Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 511
Major themes in The School for Wives include betrayal, perception, and innocence versus experience.
Arnolphe betrays everyone close to him in the story and is, in the end, himself betrayed—at least according to his own feelings about the events. He is so convinced that he should marry his innocent ward that he has arranged her entire life to keep her innocent, naive, and separated from other men. Arnolphe did this without letting her know it was his intention, and thus she grows up unaware that she is already promised to her guardian in his mind.
When Arnolphe realizes his ward, Agnes, is in love with Horace, who returns the feeling, he is enraged. Since he has changed his name, he's able to attempt to manipulate the situation without admitting to his original intentions. He lies to Agnes and Horace over and over, ordering them to do things designed to drive them apart. His machinations fail, though, and he only drives them closer together. In the end, their betrothal is already arranged by their parents, and Arnolphe finds himself forced to watch the girl he claimed to love marry another man.
Perception is another important theme in the story. Arnolphe is so absorbed with himself and his own belief in his intelligence that he doesn't recognize the intelligence of others. He thinks that he'll be able to easily manipulate Horace and Agnes because they're young, and he doesn't see them as on the same level as himself. However, their dedication to each other and unwillingness to give in and separate leads them to overcome all Arnolphe's schemes, even when they're unaware that he's scheming against them.
Perception is also important because of the many cases of mistaken identity. Arnolphe goes by a false name, so Horace confides in him to try to win Agnes. Agnes is unaware that her guardian and Horace's friend are the same person. Arnolphe doesn't know that Anges's real father is alive and has arranged her betrothal to Horace.
Innocence and experience are very prevalent themes as well. Arnolphe argues at the beginning of the play that women who are innocent and unaware of the world are better wives. His friend believes that women who are more aware of the world will be better able to handle things that might happen; he believes they're better wives. Arnolphe's belief that innocence trumps experience for wives leads him to plan his marriage to Agnes, whom he claims to be in love with.
Despite her upbringing, Agnes isn't as innocent and docile as Arnolphe believes. Arnolphe isn't as clever and sneaky as he thinks he is. Instead, Agnes is able to circumvent her guardian's plans to marry her. She sneaks out of the house during an attack he orders on Horace. Horace pretends to be dead to escape the beating. Agnes is ordered to throw a brick at Horace to keep him from being around her but attaches a love note to it. The innocent wife of Arnolphe's fantasies is actually more clever and experienced than he could have imagined.