William Congreve

Start Free Trial

Editor's Choice

What social satire is depicted in The Way of the World?

Quick answer:

The social satire depicted in the play The Way of the World is related to the institution of marriage among the upper classes. Far from marriage being in any way concerned with love, it is presented in the play as a vehicle for devious double-dealing by society's alleged superiors.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

As with any good satire, Congreve's The Way of the World pokes fun at the rich and powerful members of society, presenting them in a rather unflattering way that challenges their elevated self-importance.

There is a veritable superabundance of targets that Congreve could use to this end, but he focuses on the attitude of the English upper classes towards marriage, which is shown to be cynical and self-serving. Far from marriage being the ultimate expression of love between a man and a woman, it's presented in the play as a vehicle for some pretty devious and unpleasant behavior.

For instance, Lady Wishfort's objection to the marriage between her niece Millamant and Mirabell isn't based on what's best for Millamant, but is rather motivated by a desire for revenge on Mirabell, with whom Lady Wishfort is in love. It is with such an overwhelming desire for vengeance in mind that she embarks upon an elaborate plot that will, if successful, put an end to Mirabell's chances with Millamant.

For his part, Mirabell also sees marriage as the vehicle for some pretty underhand double-dealing. He too embarks upon an elaborate scheme; only in his case, he aims to get his servant Waitwell to disguise himself as a rich suitor and woo Lady Wishfort. It's clear that whatever respect for the institution of marriage Mirabell may have, he's not about to let it get in the way of putting one over on Lady Wishfort.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

As the title indicates, the play satirizes or pokes fun at "the way of the world" regarding marriage: in the world Congreve depicts, money rules over true love.

Mirabell and Millamant, for example, represent true love, but money stands in the way of their entering into a marriage based on mutual esteem. Further, Mirabell knows that he and Millamant can't live on air and that Lady Wishfort controls much of Millamant's fortune, so he has to resort to stratagems to bend Lady Wishfort to his will in order to live in the style he wishes. Fainfill, meanwhile, cynically marries for money so that he can keep his lover in style on the side.

It's unclear precisely what Congreve's take on the balance between love and money is. Nevertheless, it is clear that he sees a marriage based on love, rather than money, as an impossible romantic fantasy. On the other hand, Congreve uses Fainfall to critique an utterly cynical approach to marriage as nothing more than a financial transaction in which cheating on the side is an expectation. In an ideal world, Congreve's message seems to be, money and mutual esteem would join together to create the perfect marriage. In the meantime, love stumbles along as well as it can in money's shadow: as Mrs. Marwood says, an imperfect love is better than none.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In The Way of the World, Congreve’s comedy of manners paints a humorous critique of the deceit and dishonesty which have become normalized aspects of society, especially with respect to the concept of marriage. Fainall and his wife are examples of Congreve’s satire of unfaithfulness in marriage. Fainall, a character who cheats on his wife with Marwood, is given the line “I am a . . . rank husband . . . all in the way of the world.” This line illustrates Fainall’s belief that deceit is tolerable, since this is simply how the world is—a “way of the world.” In fact, Fainall wonders why “cuckoldom” should “be a discredit, being derived from [marriage].” This is a humorous line; Fainall suggests that the root cause of unfaithfulness is marriage, and, if it is part and parcel of marriage, then it follows that unfaithfulness should not in fact be considered a “discredit”—unfaithfulness is simply part of marriage!

As a counter-example to Congreve’s satirization of Fainall’s marriage, in which Fainall considers that unfaithfulness is a normal aspect of marriage, Congreve depicts Mirabell and Millamant’s marriage in a positive light. When Mirabell realizes that deceit won’t win Millamant over, Mirabell breaks the “way of the world”—dishonesty—and confesses everything, including his previous schemes, in order to win her over. In this sense, The Way of the World is a satire which criticizes the contemporary society of Congreve’s time for deceit and dishonesty at the same time that it shows us how to move past the behaviors he satirizes.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Congreve’s Restoration comedy, which focuses on the obstacles Mirabell and Millamant must surmount in order for them to marry, satirizes the values held by the upper class at the time, particularly those related to financial gain and status obtained through an advantageous marriage. Although romantic love does exist in the play, love for its own sake seems nothing more than a foolish, sentimental notion, especially when it is overshadowed so much by the need for economic gain. Examples of this include Lady Wishfort’s desire to control Millamant’s dowry, Fainall’s money-grubbing scheme, and his marriage to support his mistress. Even marital arrangements between servants hinged on a cash exchange.

The Way of the World may also be viewed as a clash between old and new values. Lady Wishfort embodies traditional Restoration attitudes, while Millamant’s insistence upon a prenuptial contract depicts an emergence of female power and independence.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial