Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 766
The Man of Mode is, along with William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675) and William Congreve’s The Way of the World (1700), one of the finest comedies of Restoration theater. It owes its critical acclaim to its etched-in-acid portrait of love rituals in contemporary London high society, the brilliance of its dialogue, and—surprisingly enough—the humanity of its characters.
All of the character types in Sir George’s Etherege’s last play are the stock-in-trade of Restoration comedy. Dorimant is the fashionably witty rake who enjoys juggling two or three affairs at the same time. In one of the running metaphors of the play, he holds passion in love to be merely a disease, fortunately only a temporary one. “Constancy at my years?” he asks Mrs. Loveit, “you might as well expect the fruit of autumn ripens I’ the spring.” The heroine is, of course, beautiful, but more important, fully a match in wit for Dorimant. Her ability to discomfit him in their verbal battles is the main reason for his conceding to her the victory over his bachelorhood. Harriet has no intention of becoming one more in the long line of Dorimant’s mistresses. Other conventional types include the Frenchified Sir Fopling Flutter, the standard by which all later stage fops were to be judged; the cast-off mistress, the hero’s confidant, a couple of foolish older people, and a pair of lovers in the “high” plot, who set off, through their idealized love, the more earthbound love of Dorimant and Harriet. Basing their relationship on a compromise between passion and social forms, Harriet tells Dorimant, “Though I wish you devout, I would not have you turn fanatic.”
Earlier critics of Restoration comedy lamented the pernicious morality of such plays as The Man of Mode, which appeared to sanction, or at least accept, libertinism. More recent critics have seen such dramatists as Etherege striving to present an acceptable mean of behavior in matters of love. Dorimant, for instance, is neither as boorishly crude as the country gentleman old Bellair nor as excessively fastidious about his dress and grooming as Sir Fopling, who finds entertainment in front of a mirror. Harriet, who maintains that “women ought to be no more fond of dressing than fools should be of talking,” is similar to Dorimant in this respect. Both hero and heroine prefer to make do with a minimum of affectation and pretense, though complete honesty in love is seen to be either unrealistic in the case of young Bellair and Emilia, or unwise, in the case of Mrs. Loveit, who wears her anguished heart on her passionate sleeve. The audience may be apprehensive that Dorimant’s love for Harriet may be no more permanent than any of his previous inamorata—and indeed, it may not be. What gives their future relationship at least a reasonable chance is their similarity in temperament and wit. Only with Harriet, a woman whose insight into his true nature is penetrating, does Dorimant speak with utter sincerity and feeling.
Audiences like the characters not because they recognize them as types, but because they recognize them as human beings. Dorimant, by all accounts, should be an unsympathetic character: He is callous and cynical in his treatment of people, and his wit may seem inadequate compensation for his larger defects of character. As Bellinda realizes, there is a point beyond which his brutal treatment of women stops being amusing and becomes ugly, even to those who profit by it. Dorimant is, however, just as vulnerable as his victims: His humiliations in the Mall and later, before his former and present mistresses, as well as...
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his awkwardness before the incisive Harriet, reveal a vain man almost pathetically in need of “reputation”; that is, the reputation of being a dispassionate and consummate rake.
Etherege’s treatment of Mrs. Loveit is also multifaceted. On one hand, the extravagance and violence of her passion make her a figure to be ridiculed. On the other hand, she is a figure of pathos. Her only crime, after all, is in having loved Dorimant too much. A careful reading of the play will reveal her not as a caricature but as a woman treated by the playwright with understanding, sympathy, and even dignity: “I would die to satisfy [your love]” she tells Dorimant, “I will not, to save you from a thousand racks, do a shameless thing to please your vanity.” Such probing treatment of personal and social behavior, in a genre almost rigidly standardized in its conventions, is a major reason for the continued fascination exerted by the play.