Mrs Erlynne: …You are devoted to your mother’s memory, Lady Windermere, your husband tells me.
Lady Windermere: We all have ideals in life. At least we all should have. Mine is my mother.
Mrs Erlynne: Ideals are dangerous things. Realities are better. They wound, but they’re better.
Lady Windermere’s Fan, Act 4, by Oscar Wilde.
Oscar Wilde wrote a number of plays toward the end of the 19th century, many of them satires on the fashionable world in the ‘ton’ of London. “Lady Windermere’s Fan” is a satire about marriage in this setting.
In this play there are many views presented on marriage, each from the different perspectives of the players. In this segment, the principal character, Lady Windermere, has just been saved from making a ruinous decision to run off with another man. This saviour was Mrs Erlynne. This excerpt of their conversation takes place the next morning, as Mrs Erlynne is about to bid farewell to the Windermere’s.
Unbeknownst to her, Lady Windermere is actually the daughter of Mrs Erlynne. Mrs Erlynne had run away and left her husband and daughter in order to pursue an affair with another man. Yet, Lady Windermere’s ” ideal” is her mother, because she believes her mother to have died soon after she was born. She believes that her mother would have been a good woman, and that her mother would have wanted her to be a good woman too. The notion of a “good woman” in the early 19th century revolves largely around being a good wife: submissive, malleable, one who relies on her husband.
Mrs Erlynne, in contrast, believes in “realities”. She thinks that, even though realities “wound”, they are still to be preferred than ideals. This difference in perspective may come from her different view of marriage. She has been once divorced, amidst scandal, and is now looking to be re-married. Her decision to leave her husband and daughter all those years ago had many repercussions for her in the 19th century world, and she has lost those ideals to which her daughter aspires. She prefers to work with what IS -with the reality in her world – rather than what COULD BE.
So, my question today is… Which is better?
Ideals push us to be better than we are, so we can aspire to greater things.
Reality helps us deal with where we are, so we can hopefully move on from there to improve ourselves.
Or is idealism merely the language of the young and inexperienced, and realism just becomes the vernacular of the old and embittered?
Which one are you?
Oscar Wilde’s play: Lady Windermere’s Fan to read online
A Good Woman: the movie (2004)