The second act opens on Lady Windermere’s party in full swing. The ballroom is beautifully decorated, and Parker announces the guests as Lady Windermere greets them. The Duchess of Berwick and Agatha are already present, and the Duchess scolds Agatha for writing the names of two younger sons on her dance card.
The Duchess’s scorn for younger sons introduces the idea that a person’s family of origin can be a drawback—a concept that will become important by the end of this act. Her scolding of Agatha also highlights just how constricted women’s actions in London society are.
A guest named Dumby banters with several other guests, suggesting first that the ball will be the last of the season and then saying that he thinks there will be several more. Meanwhile, Mr. Hopper arrives and the Duchess of Berwick quickly arranges his dances with Agatha. Lord Windermere asks Lady Windermere to speak with him, but she brushes him off.
The way that Dumby rapidly adapts his opinions to suit his various conversation partners is a comedic example of the way that spoken language can be hollow and untrustworthy.
Augustus, the Duchess’s brother, arrives and takes Lord Windermere aside to discuss Mrs. Erlynne. Augustus is enamored with Mrs. Erlynne and bemoans that fact that she doesn't have any relations to make her respectable. Augustus hints at Lord Windermere’s relationship with Mrs. Erlynne, but Windermere denies that it’s anything unusual. Lord Windermere then reveals that Mrs. Erlynne will be attending the party. Augustus is relieved, hoping that an association with Lady Windermere will help Mrs. Erlynne “get into this demmed thing called Society.”
Augustus’s concerns about Mrs. Erlynne and her lack of respectable family connections highlights how much a person’s perceived goodness is entwined with their various connections to others. Especially for women, respectable connections are crucial, even if the connection is as tenuous as simply attending a party at a respectable person’s house.
Cecil Graham enters, saying that he’s exhausted from having dinner with his family. He teases Augustus about his past divorces and the two join the party. Lady Plymdale attempts to get Lord Windermere’s attention, but he says that he has to attend to his wife. Plymdale warns him not to, saying that being kind in public will only make people think that their marriage is in trouble.
Cecil Graham’s complaints here again paint the idea of family as a dull but necessary burden. For her part, Lady Plymdale adds a new twist to the idea that good and bad can easily be mistaken for one another and emphasizes that conventional gender roles only increase this risk.
At last, Lord Windermere gets Lady Windermere’s attention, but he is dismayed when she refuses to reconsider her intention to humiliate Mrs. Erlynne. She moves away, taking her fan from Lord Darlington, who has been holding it for her. She remarks that she thinks she will want a friend after all, while Lord Windermere quietly resolves that he has to tell her the truth.
In this sequence, Lady Windermere’s fan becomes a vivid representation of her attempt to use her femininity as a weapon. Letting Lord Darlington hold it suggests that she intends to use her potentially romantic connection to him as a way to control her own circumstances. She is confined by the expectations attached to being a woman, but she still finds ways to exercise agency within these strictures.
Just then, Mrs. Erlynne enters, looking beautiful and dignified. Lady Windermere drops her fan in shock, then bows to Mrs. Erlynne. Mrs. Erlynne returns the gesture and then moves off to join the party. Lord Darlington picks up the fan and returns it. Lord Windermere whispers to Mrs. Erlynne that it was “rash” of her to come, but she brushes him off, asking only that he introduce her to the women at the party, whom she finds more intimidating than the men. She turns to Augustus and draws him into flirtatious conversation.
Mrs. Erlynne’s arrival immediately complicates both the play’s presentation of morality and its treatment of gender roles. First, Lady Windermere’s failure to follow through with her threat shows that her commitment to unambiguous morality does have its limits; this moment indicates that perhaps she will have to reevaluate her views. Second, Mrs. Erlynne’s beauty, charm, and skill in talking to men mark her as traditionally feminine in many ways. At this point, it seems almost as though she defeats Lady Windermere by fully embracing her identity as a woman, an idea reinforced when Lady Windermere accidentally drops her fan, an object that symbolizes the performance of femininity.
Lord Darlington tells Lady Windermere that she looks pale, to which she replies: “Cowards are always pale!” The two go out to the terrace. On the way, Mrs. Erlynne stops Lady Windermere to compliment her on the beautiful party. Then, Mrs. Erlynne asks Cecil Graham to introduce her to his aunt, Lady Jedburgh. Cecil hesitantly agrees, and Mrs. Erlynne immediately charms Lady Jedburgh. Meanwhile, Dumby and Lady Plymdale gossip about who Mrs. Erlynne might be.
This series of conversations provides multiples examples of speech being used to deceive and mislead. Mrs. Erlynne uses her charming conversational skills to win over the powerful Lady Jedburgh, while Dumby leads Lady Plymdale to think that he doesn’t know Mrs. Erlynne even though he actually does.
Mrs. Erlynne dances with Lord Windermere in order to make Augustus jealous, while telling Augustus that she would much rather dance with him. In passing, she also greets Dumby and apologizes for missing his recent visits. Lady Plymdale is affronted that Dumby knows Mrs. Erlynne after all, but then decides that perhaps Dumby should bring her husband along next time he goes to see Mrs. Erlynne; she suspects that doing so might get her husband to stop being annoyingly attentive. Now that she knows who Mrs. Erlynne is, Plymdale also remarks of Lady Windermere: “It takes a thoroughly good woman to do a thoroughly stupid thing.”
