The Way of the World

The Way of the World

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Masks Symbol Icon
Throughout much of the Restoration period, masks were often considered part of a fashionable ensemble for ladies and gentlemen attending evening theatre performances. In many early Restoration plays, masks symbolize flirtatious behavior and covert love affairs. In Congreve’s late Restoration play, however, the mask no longer seems to be quite the fashion statement it once was. Mirabell forbids Millamant from wearing a mask to the theatre in their marriage contract and she is outraged that he thinks she would ever wear such an unfashionable article. According to Witwoud, the foolish Petulant wears a mask to disguise his true identity when he goes around and tries to make himself look popular by asking people about Petulant’s whereabouts. But during the play, only Marwood actually wears a mask, wearing it at the park in full daylight to hide her tears from those who might see her with Fainall and begin to speculate. But the mask doesn’t do what typical Restoration masks are supposed to do, like make her seem more fashionable or prevent her from being recognized by Mrs. Fainall and Foible. Finally, it does not even provide cover for what Marwood really wants to hide: her affair with Fainall. If anything, wearing a mask, particularly in daylight, suggests to other characters her lack of innocence and, throughout the course of the play, comes to symbolize her role as betrayer and adulteress, someone whose own face is a kind of mask for her double-dealing behavior.

Masks Quotes in The Way of the World

The The Way of the World quotes below all refer to the symbol of Masks. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Jealousy, Deceit, and Intrigue Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dover Publications edition of The Way of the World published in 1993.
Act 3, Scene 5 Quotes

Let me see the glass. Cracks, say’st thou? Why, I am arrantly flayed: I look like an old peeled wall. Thou must repair me, Foible, before Sir Rowland comes, or I shall never keep up to my picture.

Related Characters: Lady Wishfort (speaker), Foible
Related Symbols: Masks
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

Lady Wishfort has been tricked by Foible into seeking engagement to Sir Rowland that night, so she can marry him the next day and prevent Mirabell from receiving his inheritance. Thinking that Sir Rowland has fallen in love with her from her portrait, Wishfort looks in the mirror only to find that, in her excitement, she's spoiled her makeup and now looks "like an old peeled wall." She asks Foible to help fix her face so she resembles her picture. The fact that Wishfort frets over her likeness to her own picture highlights the absurdity of the false pretenses that dominate the social world of the play. Indeed, Wishfort's makeup becomes a kind of mask, representing her duplicitous and manipulative personality. 

The humor in this scene is further increased by the fact that Wishfort's makeup is not a very good mask, and in her excitement ends up "arrantly flayed." Furthermore, Wishfort is foolish in her shortsightedness and denial of the passing of time; it is inevitable, of course, that she would grow old and come not to resemble her younger self, just as it is inevitable that no amount of makeup will convince people that she retains her former youthful appearance. 

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Act 4, Scene 15 Quotes

Oh, what luck it is, Sir Rowland, that you were present at this juncture! This was the business that brought Mr. Mirabell disguised to Madam Millamant this afternoon. I thought something was contriving, when he stole by me and would have hid his face.

Related Characters: Foible (speaker), Lady Wishfort, Sir Rowland
Related Symbols: Masks
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

Lady Wishfort has begun to read the letter aloud, thereby almost discovering that Sir Rowland is in fact not a real person. However, at the last minute Waitwell (still pretending to be Sir Rowland) starts reading the letter himself and manages to convince Wishfort that it is from Mirabell. In this passage, Foible remarks that it is lucky that Sir Rowland is present, reinforcing the notion that the letter is all some elaborate plot of Mirabell's. Although only seconds previously everything seemed to be on the brink of disaster, it has in fact been comically simple to persuade Wishfort that the letter was a false scheme concocted by Mirabell. This simplicity emphasizes the extent to which people are blinded by their prejudices against others. 

Foible's comment that Mirabell "stole by me and would have hid his face" alludes to the symbol of masks. Her words highlight how easy it is to accuse people of behaving duplicitously, while Wishfort's gullible reaction shows how difficult it is to know if someone is telling the truth. 

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Masks Symbol Timeline in The Way of the World

The timeline below shows where the symbol Masks appears in The Way of the World. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 2, Scene 3
Jealousy, Deceit, and Intrigue Theme Icon
...his wife approaching. He urges Marwood to compose herself and hide her face behind a mask she has with her. Then, he guides her down a different path to avoid Mirabell... (full context)