“Oh the Horror. The Horror”

September 21st, 2011

From the sharing of secrets and the repercussions that follow to the manipulation of “truths” in order to maintain or increase ones social/societal standing, Lady Windermere’s Fan has many themes and motifs that one would expect in a play about gossip and scandal. Even though Wilde inverts the final result of the characters gossip, there was not much in the play that takes one by surprise. However, the one theme that was not expected was the theme of horror. Wilde uses words like “misery”, “anxiety”, “monstrous”, “hideous”, and “horror” repeatedly throughout this very concise play. One has to stop and ask: What are the implications Wilde wishes the reader to see with his word choice? Is gossip itself “monstrous” or are those that participate in the act of gossip the “monsters”? Although it is difficult to know for certain what Wilde’s answers would be to these questions, one simply cannot help but try to decipher whatever message Wilde tries to send to the reader.

The first time the reader sees a reference to horror is when the Duchess goes to speak to Lady Windermere in Act One. While speaking about Mrs. Erlynne the Duchess says: “Oh, on account of that horrid woman. She dresses so well, too, which makes it much worse, sets such a dreadful example…It is quite scandalous, for she is absolutely inadmissible into society. Many a woman has a past, but I am told she has at least a dozen, and that they all fit” (Act 1 Lines 215-222). Wilde explicitly writes that Mrs. E’s reputation alone induces horror in the women that hear about her. The next few sentences offer the reader an explanation of as to why. Wilde suggests that her physical appearance alone is either so “off” or “improper” that that alone causes dread in those that see her. Wilde further explores the repercussions of Lady E’s actions and it seems that the most fearful characteristic is that she is “inadmissible into society.” It is the Duchess’s inability to “place” Mrs. E into a uniform category that literally horrifies her. This fear is emphasized through the lack of introduction the reader (and Lady W) are given. At this point in the play Mrs. E is like a phantom- a ghost- an unrecognizable creature that is spoken about but has yet to be seen. Wilde’s choice to introduce Mrs. E this way is almost cryptic and it also helps to build tension for the characters and the reader.

What/Who is “monstrous” fluctuates depending on which character is speaking. Later on in Act One the Duchess of Berwick, still speaking to Lady W, says: “Pretty child! I was like that once. Now I know that all men are monsters” (Act 1 Lines 314-315). By evoking images of a child and aligning that with images of monsters, one cannot help but think of “the Boogeyman” or “the monster in the closet” that children are so afraid of. So, is Wilde suggesting that for women, once they are “of age”, men become “the Boogeyman” to them? That is probably a bit of a stretch-yet there is some truth to this thought process as well. Working within the confines of this play, it seems that the only two things that can hurt a woman are men and rumors/scandal. Men can cause the rumor/scandal and (in terms of infidelity) and rumor/scandal can turn men against their wives (for lack of morality and virtue). This being the case, men become something to fear. If a man causes rumors, a woman cannot leave her husband because of their lack of property rights and financial security. If a woman stirs up her own rumors, a man can leave and turn against his wife- again leaving her with nothing.

From a man’s perspective, specifically Lord Windermere, feels as though it is merely the suggestion of infidelity that is “monstrous” (Act 1 Lines 452-454). This fact is proven when Lady W goes to Lord Darling in an effort to leave her husband. The consequences of this mere “suggestion” are “monstrous” because it has the ability to bring down a household and ruin a marriage.

It is understood that Wilde speaks in hyperbole for dramatic effect- however it is important to note the fear that gossip and scandal can produce.

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