Lady Windermere is alone in her morning room the next day. She debates miserably whether to tell Lord Windermere everything that happened, and wonders whether Mrs. Erlynne already has. Her maid, Rosalie, enters and informs her that Lord Windermere did not come home until five o’clock, and that he said something about Lady Windermere’s fan. After Rosalie leaves, Lady Windermere reflects on Mrs. Erlynne’s selfless actions, saying that there is “a bitter irony in the way we talk of good and bad women.”
Here, Lady Windermere recognizes at last that it doesn’t make sense to talk about “good” and “bad” people when there’s no way that anyone can live up to the conflicting definitions of what these terms mean. This is especially true for women, who face even stricter rules for what their roles should be. Lady Windermere’s dread at the idea of telling Lord Windermere the truth also highlights how speaking about something necessarily adds an element of pain and potential confusion to it.
Lord Windermere enters and tenderly notes that Lady Windermere seems unwell. Lady Windermere says that she has something to tell him, but he cuts her off, instead insisting that they should go to the country to rest. She says that she must tell him, but asks him to promise that he will love her as he used to. He insists again that there is nothing between him and Mrs. Erlynne, and this time she says she knows he is telling the truth.
This is one of the only moments in the play when one character tells another something true and the second character actually believes this truth. Because Lord and Lady Windermere also have one of the play’s only genuine, loving bonds, this moment implies that honest connections between people—as opposed to shallow ideas of friendship or family—are necessary for language to function effectively.
Lord Windermere is relieved, but he nonetheless says that Lady Windermere must never see Mrs. Erlynne again. He explains that she really is bad after all, “as bad as a woman can be.” Lady Windermere protests that it’s too harsh to speak like that, saying that it isn’t actually possible to separate good women from bad ones. She asks to invite Mrs. Erlynne as a guest before they leave town, but Lord Windermere says that she wouldn’t want to if she knew what Mrs. Erlynne had done after the party.
Once again, a misunderstanding (in this case, Lord Windermere’s perception that Mrs. Erlynne is involved with Lord Darlington) leads to an unwisely rigid understanding of good and evil. Lady Windermere does her best to correct Lord Windermere’s mistake here, but he doesn’t listen; it seems that people will always return to rigid views of morality, especially when it comes to women, even when those views are irrational.
Just as Lady Windermere is about to make her confession, Parker enters and informs them that Mrs. Erlynne has come to return the fan, along with a note. Lady Windermere asks Parker to request that Mrs. Erlynne come up in person. Lord Windermere begs his wife not to speak with Mrs. Erlynne, calling her “a very dangerous woman” and saying that he must see her before Lady Windermere does. Lady Windermere asks why, but Mrs. Erlynne enters before he can answer.
Here, the return of the fan signals a return to reliance on performed femininity as a means for the women to get what they want. It’s also notable that Lady Windermere rejects the written note as a means of communicating with Mrs. Erlynne; she seems to sense by this point that interpersonal connection is more reliable than isolated language.
Mrs. Erlynne apologizes for accidentally taking the fan the night before and says also that she wants to say goodbye before leaving town. She announces that she’s going to live abroad and is not likely to see Lady Windermere again. She asks for a photograph of Lady Windermere, which Lady Windermere happily agrees to provide. When she goes to get one, Lord Windermere takes Mrs. Erlynne aside and scolds her for daring to show her face there after the events of the night before. Mrs. Erlynne laughingly tells Lord Windermere to mind his manners, then asks Lady Windermere if she has any photographs that include her son as well.
By asking for a photograph to remember Lady Windermere by, Mrs. Erlynne suggests that direct nonverbal contact with others—even if it’s just through an image—is the most worthwhile way of maintaining a true connection with them. Her request that the photograph includes the baby also emphasizes again the multi-generational nature of family ties; they extend far beyond individuals and are ultimately inescapable.
Lady Windermere goes upstairs to get another photograph. Distraught, Lord Windermere tells Mrs. Erlynne that he can’t stand to see her with his wife after all the trouble she has caused. He reveals to the audience that Mrs. Erlynne is actually Lady Windermere’s mother, and that he has been financing her life rather than letting his wife know that her mother—whom she thinks is dead—is actually a disgraced divorcee. He scornfully reminds Mrs. Erlynne that she abandoned her daughter in favor of a lover, who later abandoned Mrs. Erlynne herself.
This revelation shows that even though family bonds are necessary in establishing an individual’s reputation, they’re not necessarily positive forces in a person’s life. In other words, Mrs. Erlynne may be Lady Windermere’s mother, but that doesn’t mean that their connection is simple or painless. The information about Mrs. Erlynne scandalous past also shows how hard it is to separate good and bad when it comes to individual people. On the one hand, she created a lot of pain through her behavior, but on the other, she herself was treated very badly by the lover who deserted her.
Lord Windermere goes on to accuse Mrs. Erlynne of blackmailing him, and she agrees that she took her chance when she found out that her daughter had married a wealthy man. Disgusted, Lord Windermere says that he won’t ever be able to look at the fan again after the events in Lord Darlington’s rooms, and Mrs. Erlynne says she’ll ask Lady Windermere to give her the fan. He suggests that she also take the miniature of a young woman that his wife treasures and kisses when she says her prayers. Mrs. Erlynne reflects that the miniature of her was made when she was younger and innocence was fashionable.
