The Way of the World by William Congreve

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What happens in The Way of the World?

In The Way of the World, Lady Wishfort tries to sabotage the marriage between her former lover Mirabell and her daughter Millimart. Mirabell had previously tried to seduce Lady Wishfort. She plots against him, but later agrees to the marriage.

  • Lady Wishfort wants revenge on Mirabell. Mirabell, realizing this, disguises his butler as a wealthy suitor in order to distract her.

  • Meanwhile, Mrs. Marwood plots against Lady Wishfort, as does Mrs. Mardwood's lover, Fainall, Lady Wishfort's devious and untrustworthy son-in-law.

  • These plots against Lady Wishfort prove so insidious that Mirabell ends up looking good by comparison. In the end, Lady Wishfort agrees to his marriage to Millimart.

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1,735 words.)