A young woman named Lady Windermere is in the morning room of her home in London, arranging roses and preparing for a party that evening. Her butler, Parker, arrives to announce that Lord Darlington has come to visit her. She tells Parker that she will accept his visit and emphasizes that Parker should tell anyone who comes by that she is at home.
This first glimpse of Lady Windermere emphasizes her devotion to performing the role of femininity that her society dictates. The symbol of the roses points to careful, ladylike domesticity, while her direction to Parker shows that she’s eager to demonstrate virtuous behavior. The implication is that she’s not doing anything illicit with Lord Darlington; she’s simply receiving any guest politely.
Lord Darlington enters and tells Lady Windermere how beautiful her fan is. She thanks him and says that it was a birthday present from her husband, Lord Windermere. Lord Darlington is surprised to find out that today is Lady Windermere’s birthday and wishes that he had “covered the whole street in front of [her] house with flowers.”
Lord Darlington’s focus on conventionally feminine objects like the fan and flowers indicates that he too sees Lady Windermere according to strict gender norms.
Lady Windermere scolds Lord Darlington for having praised her too much at a gathering the night before. He confesses that he would hate for her to be mad at him, and she tells him that sometimes she thinks that he pretends to be worse than other men, when actually he is better. Lord Darlington brushes this off, saying that pretending to be bad demonstrates his true modesty.
This moment introduces two of the play central contradictions. First, Lady Windermere frames a positive form of language—compliments—as something negative, suggesting that words will prove to be untrustworthy going forward. Then, Lord Darlington flips the definitions of right and wrong by saying that seeming bad can actually align with being good.
Lord Darlington goes on to ask Lady Windermere to be “great friends” with him. She agrees that they can be friends, but only if he stops giving her extravagant compliments. Lady Windermere insists on having a clear idea of what is right and wrong, even though she knows that such distinctions aren’t popular or fashionable in contemporary society.
Lady Windermere’s determination to keep a clean boundary between right and wrong sets up a tension with Lord Darlington’s previous statement, creating doubt around the whole idea of morality. Additionally, the mentions of “friendship” here already has clearly romantic undertones, even if Lady Windermere doesn’t acknowledge them. This indicates that categories of friendship and family might prove to be less clear-cut than she expects.
Lord Darlington considers Lady Windermere’s words and asks if, hypothetically, it would be wrong for a woman whose husband is unfaithful to her to be unfaithful to him in turn. Lady Windermere says in response that a woman has no excuse for bad behavior, and that she would never forgive a woman who had done something immoral. Lord Darlington disagrees, saying that life is “too complex a thing to be settled by these hard and fast rules.”
Lady Windermere’s words here reinforce both her commitment to black-and-white morality and the idea that women in particular are under a great deal of pressure to perform strict roles. As a “good woman” herself, she is even less forgiving of other women who fall short of this ideal.
Parker returns and announces the arrival of the Duchess of Berwick and her daughter, Agatha. The Duchess greets Lord Darlington and tells him that he is “far too wicked” to talk to Agatha. The Duchess also tells Lady Windermere how much she’s looking forward to the party that night, especially because she knows that Lady Windermere would only invite the right kinds of people. Lord Darlington jokes that if Lady Windermere didn’t allow some scandalous people in her home, he wouldn’t be able to attend. He goes on to make a cryptic remark about how marriage results in losses for wives, and then he departs without explaining himself.
The Duchess’s simplistic notions of wickedness reinforce Lady Windermere’s views, but because the Duchess is a comedic character, her support actually begins to weaken the strength of Lady Windermere’s ideas about morality. The Duchess’s visit also adds further doubt to the concept of friendship, since she’s clearly there in pursuit of societal goals rather than Lady Windermere’s companionship. Meanwhile, Agatha’s silent elegance serves as an extreme example of the role that a young woman is expected to play and adds a comic twist to this ideal.
After Lord Darlington leaves, the Duchess of Berwick remarks that she both likes him and feels glad that he’s gone. Then, she tells Lady Windermere that she feels sorry for her because of the horrid Mrs. Erlynne. When Lady Windermere says that she doesn't know who Mrs. Erlynne is, the Duchess is shocked and sends Agatha out onto the terrace so that they can talk privately.
The Duchess’s words about Lord Darlington demonstrate how thin the line between goodness and wickedness really is; she both enjoys his presence and claims to be glad he’s left. The Duchess’s quick turn to gossip also underscores how twisted the concept of friendship quickly becomes in this play.
The Duchess of Berwick informs Lady Windermere that her husband, Lord Windermere, has been seen spending lots of time at the home of a scandalous woman named Mrs. Erlynne. The Duchess claims that many men (including her own brother Augustus) are enamored of Mrs. Erlynne, and that the Duchess’s own nieces have seen Lord Windermere visiting Mrs. Erlynne many times a week. She also suspects that Lord Windermere is the one who has been giving Mrs. Erlynne the money to live like a lady. Lady Windermere says that it can’t be true, but the Duchess assures her that “the whole of London knows it.” She advises Lady Windermere to simply get Lord Windermere out of town for a while, as she herself had to do with her husband early in their marriage.
