The Way of the World is generally viewed as the supreme example of its genre. Its characters—the vengeful and ultimately pathetic Lady Wishfort, the sparring lovers Mirabell and Millamant, the dark and devious Mrs. Marwood—remain in the mind long after the play is over. The complexities and subtleties of relationships are observed with a keen psychological insight: the domineering nature of Lady Wishfort turning to abject dependence on her mentor Mrs. Marwood; the carefully manipulated shifts of power between Fainall and Mrs. Marwood; and the passionate attraction between Mirabell and Millamant, disguised beneath a covering of mockery and indifference.
As in The Double-Dealer, covert motives and hypocrisy govern the action of the play. Old Lady Wishfort has loved Mirabell since he pretended to love her in order to woo her niece Millamant: Her ostensible motivation in opposing the young couple’s marriage is to protect her daughter from a deceiver, but her actual motivation is to avenge herself on Mirabell. Mirabell counters with an equally underhanded plan to foil Lady Wishfort’s plots with a decoy—his servant Waitwell disguised as wealthy suitor Sir Rowland. Waitwell is to prepare to marry Lady Wishfort, and Mirabell is to reveal his servant’s true identity and release her from the match on condition that she release Millamant’s fortune and grant Mirabell her hand in marriage.
Mrs. Marwood, at the center of the scheming, exploits Lady Wishfort’s dislike of Mirabell to pursue her own ends. Her ostensible desire throughout is to protect Lady Wishfort’s interests. Her actual desire, however, is to fan the flames of Lady Wishfort’s fury against Mirabell and to persuade her to disinherit Millamant in favor of Fainall, Mrs. Marwood’s lover. Fainall, meanwhile, means to denounce his wife (Lady Wishfort’s daughter) publicly for infidelity with Mirabell in an effort to blackmail Lady Wishfort into making over Mrs. Fainall’s estate to him. The blatant hypocrisy of his scheme becomes evident in the light of his true motivation: to have his wife’s fortune under the control of himself and his mistress, Mrs. Marwood. Congreve depicts a constant satirical tension between outward self and inward self, between the mask and the face behind it.
Deception is not only an interface between the characters and the world; it also serves to illustrate the characters’ view of themselves. Lady Wishfort’s attempt to turn back the years by painting herself a new face is an image whose symbolism reverberates throughout the play. It is a visual illustration of the affectations in which the foolish characters indulge. In the same vein, Petulant pays prostitutes to hire a coach and call on him in order to give the impression that he is in demand among ladies; and Mrs. Marwood makes a great show of hating men even while her actions are motivated by desire for them. All these characters are, metaphorically speaking, painting their own faces—cultivating appearances that are at odds with reality. Hence, Mirabell’s premarital condition to Millamant—“I article, that you continue to like your own face, as long as I shall, and while it passes current with me, that you endeavour not to new-coin it”—suggests a conscious rejection of the affectation and pretense that characterize the foolish sector of society.
The appearance of the unsophisticated, country-bred Sir Wilful Witwoud shows the extent to which this world has become divorced from the natural order. Lady Wishfort condemns his uncouth manners as barbaric—though shortly afterward she displays true cold-blooded barbarity in her relish at the prospect of Mirabell’s slowly starving to death. The metropolitan Witwoud disowns his brother (Sir Wilful Witwoud) because it is not fashionable to acknowledge relations in town. One treasures Sir Wilful’s ingenuous response to Witwoud’s snub: “The fashion’s a fool; and you’re a fop, dear brother.”
Mirabell and Millamant, with their wit and good sense, stand in contrast to the fops and fools. They embrace the pleasures of the town—indeed, Millamant is uncompromising in her disdain for the country—yet are not blind to its folly. The famous scene in which Mirabell and Millamant barter conditions and provisos for their life together shows a couple who see their world as it is and prefer not to waste time pretending it is otherwise. It is significant that Mirabell’s clear-sighted, if cynical, understanding of “the way of the world” helps him foil the plot against Mrs. Fainall and restore himself to Lady Wishfort’s good graces. Lacking faith in Fainall’s integrity, Mirabell had previously ensured that Mrs. Fainall’s estate was made over to him in trust, making her husband’s claim on it ineffective. Lady Wishfort is happy to offer Millamant to Mirabell in exchange for her daughter’s honor and fortune intact, and the prospect of their marriage makes a satisfying resolution to this complex plot.