By taking advantage of her daughter’s connections, Mrs. Erlynne shows how deep family ties run; she benefits from being Lady Windermere’s mother even though they haven’t seen each other in well over a decade. Lord Windermere’s revulsion at the fan indicates that, having become more acquainted with what the strictures of women’s gender roles can cause, even he prefers not to be reminded of them in the future. However, it’s telling that he doesn’t try to change these circumstances; he simply looks away from them. Finally, the miniature introduces the idea that people (especially as they get older and better acquainted with the world) can only be perfectly good in images, not in real life. The figurine ostensibly represents Mrs. Erlynne, but it doesn’t capture her true complexity.
Mrs. Erlynne tells Lord Windermere that she has come to say goodbye to her daughter, Lady Windermere, but that she is not interested in playing “the part of a mother.” She says that she’s learned that the feelings of motherhood are too painful and that she prefers to let Lady Windermere go on believing that her mother is dead and “stainless.” Lord Windermere is horrified, but Mrs. Erlynne refuses to repent for her actions, saying that “in real life [women] don’t do such things.”
Lord Windermere declares that he’s going to tell his wife the truth about Mrs. Erlynne, but she says that if he does, she will make herself such a bad reputation that Lady Windermere will be miserable for the rest of her life. She claims that she does love Lady Windermere and wants the best for her, even though Lord Windermere won’t believe it. She says that telling Lady Windermere her story should be her own choice, and that she’ll either do it that day or never.
For women especially, reputation is everything; it’s obvious here that what people believe about Mrs. Erlynne is far more relevant that who she actually is. This moment also emphasizes again how mixed up goodness and wickedness have become by this point. Telling the truth should be a good thing, but Mrs. Erlynne convincingly makes the case that it would actually be bad.
Lady Windermere reenters and gives Mrs. Erlynne a photograph of herself and her baby. She says that if the baby had been a girl, she would have named her Margaret after her mother. Mrs. Erlynne comments that her own name is Margaret too, and Lady Windermere notes that her mother is her ideal in life. Mrs. Erlynne cautions that “realities are better” than ideals, but Lady Windermere says she could never give up her ideals. She notes that her father could never bear to speak of her deceased mother and that he died of a broken heart from missing her so much. Mrs. Erlynne rises to go, and Lord Windermere goes to send for her carriage.
Despite everything she’s experienced over the course of the play, Lady Windermere still can’t surrender her ideal of perfect goodness. Mrs. Erlynne says that realities are better, but she also hides reality from Lady Windermere, which implies that the opposite may actually be true. Maybe rigid ideas of morality can be helpful sometimes, even if they’re inaccurate. That the two women bond over their shared name also gives the impression that, in contrast to all the unreliable language throughout, names are the words that people should value the most. Of course, names are just shorthand for actual people; the play again seems to suggest that while language is necessary, it shouldn’t be mistaken for reality.
With Lord Windermere gone, Lady Windermere effusively thanks Mrs. Erlynne for her sacrifice the night before. Mrs. Erlynne tells her not to speak of it and asks that she repay the debt by keeping the secret from Lord Windermere and so preserving the happiness of their marriage. Lady Windermere promises, and Mrs. Erlynne asks her also to remember her child and her role as a mother. Lady Windermere notes that she’ll never again forget her role as a mother as she did the night before, and Mrs. Erlynne shudders, telling her that the night is over now. In parting, Mrs. Erlynne asks to keep the fan and Lady Windermere happily agrees, noting how fortunate it is that they have the same name since it’s written on the fan.
The exchange of the fan here brings together the various themes of feminine performance, family connection, and the power of language. Despite their overall success determining their own fates, both women are still bound by the need to perform conventional femininity and by their inescapable roles of mother and daughter. By rejecting speech in favor of silence and celebrating only the fact of their shared name, both women again suggest that it’s best to focus on actual people rather than written or spoken language.
Parker announces that the carriage has arrived and that Augustus has come to call. Augustus greets Mrs. Erlynne coldly, but she asks him to see her out and carry her new fan. She bids Lord and Lady Windermere farewell and exits with Augustus. Alone, Lord and Lady Windermere reflect that Mrs. Erlynne is better than they once thought and reaffirm their own love for each other. Lady Windermere looks forward to seeing the garden of roses at their house in the country.
In the end, both Mrs. Erlynne and Lady Windermere take refuge in the trappings of conventional femininity as they affirm their commitments to their male partners. Mrs. Erlynne uses the fan to win back Augustus’s affection, while Lady Windermere dreams of the roses that await her in the country with Lord Windermere.
Augustus reenters and says that Mrs. Erlynne explained everything, which startles both Lord Windermere and Lady Windermere. He explains that Mrs. Erlynne was actually looking for him when she went to Lord Darlington’s rooms, having checked at the club first. She wanted to relieve the suspense and accept his proposal, and he says that all of the men “behaved brutally to her.” Augustus finishes by saying that he plans to move away from England with Mrs. Erlynne and that he’s glad to do it because he’s “sick of it all.” Lord Windermere remarks that Augustus is marrying “a very clever woman,” and Lady Windermere adds that she’s “a very good woman.”
In the play’s closing line, Lady Windermere hints a deeper understanding of morality than seemed possible in Act I. She has seen more (though not all) of Mrs. Erlynne’s complexity, and she still deems her good. Ultimately, Mrs. Erlynne also receives the approval of Augustus and Lord Windermere, even though she wrongs them both along the way. For a woman in such a restrictive society, it seems, goodness requires some wickedness as well, and it may never be possible to decide whether one person is truly good or bad.