The Way of the World

The Way of the World

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Female (In)dependence Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Jealousy, Deceit, and Intrigue Theme Icon
Wits and Fools Theme Icon
Men vs. Women Theme Icon
Female (In)dependence Theme Icon
Love and Money Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Way of the World, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Female (In)dependence Theme Icon

The Way of the World is notable for its positive portrayal of independent, intelligent women. Several female characters are impressively independent and contribute their own helpful ideas to the schemes created by Mirabell and Fainall. The servant Foible is noted for her sharp wit and quick mind, which proves useful when she has to deceive Lady Wishfort. Mrs. Fainall is eager to destroy the plans of her adulterous husband even before she finds out he is untrue. Mrs. Marwood demands better treatment from a jealous Fainall and also coerces him to spend his money on her.

Millamant, though, is perhaps the most independent of all the women. Currently the belle of the town and a much sought after bride, she is clearly not the type to rush into marriage because she feels that she needs a man’s support. In the famous “proviso scene” between Mirabell and Millamant, Millamant outlines the terms of her marriage to Mirabell and resolves to retain her independence after marriage. This scene is an important departure from the conventions of the marriage plot—the fundamental plot of any comedy that ends with the engagement or marriage of the hero and heroine—found in other works of this period, expressing thoroughly modern ideas far advanced for Congreve’s time.

Yet despite these shows of independence, the women of the play are not entirely free from the constraints of a male-dominated society and are not as independent as they initially may seem. Mrs. Fainall requires the help of Mirabell, her former lover, to save her fortune. Millamant’s inheritance depends on whom she marries. Lady Wishfort is almost a victim of Fainall’s plan to blackmail her, a plan based on shaming his wife by exposing her affair with Mirabell. Furthermore, the terms Fainall demands to keep quiet about Lady Wishfort’s scandalous involvement with the disguised Waitwell would have curbed her power as matriarch, as well as cut down her finances.

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Female (In)dependence ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Female (In)dependence appears in each scene of The Way of the World. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Female (In)dependence Quotes in The Way of the World

Below you will find the important quotes in The Way of the World related to the theme of Female (In)dependence.
Act 2, Scene 1 Quotes

…if we will be happy, we must find the means in ourselves, and among ourselves.

Related Characters: Mrs. Arabella Fainall (speaker), Marwood
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Marwood and Mrs. Fainall have been walking in St. James' park, discussing the topics of men and romance. Mrs. Fainall tells Mrs. Marwood that if women want a chance at happiness, they must find it within themselves and the company of other women. This claim reveals Mrs. Fainall's maturity and wisdom, especially in comparison to the rest of the characters in the play (except Millamant), who are all obsessed with love, marriage, and infidelity. Indeed, although the play does conclude with the classical happy ending of an engagement between Mirabell and Millamant, the play's presentation of marriage is hardly idyllic. Judging from the character's actions, it indeed seems that most married people are not satisfied by their marriages, and seek relationships with other people.

Mrs. Fainall's words are also a remarkable statement on female independence. Feminists argue that the problem of women being taught to wait for a man to make them happy is still relevant within contemporary culture; it is thus extraordinary that Mrs. Fainall would make such a statement in 1700. Note how the play demonstrates the truth of her words as well. Women are often depicted socializing with one another, including the groups at Lady Wishfort's house and the scene from which this quotation itself is taken. Furthermore, despite being married to an unpleasant man whom she doesn't seem to get along with, Mrs. Fainall seems fairly content.


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Men are ever in extremes; either doting or averse. While they are lovers, if they have fire and sense, their jealousies are insupportable: and when they cease to love…they loathe, they look upon us with horror and distaste, they meet us like the ghosts of what we were, and as from such, fly from us.

Related Characters: Mrs. Arabella Fainall (speaker), Marwood
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Fainall and Mrs. Marwood are walking in St. James' Park, discussing men and love. Mrs. Fainall has stated that it is better for women to find happiness within themselves than wait to be made happy by a man. In this passage she further explains this view, claiming that men's treatment of women is always in one of two extremes; either they are so "doting" that they become paranoid with jealousy, or they "loathe" women, looking on them "with horror and distaste," and abandon them. This statement, though strikingly cynical, does reflect the behavior of many men in the play. It perhaps less accurately describes the fools, who seem to treat women with a combination of sexual interest and disrespect, but this attitude is of course hardly desirable either.

This passage suggests that perhaps Mrs. Fainall's cynical view of love has emerged from her mistreatment by the men with whom she has had relationships, including Mirabell and her husband, Fainall. Although Mirabell and Mrs. Fainall remain on friendly terms, and although Mirabell appears to have developed a more mature, committed attitude towards love in his quest to marry Millamant, Mrs. Fainall's words indicate that perhaps this will only be a temporary phase, and that once Mirabell's infatuation is over he will begin to treat even Millamant "with horror and distaste." 