The sequence sets up a contrast between Mrs. Erlynne’s and Lady Windermere’s differing versions of “goodness.” Mrs. Erlynne successfully manipulates multiple party guests to her advantage, while Lady Windermere continues to behave in a ladylike fashion even though she’s furious. Note that Lady Plymdale is actually incorrect in thinking that Lady Windermere invited Mrs. Erlynne, since it was actually Lord Windermere who did so. Nonetheless, this moment shows that among the party guests, Mrs. Erlynne seems to be coming out on top, despite Lady Windermere’s best efforts.
Lady Windermere and Lord Darlington return from the terrace. Lady Windermere bemoans her humiliation over Mrs. Erlynne, and Darlington tells her that she can’t stay with a husband who treats her so badly. She agrees, asking Darlington to be her friend and help her decide what to do, but he responds by immediately expressing his love and saying that “between men and women there is no friendship possible.”
Darlington’s confession shows how easily the idea of friendship can be corrupted for personal gain. Once he has a chance of getting what he wants, he immediately drops the pretense of friendship, even claiming that it is impossible. This incident also highlights the precarious situation that Lady Windermere finds herself in, as a woman caught between two men she seemingly can’t trust.
Lady Windermere recoils and tells Lord Darlington that she does not have the courage to run away with him. Darlington tells her that she does indeed have the courage to do what she knows is right, but when she hesitates, he tells her that if she can’t decide right away, she’s not who he thought after all. He tells her that he will be leaving England the next day and then departs from the party. Lady Windermere cries out that she is “terribly alone.”
It’s interesting that Lord Darlington’s ideas about right and wrong suddenly become so distinct here. He’s clear about the fact that Lady Windermere’s hesitation is unforgiveable, even though he expressed uncertainty in the previous act about such strict boundaries. This moment shows that it’s always tempting to view morality simplistically, even for those who claim they don’t. Lady Windermere’s despair here also underscores the flimsiness of her friendships; where she said earlier in the day that she has many friends, she now feels that she has none.
The Duchess of Berwick enters along with several other guests. She announces to Lady Windermere that she and her nieces were completely wrong about Mrs. Erlynne; she’s actually a lovely person. Mr. Hopper and Agatha then enter and announce their engagement. The Duchess is delighted, though she scolds Agatha when she finds out that she has agreed to move to Australia, saying: “Agatha, you say the most silly things possible.” Throughout the scene, Agatha only says “Yes, mamma,” in response to the Duchess’s questions.
Mrs. Erlynne’s quick transition (in the guests’ opinion) from an obviously wicked person to an obviously good one demonstrates especially clearly how porous these boundaries are. The Duchess’s sudden dismissal of her nieces also shows that even family bonds cannot be trusted. Finally, this moment is perhaps the clearest—and funniest—example of how meaningless the characters’ reliance on language can be. The Duchess perceives Agatha as talkative and articulate and evaluates her based on her words, even though Agatha doesn’t actually say anything meaningful.
The rest of the guests exit one by one, many remarking that Mrs. Erlynne is wonderful and commending Lady Windermere for having invited her. As Lady Windermere watches unnoticed, Lord Windermere and Mrs. Erlynne talk together, with Mrs. Erlynne happily announcing her intention to accept Augustus’s proposal. She reminds Lord Windermere that he has said he’ll give her money with which to marry. The two go out to the terrace to keep discussing the matter, though Lord Windermere seems uneasy.
Watching Lord Windermere and Mrs. Erlynne talk, Lady Windermere assumes that she’s correct in observing their love for each other, but once again, her blind acceptance of the presence of language leads her astray. This moment also brings up the question of whether Lord Windermere is behaving morally or not; at this point, it seems impossible to tell.
Watching them go, Lady Windermere decides that she was foolish to turn Lord Darlington down and resolves to leave Lord Windermere. She writes him a letter and leaves it on the table before exiting. Mrs. Erlynne reenters and asks Parker where Lady Windermere is. He tells her that she has gone out but left a letter for Lord Windermere. Dismayed, Mrs. Erlynne exclaims to herself that history seems to be repeating itself, as she once wrote a similar letter to Lady Windermere’s father.
The letter is another dramatic example of attempted communication gone awry. It is read by the wrong recipient, which, ironically, is perhaps the only reason it later produces a good outcome; if Lord Windermere had read the letter as intended, events might have gone much worse for Lady Windermere. Additionally, Mrs. Erlynne’s words about history repeating itself suggest that part of the danger of family relationships is their tendency to lock a person into harmful patterns.
Mrs. Erlynne reads the letter and then crumples it as Lord Windermere enters. She tells him that Lady Windermere has gone to bed and asks him to call her carriage. After he leaves, she exclaims that she must find a way to save her child. When Augustus enters, carrying a bouquet, Mrs. Erlynne sternly tells him that he must take Lord Windermere to his club and keep him occupied. She threatens that if he doesn't, she’ll never speak to him again. Confused, Augustus agrees, remarking that he “might be her husband already.”
It’s clear from this humorous interaction with Augustus that Mrs. Erlynne’s intention to marry him is completely self-serving. This is yet another relationship based on manipulation rather than sincere feeling. Her success in this moment also depends on her ability to take aspects of predictable gender roles—even that of wife, as Augustus suggests—and use them to her advantage.