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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2018



Crisis of identity in Lady Windermere’s Fan

Dr. Bulbul Gupta, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Multanimal Modi College, Modinagar (District Ghaziabad)


Oscar Wilde, a Victorian writer always held a strong conviction of, and an imperative requisite to, “psychological truth” (Bird, 103) in drama which is clearly evident in his following comment: “As to those of us who do not look upon a play as a mere question of pantomime and clowning, psychological interest is everything.” (Bird, 313) As such, he shows greater inclination towards exploring all those psychological complexities that the varying and powerful social forces precipitate in a woman. He has a multi-dimensional approach towards the demonstration of the nuances of socialization. He presents its various problems and issues vis-à-vis. the type of ideologies and rationalizations that it provides a woman; the kind of impulses and strivings that it encourages in her; the internal and external conflicts that it gives rise to; the degree of personal development that it generates in her, and most importantly, whether or not it bestows upon her a sense of distinct identity or individuality. In his multilayered approach to the psychic interplay between woman and her environing society, he examines her in multiple roles – as a wife, a mother, a beloved and a lady of situations. He also unravels the complex female psyche – the divergent areas and behavioral tendencies such as suspicion, betrayal, compassion, guilt, aggression, repentance and reconciliation as much as the inconsistencies and disparities that accrue from those social forces that are continually operating on her.

Lady Windermere, the female protagonist of the play, Lady Windermere’s Fan is one of Wilde’s exponents of this major psychosocial concern. As she moves through different stages of development as given by the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, her inner conflicts, indecisiveness, fears, insecurities, fluctuating emotions and attitudes have been vividly projected by Wilde. Since her very childhood, a multitude of social and cultural forces act upon her that tend to blunt her power of discernment and impede the growth of her intellectual and emotional faculties. These forces are, namely, the inflexible moral code of her aunt Julia; the holier-than-thou attitude of her husband, Lord Windermere; the vicious gossip mongering of her friend, the Duchess of Berwick; the unscrupulous mannerisms of yet another family associate of hers, Lord Darlington; and the preachings of domesticity of her mother, Mrs Erlynne.

Lady Windermere’s personality has been shaped by the puritan ideology of her “sternly moral” (Ervine, 199) Aunt Julia who, since her infancy, has had a very strong impact upon her. It is due to her aunt who is the first of the social influences upon her that she develops into a stiff and narrow-minded woman who “accepts no excuse and makes no allowance for lapse.” (Ervine, 192) Epifanio San Juan Jr., a critic conveys his opinion about Lady Windermere’s austerely virtuous character: “Her forte is the mouthing of grandiose abstractions: ‘Life… is a sacrament. Its ideal is love. Its purification is Sacrifice.’” (San Juan, Jr., 147) Lady Windermere’s stringent notions about right and wrong have stemmed from her mother, Mrs Erlynne who died (as was told to her) when she was a mere child. She immortalizes her as the very “ideal(s)” (Complete Works, 427) of her life, forever guiding her towards piety and a sense of responsibility.

Lady Windermere’s approach and understanding of life has been moulded variously, first by her aunt and later on by her husband, Lord Windermere who has an overbearing influence on her. Lord Windermere is a domineering husband who frames the image of Lady Windermere as an ideal wife representing a perfect blend of sexual innocence and domesticity.  He displays himself as the over-indulgent and caring husband, who provides his wife with all the coveted luxuries while protecting her from the abrasive world outside. In return, he demands from her unquestionable faith and subservience to him: “Ah, Margaret only trust me! A wife should trust her husband.” (Complete Works, 400) His scant respect for her individuality is camouflaged in a patronizing attitude wherein he repeatedly refers to her as a ‘child’. His pomposity and overbearing demeanour is essentially aimed at preserving her innocent nature and inhibiting any kind of intellectual growth. Thus, Lady Windermere is a woman who has been living in Lacanian ‘imaginary stage’ (Eagleton, 142) and is dependent on people like her aunt, her mother and her husband for her identity.

