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 blatant hypocrisy of his scheme becomes evident in the light of his true motivation: to have his wife’s fortune under the control of himself and his mistress, Mrs. Marwood. Congreve depicts a constant satirical tension between outward self and inward self, between the mask and the face behind it.
Deception is not only an interface between the characters and the world; it also serves to illustrate the characters’ view of themselves. Lady Wishfort’s attempt to turn back the years by painting herself a new face is an image whose symbolism reverberates throughout the play. It is a visual illustration of the affectations in which the foolish characters indulge. In the same vein, Petulant pays prostitutes to hire a coach and call on him in order to give the impression that he is in demand among ladies; and Mrs. Marwood makes a great show of hating men even while her actions are motivated by desire for them. All these characters are, metaphorically speaking, painting their own faces—cultivating appearances that are at odds with reality. Hence, Mirabell’s premarital condition to Millamant—“I article, that you continue to like your own face, as long as I shall, and while it passes current with me, that you endeavour not to new-coin it”—suggests a conscious rejection of the affectation and pretense that characterize the foolish sector of society.
The appearance of the unsophisticated, country-bred Sir Wilful Witwoud shows the extent to which this world has become divorced from the natural order. Lady Wishfort condemns his uncouth manners as barbaric—though shortly afterward she displays true cold-blooded barbarity in her relish at the prospect of Mirabell’s slowly starving to death. The metropolitan Witwoud disowns his brother (Sir Wilful Witwoud) because it is not fashionable to acknowledge relations in town. One treasures Sir Wilful’s ingenuous response to Witwoud’s snub: “The fashion’s a fool; and you’re a fop, dear brother.”
Mirabell and Millamant, with their wit and good sense, stand in contrast to the fops and fools. They embrace the pleasures of the town—indeed, Millamant is uncompromising in her disdain for the country—yet are not blind to its folly. The famous scene in which Mirabell and Millamant barter conditions and provisos for their life together shows a couple who see their world as it is and prefer not to waste time pretending it is otherwise. It is significant that Mirabell’s clear-sighted, if cynical, understanding of “the way of the world” helps him foil the plot against Mrs. Fainall and restore himself to Lady Wishfort’s good graces. Lacking faith in Fainall’s integrity, Mirabell had previously ensured that Mrs. Fainall’s estate was made over to him in trust, making her husband’s claim on it ineffective. Lady Wishfort is happy to offer Millamant to Mirabell in exchange for her daughter’s honor and fortune intact, and the prospect of their marriage makes a satisfying resolution to this complex plot.
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 intention of compromising with life but insists that the world’s way must somehow be made to conform to her own desires. She has little use for the life around her, seeing through its shallow pretenses and its falsity, and yet she knows that it is the world in which she has to live. She realizes that any attempt to escape from it into some idyllic pastoral existence, as her aunt often suggests, will be folly.
Millamant tells Mirabell the conditions under which she will marry him, and they are stringent conditions, not at all in conformity with the average wife’s idea of her lot. She will have in her marriage no place for the ridiculous codes and conventions that govern the behavior of the people around her. She will be entirely free of the cant and the hypocrisy of married life, which are only a cloak for the corruption or misery hidden underneath social custom. In short, she refuses to be merely a married woman in her husband’s or society’s eyes. Mirabell, likewise, has certain conditions that must be fulfilled before he turns from bachelor into husband. When his demands prove reasonable, both lovers realize that they see life through much the same eyes. They decide that they are probably made for each other.
However, the world does not come to the same conclusion. Lady Wishfort, still embittered against Mirabell for his gross deception, resolves that Millamant is to marry a cousin, Sir Wilfull Witwoud, a country lout many years her senior, who has just arrived in London. Fortunately for Millamant, Sir Wilfull turns out to be a harmless booby who, when drunk, becomes the most understanding of men.
There is a greater obstacle, however, in the scheme that Mirabell himself plans. Waitwell, disguised as Mirabell’s imaginary uncle, Sir Rowland, pays ardent court to Lady Wishfort and would have been successful in inveigling her into marriage were it not for a letter from Mrs. Marwood exposing the whole scheme. Lady Wishfort’s maid, Foible, succeeds in intercepting the letter, but Mrs. Marwood appears at Lady Wishfort’s in person and discloses the deception.
Lady Wishfort is furious, and more determined than ever to prevent any marriage between her niece and Mirabell. She angrily discharges Foible from her employ. Mrs. Fainall, Lady Wishfort’s daughter, is on the side of the two lovers. When Foible informs her that she has tangible proof of the relationship between Fainall and Mrs. Marwood, Mrs. Fainall resolves to prosecute her husband to the limit. Meanwhile, the wily Fainall takes pains to have all of his wife’s property transferred to his name by means of trumped-up evidence of an affair between his wife and Mirabell.
In this act, Lady Wishfort begins to see for the first time the scheming villainy of her daughter’s husband. Mirabell, with the aid of Foible and Millamant’s servant, Mincing, exposes the double-dealing Mrs. Marwood and her lover and further proves that, while she is yet a widow, Mrs. Fainall conveyed her whole estate in trust to Mirabell. Lady Wishfort is so delighted that she forgives Mirabell all of his deceptions and consents to his marriage to Millamant.