The play unfolds throughout the day in London, in the house of Lord Windermere and his wife, and in the bachelor apartment occupied by Lord Darlington, in the early 1890s.
The main heroine of the play is Margaret, Lady Windermere – we find a family mansion in the small living room a few hours before the reception in honor of her birthday: Margaret turns twenty-one. A young mother and a happy wife, she seems to be a kindly affectionate and self-assured woman, favorably, albeit with a touch of secular rigor, accepting the gallant courtship of one of her husband’s friends – a flaunted dandy and the principal idler of Lord Darlington, whose “meaningful” name is hardly given the author of the character by accident. However, on this day his intonations are more serious and more agitated than usual, and the brilliant aphorisms and misty half-notes of the interlocutor lead her to a feeling of slight confusion.
This feeling gives way to confusion and anxiety, when, for the time being, saying goodbye to the mistress of the house, Lord Darlington gives way to the long-standing acquaintance of Windermere, the Duchess of Berwick, accompanied by her young daughter. A charming lady of indefinite age, casting out secular blasphemy as a cornucopia of secular means, feigns sympathetically at the reprehensible behavior of her husband, several times in the week of visits by some Mr. Erlin, a person with a dubious reputation for which he even rented luxury apartments in a fashionable quarter. Selflessly devoted to her husband, brought up by her aunt in the spirit of strict puritanical morality, Margaret perceives this news like thunder from the blue. At first, unwilling to believe the talkative interlocutor, she painfully convinced herself of her rightness, secretly looking into her husband’s bank book.
This is what Lord Windermere finds to her, To the dismay of Margaret, he not only refutes the flattery, as she hopes, the slander, but also demands that his wife is truly unfulfilled: showing a friendly part in the “woman with the past”, which he intended to help restore the lost once a position in the London light, Lord Windermere insists that Margaret send Mrs. Erlin an invitation to her party. She refuses in indignation; then Lord Windermere himself wrote an invitation. Picking up a fan presented to her by her husband on the day of birth, the heroine swears she will publicly insult “this woman” as soon as she dares to cross the threshold of her house. Lord Windermere in desperation: he can not, does not dare to tell his wife the whole truth about Mr. Erlin and his relationship with her.
A few hours later, to the great surprise of the motley crowd, engaged in idle gossip and flirting, the latter does appear, exuding an aura of disarming courtesy and habitual ability to command the opposite sex; Margaret lacks the spirit to offend the rival; she remains powerless to watch as she leads first the old bachelor Lord Augustus, and then – Lord Windermere. With indignation watching all this, Lord Darlington finally throws off the mask of the tired Epicurean and urges Margaret to leave her husband and respond to his feelings with affection. She hesitates; In response, he declares that he will immediately leave England and she will never see him again.
Suppressed, like the puppet of the acting mistress of the ball, Margaret, you can hear a fragment of conversation between Mr. Erlin and Lord Windermere: from him it appears that Mr. Erlin intends to marry Lord Augustus, and Lord Windermere’s part remains to provide her with a comfortable material existence. Completely discouraged, Margaret writes a farewell letter to her husband and disappears from the house.
The... letter is accidentally discovered and read by Mrs. Erlin returning from the terrace. She is in genuine horror: “Or is life repeating its tragedies? .. I wrote these very words to her father twenty years ago!” Only at this very moment the mystery is revealed to the spectator who has connected the relationship of Lord Windermere, his young wife and the mysterious “woman with the past” to an ambiguous tangle: Mr Erlin is Margaret’s own mother; and dedicated to this secret, Lord Windermere, obeying human and related duty, supports it, but is not authorized to reveal even to his beloved wife the incognito of his new “chosen one.”
Having mastered herself, she hides the letter and leaves the mansion, intending to intercept Margaret in Lord Darlington’s apartment and dissuade her from the fateful step.
The tension reaches its apogee when, in the bachelor abode of the refined lover of secular pleasures, Mr. Erlin finds Margareth, who is trembling with irreparability of the step taken, and already beginning to repent. She addresses the girl with a passionate speech, warning against the cruelty of the high world, not forgiving mistakes, reminding of marital and maternal duty. The heroine is crushed by the consciousness of her own guilt before her husband; and when the “rival”, incomprehensible to her, declares that she found and took with her the letter she left on the table, her indignation is no limit. But Mrs. Erlin knows how to navigate in extreme situations: she throws a letter into the fire, repeating: “Even if he throws you away, it’s still your place near your child…” Something is melting away in the puritanical nature of an impeccably honest girl who yielded a burst of passion and hurt pride.
At that moment, male voices are heard: Lords of Darlington decided to look briefly after visiting the club for several men, among them a note-spiked Cecil Graham, Lord Augustus and… Lord Windermere. Margaret hides behind the curtain, Mr. Erlin – in the next room. There is a sparkling exchange of cues about everything and nothing, and suddenly Cecil Graham discovers Lady Windermere’s fan on the sofa. The owner of the house belatedly realizes what actually happened, but is powerless to do anything. Lord Windermere is threateningly demanding an explanation from him, in the midst of which from the next room Mrs. Erlin appears bravely. There is general confusion: no potential suitor Lord Augustus, her official admirer Lord Windermere, nor Lord Darlington could have suspected her presence. Taking advantage of the moment,
The next day the feverish boiling of passions is replaced by a calming calm. Lord Windermere, now ignorant, asks for forgiveness from his beloved wife, blaming Mrs. Erlin: “She is a bad woman, she is” incorrigible, “and the same asks him to show more tolerance and condescension.” In women who are called good, – she says – a lot of terrible things – reckless gusts of jealousy, stubbornness, sinful thoughts. And those so-called bad women are capable of torment, repentance, pity, self-sacrifice. “When the butler announces that Lady Windermere is asking for an audience… Mr. Erlin, Lord Windermere is again indignant, but not for long: that he is going to leave England forever. “And left alone with Margaret, asks her for a photo with her little son and… a fan. And when the main character in passing observes that she bears the mother’s name, she slightly opens the veil over the mystery: it turns out that her name is also Margaret. Erlin says good-bye and leaves. A few minutes later, as if nothing had happened her betrothed Lord Augustus, who claims that, despite everything, they intend to soon marry. So everything is resolved to the common pleasure.