That is the worst of women: they always want one to be good. And if we are good, when they meet us, then they don't love us at all. They like to find us quite irretrievably bad and leave us quite unattractively good.
There have been three periods of my life in which I read intensely: between the ages of four and eight, thirteen and fifteen, and twenty-one and twenty-three. What I devoured during those hungry times may surprise those who know my tastes now, although I developed an early antipathy to salty sea novels, crunchy westerns, and those bitter books about subjects like drug abuse and fractured families. For the last I have my own blissful childhood to thank; but for what I did appreciate and treasure there was little in common save an overarching sense of what I then may have called fairness, maybe justice, and what I now may term sound moral philosophy. What is sound moral philosophy ("unsound moral philosophy" has the defiant ultramodern ring of faux opposition)? In a nutshell, as well as in the nut itself, the difference between what is right and just and what a clear conscience cannot abide. And, as odd as it may seem, there is no better example of moral purity than the works of this writer of genius, as exemplified by this play.
Our characters are three mainly, a fourth partially, and a handful of hardly distinct cads and fools for whom epigrams have long replaced the normal feelings of a normal human heart. We begin with a triangle: Lady Windermere, a young mother, her husband Lord Windermere, a straight shooter perhaps ten years her senior, and her suitor, the very dashing and very preposterous Lord Darlington – his name says it all – in the same manner that any tale of budding adultery has ever begun, with the faults of one married member and the helplessness of his partner. Not much is made of Lady Windermere's child until a crucial juncture late in our work; yet her gentle comeliness cannot be overlooked by someone like Darlington, who habitually overlooks a woman's personality to scratch a recurrent itch. His approach is always truthful, if truth means doing those things whose pleasures can be quantified:
Do you know I am afraid that good people do a great deal of harm in the world. Certainly the greatest harm they do is that they make badness of such extraordinary importance. It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious. I take the side of the charming, and you, Lady Windermere, can't help belonging to them.
Like almost all of Wilde's heroines, Lady Windermere has an unusually acerbic tongue, but for this proclamation of wantonness she has no reply. What can be said when a station of our intellect understands morals and culpability as our downfall? Why does a stitch of truth line the little black book of every devoted debaucher? Perhaps because we are instinctively drawn to happiness, and just as instinctively to satisfaction, both of which often beget nothing more than a desire for more happiness and more satisfaction. Lady Windermere, however, has long since resigned herself to another fate. After her mother died, she was raised by a paternal aunt with the good values of Puritan etiquette: order, modesty, Godliness, family, and honor. Lord Windermere in his dull ways embodies all these characteristics, yet has enough affluence to secure them in elegant variation. And as the play opens on his wife's birthday, he gives her a fan with her name, Margaret, stenciled across, and leaves her to her thoughts and schedule. Much will occur that day, especially following the visit of the snobbish Duchess of Berwick and her daughter. But our play's name is quite significantly not The Duchess of Berwick.
What the fan might mean and not mean should not concern us terribly. Film studies likes its McGuffins, and our fan is decidedly a McGuffin; it could just as easily have been a glove or a shawl. Although contemporary ears might detect a pun on an admirer or supporter of a famous team or person, we can rest assured that this could not possibly have been Wilde's intention. Our fan will serve a variety of McGuffinesque roles – weapon, gift, lost object – and one could argue that, apart from ventilation, its primary social function has always resembled that of a screen. But in the hands of a society lady, which for better or worse Lady Windermere has become, the fan allows its holder to concern herself only with herself. Even the wittiest of rakes will hardly slow down her wrists, because that would signify access to something no lady should ever concede. So when the Duchess mentions Lord Windermere in repeated conjunction with a fallen, somewhat older woman by the name of Ms. Erlynne, we understand our triangle is now a trapezoid. What ensues is the tedious unraveling of a plain plot, fettered only by a reader's inability to enjoy the stream of observations while awaiting the revelation – the very definition of a bad reader, but anyway. The best scene occurs when best lines often occur: among drunken, dissatisfied men in the wee hours of the morning. The succinct brilliance of these pages has few peers in literature of any form: "Whenever people agree with me, I always feel I must be wrong"; "Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality"; "Experience is the name every one gives to his mistakes"; "A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing ... and a sentimentalist ... is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn't know the market price of a single thing"; "There's nothing in the world like the devotion of a married woman. It's a thing no married man knows anything about." No purpose attends this scene other than the promulgation of Wilde's wit, which is reason enough to sit through the most imbecilic of plots, and we need say no more.
It is hard to review a work of Wilde's without quoting him extensively, because he says it so much better than most everyone else. Surely his plays have many characters, but they all speak with the same self-assurance. Namely, that of one who knows, mostly secondhand, the wickedness of his world and yet hopes for its redemption. Why mostly secondhand? Wilde's reputation as a decadent continues to be one of the greatest lies perpetrated by literary critics, because a true decadent would not wish for anything more than more decadence. Drugs usually just make you want more drugs, be those drugs synthetic substances, fleshly pleasures, or the addictive jolt of violent actions. More happiness and more satisfaction, that is all Darlington proposes when he proposes – and men of his caliber always seem to be proposing something – and if that is all one gets from life, then one has had no life to speak of. So many of Wilde's aphorisms, original or modified from classical sources, have entered our vocabulary that we would be hard pressed to pick his finest, although I think it appears in Lady Windermere's Fan as a careless aside. You might remember it. It begins with one tragedy and ends with a second.