Alone in Lord Darlington’s rooms, Lady Windermere wonders when he will arrive and laments her situation. She worries that she feels “cold as a loveless thing” toward Lord Darlington, while also resenting Lord Windermere for not coming after her once he read her letter. She weighs her options, tormented, before finally settling again on running away with Lord Darlington. She feels that no woman could truly know what to do in a situation like this.
At this point, Lady Windermere is caught between two opposing ideas of what it means to behave morally. On the one hand, she wants to stick with her husband as she once believed a good woman should. On the other hand, she wonders whether to believe Lord Darlington’s version of morality, in which a woman shouldn’t allow herself to be dishonored. Her statement that no woman could successfully resolve a situation like this highlights the fact that woman are always caught, one way or another, between different ideas of what their proper roles are.
To Lady Windermere’s surprise, Mrs. Erlynne enters and tells her that she must go home immediately because she is “on the brink of ruin.” Lady Windermere is horrified to see her and tells her that while she might have gone back if Mrs. Erlynne hadn’t come, she can’t imagine returning to Lord Windermere having seen Mrs. Erlynne again. She accuses Mrs. Erlynne of having come on Lord Windermere’s orders, with the goal of using Lady Windermere to cover up their ongoing affair. She adds that he would have come himself if he really cared about her.
Mrs. Erlynne’s dramatic statement illustrates just how thin the line between the right move and the wrong move can be; Lady Windermere believes she’s saving herself, but another interpretation of her situation shows that she might actually be approaching “ruin.” Her reaction to Mrs. Erlynne also shows how much Lady Windermere has internalized rigid ideas of morality gender roles; she believes that a “bad” woman like Mrs. Erlynne can only behave badly.
Panicked, Mrs. Erlynne attempts to correct Lady Windermere. She says that Lord Windermere never read the letter and shows the crumpled letter to Lady Windermere before throwing it into the fire. Lady Windermere refuses to believe that the letter was truly hers and says that she can’t trust Mrs. Erlynne about anything. Lady Windermere rails against her husband until Mrs. Erlynne begs her to stop saying such terrible things. She adds that it was only Lord Windermere’s love for Lady Windermere that caused him to submit to Mrs. Erlynne’s demands.
It’s notable that Mrs. Erlynne’s attempt to use the letter to prove her good intentions is a complete failure. Once again, written language fails to achieve its intended ends. The point about Lord Windermere’s love having caused all of this conflict also adds a new level of confusion in the play’s treatment of good and evil. It previously seemed that Lord Windermere’s actions with Mrs. Erlynne were obviously wicked, but now readers get a hint that the truth may be more ambiguous.
Mrs. Erlynne continues to insist that Lord Windermere loves Lady Windermere and hasn’t wronged her in any way. Lady Windermere repeats that Mrs. Erlynne is heartless and can’t be trusted. In desperation, Mrs. Erlynne begs her not to ruin her “beautiful young life” by taking actions that will haunt her forever. As a final plea, she appeals to Lady Windermere’s love for her young son, saying that she has to return to Lord Windermere in order to be with him. She repeats the order to “stay with the child” several times.
This moment is an especially clear illustration of how Lady Windermere’s rigid view on morality causes her harm. Mrs. Erlynne is trying to tell her a comforting truth, but Lady Windermere is so convinced that she knows what’s right and wrong that she can’t even hear this revelation. The fact that Mrs. Erlynne finally appeals to Lady Windermere’s love for her son also underscores how important family is; it is only the bond between Lady Windermere and her son that allows her to save herself. Tellingly, this turn also relies on her devotion to successfully playing the conventionally feminine role of mother.
Lady Windermere bursts into tears and, child-like, asks Mrs. Erlynne to take her home. They’re preparing to leave when they hear voices coming. Mrs. Erlynne tells Lady Windermere to hide behind a curtain, which she does. It becomes clear that one of the voices belongs to Augustus, at which point Mrs. Erlynne also hides in another room. Lord Darlington, Lord Windermere, Augustus, Dumby, and Cecil Graham all enter together.
It’s telling that being reminded of her child causes Lady Windermere to behave like a child herself. This change hints that it’s not just individual family connections that matter; it’s the full web of intergenerational bonds that has so much influence on our lives. This moment also give Mrs. Erlynne one of her only chances to behave like a mother, which bonds the women together even though Lady Windermere never finds out about their true relationship.
The men lament that the club made them leave so early. Lord Windermere thanks Lord Darlington for his hospitality but says he can’t stay long. Augustus replies that Windermere must stay because there’s still so much to talk about. Cecil Graham teases that of course Augustus only wants to talk about Mrs. Erlynne. Lord Windermere chides Cecil that that’s not his business, but Cecil replies that he prefers other people’s business to his own.
