What is a comedy? How does Lady Windermere’s Fan fulfill the requirements for this genre?
Would you say that this is a comedy of types? Of ideas? Of complicated psychological characterizations?
Are these latter consistent with the notion of comedy?
What is the relationship between melodrama and comedy? Does this play fit into both categories?
In his “On the Idea of Comedy and of the uses of the Comic Spirit,” Wilde’s fellow Victorian George Meredith wrote of comedy, “People are ready to surrender themselves to witty thumps on the back, breast, and sides; all except the head: and it is there that he [the comic poet] aims. He must be subtle to penetrate. A corresponding acuteness must exist to welcome him.” Would you say that Wilde’s plays appeal to the intellect?
Meredith continues, “ And to love Comedy you must know the real world, and know men and women well enough not to expect too much of them, though you may still hope for good.” Is the audience expected to hope for much good from the characters of a Wildean comedy, and are they disappointed?
Meredith believes that the subject of comedy is most often the relationship of the sexes, and moreover: “. . . there never will be civilization where Comedy is not possible; and that comes of some degree of social equality of the sexes.” To what extent does “the social equality of the sexes” characterize the social world of Lady Windermere’s Fan?
Meredith believes that comedy at its best may provide social criticism: “Now, to look about us in the present time, I think it will be acknowledged that in neglecting the cultivation of the Comic idea, we are losing the aid of a powerful auxiliary. You see Folly perpetually sliding into new shapes in a society possessed of wealth and leisure, with many whims, many strange ailments and strange doctors. . . . But the first-born of commonsense, the vigilant Comic, which is the genius of thoughtful laugher, which would readily extinguish her at the outset, is not serving as a public advocate.” Would Wilde have agreed that one of the purposes of comedy was to reprove social “Folly” in a society of wealth and leisure?
Meredith asserts, “Contempt is a sentiment that cannot be entertained by comic intelligence. What is it but an excuse to be idly minded, or personally lofty, or comfortably narrow, not perfectly humane? If we do not feign when we say that we despise Folly, we shut the brain.” Do you think the audience is expected to despise the follies of Lord Darlington, Lady Windermere, Lord Windermere and Mrs. Erlynne, and if not, why not?
What seem to be some distinctive features of Wildean comedy?
What is the importance of the settings? Would these have appealed to Wilde’s original audience? How would they have defined the subject matter of the play?
How important is exaggeration to the final effects? Of unexpected incidents? Of sudden reversals?
Do you see commonalities between this play and other works by Wilde you have read? Some important contrasts?
What expectations are set up by the title?
Act 1: What significance can be attached to Lady Windermere’s choice of flowers? Would white and red roses have had special symbolism for a Victorian audience of aesthetic tastes?
In Act 1, how is are later situations set up in the first scenes? Are we prepared for some of the reversals which later occur?
What initial ideals does Lady Windermere proclaim? (9) Are her moral codes rigid? Conventional? (11)
What are we to think of the flirtation between Lady Windermere and Lord Darlington?
What is revealed by the conversation of the Duchess of Berwick? Are her intentions constructive? How is her treatment of her daughter mocked?
What are we to think of her views of men? (19)
What do the amounts given to Mrs. Erlynne reveal about the Windermeres' economic position?
How is the audience expected to react to Lord Windermere’s insistence that Mrs. Erlynne be invited to his wife’s birthday party?
Why doesn’t Lord Windermere explain to his wife that Mrs. Erlynne is related to her? At what point does the audience understand the secret?
Act 2: How does Mrs. Erlynne behave at the ball? Does she seem to justify Lord Windermere’s good will?
How do her fellow women behave toward her? How do you explain the fact that she rises in everyone’s good graces?
What comic relief is provided by the Duchess of Berwick and her daughter? What is shown by her apparent change of attitude toward Mrs. Erlynne?
What seems indicated by the jokes about marriage bandied about at the ball? (e. g. “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 are alone.”)
What series of ironies make it impossible for Lord and Lady Windermere to come to an understanding before she decides to leave?
What are we expected to think of Lord Darlington’s statement that men and women can never be friends? (41) Is this a warning?
How sincere is the audience expected to find Lord Darlington’s protestations of love and fidelity? (42-43) What arguments does he use to attempt to persuade her to leave her husband?
What is revealed by Mrs. Erlynne’s appeal to Lord Windermere for yet more money? (48)
Why is Mrs. Erlynne disturbed by the contents of Lady Windermere’s letter? What is the audience expected to think would be the consequences of her elopement?
Act 3: What are some comic and melodramatic aspects of the scenes in Lord Darlington’s rooms? Do aspects of this scene approach farce?
What are features of Mrs. Erlynne’s description of the pains of social exclusion? (57) Might these have had some private meaning for Wilde?
What are some instances of comic reversal in this scene? Is Mrs. Erlynn a plausible moralist for faithful married relations, and if so, why? (57-58)
What persuades Lady Windermere to change her mind and prepare to return to her husband?
What do we learn about the characters of the men who congregate in Lord Darlington’s rooms (Cecil, Dumby, Lord Augustus, Lord Darlington)?
What are some of the play’s good one-liners? (67)
What ominous discovery ends the third act? (70)
Act 4: Why do you think this play was written in four acts rather than five?
What new set of comic reversals introduces the scene? (72-73, Lady Windermere is now convinced of Mrs. Erlynne’s goodness and Lord Windermere of the opposite)
What new views on female character does Lady Windermere express to her husband? (74)
What are the ostensible and real reasons for Mrs. Erlynne’s final visit? What reason does she give for her sudden desire to leave England?
What do we learn about her past life and the reaction of Margaret’s father to her desertion?
Is Mrs. Erlynn eager to assume maternal roles? How do her responses affect our sense of the appropriateness of the play’s ending?
Why do you think she selects the fan as a parting token?
On what grounds does she beg Lady Windermere to retain the secret of her intended tryst? (85)
What final quarrel occurs, and why do both Mrs. Erlynne and Lord Windermere decide that concealing their secret is best?
Would this likely be the reaction of people today? Do you find it plausible within the ideological universe of the play?
What seems to be the play’s message about the relationship between secrecy and love? Must a good marriage be an honest one?
What final statements on the relationship of good and evil are made by Lady Windermere? (87-88) Why do you think she notes that the roses at Selby are both white and red? (88)
What final comic reversal ends the play? In what way is the engagement of Mrs. Erlynn and Lord Augustus a fit ending for the play? (a surprise, a reversal, gives her the social advancement she had sought, despite her generous act)
Would you say that justice is served in the final scenes? Does the ending seem to sort out the problems and moral issues raised throughout the play?
To what extent does Wilde’s treatment of society reflect some of the values which it criticizes?
If so, to what extent does this matter?
Would you describe this play as realistic?
How may the themes developed have relevance to Wilde’s own life and personal preoccupations?
Page numbers are from Lady Windermere's Fan: A Play About a Good Woman, edited by Ian Small, London: Ernest Benn Limited; New York: W. W. Norton, 1980.