When Did Good Woman Play Bad Woman Well?
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To classify a person as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a very general and dangerous action. Oscar Wilde however poses the question ‘what makes a good and a bad person?’ throughout his play ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’. Each of the characters displays their good and bad behaviour but more importantly their opinions of whom they believe are good or bad. Wilde develops this by using the story of a ‘woman with a past’ namely Mrs. Erlynne. There is much scandal surrounding her past and the number of male visitors that she entertains. During the very first act both the Duchess of Berwick and Lord Darlington take up the issue of who are good people and who are bad people. They present their ideas to Lady Windermere who has very sure and ‘puritan’ viewpoints on this subject. She immediately deems Mrs. Erlynne as a bad person, which is hugely ironic as it is her who has to judge Mrs. Erlynne later on in the play.
Mrs. Erlynne is first introduced to the play when Lady Windermere discovers payments made to her by Lord Windermere. In a fit of rage from Lady Windermere, Mrs. Erlynne is immediately described as an ‘infamous woman’. The sheer weight of the emotion displayed by Lady Windermere shows that Mrs. Erlynne’s nature has been questioned in the past and not by Lady Windermere specifically but by society in general. During the first act, Lord Windermere endeavours to support Mrs. Erlynne, whilst Lady Windermere objects most adamantly to the financial support Lord Windermere provides for Mrs. Erlynne. It would appear to an audience that some wrongdoing on Lord Windermere’s and Mrs Erlynne’s part has taken place but this is purely based on non-conclusive evidence put forward by Lady Windermere. This unreliable information being revealed to her by her own suspicious nature. This however, as in so many of Wilde’s novels, is not the case but is in fact a good pre-cursor to events to come. By Lady Windermere’s reaction to her new discovery, the audience are given a valuable insight to her character which may lead us to judge her, which in turn may allow us to question her judgement of Mrs. Erlynne.
It is of course very easy to label Mrs. Erlynne as a bad woman. The facts are made obvious to the audience. It is revealed after Mrs. Erlynne’s discovery of the letter that she had disgraced herself by abandoning her young daughter and eloping with a man who subsequently left her and returned to society. She is shown to be a woman of a dubious nature with a possible penchant for ruining marriages and above all is punished by not being re-accepted into society. Lady Windermere even claims, ‘you should not mention this woman and me in the same breath. It is an error of taste.’ This remark, coming from a respected Lady Windermere shows the attitude of the ladies towards Mrs. Erlynne’s honour. Wilde however, keeps some mystery about exactly how Mrs. Erlynne’s honour has come to be looked upon in such a fashion. This combined with such determination to fight Mrs. Erlynne’s point of view from Lord Windermere allows the audience to question with good reason the fidelity of these accusations and generalisations.
It is certain that Mrs. Erlynne plays ‘bad woman’ admirably but it is likely that she plays this role as if it was a role assigned to her but not true to her. It would appear that she has adopted this persona in order to accumulate funds and to work her way back into society. It becomes extremely obvious during the ball scene that Mrs. Erlynne is a very manipulative woman, especially with regards to the men of the society. She says to Lord Windermere early on in act two, ‘the men I can always manage’. This shows that her flirtatious and so-called ‘outrageous’ behaviour is merely the means by which she has tried to re-enter society. Unfortunately for Mrs. Erlynne the women are not weakened by her flattery and tend to relish more on scandal than the men, this is why Mrs. Erlynne is afraid of the women. The women also would naturally feel threatened by Mrs. Erlynne, as she is accompanied by a history and is also particularly attractive and strong-willed.
All the way up until the point she finds the letter, Mrs. Erlynne is looked upon as a bad, selfish woman. From this point on the argument in favour of Mrs. Erlynne as a good woman lies strongly in the belief that she carries out a selfless act by sacrificing her honour a second time for the sake of Lady Windermere. Clearly, her motives excluded, the heroism displayed in the third act by Mrs. Erlynne is commendable. It is debatable however, whether Mrs. Erlynne does this in order to save her daughter from disgrace or to save herself from guilt and a replay of her misguided past. Her actions can be easily interpreted as heroic and commendable but also as cowardly and feeble.
The conflict between Mrs. Erlynne and Lady Windermere is the focal point with regards to Mrs. Erlynne’s character. Upon approaching Lady Windermere, Mrs. Erlynne is very decisive and peremptorious, her experience in life has not led her to become pathetic and motherly; rather, she is practical, sophisticated and witty. However the audience does see a more motherly and sensitive side to Mrs. Erlynne during this scene as she tries to persuade Lady Windermere not to leave her husband. As Mrs. Erlynne discovers the letter to Lord Windermere she is overcome with a sudden rush of motherly emotions, which she later concedes to have feeling and although she abandoned her daughter is clear that she cares for her a great deal.
The dialogue between Mrs. Erlynne and Lord Darlington during the last act is also very important. We learn that Mrs. Erlynne is full of regret for her actions in the past but that she does not believe in repentance. She has become hardened over the years and does not seem phased by Lord Darlington’s threats. Instead it only makes her even stronger so that she returns the threat. Mrs. Erlynne does love Lady Windermere but at this point Lord Windermere is too angry to be receptive of Mrs. Erlynne’s speeches. Instead he believes her to be cold, selfish and heartless, a total contrast to his first opinion.
Lady Windermere however tells Lord Augustus what a fabulous woman he is marrying whereas she had previously thought Mrs. Erlynne to be a very bad woman. Mrs. Erlynne does not want Lord Windermere to tell his wife the truth about her mother in order to stop her from suffering the scandal that she did, but also to stop her from losing her ideals that she says she is nothing without. Mrs. Erlynne persuades Lord Windermere not to tell her by saying that she does not care for Lady Windermere and by giving all number of selfish reasons that she has become accustomed to giving over the years. It is almost that Mrs. Erlynne tries to convince herself that she has no heart in order to prevent herself from suffering. This could be interpreted as selfish, but it is more likely that an audience would sympathise with Mrs Erlynne, the woman who made a mistake.
In conclusion, there are many ways in which it is easy to label Mrs. Erlynne as a bad woman, her selfish actions, her rude remarks, her eventful past and her ruthless stubbornness. Her faults of character, I believe have all been brought about from the punishment she received for leaving society. She is truly sorry for abandoning her child and is just trying to salvage what she can of a respectable life. She does care for Lady Windermere, enough to sacrifice herself again and to prevent her from making the same mistake she did. She is also not willing to blacken Lady Windermere’s name by revealing the truth. It is impossible to label someone as a good or a bad person, but that the majority of people are somewhere in between. Mrs. Erlynne is far from perfect but does have a heart, which in many ways is surprising considering her punishment from society over the years. She cares for others as well as herself but has a hardened exterior that she displays to other people. Mrs. Erlynne is somewhere between good and bad but in my opinion is leaning quite strongly towards the good end of the spectrum.