The main preoccupation of the characters in the play is maintaining appearances and creating the illusion that everything is fine. To this end, Lord Windermere is willing to lie to his wife, letting her believe that he is having an affair, while in reality he is trying to protect his and her reputation. While one may think that what Lord Windermere does so out of love, at the core of his actions stands the desire to maintain appearances in a society that only cares about what is on the surface. This vanity almost costs Lord Windermere his family, never revealing the truth about his wife’s mother.
While at first Mrs. Erlynne can be seen as a heartless person, blackmailing her daughter’s husband and threatening to destroy her daughter’s reputation, she changes drastically once she finds the letter written by Lady Windermere revealing her plans to abandon her husband for another man. Then, Mrs. Erlynne becomes a real mother, a person willing to do anything for her daughter. Mrs. Erlynne gambles her own reputation just to save her daughter’s reputation, knowing well that the man she wanted to marry may not want to marry her after he finds out about the compromising situation in which she was found. At the same time, Mrs. Erlynne refuses to reveal the truth to her daughter and tell her that she is her mother, knowing what that will do to Lady Windermere’s reputation. Through all these actions, Mrs. Erlynne exhibits a selfless attitude and true love for her daughter, protecting Lady Windermere and stopping her from making a mistake that would ruin her life.
Price Versus Value
The most oft repeated line from the play centers on knowing the value of nothing even when aware of the price of everything. A great deal of the conversation of the upper-class society portrayed here is focused on transactions. All this talk of what has been bought or will be sold has the effect of a motif of commodification of the people doing the buying and selling. Notably, few of the items involved in this discourse seem to have much real meaning, yet at the same time these society figures seem to place value on nothing incapable of being sold. The symbolism is subtly rendered but unmistakably cynical.
Social relationships were of utmost importance in Victorian society, as evidenced in Act 2 of Lady Windermere's Fan, and yet Wilde satirizes the lack of true friendship in this society. Lady Windermere, the protagonist of the play, throws a birthday party at which she is shown to feel comfortable enough to speak candidly with few of her guests - perhaps only the Duchess of Berwick and Lord Darlington. Both of these relationships are fraught in their own right, since the Duchess of Berwick seems monomaniacal in getting her daughter married and Lord Darlington explicitly questions the ability of men and women to be friends before soon providing evidence for his point by confessing his love to Lady Windermere. These problems of friendship are both created or worsened by Victorian society's division of genders and importance of appearance in the public sphere.
One of the central questions of Lady Windermere's Fan is that of moral absolutism - can people be categorized as good or bad? If so, who is good and who is bad?
Early in Act 1, Lord Darlington sets up a dichotomy not between good and bad but between pretending to be good and bad: "Oh, nowadays 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. Besides, there is this to be said. If you pretend to be good, the world takes you very seriously. If you pretend to be bad, it doesn’t" (7). However, he later takes the question more seriously, telling Lady Windermere, "Do you know I am afraid that good people do a great deal of harm in t his world. Certainly the greatest harm they do is that they make badness of such extraordinary importance. It is absurd to divide people into good and bad" (8). Thus, Lord Darlington is shown to take a stance against moral absolutism.
Lord and Lady Windermere, however, seem more comfortable with the idea that some people are good and some are bad. Where they differ, however, is on whether Mrs. Erlynne falls into the former category or the latter. In Act 1, Lord Windermere suggests that Mrs. Erlynne is a good woman who has been treated unfairly while Lady Windermere focuses on the bad rumors surrounding Mrs. Erlynne's character. However, by Act 4, they completely switch positions, with Lord Windermere saying, "She is bad - as bad as a woman can be" (50), and Lady Windermere ending the entire show by remarking to Lord Augustus, "You're marrying a very good woman" (61).
There are three mothers central to the play Lady Windermere's Fan: Lady Windermere, Duchess of Berwick, and Mrs. Erlynne. These three women serve as both parallels and foils of one another to create a nuanced picture of motherhood in Victorian England and Wilde's views on the matter.
Lady Windermere is a young mother, and we never see her interact with her child. In fact, she even leaves her child to run away with Lord Darlington until Mrs. Erlynne stops her. Mrs. Erlynne is not shown to be a perfect mother by any stretch, since she herself left Lady Windermere as child and does not even reveal her identity during the course of the play. However, she does seem to make amends by saving the relationship between Lady Windermere and her child.
The Duchess of Berwick, along with her daughter Agatha, seems to play another function entirely in the play with regard to motherhood. Through the relationship between this mother/daughter pair, Wilde satirizes the excessive involvement of parents, especially mothers, in their children's lives, with their highest focus being on marriage. Thus, Wilde juxtaposes Agatha and Lady Windermere to demonstrate the result of such mothering as compared to the total lack of a mother; Agatha has turned out almost entirely unable to speak for herself while Lady Windermere is an intelligent, independent, and complex character.
The theme of age in Lady Windermere's Fan emerges from the beginning of Act 1, when Lady Windermere reveals that the party that will take place is for her birthday. In fact, it is an especially important birthday because she is now "of age" (6). Lady Windermere, though quite young, has already married and had a child, showing the rapidity with which children grew into adults in Victorian society.
The theme of age returns later when Mrs. Erlynne discusses her age, saying that people would not believe she is Lady Windermere's mother since they likely believe them to be of similar ages. Though she talks lightly of the subject, it is clear that age is very important to women since it is so linked to appearance, leading to marriage and acceptance.
When men talk of age in the play, it is mostly to jest with one another regarding their age, changing appearance, and number of divorces. Since appearance and age did not play as large a role on a man's ability to succeed, either financially or romantically, the theme of age serves to call attention to the divide of genders in Victorian society.
Lady Windermere’s Fan Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Lady Windermere’s Fan is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.