What is the central theme in The Way of the World?

The central theme in The Way of the World is the effect of scheming. In the story, characters launch several deceitful plans as they pursue marriage partners and wealth.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

At first, it seems sensible to argue that marriage is the central theme in William Congreve’s play The Way of the World. After all, marriage seems to be what most of the characters are after. It’s their primary activity and occupation. Mirabell not only finds a marriage partner for Lady Wishfort’s daughter, but he also finds a spouse for himself.

Yet if the central theme were marriage, the play would be rather simple and short. Mirabell could marry Millamant, and that would be that. Marriage is not the central theme. Rather, marriage is more of a means to arrive at the central theme, which could be scheming, connivance, or deceit.

In order to marry Millamant, Mirabell has to obtain her guardian’s approval. Lady Wishfort, the guardian in question, does not approve. This situation sets the stage for Marabell’s scheme, or deceitful plan, that’s meant to force Lady Wishfort to consent to the marriage.

Yet Millimant’s scheme impels another scheme. This scheme is the work of Fainall. He threatens to shame Wishfort’s daughter (and his own wife) unless he receives all of Millamant’s wealth and the remaining assets that belong to his wife.

This plan is countered by Millamant. To save her wealth, she threatens to marry Sir Wilfull. Finally, Mirabell saves the day by disclosing a prior stratagem that made him the trustee of Mrs. Fainall’s fortune.

Again, it seems pretty safe to say that there is a lot of scheming, cunning, plotting, and intrigue going on. Thus, scheming—or whatever related word you might want to use—is likely the central theme of Congreve’s play.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team