Act 2, Scene 5 Quotes

One’s cruelty is one’s power, and when one parts with one’s cruelty one parts with one’s power, and when one has parted with that, I fancy one’s old and ugly.

Related Characters: Millamant (speaker), Mirabell
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

Millamant has asked Mirabell if he was hurt to have been told to leave the "cabal" (get-together) the night before. At first she expresses regret at what happened, but then changes her line, telling Mirabell that she loves to make people suffer. Mirabell, unconvinced, responds that Millamant is only pretending to be cruel, and that her real problem is pleasing people too much. In this passage, Millamant insists that she is cruel, and that "one's cruelty is one's power." Although she is using rather exaggerated rhetoric––likely in order to provoke a reaction from Mirabell––Millamant's words nonetheless provide sophisticated insight on the nature of female independence and power. 

As a beautiful and charming woman, Millamant possesses a degree of agency and influence within the world of the play. However, as this passage indicates, this influence is conditional on her behaving cruelly to others. If she were to behave in an accommodating and agreeable way with everyone in her life––particularly men––Millamant would effectively be giving up her autonomy, as the course of her life would quickly be decided by the men around her. Millamant emphasizes the link between beauty, cruelty, and power by claiming that women only stop being cruel when they are "old and ugly," and assumedly could not influence anyone through their cruelty even if they tried. 

Act 2, Scene 6 Quotes

…for we shall be sick of one another. I shan’t endure to be reprimanded nor instructed; ’tis so dull to act always by advice, and so tedious to be told of one’s faults, I can’t bear it. Well, I won’t have you, Mirabell—I’m resolved…

Related Characters: Millamant (speaker), Mirabell
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Millamant and Mirabell have been debating the viability of their relationship, with Millamant insisting that their personalities clash, that they will continue to argue, and that they will eventually grow tired of each other. In this passage, Millamant emphatically declares that she won't tolerate being "reprimanded or instructed," and concludes by telling Mirabell that she has made up her mind that they can't be together. Millamant's words reveal her powerful force of character. She exhibits no politeness, hesitance, or timidity in revealing the strength of her feelings to Mirabell. Clearly, Millamant prizes her independence above all, a fact conveyed by her refusal to be "instructed." However, as the rest of the play will show, her resolve is not quite as unwavering as it appears in this moment.

Act 3, Scene 5 Quotes

Poison him? Poisoning’s too good for him. Starve him, madam, starve him; marry Sir Rowland, and get him disinherited.

Related Characters: Foible (speaker), Mirabell, Lady Wishfort
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

Foible has told Lady Wishfort that she has given Wishfort's portrait to Sir Rowland, who has fallen in love with her. However, Foible has also pretended that Mirabell claimed that Wishfort is planning to marry for money. Wishfort, infuriated, declares that she will poison Mirabell. In this passage, Foible suggests that instead of poisoning him, Wishfort should "starve him" by marrying Sir Rowland and depriving Mirabell of his inheritance. Foible's words show the many kinds of violence to which the characters subject one another, some more literal and vicious than others. Of course, Foible needs to make sure that Wishfort doesn't actually poison Mirabell; her way of doing this, by claiming that "poisoning's too good for him," is humorous given her duplicity.

This passage also shows the extremes to which the characters take their manipulation and deceit. Ordinarily, it might seem rather absurd to marry someone simply in order to seek revenge on someone else––yet in the world of the play, the suggestion is not implausible.

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. 

Act 5, Scene 6 Quotes

… I will be endowed, in right of my wife, with that six thousand pound, which is the moiety of Mrs. Millamant’s fortune in your possession, and which she has forfeited (…by the last will and testament of your deceased husband…) by her disobedience in contracting herself against your consent or knowledge, and by refusing the offered match with Sir Wilfull Witwoud

Related Characters: Fainall (speaker), Lady Wishfort
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

Fainall has entered the parlor in order to announce his demands to Lady Wishfort. In this passage, Fainall declares that he "will be endowed" with the full amount of Millamant's fortune, which Millamant has sacrificed by refusing the hand of Sir Wilfull and getting engaged without Wishfort's "consent and knowledge." Fainall is clearly in a rapture of triumph in this passage. After endlessly complicated manipulations, and having been thwarted in his scheme several times, Fainall clearly feels confident that everything will now turn out exactly how we wants, a sentiment conveyed by his use of the future tense ("I will be endowed"). Rather than bask in his joy graciously, however, Fainall behaves in a ruthless, domineering manner, evidently pleased by the opportunity to control and humiliate Lady Wishfort.