impressionable daughter is sent to view the sunset so that she will not hear gossip about Mrs. Erlynne.

The house’s drawing room is equally grand, adjacent to the ballroom, where during the play’s second act a ball is held and a band is playing. A door leads onto the terrace. Because of crowds of guests, no furniture is specified, though some chairs and sofas around the walls might be expected. Wilde mentions only flowers and potted palms, which are typical of late Victorian era decor.

Lord Darlington’s rooms

Lord Darlington’s rooms. Home of the bachelor Lord Darlington, who has long loved Lady Windermere and tried to persuade her to leave her husband. In keeping with his station, Darlington’s apartment should be a suite of rooms forming all or part of a floor of a large terraced house. Act 3 of the play is set in his sitting and entertaining room. Wilde’s stage directions mention a sofa—where the fan of the title is accidently left—and three tables set with writing materials, alcohol, and cigars—all items typical for a man of his status.

Historical Context

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Aestheticism Movement The late nineteenth century ‘‘art-for-art’s-sake’’ movement was promulgated by Walter Pater (1839– 1894), an Oxford don who tutored Oscar Wilde. Wilde became a living example of his teacher’s theory, which placed style and beauty above moral and social responsibility. Wilde’s adherence to this theory earned him the name ‘‘The Great Aesthete.’’

According to Pater, the aesthete appreciated beautiful things and beautiful literature. Interest in art was facilitated by the rise in leisure time for the upper and middle class. The middle class adopted the values of the upper class and viewed the appreciation of art as part of their social training.

The aestheticism and Pre-Raphaelite movements opposed the Victorian obsession with industry, engineering, and efficiency. When Oscar Wilde declared to customs officials in America that ‘‘I have nothing to declare but my genius,’’ he alluded to the refinement of character that he nurtured for its own sake.

Wilde surrounded himself with art and sought to exemplify Walter Pater’s concept of the true critic, one with ‘‘a certain kind of temperament, the power of being deeply moved by the presence of beautiful objects.’’ Pater looked to the Renaissance era for a model of obsession with style.

Aesthetics valued the completely innocent person, such as the character Dorian Gray in Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). Gray was both pure and physically beautiful...

(This entire section contains 436 words.)

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until corrupted by an older man.

Lady Windermere is another beautiful and simple character with a natural ability to appreciate art and true sentiment.

Victorian Society Three years before Oscar Wilde’s birth, England celebrated the triumphs of industry in The Great Exhibition of 1851, which was housed in the magnificent Crystal Palace. Inside, observers viewed the highest technical achievement of every nation, and England’s contributions put her in the forefront of scientific achievement.

The exhibition demonstrated the benefits of progress. England was at the height of prosperity, with income increasing exponentially through the efficiencies of industrialization. With a growing economy, a burgeoning middle class began to aspire to the fashions and habits of high society.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the newly affluent class was beginning to shoulder its way into formerly forbidden regions—in politics, clubs, and the workplace.

It was also a time of budding feminism, as women took more and more aggressive steps to win suffrage. In the magazine he edited for two years, The Women’s World, Wilde ran articles by women on both sides of the women’s suffrage issue. Wilde had also changed the title from The Lady’s World out of respect for the blurring lines between social classes.

Literary Style

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Screen Scene A screen scene is a scene in which an actor hides behind a drape or furniture and overhears the other actors. Melodrama, with its emphasis on secrets and their revelation, often makes use of the screen scene to allow a character to discover a secret. This discovery is a turning point in the plot.

In Lady Windermere’s Fan, Lady Windermere’s eavesdropping convinces her of her husband’s fi- delity. Also Mrs. Erlynne’s sacrifice of her own reputation convinces her of the older woman’s virtue.

Part of the purpose of the screen scene is to allow a character to discover information he or she is not supposed to hear. At the same time, the risk of being discovered in the act of eavesdropping adds to the dramatic intensity of the scene.

Further adding to the dramatic intensity, the play often has the eavesdropper leave something behind in the room. The other characters see and recognize a glove, a fan, or other personal item. Only a clever diversion such as that undertaken by Mrs. Erlynne can prevent the eavesdropper from exposure.

Comedy of Manners During the Restoration period (1660–1699), fashionable audiences flocked to comedies that poked fun at the foibles and witticisms of high society. Pompous characters were held up for ridicule as they indulged in the misbehaviors and pretensions of the sophisticated set.

During the Victorian era, more serious plays came into style. Therefore, Wilde’s comedy of manners was a refreshing change of style that revitalized comedy and set the stage for modern comic theatre.

Compare and Contrast

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Victorian London: Industrialization leads to a migration from the country to towns and cities as thousands of workers toil in British factories.

Today: More and more workers are part of the ‘‘service’’ and high-tech economy as opposed to manufacturing and industry. It is more economical to build factories in Third World countries.

Victorian London: The railroad revolutionizes travel as well as the movement of raw materials and finished goods. The middle and working class could afford excursions to seaside resorts and to the towns and cities for entertainment.

Today: The Internet puts information and entertainment into the hands of a computer-literate society. From art and literature to stock trading and shopping, the Internet offers many options for its users. People gather in virtual chat rooms instead of drawing rooms, parlors, and music halls.

Victorian London: The mail is delivered up to three times per day in London. For those who could afford it, a message could be sent across town in the morning and a response received that evening.

Today: People can send messages instantaneously by phone, electronic mail, instant messaging, and teleconferencing.

Media Adaptations

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Lady Windemere’s Fan has been adapted in two silent films: a 1917 version by Ideal Film, and a 1925 Warner Brothers production called The Fan by director Ernest Lubitsch.

Otto Preminger remade The Fan with sound in 1949.

Librettist Don Allan Clayton adapted the play for an Off-Broadway musical comedy called A Delightful Season in 1960.

A recording of the play exists in a 1997 audiotape version with Michael Sheen speaking the part of Lord Darlington.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Beckson, Karl, ed. Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage, Alfred A. Knopf, 1970, 434 p.

Wilde, Oscar. The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde; with an introduction by Vyvyan Holland, Harper & Row, 1989 (1966).

Further Reading Bloom, Harold, ed. Oscar Wilde, Chelsea House, 1985, 146 p. An anthology of recent scholarship on Wilde, with a brief commentary by Bloom in which he concerns himself with the ‘‘anxiety of influence’’ (Bloom’s term for a writer’s struggle to create something fresh and new) in Wilde.

Coakley, Davis. Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Irish, Town House, 1995, 246 p. Explores the role of the Irish raconteur in Wilde’s family and in his social life.

Ellman, Richard. Oscar Wilde, Alfred A. Knopf, 1988, 632 p. The definitive Wilde biography.

Freedman, Jonathan. Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1995, 257 p. Essays, brief biography, and selected bibliography.

Holland, Vyvyan Beresford. Oscar Wilde: A Pictorial Biography, Viking Press, 1960, 144 p. An intimate biography written by Oscar Wilde’s son.

Knox, Melissa. Oscar Wilde: A Long and Lovely Suicide, Yale University Press, 1994, 185 p. A psychoanalytic biography that explore Wilde’s childhood experiences and their effect on his later life.

McCormack, Jerusha, ed. Wilde the Irishman, Yale University Press, 1998, 205 p. Essays on aspects of Wilde’s works.

Powell, Kerry. Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s, Cambridge University Press, 1990, 204 p. Places Wilde into a literary and historical context.

Raby, Peter, ed. Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde, Cambridge University Press, 1997, 307 p. Examines the defining themes of Wilde’s work.


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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.


Critical Essays