The Way of the World

The Way of the World

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Jealousy, Deceit, and Intrigue Theme Analysis

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Wits and Fools Theme Icon
Men vs. Women Theme Icon
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Jealousy, Deceit, and Intrigue Theme Icon

In Congreve’s play, jealousy, deceit, and intrigue are important and interrelated plot devices that drive the action of the play by creating conflict between characters. In many ways, the play can be thought of as a competition between Mirabell and Fainall to deceive the other by means of opposing schemes to gain control of Lady Wishfort and her fortune. Each man is assisted in his plan to outdo the other. Fainall has one helper, his mistress, Mrs. Marwood, while several major and minor characters participate in Mirabell’s plan to win Millamant as his bride and retain her love and inheritance.

Congreve’s most duplicitous characters, those carrying on affairs and scheming against love because of their own unrequited love, are themselves the most jealous. Jealousy is a huge motivator for the adulterers, Fainall and Marwood, and also Lady Wishfort to plot and scheme against Mirabell. Both Marwood and Wishfort start off in love with Mirabell, but because he does not return their sentiments, their all-consuming jealousy of him leads them to hate him and plot to ruin his future with Millamant. Fainall is also jealous of Mirabell because he fears his popularity with women, particularly that Marwood still loves Mirabell, and also because Mirabell threatens to gain some of Wishfort’s fortune by marrying Millamant.

In portraying how jealousy motivates these characters to behave as they do, Congreve develops several lessons about jealousy’s negative effects. In the end, all overly jealous characters end up not getting what they want: revenge against Mirabell. For Fainall, his lack of honesty causes him to distrust the honesty of others and doubt his mistress, which ultimately hurts his plan because he alienates his only ally. Marwood’s case is a lesson in what happens when one tries to thwart too many people at once. Though she wants to help Fainall secure Wishfort’s money, she also wants to get back at Mirabell by any means necessary. Her jealousy blinds her to the consequences of developing her own separate plans to prevent Mirabell’s marriage to Millamant. After suggesting to Lady Wishfort that Millamant marry Sir Rowland, her move threatens the success of Fainall’s plot and the couple has to work much harder to try to gain the fortune. Wishfort’s jealousy leads her to play right into the hands of both Fainall and Mirabell. So eager is she to hurt Mirabell and prevent him from marrying Millamant that she thinks she’s more in control of the situation than she actually is. Instead of playing Mirabell, she gets played by other people, several of whom are below her station as a lady but are more than her superiors in wit, like Foible.

In contrast, though jealousy also affects Mirabell, he is not consumed by it and doesn’t feel threatened by the presence of Millamant’s other suitors. Consequently, he is able to keep two steps ahead of Fainall and gets Lady Wishfort to comply with his plan.

In addition to jealousy, deception and intrigue also contribute to the rising action that makes the play both engaging and suspenseful. As the main conflict between Mirabell and Fainall develops, it becomes clear that almost every character has something to hide. Deception is practiced in obvious ways, such as when characters don full-on disguises, like Mirabell’s servant, Waitwell, who pretends to be Sir Rowland, or when habitual liars, like Petulant, continue to tell tall tales. But Congreve also examines subtler forms of deception, including self-deception, like in the case of Lady Wishfort, who uses too much makeup to hide her age from her suitor, Sir Rowland, but also herself. Another subtler form of deception is psychological deception, a type of deception Marwood especially utilizes as she pretends to be Wishfort’s best friend, while scheming for ways to steal her fortune, or when she convinces Fainall of her faithfulness even though she still cares for Mirabell.

Congreve even uses deception and intrigue to structure his play. The secret marriage of Foible and Waitwell (which occurs in the first act but is not explained until Act 2, Scene 4) and even Mrs. Fainall’s secret deed of conveyance to Mirabell, revealed at the end of the play, are examples of deception and intrigue that not only affect other characters within the play but also delight the unsuspecting audience/reader.

Jealousy, Deceit, and Intrigue ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Jealousy, Deceit, and Intrigue 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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Jealousy, Deceit, and Intrigue 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 Jealousy, Deceit, and Intrigue.
Act 1, Scene 1 Quotes

But for the discovery of this amour, I am indebted to your friend, or your wife’s friend, Mrs. Marwood.

Related Characters: Mirabell (speaker), Fainall, Marwood
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

Mirabell and Fainall are playing cards at a chocolate house in London. The two men have been engaging in playful, competitive banter as they discuss Mirabell's quest to win Millamant's hand in marriage. In this passage, Mirabell tells Fainall that it was thanks to Mrs. Marwood that he realized Lady Wishfort used to think Mirabell was in love with her, and that upon learning he wasn't, decided to sabotage his relationship with Millamant, her niece. The use of the term "armour" to describe these complex social interactions highlights the theme of duplicity and false identity. 

Furthermore, Mirabell's words also subtly taunt Fainall. Mirabell first calls Mrs. Marwood "your friend," indicating that he knows that Fainall is having an affair with Mrs. Marwood. By then correcting himself to "your wife's friend," Mirabell highlights the confusing entanglement of people in their social circle. Mirabell's words suggest that although technically forbidden, adulterous affairs within their circle are usually open secrets. 

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Act 2, Scene 3 Quotes

’Twas for my ease to oversee and wilfully neglect the gross advances made him by my wife, that by permitting her to be engaged, I might continue unsuspected in my pleasures, and take you oftener to my arms in full security. But could you think, because the nodding husband would not wake, that e’er the watchful lover slept?

