The Way of the World is one of the best-known and most characteristic Restoration comedies in terms of plot, tone and themes. Restoration comedies are typically described as "worldly," which means something witty, cynical, and sophisticated. This genre deals mainly with immoral or amoral characters and the complex situations to which their corrupt conduct gives rise. It is this immoral or amoral sense of "the world," to be rejected by the Romantics a century later in poems such as Wordsworth's sonnet "The World is Too Much With Us," to which the title of the play refers.
The play's title, therefore, foreshadows the themes of infidelity and deception which play a central part in the play. Fainall, whose name suggests not only his character, but a general principle of conduct in the play, is conducting a clandestine affair with Mrs. Marwood. Mrs. Marwood is a friend of Fainall's wife, who is herself a former lover of the Fainall's friend Mirabell. Lady Wishfort, Mrs. Fainall's mother, attempts to prevent the marriage of Mirabell and Millament, but is tricked by Mirabell's disguised manservant into believing that he is the man she, the mother, wants to marry.
The plot is a tangled web of deception, and even the two lovers, Mirabell and Millamant, are cool and worldly in their attitude to one another. Instead of passionate vows of eternal devotion, the most famous passage in the play is a monologue in which Millamant tells Mirabell the type of modern, undemonstrative relationship she wants.
Let us never visit together, nor go to a play together, but let us be very strange and well-bred. Let us be as strange as if we had been married a great while, and as well-bred as if we were not married at all.
This distance between husband and wife, according to Congreve, is the way of the world.