The play’s most prominent symbol, Lady Windermere’s fan represents the performative nature of femininity. Traditionally, respectable young women like Lady Windermere would have used beautiful fans like this one both as fashionable accessories and as ways to hide their faces in social situations, thus appearing more ladylike. At the start of the play, Lady Windermere uses her fan in this conventional way; it’s simply an appealing gift from her husband, Lord Windermere. However, the fan’s meaning changes when Lady Windermere threatens to hit Mrs. Erlynne with it; at this moment, Lady Windermere shows that performances of femininity can actually be violent and dangerous. The fan continues to highlight both the pitfalls and the benefits associated with attempting to be a respectable woman. On the one hand, the fan is nearly Lady Windermere’s downfall in Lord Darlington’s apartment, but on the other hand, both she and Mrs. Erlynne go on to use it as a tool to manipulate men for their own gain. For example, Mrs. Erlynne wins Augustus’s affection back in part by asking him to carry the fan. At the end of the play, Lady Windermere gives the fan to Mrs. Erlynne, and the gift acts as a symbol of their ongoing bond, suggesting that dealing together with the strictures of society is one way in which women learn to gain strength from each other. It’s also significant that the fan bears their shared name, Margaret; this fact underscores how their identities are both tied to their performances of womanhood.
Lady Windermere’s Fan Quotes in Lady Windermere’s Fan
LADY WINDERMERE: There is not a good woman in London who would not applaud me. We have been too lax. We must make an example, I propose to begin tonight. (Picking up fan) Yes, you gave me this fan today; it was your birthday present. If that woman crosses my threshold, I shall strike her across the face with it. (Rings bell)
LADY WINDERMERE: (C.) London is full of women who trust their husbands. One can always recognize them. They look so thoroughly unhappy. I am not going to be one of them. (Moves up) Lord Darlington, will you give me back my fan, please? Thanks…A useful thing a fan, isn’t it?…I want a friend tonight, Lord Darlington: I didn’t know I would want one so soon.
LADY WINDERMERE: […] Perhaps she told them the true reason of her being there, and the real meaning of that—fatal fan of mine. Oh, if he knows—how can I look him in the face again? He would never forgive me. (Touches bell) How securely one thinks one lives—out of reach of temptation, sin, folly. And then suddenly—Oh! Life is terrible. It rules us, we do not rule it.
LORD WINDERMERE: I wish that at the same time she would give you a miniature she kisses every night before she prays—It’s the miniature of a young innocent-looking girl with beautiful dark hair.
MRS. ERLYNNE: Ah yes, I remember. How long ago that seems. (Goes to a sofa and sits down) It was done before I was married. Dark hair and an innocent expression were the fashion then, Windermere!