On the surface, Lady Windermere appears happy and content. Being surrounded with all the niceties of life and the unbounded love of a doting husband, there is hardly anything more that she can wish for. But beneath this smug existence simmers the basic longing towards personal realization. Her statement in Act I to Lord Darlington, a family associate: “I am of age today. Quite an important day in my life…” (Complete Works, 386) is symbolically the entry of Lady Windermere in the ‘mirror stage’ (Eagleton, 142)of Lacan’s stages of development when she begins to define a sense of ‘self’ and to seize every opportunity to make her presence felt or known before others. In the conversation with Lord Darlington at the very outset of the play, she gravely deflects his extravagant compliments and shows a great deal of disgust at his flirtatious behaviour with the aim to project herself as a true puritan. She displays excessive sense of rectitude while endorsing the equality of men and women before law, yet carries an unrelenting attitude towards anybody who has sinned. Her uncompromising attitude is revealed in her quick rejoinder to Lord Darlington’s declaration of being “too complex a thing to be settled by these hard and fast rules,” (Complete Works, 388) with these words: “If we had “these hard and fast rules, we should find life much more simple.” (Complete Works, 338)

While Lady Windermere acknowledges that the shaping of her strict disposition was on account of an uncompromising and unrelenting aunt, she inwardly recognizes that her identity as a puritan is not born of her own self. This realization shows that the selfhood that Lady Windermere professes to attain is fictive. The sense of ‘distinct self’ is neither originally hers nor does she experience it truly within herself. Hence, being hedged in by ideological ramifications of a strictly aunt on the one hand, and frivolous digressions of an indulgent husband on the other, she retains a sense of emptiness within her. She carries within her some vague, shadowy longing that will help her to assert and realize the need to be her own self. This seemingly long wait of Lady Windermere to find an opportunity to shake off her husband’s domination virtually comes to an end with the arrival of her friend, the Duchess of Berwick who makes a dramatic entrance in the first act of the play. She sails in with cocksure confidence into Lady Windermere’s life making no bones about sizing her up of Lord Windermere’s liaison with a disreputable woman, Mrs. Erlynne. The Duchess represents the father or what Lacan calls the “Law” (Eagleton,143) of Lacan’s stages of development as she divulges intimate information of his frequent visits to Mrs. Erlynne as well as about his supplying “a great deal of money” (Complete Works, 391) to her. Being a seasoned woman, well-versed in the affairs of the world, she voices her own convictions about men and their relationship with women. Referring to men as ‘monsters’, she vehemently opposes their apathetic attitude towards women. The strong opinion and sentiment of the Duchess leaves Lady Windermere plagued. Till this point of her life, Lady Windermere has known no “lacks or exclusions” (Eagleton, 144). She has experienced a “‘fullness’, a whole, unblemished identity” (Eagleton, 144), no matter, fictive. But the Duchess makes Lady Windermere aware of distinct gender roles and thus initiates for her the process of becoming ‘socialized’. Listening to the Duchess, Lady Windermere undergoes an acute state of uncertainty and irresolution. She becomes aware of a sense of “lack” (Eagleton, 145 ) that is, an absence of a true, distinct sense of ‘self’, and she now begins to move from one symbol or ‘signifier’ to the other in an attempt to fill that ‘lack’. She oscillates between the need to believe inherently in her husband’s love towards her, and the recently acquired information from the Duchess about his infidelity. This conflict is the outcome of her own urge to establish her identity. At one moment, Lady Windermere retains her faith in her husband and thinks: “No, it is some hideous mistake… some silly scandal,” (Complete Works, 393) in the very next moment, she feels like trusting the Duchess’s allegations and confirming it by checking his bank-books. Her irresistible urge and finality of attitude, “I will find out,” (Complete Works, 393) to check her husband’s financial documents marks her entry into Lacan’s “‘symbolic order’” (Eagleton, 145) or stage. It also indicates her eagerness to somehow intrude her husband’s privacy and also partake his long-standing right to dominate and control even her most personal affairs. It is apparent that more than the Duchess trying to cast her negative influence upon Lady Windermere, it is she who allows herself to be indelibly influenced. Not being trained to assess and evaluate human nature, she betrays herself as a gullible woman who is keen to believe the Duchess’s words. She does not even once question the reliability of the Duchess who is known as a “corrupt and malignant” (Ervine, 191) gossipmonger. She also does not intelligently analyze or read beyond the apparent superficiality of her words. She fails to observe that the Duchess repeats most of the details concerning Lord Windermere on hearsay. The Duchess’ constant usage of the phrases such as “they tell me” (Complete Works, 391) and “I have been told” (Complete Works, 391) clearly reveals this. However, Lady Windermere overlooks all such considerations. Her insistence to scrutinize her husband’s bank-books, “But why should I not look? I am his wife; I have a right to look!” (Complete Works, 393) testifies to her agility in switching over from a docile and obedient wife to a stubbornly assertive woman.