This moment provides a particularly clear example of how language will come to interfere with truth throughout the play. The Duchess isn’t actually lying here, as readers will find out later; Lord Windermere really is doing these things. However, the conclusions that both the Duchess and Lady Windermere draw are nonetheless incorrect. The Duchess’s breezy tone here also adds nuance the play’s confusion of good and bad; though the news she brings seems serious, she maintains that it’s easily remedied by a trip out of town. Finally, Mrs. Erlynne’s success in living like a wealthy woman might shows how powerful the trappings of gender roles can be; having the money to play the part of a lady gives her a chance of actually becoming one.
Lady Windermere says again that it’s impossible: she and Lord Windermere love each other, have only been married for two years, and have a six-month-old child. The Duchess of Berwick tells her sympathetically that all men are bad, even when one marries them for love. Lady Windermere thanks the Duchess for coming, but refuses to believe her. The Duchess calls Agatha inside and the Duchess remarks that she looks forward to seeing the young Australian Mr. Hopper, whom she thinks is interested in Agatha’s “clever talk,” at the party. She repeats her advice to take Lord Windermere out of town, and then she and Agatha depart.
The Duchess shows here that strict gender roles aren’t just for women; she’s readily willing to pigeonhole men as well. The mention of Agatha’s “clever talk” (when in fact Agatha has barely said anything) is also a comedic way of underscoring that language doesn’t always work the way that the characters expect it to.
Alone, Lady Windermere reflects that now she understands what Lord Darlington’s hypothetical situation was really about. She says again that the rumors can’t be true and tries to prove it by checking Lord Windermere’s bank book. She sees at first that there are no payments to Mrs. Erlynne, but then she notices a second bank book, this one locked, and breaks it open to see records of many payments to Mrs. Erlynne. She throws it angrily on the ground as Lord Windermere enters.
This moment is a particularly powerful instance of how words can blur the truth and create unintended effects. The information that Lady Windermere reads in the bank book is true, but again, she misunderstands it and comes to conclusions that will only harm her.
Lord Windermere is shocked that Lady Windermere has spied on him, but Lady Windermere immediately confronts him about the rumors of Mrs. Erlynne. Though he swears that she has misunderstood and that he only loves her, she cries that she feels “stained, utterly stained.” Lord Windermere says that Mrs. Erlynne has been doing her best to overcome a difficult past and that she deserves a second chance to be part of society. He admits to helping her, but only because she is otherwise alone.
Here, Lady Windermere’s rigid ideas of morality make her completely unable to process the truth of what Lord Windermere is saying. She is devastated because the situation looks immoral, which keeps her from understanding what’s really happening. Lord Windermere’s emphasis on Mrs. Erlynne’s need for friends also underscores the importance of allies in this cutthroat society, even if those friendships are uncertain.
Lady Windermere is appalled, but Lord Windermere goes on to say that she can be the one to help Mrs. Erlynne regain social status. He asks her to send Mrs. Erlynne an invitation to the party, saying that her reputation as a good woman will make other people accept Mrs. Erlynne by extension. Lady Windermere refuses and tells him that she has lots of friends to support her—he can’t simply treat her however he wants.
This moment again emphasizes how important it is for women to keep up appearances and maintain a reputation of morality. If she chooses, Lady Windermere can effectively transfer her own “goodness” to Mrs. Erlynne. Lady Windermere’s mention of friends here seems at first to be a way of gaining some self-determination apart from her husband, but as readers discover in the next act, her friends aren’t actually as supportive as she thinks.
Lord Windermere again says that Lady Windermere doesn’t know the whole situation and begs her to invite Mrs. Erlynne to the party. Lady Windermere refuses again, saying that Mrs. Erlynne’s problems have nothing to do with her and that Mrs. Erlynne deserves the consequences of her scandalous past. Desperate, Lord Windermere writes an invitation himself and calls Parker in to have it sent to Mrs. Erlynne.
Lady Windermere’s insistence that Mrs. Erlynne’s past has nothing to do with her sets up an instance of irony that becomes clear later on. The two are actually very closely linked, which shows that the “good” Lady Windermere and the “bad” Mrs. Erlynne are in fact deeply interconnected.
Lady Windermere tells Lord Windermere that if Mrs. Erlynne comes to the party, she will insult her and hit her across the face with the fan. Lord Windermere begs her not to, but she ignores him and calls Parker in. Lady Windermere asks Parker to be sure that he pronounces the names very clearly when he announces the guests at the party, so that she can be certain of who’s who. She swears again to embarrass Mrs. Erlynne and then exits. Alone, Lord Windermere exclaims that he doesn’t know what to do; if he were to tell Lady Windermere who Mrs. Erlynne really is, “the shame would kill her.”
With this threat, Lady Windermere shows how an instrument usually used to perform feminine delicacy—a fan—can easily turn into a dangerous weapon. Additionally, her request that Parker speak the names of the guests clearly shows that she still relies on language to give her a clear picture of the truth. As readers find out shortly, this perception is inaccurate; knowing Mrs. Erlynne’s name is not at all the same as knowing who she is.