Much of the play’s plot revolves around the gender roles that were prevalent when it was first performed in 1892. Men and, especially, women are expected to behave in particular ways in order to uphold respectable reputations. However, it quickly becomes clear that the characters’ adherence to rigid gender roles is, in almost every case, a flimsy act that falls apart under pressure. The characters are rarely who they seem to be on the surface, and Wilde seems to suggest that gender roles are social constructs that individuals simply perform. However, the play doesn’t take those performances lightly. Rather, it hints that performance of gender is actually a serious business that women in particular can use to shape their lives, even if it is inherently false in many ways.
The genteel calm of the first act again sets up the simplistic standards that Wilde will go on to deconstruct. Lady Windermere, Lord Darlington, the Duchess of Berwick, and Lord Windermere all seem to have clear ideas of how men and women should behave in high society, and for the most part, they perform those roles carefully. Lady Windermere is initially confident in her performance of femininity. The audience first sees her arranging roses, a quintessentially female activity that also hints at the idea of actively managing the appearance of something that seems naturally beautiful. She is also devoted to rules of propriety, emphasizing to her butler, Parker, that there’s nothing illicit about her meeting with her friend Lord Darlington. Lord Darlington also fits neatly into this pattern of clearly defined roles; he is confident that he is a man who behaves nobly, while insisting that Lord Windermere is a quintessential cad. Similarly, the Duchess of Berwick fusses about shielding her daughter Agatha from improper people and calls Lord Darlington “thoroughly depraved.” Throughout most of Act I, the characters use gender-based stereotypes as their primary means of understanding each other and themselves.
Only at the end of Act I do these carefully constructed roles begin to break down. Lord Windermere insists that Lady Windermere invite the scandalous Mrs. Erlynne to the party, but rather than doing as expected and complying with her husband’s orders, Lady Windermere remains devoted to her ideals of goodness and refuses to send the invitation. She is caught between two aspects of conventional female gender roles: ladylike morality on the one hand and obedience to her husband on the other. The ensuing conflict begins to show how destructive it can be to try and maintain such elaborate performances. The symbol of the fan also dramatizes the dual nature of women’s performed gender roles. On the one hand, Lady Windermere’s fan is a signal of conventional femininity, something she may use to carefully hide her true face and instead put forward a ladylike image. But on the other hand, Lady Windermere threatens to hit Mrs. Erlynne with the beautiful fan, transforming this symbol of delicacy into a literal weapon. This moment hints that the flip side of polite performance is violent conflict, foreshadowing the ways that gender roles become weaponized in the following acts.
At Lady Windermere’s party, all of the guests remain preoccupied with the trappings of their gender roles and seem more interested in these superficial concerns than with connecting with each other as individuals. However, their behavior undermines the roles they play even as their performances become more elaborate. The ball is full of gestures toward the rules society places on men and women. For example, the Duchess of Berwick nags Agatha about properly managing the names on her dance card and scolds her for considering dancing with younger sons, since society deems them worthless due to their small inheritances. At the same time, the guests’ seeming propriety masks countless instances of misbehavior, deception, and deviance from “proper” gender norms. For instance, Mr. Dumby and Lady Plymdale spend the ball together and seem to behave as a couple, even while discussing Lady Plymdale’s absent husband. Meanwhile, Lord Darlington behaves like a gentleman in front of most of the guests, only to confess his love to Lady Windermere and beg her to leave her husband, while Lord Windermere himself is in the other room.
As the play’s characters try desperately to achieve their desired outcomes, the women discover that doing so requires both doubling down on prescribed gender roles and, at the same time, subverting them. During the party, Mrs. Erlynne relies on the role of the charming, beautiful outsider to manipulate the men around her and, eventually, gain acceptance among the other women. However, she discovers that in order to rescue Lady Windermere from catastrophe (Lady Windermere is planning to accept Lord Darlington’s offer to run away together), she’ll need to perform a different version of femininity. When she reveals herself in Lord Darlington’s apartment, she plays the part of a stereotypical harlot in order to explain the presence of Lady Windermere’s fan in Lord Darlington’s apartment. She claims that she took the fan from the party accidentally and brought it to the apartment herself, thus fooling the men into believing that Lady Windermere herself isn’t there. Mrs. Erlynne’s role switch here shows how both versions of her character are performances of predetermined gender roles, while also demonstrating how important those performances can be.
