Closed Prompt 2 -2006 Prose
In the excerpt from Lady Windermere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde makes use of an everyday social situation to show the opinions of the characters and to make a larger point regarding the superficiality, ambiguity, and redundancy of interactions among the British upper class. As the characters speak, they are revealed to have varying goals and personalities, through the syntax and tone of their dialogue.
The Duchess of Berwick seems the most at home in the scene. Eager to gossip, and expressing mock horror at Lord Darlington’s dry, cynical remarks, she easily says the most out of the three characters. She voices her disparagement of families and the less respectable conversationally, with statements like “I don’t know what society is coming to. Really, someone should do something about it.” The long, drawn out remarks that drag on and on without creating any meaning reinforce the image of an empty headed aristocrat. As such, she fails to comprehend the nuances of Lord Darlington’s remarks – asking Darlington to “Do a concession to my poor wits, just explain what you really mean.” Ironically, though she seems to take her inclusion in the elite aristocracy, as well as the conversation, for granted, she is left out – the analogies of marriage and card games go over her head as the conversation turns to Lord Darlington.
Lady Windermere’s tone is completely different. Far from the openness of the Duchess of Berwick, Lady Windermere’s dialogue is short, concise, and to the point. The syntax created makes her feel efficient, unemotional, cold, and conclusive, with statements such as “I will have no one in my house about whom there is any scandal.” Her statements are disapproving and detached, and instead of voicing her criticism, it is implied. Earlier on in the selection, such criticism is directed at Lord Darlington, with the above statement being, not so ambiguously, directed at Lord Darlington. This is one of her only two contributions to the first two-thirds of the conversation, of which the first was simply a clarification. Her resolute near-silence, perhaps more than her conciseness of speech, indicates her disapproval of Lord Darlington. However, as the conversation turns from social chatter to the nature of society, she becomes interested in the conversation, and, likewise, Lord Darlington. Her dialogue in the final quarter of the selection is longer, the syntax is more welcoming, and even includes a question – “why do you talk so trivially about life then?” What I think this signifies about Lady Windermere is interesting: though she may look down upon common, undignified, and unexpected behaviors, she is bored of societal life as well – the first half of the conversation is so dull and formulaic that she doesn’t need to interject – the conversation will continue in the same direction whether she contributes or not. Accordingly, she is surprised and a little pleased when Darlington turns the conversation away from the trodden path. This is what leads to the loosening of tone and the invitation to the party.
Lord Darlington is a different character entirely. Introduced to upset the scene, his dialogue is marked by irony and satire. His extravagant and indiscriminate use of irony, producing phrases like “As a wicked man I am a complete failure. Why, there are lots of people who say I have never really done anything wrong in the whole course of my life. Of course they only say it behind my back.” leaves his motives unclear, while also derailing the conversation. Most if not all of his statements are made impersonal by the excessive irony – you are aware that it upsets societal expectations, but it leaves you no more enlightened regarding Darlington’s character. He is aware of this, and even goes so far as to allude to it as a defense mechanism, stating “nowadays, to be intelligible is to be found out”. I think that this statement is perhaps the most important one uttered in the entire excerpt – much of the selection is typical gossip, consisting of language without communication, or, worse, it is communication so bland that it discourages thought instead of provoking it. Lord Darlington’s statement seems to suggest that he believes that to be understood completely is to be categorized, and that Lord Darlington is using irony to create a sense of surprise, something absent in the aristocratic atmosphere that he intrudes in.
In conclusion, I think that Wilde uses dialogue in a variety of ways in the excerpt from Lady Windermere’s Fan. Each character uses tone, voice, and syntax in a unique manner that either allows them to be categorized or shows their refusal to be categorized. The contrast between the readily characterized characters and Lord Darlington helps the author show how trivial, formulaic, and overall uncommunicative, language was in aristocratic Britain.