Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 424
Hypocrisy can be defined as pretending to be something one is not or feigning to believe in something one does not. Most of the characters in Wilde’s play accept hypocrisy as a necessary component of their social world. People in high society must pretend, must conform to the social norm in order to maintain their position. Hypocrisy is the glue that holds together a complex web of relationships; if the truth were to come out, these relationships would fall apart.
Lies are a necessary tool to avoid conflict. For example, Dumby agrees with Mrs. Stutfield that the season has been ‘‘delightful,’’ and in the next breath agrees with the Duchess of Berwick that it has been ‘‘dreadfully dull.’’ Likewise, the Duchess of Berwick tells Lady Windermere that her nieces never gossip, then later declares that they always gossip.
Hypocrisy is distinguished from virtuous lies, which are told to protect someone else. To ease the comfort of others—even though this might require lying—was part of the upper class code of conduct. Encouraged by Tuppy’s remark that women with a past are ‘‘demmed interesting to talk to,’’ Lord Windermere withholds the truth of Mrs. Erlynne’s past in order to protect his friend from a truth that would ruin his marriage plans.
Mrs. Erlynne rises above hypocrisy when she sacrifices her own reputation for her daughter’s. Although she has lived a life of hypocrisy, and she is desperately trying to get back into the society that once rejected her, she throws it away out of love.
The Bad Mother
The role of women was changing in Victorian society. Women were seeking greater independence, and they were entering the workforce in increasing numbers. The suffragist movement attracted many supporters, as women petitioned for the rights to vote and to own property (any money or property of the wife belonged to her husband upon marriage).
This greater independence for women was opposed on all fronts: politically, socially, and culturally. Soon, the independent woman was being portrayed as a bad wife and a bad mother.
Many plays, stories, poems, and articles featured the image of the ‘‘bad mother’’: the woman who abandons her children to pursue some selfish interest, such as a love affair or career. Such entrepreneurial social behavior was portrayed as dangerous and threatening to society in general.
Wilde’s play is unusual for its time in allowing the ‘‘bad mother,’’ Mrs. Erlynne, to make peace with her daughter (although without recognition of her motherhood) and to pursue her own life.