Lady Windermere's Fan by Oscar Wilde: Summary & Overview

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Meredith Spies

Meredith has studied literature and literary analysis, holding a master's degree in liberal arts with a focus on depictions of femininity vs masculinity in literature and art.

'Lady Windermere's Fan' was one of Oscar Wilde's first social comedies and a satire on upper and middle class society. Read on to learn about the plot of this play and to get an overview.

Overview to Lady Windermere's Fan

Lady Windermere's Fan is a social comedy, or a comedy that looks at the social norms, expectations and mannerisms of a time period. It is also a satire, or a piece that uses humor to criticize a situation. Written by the famous and infamous, Oscar Wilde, the play was first put on in London in 1892. Wilde is satirizing the upper class and moral attitudes (or lack thereof) of that time period.

In the play, the usual tropes of mistaken identity and lost child found are never resolved, and it's implied that characters don't really change, continuing their shady ways. The play pokes fun of the social expectations of Victorian England's high society and the propensity for it's 'do as we say, not as we do attitudes.'

Plot Summary

The play begins with Lady Windermere preparing for the ball her husband is throwing for her twenty-first birthday. She is showing off her new fan (a gift from her husband) to her friend Lord Darlington. Darlington is effusive in his compliments and blatant in his attempts to seduce Lady Windermere. This upsets her, and she lets him know she is a Puritan and is very strict about her views as to what is proper behavior.

Lord Darlington leaves as the Duchess of Berwick, a horrid gossip and busybody, arrives. She takes great pleasure in telling Lady Windermere that Lord Windermere is cheating on her with another woman, Mrs. Erlynne, and likely giving her huge sums of money. She also informs Lady Windermere that Society (with a capital S in this case) has known about it for a while. Lady Windermere seems to find this information to be entirely new. The Duchess leaves, and Lady Windermere decides to check her husband's bank book.

Lady Windermere finds that the finances seem fine and nothing is out of the ordinary, but uncovers a second bank book with a lock on the cover, tucked into her husband's desk. She breaks the lock and finds that he has been giving large sums of money to Mrs. Erlynne.

Lady Windermere confronts her husband, who denies having an affair with Mrs. Erlynne but does admit to 'having dealings' with her. He asks Lady Windermere to invite Mrs. Erlynne to her birthday ball so he may help Mrs. Erlynne re-enter Society. Lady Windermere refuses her husband's audacious request and threatens to throw a public scene if Mrs. Erlynne shows up at the ball.

Lord Windermere tells her it would not be a good idea to do so, but Lady Windermere doesn't agree and goes to get ready for the ball. Lord Windermere has a short speech while alone, revealing that he is protecting Mrs. Erlynne because, if her true identity came out, his wife would be horribly socially shamed.

At the ball, Lord Windermere tries to get Lady Windermere to speak with him alone, but she ignores him and goes to speak with guests. Lord Windermere is concerned by his friend, Lord Augustus Lorton, a.k.a. Tuppy, who wants to know about Mrs. Erlynne, as he himself is greatly enamored of her and wants to try to get in her good graces. Lord Windermere assures Tuppy that the rumors of the affair were false and, in fact, Mrs. Erlynne would be at the ball that evening. Tuppy is quite happy and confesses he had been worried about Mrs. Erlynne's social standing.

Lord Windermere approaches Lady Windermere again and is determined to tell her the truth of Mrs. Erlynne's identity, but at that moment, the lady herself arrives at the ball. Lady Windermere gives her the cold shoulder in front of all her guests (the Victorian high society version of 'making a scene'), and Lord Windermere's plans are spoiled. Lady Windermere goes to Lord Darlington at the ball and asks him to be her friend. Lord Darlington professes his love to Lady Windermere and begs her to leave her husband for him. Lady Windermere is shocked and, instead of responding, goes to speak with departing guests as the ball breaks up.

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