Related Characters: Fainall (speaker), Mirabell, Marwood, Mrs. Arabella Fainall
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

The lovers Fainall and Mrs. Marwood have been discussing Mirabell and Mrs. Fainall. Mrs. Marwood has expressed concerns that Mirabell and Mrs. Fainall may still be conducting an affair, but Fainall has turned this around in order to accuse Mrs. Marwood, his own lover, of being unfaithful to him with Mirabell. He claims that Mrs. Marwood assumed he would not notice her supposed affair with Mirabell because Fainall's wife was also making "gross advances" on him. This passage reveals the comically complex web of attachments within the social circle the characters inhabit. It also proves correct Mrs. Fainall's earlier point about men's obsessive jealousy. Fainall seems to think that both his wife and his lover are secretly in love with Mirabell, a fact that conveys his possessive (and hypocritical) paranoia. 

And have you the baseness to charge me with the guilt, unmindful of the merit? To you it should be meritorious that I have been vicious. And do you reflect that guilt upon me which should lie buried in your bosom?

Related Characters: Marwood (speaker), Fainall
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Marwood and Fainall have continued to argue over Fainall's accusation that Mrs. Marwood is secretly in love with Mirabell. Every point Mrs. Marwood makes aiming to demonstrate her innocence has received a rude and dismissive response from Fainall, who accuses Mrs. Marwood of being both a flighty friend and lover. In this passage, Mrs. Marwood concedes that she is duplicitous to Mrs. Fainall, but only in service of her devotion to Fainall himself––a fact that Fainall should consider "meritorious." Mrs. Marwood's words highlight the flimsy and hypocritical moral compass of most of the characters in the play, although especially Fainall. As Marwood points out, Fainall himself should feel just as much "guilt" as she does, and seems to be projecting this guilt onto her. 

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.

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. 

Act 3, Scene 18 Quotes

I, it seems, am a husband, a rank husband, and my wife a very errant, rank wife,—all in the way of the world.

Related Characters: Fainall (speaker), Marwood
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

While the rest of the characters are having dinner together, Fainall and Mrs. Marwood have a private conversation in which Marwood reveals that Mirabell has been using Foible in his own scheme. She also tells Fainall about the affair between his wife and Mirabell. Fainall scornfully declares himself "a rank husband" and his wife "a very errant, rank wife" before concluding that this new information is "all in the way of the world." Consider the significance of the fact that the play's title is used by one of its most villainous characters. This fact emphasizes the rather cynical depiction of society and marriage contained within the play, but also an acceptance of this darker side of life and love as being all part of "the way of the world." 

You married her to keep you; and if you can contrive to have her keep you better than you expected, why should you not keep her longer than you intended?

Related Characters: Marwood (speaker), Fainall, Mrs. Arabella Fainall
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Marwood has confessed all that she knows about Mirabell's plotting, and Fainall has cursed the cause of events that inadvertently prevented him from receiving Millamant's fortune for himself. Although Fainall's knowledge of Arabella and Mirabell's affair could allow him to leave his wife he wanted, Mrs. Marwood urges him to stay with Arabella until they find another way for him to access the money. In this passage, Marwood schemingly tells Fainall that, considering he married Arabella for money in the first place, it shouldn't be difficult for him to stay married to her in order to get more money than he originally anticipated. 

Here Marwood emerges as a ruthless, calculating, Lady Macbeth-like character who encourages her husband to selfishly scheme even when he is reluctant to do so. Marwood's words highlight that, for many characters in the play, their relationships––whether marriages, friendships, or allegiances––are purely strategic and transactional. 

Let husbands be jealous, but let the lover still believe: or if he doubt, let it be only to endear his pleasure, and prepare the joy that follows, when he proves his mistress true. But let husbands’ doubts convert to endless jealousy; or if they have belief, let it corrupt to superstition and blind credulity.

Related Characters: Fainall (speaker), Marwood
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

Fainall and Mrs. Marwood have hatched a plan of their own, which involves blackmailing Lady Wishfort, disgracing Wilfull in front of Millamant, and exposing Foible's lies. Fainall has promised to share with Marwood the fortune he hopes to secure; when Marwood asks if he now feels confident of her fidelity to him and is no longer jealous of Mirabell, Fainall claims that he was never jealous. In this passage, he declares "Let husbands be jealous," as long as this leads to even greater joy when husbands find out that their women were faithful after all.

Although he is ostensibly reassuring Marwood of his love for her, Fainall's speech here is decidedly sinister in nature. He speaks approvingly of "endless jealousy" and "superstition," paying no regard to the destructive power of these emotions. He seems to take a perverse delight in the carnage that can arise from jealousy and duplicity, which in turn suggests that all of the characters may on some level enjoy the endless drama and intrigue that results in a world of deceit, plotting, and revenge. 

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. 

Act 5, Scene 14 Quotes

From hence let those be warned, who mean to wed,
Lest mutual falsehood stain the bridal-bed:
For each deceiver to his cost may find
That marriage frauds too oft are paid in kind.

Related Characters: Mirabell (speaker)
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

In the last moments of the play, Lady Wishfort has pardoned "Sir Rowland" and Foible, and blessed Mirabell and Millamant's engagement. The happy couple kiss, and Wishfort exits. Just as a dance is about to begin, Mirabell delivers these rhyming couplets, a warning to future couples who are false and duplicitous. He claims that such couples ended up paying for their "marriage frauds" one way or another. It is of course somewhat ironic that a play filled with deceit, infidelity, secrecy, and disguise should end with a warning about "falsehood." On the other hand, Mirabell and Millamant are shown to exhibit a sincere and mature love for one another, suggesting that theirs might truly end up a happy marriage and thus a positive example to others.