At the end of the play, both Mrs. Erlynne and Lady Windermere again use stereotypes of femininity to protect themselves. Lady Windermere allows her husband to think that her weeping and distress come from being delicate and overwhelmed, when she’s secretly upset at her own actions. Similarly, Mrs. Erlynne knows that society will view the bond between mother and daughter as significant, and she uses this fact to her advantage when she threatens to ruin Lady Windermere if Lord Windermere tells her the truth—if Lord Windermere tells his wife that Mrs. Erlynne is actually her mother, Mrs. Erlynne is prepared to behave so dishonorably that Lady Windermere’s reputation will be pulled down in the process. Though she does not behave as a mother typically should, Mrs. Erlynne nonetheless uses the social constructs connected to motherhood for her own gain. The gift of the fan from Lady Windermere to Mrs. Erlynne signifies their mutual understanding of these necessities at the play’s end. Their shared name’s presence on the fan suggests that while the real person underneath still matters, the kind of gender-based artifice that the fan provides is nonetheless crucial for women’s survival in society.
Gender, Performance, and Femininity ThemeTracker
Gender, Performance, and Femininity Quotes in Lady Windermere’s Fan
LORD DARLINGTON: Well then, setting mercenary people aside, who, of course, are dreadful, do you think seriously that women who have committed what the world calls a fault should never be forgiven?
LADY WINDERMERE: (standing at table) I think they should never be forgiven.
LORD DARLINGTON: And men? Do you think that there should be the same laws for men as there are for women?
LADY WINDERMERE: Certainly!
LORD DARLINGTON: I think life too complex a thing to be settled by these hard and fast rules.
LADY WINDERMERE: It is very kind of you, Duchess, to come and tell me all this. But I can’t believe that my husband is untrue to me.
DUCHESS OF BERWICK: Pretty child! I was like that once. Now I know that all men are monsters. (Lady Windermere rings bell) The only thing to do is feed the wretches well. A good cook does wonders, and that I know you have. My dear Margaret, you are not going to cry?
LADY WINDERMERE: You needn’t be afraid, Duchess, I never cry.
DUCHESS OF BERWICK: That’s quite right, dear. Crying is the refuge of plain women but the ruin of pretty ones.
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!
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)
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.
LORD WINDERMERE: I am afraid—if you will excuse me—I must join my wife.
LADY PLYMDALE: Oh, you mustn’t dream of such a thing. It’s most dangerous nowadays for a husband to pay any attention to his wife in public. It always makes people think that he beats her when they’re alone. The world has grown so suspicious of anything that looks like a happy married life.
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.
LORD DARLINGTON: Wrong? What is wrong? It’s wrong for a man to abandon his wife for a shameless woman. It is wrong for a wife to remain with a man who so dishonours her. You said once you would make no compromise with things. Make none now. Be brave! Be yourself!
LADY WINDERMERE: I am afraid of being myself. Let me think. Let me wait! My husband may return to me. (Sits down on sofa)
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.
LADY WINDERMERE: I must go back—no; I can’t go back, my letter has put me in their power—Arthur would not take me back! That fatal letter! No! Lord Darlington leaves England tomorrow. I will go with him—I have no choice.
LADY WINDERMERE: Go back to my husband, Mrs. Erlynne. He belongs to you and not to me. I suppose he is afraid of a scandal. Men are such cowards. They outrage every law of the world, and are afraid of the world’s tongue. But he had better prepare himself. He shall have a scandal. He shall have the worst scandal there has been in London for years. He shall see his name in every vile paper, mine on every hideous placard.
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.
CECIL GRAHAM: Now, my dear Tuppy, don’t be led astray into the paths of virtue. Reformed, you would be perfectly tedious. That is the worst of women. They always want one to be good. And if we are good, when they meet us, they don’t love us at all. They like to find us quite irretrievably bad, and to leave us quite unattractively good.
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!
MRS. ERLYNNE: (rising) I suppose, Windermere, you would like me to retire into a convent, or become a hospital nurse, or something of that kind, as people do in silly modern novels. That is stupid of you, Arthur; in real life we don’t do such things—not so long as we have any good looks left, at any rate. No—what consoles one now is not repentance, but pleasure. Repentance is quite out of date. And besides, if a woman really repents, she has to go to a bad dressmaker, otherwise no one believes her. And nothing in the world will induce me to do that.
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.