The banter among the men is an example of how talk and language can be used to manipulate situations in ways that have nothing to do with the actual content of what’s being said. In particular, readers know that Augustus doesn’t actually need to talk to Windermere; he’s just trying to follow Mrs. Erlynne’s instructions to keep Windermere busy. Cecil’s comment about other people’s business also reinforces the idea that friendships like these are sometimes just sources of entertainment and social jockeying rather than genuine emotional connections.
Lord Darlington comments that he doesn’t much like Mrs. Erlynne, and Cecil says that he likes her much more now than he did before the party. Darlington excuses himself to sit at his desk, saying he needs to write letters before leaving in the morning. Augustus calls Mrs. Erlynne clever and expresses his happiness that she truly understands what a fool he, Augustus, is. The other men express skepticism about Mrs. Erlynne’s past, but Augustus maintains that she is not “a wicked woman” as the others suggest.
Interestingly, Augustus—whom the other characters often mock for his silliness and who even calls himself a fool—is the one who actually has the best read on Mrs. Erlynne, even though he doesn’t know her full backstory. He turns out to be right that she’s not purely “wicked,” even if she’s not purely good either. This insight suggests that perhaps “foolish” perspectives are actually wiser when it comes to morality.
Lord Windermere scolds the other men for their talk of scandal, though Cecil maintains that he only talks “gossip” and not “scandal” because scandal involves morality, which makes it tedious. Lord Windermere and Augustus both decline to play cards, which makes Dumby comment that marriage “ruins a man.” For his part, Cecil thinks that there’s no point in behaving virtuously, because women will always think that men are bad. Lord Darlington agrees, suddenly moved to stop writing and join the others.
Cecil’s definitions of gossip and scandal are humorous, but also telling. Previous acts have shown that there’s no practical difference between these two forms of speech, which makes the morality that Cecil mentions seem immaterial. His point about the uselessness of virtue reinforces this idea; morality may or may not be present in a given act, but its presence makes no real difference. The men’s general grumbling about marriage and women also makes it clear that in some ways, they’re just as dissatisfied with standard gender norms as women are.
Lord Darlington admits that he is in love, but that the woman he loves is “a good woman” who is “not free” to love him in return. Cecil comments that he knows more good women than he would like to, while Dumby wonders aloud whether Darlington can go on loving someone who doesn’t love him in return. Darlington accuses the others of being cynics, which he defines as people who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
Cecil’s comments indicate that in his opinion, good women aren’t actually good; what’s appealing to Darlington is unappealing to Cecil. This contrast again suggests that goodness is subjective and can’t be defined in any universal way. It also illustrates how impossible it is for women to live up to normative standards of goodness when no one can agree on what it actually means for a woman to be good.
Cecil catches sight of Lady Windermere’s fan lying on the sofa and slyly asks Lord Darlington if he is faithful to the woman he loves. When he confirms that he is, Cecil takes Augustus aside and points out the fan. The two men laugh over the contrast between Darlington’s words of devotion and the clear evidence of another woman’s presence. Lord Windermere stands up to leave, but before he can go, Cecil points out the fan to everyone and says it’s amusing that a woman has been hiding in Darlington’s rooms the whole time.
The immediate assumption that a fan indicates a woman’s presence shows that for these characters, women are essentially synonymous with the props of their femininity. Additionally, Cecil’s blithe revelation and amusement show that he doesn’t really have much concern for his alleged friend Darlington’s feelings; he’s only part of this group as a way to entertain himself.
Lord Windermere recognizes the fan as Lady Windermere’s right away. Furious, he demands an explanation from Lord Darlington, who denies knowing anything about it. As an aside to himself, Darlington notes hopefully that perhaps she did come after all. Lord Windermere threatens to search the rooms and is about to pull open the curtain behind which Lady Windermere is hiding, but just then Mrs. Erlynne rushes out of the other room. She apologizes for taking Lady Windermere’s fan accidentally from the party. While the men react with confusion and amusement, Lady Windermere sneaks out from behind the curtain and exits unnoticed.
In this moment, Mrs. Erlynne relies on a gender stereotype very different from the one she embraced in the previous act. Where before she did her best to perform the part of a lady, here she takes on the role of scandalous woman instead. She doesn’t have to say that she’s romantically involved with Lord Darlington; her presence in his rooms is enough to make the men draw their own conclusions. By taking this action, she effectively turns around oppressive ideas of women’s roles in order to achieve the liberation of one particular woman—Lady Windermere.