Lady Windermere’s suspicion of her husband is more than confirmed when she discovers from his bank-books that he has lent money to Mrs. Erlynne. She finds adequate support in the Duchess’ views on men and their unscrupulousness which invariably leads to anger and distrust towards her husband. The conversation between Lady Windermere and her husband in Act I of the play brings out her defiant and angry self. She takes the opportunity to behave aggressively with him, and unreservedly accuses him of his “mad infatuation” (Complete Works, 393) with the “infamous woman,” (Complete Works, 393) Mrs Erlynne. She remains obstinate in her dismissal of Lord Windermere’s protestations to the contrary. Lord Windermere’s many attempts to prove the purity and innocence of his association with Mrs Erlynne fall on deaf ears. Lady Windermere’s rigid stand and adamancy in her opinion of her husband even goes to the extent of equating him with the general promiscuity prevalent in men when she berates him: “Why should you be different from other men? I am told that there is hardly a husband in London who does not waste his life over some shameful passion.” (Complete Works, 395) This suspicion and distrust of her husband echoes the Duchess’ own belief that “M(m)en become old, but they never become good,” (Complete Works, 391) and that all men “without any exception” (Complete Works, 392) are bad. Also it reflects Lady Windermere’s entry into the ‘gender’ world. Lady Windermere vehemently opposes her husband’s decision to invite Mrs Erlynne to the party that they intend to hold. She misconstrues and refuses to accept his noble intentions of providing Mrs Erlynne a chance to get back to the society through their admissal in their party. She justifies her antagonism towards Mrs. Erlynne as well as seeks redressal in her pompous and self-glorifying comment:  “There is not a good woman in London who would not applaud me.” (Complete Works, 396) The conventionality that she has been forcibly adhering to reaches a high point of arbitration. She feels that she has not exerted enough of her moralistic finesse on her husband and so pronounces with even greater vehemence that “good” (Complete Works, 396) women like her “have been too lax. We (they) must make an example.”  (Complete Works, 396) Her reaction here is yet again influenced by the earlier observation made by her friend, the  Duchess  of Berwick that good women, owing to their lassitude and docility  are  “getting elbowed into  the corner” (Complete Works, 389) by  their husbands. The initial concern of Lady Windermere for her husband prior to her knowledge of his supposed liaison with Mrs Erlynne was one of quiet compliance and receptivity. But this attitude is now markedly changed. No more is she the “child” (Complete Works, 396) wife to Lord Windermere. She has assumed dynamic proportions of womanhood that now defy all intimidation or suppression. Towards the conclusion of her conversation with her husband in Act I of the play, she declares before him this striking transformation in her basic self in the following words: “From this moment my life is separate from yours.” (Complete Works, 396-97)

Lady Windermere’s attitude towards her husband further changes from mere verbal opposition to outright rebellion. As she watches ‘with a look of scorn and pain’ (Complete Works, 407) Lord Windermere and Mrs Erlynne engaged in a talk at the party, she resolves to reciprocate her husband’s act of betrayal with her own planned infidelity: “He may do as she chooses now with his life. I have done with mine as I think best, as I think right.” (Complete Works, 408) She now supports her own decision to leave her home fuelled by the enamouring words of Lord Darlington who entices her. She reminds herself of Lord Darlington’s emphasis upon the insult that has been hurled on her by Lord Windermere by asking Mrs. Erlynne to the party despite against her wishes. She justifies the appropriateness of her plan to leave her husband on the perception that he had reduced their marriage from being “a model of politeness and privilege” (The Washington Times, B05) to a sort of “degradation” (Complete Works, 404) and “bondage” (Complete Works, 408) Commenting on Lady Windermere’s step of leaving her home, John Ervine, a critic observes that if she was so disgusted with her husband’s liaison with another woman, she “could have demanded a break with Mrs. Erlynne as a condition of her remaining in the house, or if she were too deeply revolted by her discovery even to contemplate that action, she could have flown, not to Darlington, but to stern Aunt Julia for shelter.” (Ervine, 197) But by replacing Lord Windermere’s love and protection with Lord Darlington’s, she makes a deliberate attempt to simply outrage Lord Windermere’s honour and respectability. It is a step taken by her consciously to make him aware of the emergence of a new self - an identity that is synonymous not with suppression and support but with rebellion and independence. In Act III of the play, standing in Lord Darlington’s room, she is made to ponder on the fact that if her husband cared enough for her, he would have come after her, and would have taken her back by force. (Complete Works, 410) Deep down, she only wanted to establish her identity as a woman of reckoning and had no basic cause to leave the home and hearth of her husband. In actuality, she never really wanted to desert her husband. Her hopes of his arrival to take her back are shattered when he does not show up. She realizes that all her efforts towards self-assertion have proved futile. The mask of a rebel falls off, and she is overwhelmed with fear and insecurity. She is faced with her ‘true self’ – a self that is accustomed to support; a self that is fearful and compliant; and a self that is bereft of intellectual and emotional maturity. In the ensuing dilemma of either opting for Lord Darlington’s affection or returning to her husband, she indirectly reinforces a fundamental truth that a woman’s identity rests upon the support and love of a man. Eventually, she decides: “I will go back, let Arthur do with me what he pleases.” (Complete Works, 410) The aggressive and demanding self that had risen like a bubble deflates down to submission and reconciliation.

