Throughout the play, various characters carefully employ both written and spoken language to achieve their ends. However, these attempts repeatedly go awry, with over-reliance on language frequently leading to misunderstanding and unnecessary conflict. Wilde seems to argue that as important as words are, they’re not ultimately enough to ensure harmony between people: they also need to rely on unspoken feelings and trust to build loving relationships. Because he uses the medium of written and spoken language to convey this point, Wilde also adds some irony to the play as a whole; the play indicates that the audience has to trust its words to some extent, even as it reveals that those same words are unreliable.
Just as notions of good and bad seem comfortably straightforward at the play’s start, so too does language initially seem simple and reliable. When Lady Windermere discovers a locked bank book, which seems to be written evidence of her husband’s infidelity (he has been making payments to the scandalous Mrs. Erlynne), she accepts it without question, even though she has never doubted her husband before. Here, she takes writing to be gospel, though it clearly contradicts her emotional and experiential sense of what is true. Similarly, Lady Windermere relies on a written letter to tell Lord Windermere of her intention to run away with Lord Darlington, rather than facing him in person and risking changing her mind. The letter gives her the chance to seem confident and clear in her decision, even though she regrets the choice immediately and resents how the letter ultimately gives the wrong recipient—Mrs. Erlynne—insight into her actions. Furthermore, at the party, the guests seem to agree that what’s spoken aloud is what counts, even as their allegiances and relationships shift constantly beneath the surface. They take idle gossip seriously in nearly every case, and Mrs. Erlynne even suggests that speech determines inner reality, saying: “When men give up saying what is charming, they give up thinking what is charming.” All of the characters believe that language, whether spoken or written, is conflated with truth.
However, Wilde suggests from the start that speech and language may be shallow and unreliable. The character of Agatha provides a comedic example of how the characters might not be getting as much out of their use of language as they think they are. Although Agatha’s mother, the Duchess of Berwick, refers frequently to Agatha’s conversational skill, Agatha herself never says any more than “Yes, mamma.” After Agatha gets engaged to Mr. Hopper, her mother exclaims: “My dear one! You always say the right thing.” Moments later, however, the Duchess is displeased to find that Agatha has agreed to go to Australia, telling her: “You say the most silly things possible.” Throughout, the Duchess of Berwick conveniently ignores that fact that Agatha has actually said nothing at all.
Many of the characters also draw distinctions between different kinds of speech that, though the characters take them seriously, are actually meaningless. For example, a party guest named Cecil Graham claims that “scandal is gossip made tedious by morality,” saying that he only talks gossip, not scandal. However, he reveals the meaninglessness of this claim only minutes later when he delightedly points out evidence that Lord Darlington has been hiding a woman in his rooms. Cecil Graham even underscores how little he believes in the meaning of communication when he says, “I like talking to a brick wall—it’s the only thing in the world that never contradicts me!” As the reader watches the consequences of the characters’ previous reliance on language unfold, it becomes clear that words are powerful, but not because they are true. The bank book creates a significant conflict, but Lady Windermere misinterprets it; the letter goes some way toward resolving that conflict, but only because it isn’t read by the intended recipient. Language drives the plot, but in nearly every case, it does so through misunderstanding and deception.
By the final act, it becomes clear that in many cases, language has the effect of creating conflict and pain, even in cases where the underlying reality is peaceful and loving. The entire plot hinges on conflict between Lady Windermere and Lord Windermere, but in fact, they each love and desire the other; it’s only words that come between them. Reflecting on her painful experiences before, during, and after the party, Lady Windermere contemplates telling her husband what happened with Mrs. Erlynne and dreads speaking about it, saying to the audience, “Actions are the first tragedy in life, words are the second. Words are perhaps the worst. Words are merciless…” The actions she and the other characters take over the course of the play don't lead to ruin, but she nonetheless knows that words still could.
As both Lady Windermere and Mrs. Erlynne attempt to bring their relationship to a satisfying conclusion, they are comforted by having the same first name, Margaret, even though only Mrs. Erlynne knows the true significance of that seeming coincidence. It seems that when it comes down to it, the only word with true meaning is a name, suggesting again that the person is the thing that matters, rather than the language that surrounds the person. By agreeing not to tell Lord Windermere about the events of the previous night—that is, that Lady Windermere was about to leave him for Lord Darlington, but Mrs. Erlynne stopped her—Lady Windermere and Mrs. Erlynne cast language as a barrier to intimacy. Their choice indicates that keeping words unspoken is the only way to keep them from ruining happy realities, in this case the couple’s love for each other. At the same time, the fact remains that the misunderstandings of the previous acts have also been essential for helping both women develop more nuanced understandings of themselves and the world. With this conclusion, Wilde suggests that for all the destruction language can cause, people still have no choice but to rely on it as a means of growth and learning.
Language and Truth ThemeTracker
Language and Truth Quotes in Lady Windermere’s Fan
LORD DARLINGTON: Oh, nowadays so many conceited people go about Society pretending to be good, that I think it shows rather a sweet and modest disposition to pretend to be bad. Besides, there is this to be said. If you pretend to be good, the world takes you very seriously. If you pretend to be bad, it doesn’t. Such is the astounding stupidity of optimism.
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!
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)
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.
CECIL GRAHAM: That is a great error. Experience is a question of instinct about life. I have got it. Tuppy hasn’t. Experience is the name Tuppy gives to his mistakes. That is all. (Lord Augustus looks around indignantly)
DUMBY: Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.
CECIL GRAHAM: (standing with his back to the fireplace) One shouldn’t commit any.
LORD WINDERMERE: […] Oh, the shame of it, the shame of it. To tell it is to live through it all again. Actions are the first tragedy in life, words are the second. Words are the worst. Words are merciless…
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.