Throughout the play, characters frequently point to labels of friendship and family to prove their worth to each other. Though these close bonds do turn out to be crucial in some cases, the play’s events also show how, in the context of a corrupt society, even seemingly reliable relationships can easily become fraught. Wilde cautions against his characters’ tendencies to idealize bonds of friendship and family, suggesting that people might be better off if they could view each other as complex, unique individuals rather than caricatures participating in stereotypes of how relationships should be.
Even in the first act, the concept of friendship becomes blurry when Lord Darlington and the Duchess of Berwick come to visit Lady Windermere. Despite Lady Windermere’s commitment to maintaining appropriate boundaries with Lord Darlington, he repeatedly tells her that he wants to be her “friend.” Her comment that they’re “already very good friends” indicates that Lord Darlington’s idea of friendship goes well beyond Lady Windermere’s; both of them likely know at this point that his words are actually innuendo for his romantic feelings. Even at this early point, it’s clear that the characters can’t rely on concepts like friendship when it comes to establishing personal boundaries and figuring out whom to trust. The Duchess of Berwick’s appearance with Agatha, moments later, underscores this point. She casts herself as Lady Windermere’s friend, but her motivations for visiting aren’t friendly ones; she simply wants to gossip and further her social ambitions for her daughter. From the start, Lady Windermere’s supposed friends have their own reasons for seeking out her company.
During and after the party, both friendship and family ties are further corrupted as the characters use them for their own complicated ends. As in the first act, the people at the party who claim to be friends of Lord Windermere and Lady Windermere seem unconcerned with their hosts’ actual feelings or lives; they’re more interested in gossiping about them and using the party for their own social gain. Several characters also directly disparage their family connections for the sake of their social standing. The Duchess of Berwick, who claimed in the first act that her nieces are models of virtue, quickly changes her mind after getting to know Mrs. Erlynne, calling the nieces “horrid.” Similarly, Cecil Graham bemoans spending time with his family and plays the situation for laughs, asking, “Wonder why it is one’s people are always so tedious?” The clearest indication of the fragility of seemingly strong relationships comes when Lady Windermere attempts to take Lord Darlington up on his offer to be her friend. Believing that her husband is cheating on her, Lady Windermere tells Lord Darlington that he was right; she does need to rely on his friendship. However, she’s horrified when he takes this opportunity to confess his love and beg her to run away with him. When she can’t immediately decide what to do, he exits and says he’ll never come back, making it clear that their so-called friendship was only ever a way for him to try to seduce her.
Somewhat ironically, the play’s truest friendship ends up forming between Lady Windermere and Mrs. Erlynne, whom the audience knows are actually family. Although Lady Windermere is Mrs. Erlynne’s daughter, she never finds out about this relationship. She is extremely grateful to Mrs. Erlynne, but not because of their familial connection; rather, she sees that Mrs. Erlynne has proven herself to be trustworthy through concrete action on Lady Windermere’s behalf. The bond the two form underscores just how shallow the other “friendships” in the play are. However, the audience knows that Mrs. Erlynne is far from blameless. She uses her status as Lady Windermere’s mother to manipulate Lord Windermere, behaving in a way that Lady Windermere herself would be horrified by if she knew all the details. Lady Windermere openly admits to idealizing the mother she believes to be dead, which makes Mrs. Erlynne realize that she’ll never be able to live up to her daughter’s high standards. With this, Wilde implies that idealizing close relationships can only harm them; Lady Windermere’s insistence that her mother must be perfect prevents her from ever actually knowing that mother.
At the same time, Mrs. Erlynne also demonstrates how idealized versions of family bonds can spur positive change. She finally succeeds in convincing Lady Windermere not to run away with Lord Darlington by appealing to her motherly instincts and pointing out that she can’t abandon her baby. Even as Mrs. Erlynne perceives motherly love to be a burden—she tells Lord Windermere that loving Lady Windermere “made [her] suffer too much—she also understands that it can be an advantage under the right circumstances. In the end, the two women part ways fondly, with only images of each other to hold onto—a photograph of Lady Windermere and her baby in Mrs. Erlynne’s case, and a carved miniature of her mother in Lady Windermere’s case. Their case demonstrates how even in close bonds of genuine love, idealized notions of relationships prevent the truth from coming to light. The two women may be happy enough keeping only symbols of each other, but these symbols are pale stand-ins for the deeper bond that they might have had.
Family and Friendship ThemeTracker
Family and Friendship Quotes in Lady Windermere’s Fan
LADY WINDERMERE: I did not spy on you. I never knew of this woman’s existence till half an hour ago. Someone who pitied me was kind enough to tell me what everyone in London knows already—your daily visits to Curzon Street, your mad infatuation, the monstrous sums of money you squander on this infamous woman! (Crossing L.)
LORD WINDERMERE: Margaret! don’t talk like that of Mrs. Erlynne, you don’t know how unjust it is!
LORD WINDERMERE: Ah, Margaret, do this for my sake; it is her last chance.
LADY WINDERMERE: What has that to do with me?
LORD WINDERMERE: How hard good women are!
LADY WINDERMERE: How weak bad men are!
LORD AUGUSTUS: (coming up to Lord Windermere) Want to speak to you particularly, dear boy. I’m worn to a shadow. Know I don’t look it. None of us men do look what we really are. Demmed good thing, too. What I want to know is this. Who is she? Where does she come from? Why hasn’t she got any demmed relations? Demmed nuisance, relations! But they make one so demmed respectable.
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.
DUMBY: What a mystery you are!
LADY PLYMDALE: (looking at him) I wish you were!
DUMBY: I am—to myself. I am the only person in the world I should like to know thoroughly; but I don’t see any chance of it just at present.
MRS. ERLYNNE: (laughing) Then we will talk of it on the terrace. Even business should have a picturesque background. Should it not, Windermere? With a proper background women can do anything.
MRS. ERLYNNE: […] Back to your house, Lady Windermere—your husband loves you! He has never swerved for a moment from the love he bears you. But even if he had a thousand loves, you must stay with your child. If he was harsh to you, you must stay with your child. If he ill-treated you, you must stay with your child. If he abandoned you, your place is with your child.
LORD AUGUSTUS: You want to make her out a wicked woman. She is not!
CECIL GRAHAM: Oh! Wicked women bother one. Good women bore one. That is the only difference between them.
LORD AUGUSTUS: (puffing a cigar) Mrs. Erlynne has a future before her.
DUMBY: Mrs. Erlynne has a past before her.
LORD AUGUSTUS: I prefer women with a past. They’re always so demmed amusing to talk to.
MRS. ERLYNNE: Yes. (Pause) You are devoted to your mother’s memory, Lady Windermere, your husband tells me.
LADY WINDERMERE: We all have ideals in life. At least we all should. Mine is my mother.
MRS. ERLYNNE: Ideals are dangerous things. Realities are better. They wound, but they’re better.
LADY WINDERMERE: (shaking her head) If I lost my ideals, I should lose everything.
MRS. ERLYNNE: Everything?
LADY WINDERMERE: Yes.
LORD WINDERMERE: (gravely) She is better than one thought her.
LADY WINDERMERE: She is better than I am.
LORD WINDERMERE: (smiling as he strokes her hair) Child, you and she belong to different worlds. Into your world evil has never entered.
LADY WINDERMERE: Don’t say that, Arthur. There is the same world for all of us, and good and evil, sin and innocence, go through it hand in hand. To shut one’s eyes to half of life that one may live securely is as though one blinded oneself that one might walk with more safety in a land of pit and precipice.