Lady Windermere was incited to revolt against her husband by the Duchess of Berwick and Lord Darlington. Now it is Mrs. Erlynne, the much maligned woman who brings about Lady Windermere’s reconciliation with her husband and acts as her actual saviour. Mrs Erlynne represents the father or the Law that intensifies Lady Windermere’s process of socialization. Towards the end of Act II, Mrs. Erlynne reads the letter written by Lady Windermere to her husband of leaving her home and going to Lord Darlington.  She is the one who dissuades her from taking such a course of action. She is symbolically the Lacanian “phallus” (Eagleton, 144) that impresses upon Lady Windermere the signification of sexual distinction or of distinct gender roles thereby completing the process of ‘socialization’ of Lady Windermere that was begun by Duchess of Berwick. At first, Lady Windermere repels Mrs Erlynne’s advice to return home and humiliates her as a “vile” (Complete Works, 412) woman, a woman who is “bought and sold.” (Complete Works, 413) But she cannot hold out and succumbs to the stereotypical notions about a woman’s place and identity resting on the roles of a mother and wife. In fact, Lady Windermere sees in Mrs Erlynne a reflection of her own deeply entrenched belief in woman’s dependency on one’s husband and thus, returns to her “mirror stage” (Eagleton, 142). In this ‘mirror stage’, she readily concedes to the viewpoint that no matter a woman’s husband is harsh towards her, ill-treats her, or abandons her, her rightful place is in her home. Having been always alien to the idea of independent thinking and decision making, she concedes to Mrs. Erlynne’s exhortations to ‘suffer and be still’ and thus returns to Lord Windermere as well as to the ‘imaginary stage’. By the end of the play, her return to such a life becomes evident: her absolutism does not relax and she continues to not only trust her husband but to trust him even “more” (Complete Works, 429)and “absolutely” (Complete Works, 429); her idealism remains an inextricable part of her personality with her proclamation that if she loses her “ideals, she would lose everything” (Complete Works, 427); and she confirms her allegiance to her aunt’s black-and-white world of good and bad by qualifying Mrs. Erlynne as a “very good woman.” (Complete Works, 430) Together this marks her stay in the ‘imaginary stage’ where she identifies herself with her husband and her aunt’s idealism to an extent that there appears to be no clear boundaries between herself and them, and that reflects her dependency for her life and identity on others. She completely lacks a sense of distinct ‘self’ and remains a non-entity who sees herself merely as a reflection of others. Epifanio San Juan, Jr., a critic has succinctly rendered Lady Windermere’s efforts to overpower her husband and their farcical nature in the following manner: “Lady Windermere, even after the ordeal, remains essentially the same as she was before: an exponent of illusions.” (San Juan, Jr., 149)



Bird, Alan. The Plays of Oscar Wilde. London: Vision Press Ltd., 1977

Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. London and Glasgow: Collins, 1971

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2008

Hart-Davis, Rupert, ed., “The letters of Oscar Wilde”, 1962 Quoted in Alan Bird, The plays of Oscar Wilde

Ervine, St. John. Oscar Wilde: A Present Time Appraisal. London:  George Allen &  Unwin Ltd., 1951

San Juan, Jr., Epifanio. The Art of Oscar Wilde. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University  Press,  1967

“Witty look at Wilde’s ‘Lady’” The Washington  Times. June 14, 2005. Web