Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1149
Congreve's ‘‘comedy of manners’’ takes the fashionable or conventional social behavior of the time as the principle subject of satire. Conflicts that arise between and among characters are prompted by affected and artificial social mores, especially with respect to relationships between the sexes. Social pretenses and plot complications abound in The Way of the World. Women are compelled to act coyly and to dissemble in courtship; couples deceive one another in marriage; friends are double-dealing, and conquests have more to do with dowries and convenience than love. All moral principle is risked for the sake of reputation and money. However, what makes the action comic is the subterfuge. What one says is hardly ever what one really thinks or means. To judge by appearances, for example, no one could be happier in his marriage than Fainall, who in reality disdains his wife and is carrying on an adulterous affair with his wife's close friend. Congreve intimates that, in fashionable society at the turn of the eighteenth century, it is crucial to preserve the outer trappings of beauty, wit, and sophistication no matter how egregious one's actions and words might prove.
Dowries, Marriage, and Adultery
In the male-dominated, patriarchal society of Congreve's time, a woman was little more than property in a marriage transaction. Her dowry (money, property, and estate) was relinquished to her husband at marriage and she became, by law, his chattel. In the upper classes, women had little voice in their own fate, and marriages were usually arranged according to social status, size of fortune, and family name. In the play, Millamant's dowry is at the center of the struggle that pits Mirabell, her true lover, against Fainall and Mrs. Marwood, the two adulterers plotting to gain control of Millamant's fortune as well as Fainall's wife's. Cunningly, Mrs. Fainall has had a large part of her estate signed over in trust before her marriage to prevent her husband from acquiring it.
While marriages are important economic contracts, they are also convenient vehicles for protecting social reputations. Mrs. Fainall has made such a marriage, which is socially acceptable and even expected, as long as the pretense of civility is maintained. However, getting caught in an adulterous relationship puts both reputation and fortune at risk. Hence, when the relationship between Fainall and Mrs. Marwood is discovered, the two become social outcasts. Fainall has staked his reputation on a plot to disinherit his wife. As punishment, he will have to bear the humiliating exposure, continuing to live with his wife and depend on her for his livelihood. Mrs. Marwood's reputation is ruined, her future hopes destroyed. Congreve's intent is to reflect the way of the world in all its manifest greed. The lesson is that those who cheat get their just desserts in the end.
Decorum and Wit
Congreve invents several characters who, as fops, dandies, and fools, provide fitting foils to the romantic hero and heroine. He pits these purported "wits'' against Mirabell and Millamant to comment on the social decline of manners. Since the play is a comedy, audiences are to take it both as serious social satire and also as an amusing romp. No one, of course, escapes Congreve's satirical pen entirely. All people are sometimes fools, Congreve suggests, or sometimes too earnest or too busy inventing counterfeit personas in order to hide their own moral turpitude. Petulant and Witwoud make good fools for they epitomize the shallowness and silliness of fashionable society, but they both also are capable of voicing through their wit the real motivations behind people's actions. They mistake fashionable behavior for decorum and good manners, but they are basically harmless. The comic hero, Mirabell, unscrupulously uses blackmail and trickery to promote his own interests, yet he also represents what is wise and decent in society, and he protects and thoughtfully provides for his friends. Millament, while she acts capriciously and spends time with fops, is inherently thoughtful and able to distinguish between fashion and principles. Lady Wishfort is perhaps the most sympathetically comic character in that, for all her desperate attempts to preserve decorum and for all the power she wields as the wealthy matriarch of the family, she is at heart a lonely widow who will do anything for a husband.
Passion and Puritanism
It has been noted that this final Congreve play was, in effect, a dramatic answer to Puritan Pastor Jeremy Collier's vilification of the theatre world, in which he publicly denounced the English stage as morally bankrupt. As comic heroes, Millamant and Mirabell represent characters who are most in touch with their own natural passions and creative spirits, free of both a fashionable sexual freedom and overwrought piety. Lady Wishfort symbolizes the tyranny and hypocrisy with which society constrains these natural, creative passions in the name of Puritanism. In contrast to the true lovers, she pretends to an elegance and pretentious demeanor at odds with the emotions and passions raging inside her. In a strict and amusingly eccentric Puritanical education in the ways of the world, she has served as a "model" by which to teach her daughter to despise men and lewd behavior, including "going to filthy Plays.’’ It is no coincidence that, in order for the two lovers to finally come together, they must reduce Lady Wishfort's logic and principles to the transparent artifice that it has so clearly become by the end of the play.
The war between the sexes in this dramatic comedy is played with wit and artistry, treachery and complex design, tenderness and teasing, passion and charm, and, above all, precise timing. In Congreve's play, it is safe to say that in this particular struggle—the high stakes of which are love, money, and social survival—men and women are equally proficient and powerful. Gender behavior is proscribed within the limits of social convention. Thus male and female attitudes and actions are expected to be very different and those differences are to be strictly maintained. The prenuptial "negotiation’’ scene between Mirabell and Millamant amusingly, yet sincerely, establishes the rules by which the couple will manage their marriage, preserving independence and privacy as well as intimacy and love. While the conditions of their agreements seem petty at first glance, it is clear that they reflect prohibitions against the "evil" tendencies of each sex. The bottom line is that Millamant will not be unduly dominated or possessed by her husband and her husband will not be vexed with the wiles of intrigue or the vain fashions of the time. It is a good exchange: it preserves the respect of each party as well as the distinctions and charms perceived to be natural and unique to men and women. Mirabell and Millamant's union is certainly intended as a corrective to the deceitful adultery of Fainall, the pathetic loneliness of Lady Wishfort, and the emptiness and debauchery of the life of the dandy.