At the start of Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan, which largely centers around a stuffy, upper-class party, Lady Windermere herself and several of the other characters have very clear-cut notions of what makes people good or bad. Lady Windermere, a young wife and well-respected member of London society, is universally seen as good and moral, and she believes that she should only associate with other moral people. Morality and immorality seem to be diametrically opposed, with no possibility of middle ground. However, the boundaries between moral and immoral become muddled as the play goes on, eventually becoming so blurred that it is impossible to separate the two. Good people can easily be mistaken for bad ones and vice versa, but Wilde seems to make an even further-reaching claim: when it comes to human beings and the complicated world in which they live, rigid concepts of good and evil are essentially meaningless.
In Act I, most of the characters seem to be confident in their understanding of what makes a person moral or immoral, but this distinction quickly begins to get confused. Discussing which guests she accepts in her home, Lady Windermere tells her friend Lord Darlington that, as far as she’s concerned, a man or woman who behaves badly is an irredeemably bad person. Though Lord Darlington accuses her of being a Puritan, she insists of such people: “I think they should never be forgiven.” Lord Darlington believes that thinking about good and evil should be a bit more flexible, but his own philosophy is essentially just an inversion of Lady Windermere’s. Lady Windermere and the other ladies call him “bad,” but he contends that seeming bad is actually an indication of underlying goodness: “Oh, nowadays so many conceited people go about Society pretending to be good, that I think it shows a rather sweet and modest disposition to pretend to be bad.” Still, Lord Darlington’s ideas and behavior suggest early on that it’s much harder than Lady Windermere thinks to figure out who’s good or not. The conflict at the end of this act results directly from Lady Windermere’s devotion to her ideals of goodness: “How hard good women are!” exclaims her husband, Lord Windermere, when she refuses to consider inviting the disreputable Mrs. Erlynne to her birthday party. “How weak bad men are!” Lady Windermere counters, setting up a strict dichotomy that will turn out to have disastrous results in the coming scenes.
During and after the party that Lady Windermere throws, the distinctions between “good people” and “bad people” become even less clear. The various comments that guests make throughout the party contribute to the sense that morality and immorality may be almost interchangeable at times. For example, Lady Plymdale tells Lord Windermere not to be seen paying attention to his wife, since public kindness will only make the guests think that he beats her in private: “The world has grown so suspicious of anything that looks like a happy married life.” The speed with which nearly everyone at the party changes their opinions of Mrs. Erlynne also shows how flimsy conventional notions of good and evil can be. Despite being convinced only hours earlier that Mrs. Erlynne was as scandalous as can be, the Duchess of Berwick for one is immediately convinced of her goodness simply because Lady Windermere—an ostensibly good person—invited her to the party. The conversation between the men in Lord Darlington’s apartment after the party also underscores how meaningless they find clear-cut ideas of good and bad, echoing the play’s overarching message. They know that women consider all men to be bad (as the Duchess of Berwick confirmed in the first act), but the men find this label unimportant.
As the play nears its conclusion, Mrs. Erlynne—whose reputation has shifted dramatically throughout the play—emerges as the clearest example of how morality and immorality can never be completely separate when it comes to human beings. On the one hand, Mrs. Erlynne seems to demonstrate her goodness when she sacrifices her reputation in order to prevent Lady Windermere from making the mistake of leaving her husband. Lady Windermere interprets this action as selfless and takes it as evidence that even people who behaved badly in the past can be worthy of forgiveness after all. However, the reader knows what Lady Windermere doesn’t: Mrs. Erlynne is actually Lady Windermere’s mother, and her motivations throughout have been essentially self-serving, as she has been trying to shed her scandalous reputation and hoist herself back into high society. When Lord Windermere accuses Mrs. Erlynne of blackmailing him in order to regain acceptance in society, she doesn’t deny it. The reader has no choice but to accept conflicting truths about Mrs. Erlynne: she loves her daughter, Lady Windermere, and takes action to protect her, but she still behaves unethically and refuses to repent. Mrs. Erlynne is unabashed about both her morality and her immorality, demonstrating that people dealing with the world’s complicated realities can never fall cleanly into one category or another.
Even though Lady Windermere doesn’t have all the facts about Mrs. Erlynne (by the end of the play, she still doesn’t know that the woman is actually her mother), she nonetheless explains to Lord Windermere in Act IV that her previous definitions of good and bad people were faulty, saying, “There is the same world for all of us, and good and evil, sin and innocence, go through it hand it hand.” Though Lord Windermere doesn’t know it, this line is also an admission of Lady Windermere’s own guilt; the events of the play have forced her to do things that she thinks are immoral, like contemplate leaving her husband, even though she used to believe that she never would do such things. By the time that Lady Windermere calls Mrs. Erlynne a “good woman” at the end of the play, it’s clear that that term—which also shows up in the play’s subtitle—means much more than it might initially seem to. As Lord Darlington hinted in the first act, goodness among humans can also be shorthand for evil, and Mrs. Erlynne and Lady Windermere both demonstrate that when people are faced with real-world challenges, neither quality can exist without the other.
Morality and Ambiguity ThemeTracker
Morality and Ambiguity 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.
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.
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 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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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: […] 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.
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.