Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
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 entire section is 816 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Mrs. Millamant, by far the most beautiful and wittiest of all the fine ladies in London, is sought after by all the beaux in town. The niece of the rich Lady Wishfort, she is also an heir in her own right and is looked upon with great favor by Witwoud, a kinsman of Lady Wishfort. Millamant’s acknowledged preference among her suitors, however, is for young Mirabell, who is the only man in London who can match that lady’s devastating wit.
Mirabell is as great a favorite among the ladies in the town as Millamant is among the beaux. He is the perfect gallant; she is the perfect coquette. Among Mirabell’s jealous admirers is Mrs. Marwood, the mistress of Fainall, Lady Wishfort’s son-in-law. In fact, Mirabell has but one real enemy among the ladies, and that is Lady Wishfort herself. On one occasion, to further his suit with Millamant, Mirabell falsely made love to the old lady. Discovering his subterfuge later, she never forgave him. She determines that he will never marry her niece so long as she controls Millamant’s fortune. In consequence, Mirabell is hard put to devise a scheme whereby he might convince Lady Wishfort to consent to the marriage.
The plan he devises is an ingenious one. Realizing that Lady Wishfort will respond to anything that even resembles a man, he promptly invents an imaginary uncle, Sir Rowland, who, he says, has fallen madly in love with Lady Wishfort and wants to marry her. He forces his servant, Waitwell, to impersonate this fictitious uncle. To placate Waitwell and further ensure the success of his plan, he contrives his servant’s marriage to Lady Wishfort’s maid, Foible.
His scheme might have worked were it not for the counterplans of the designing Mrs. Marwood and her unscrupulous lover, Fainall. Although she pretends to despise all men, Mrs. Marwood is secretly in love with Mirabell and has no intention of allowing him to marry Millamant. Fainall, although he detests his wife heartily, realizes that he is dependent upon her and her mother’s fortune for his well-being, and he resolves to stop at nothing to make sure that fortune is in his control.
While these plans proceed, Millamant gives little thought to plots or counterplots. She has not the slightest...
(The entire section is 919 words.)