The Way of the World

The Way of the World

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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.
Men vs. Women Theme Icon

With its several references to sex taking place inside and outside the marriage, Congreve’s play would have riveted the attention of a Restoration audience very much interested to know the gossip of who’s sleeping with whom and what really goes on between married and unmarried men and women behind closed doors. Though often described as a sexual comedy-of-manners, The Way of the World does not merely titillate the audience with the possibilities of physical union between man and woman. Congreve also examines the question of chemistry: why are some couples more compatible than others? Why do some personalities never get along?

His work suggests the existence of an ever-present tension between men and women that doesn’t always manifest itself as sexual tension. In particular, he explores how love/hate relationships tend to develop between men and women, no matter how stubborn or complacent their personalities are. Congreve develops a broad spectrum of these tensions between various male and female pairings and presents different outcomes for each.

On the lighter side of the love/hate spectrum is the relationship between the absurd Wishfort and the flirtatious Mirabell. Wishfort, at first in love with Mirabell, spends most of the play trying to gain revenge against him for pretending to be interested in her, only to discover, at the end, that her intense hatred for him is born from unrequited love. Because she can never be his partner, she becomes an accessory to his plot to marry her niece.

Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum would be Millamant and her ill-matched and foolish suitors, Witwoud, Sir Wilfull, and Petulant. Though these fools all fail to impress her artistic and intellectual sensibilities, they do not stop trying to woo her until she marries Millamant. On her part, she enjoys the attentions they lavish on her but isn’t above getting into silly arguments with them.

The darker side of the love/hate spectrum would include the tensions between the adulterers, Fainall and Marwood, and also between Fainall and Mrs. Fainall. Fainall and Marwood have a dysfunctional relationship. They often argue and cannot seem to fully trust one another, which prevents Fainall’s plan from running smoothly The relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Fainall is marked by mutual hatred between husband and wife. Both characters spend much of the play telling others around them how much they hate their spouse and they expend much of their energy trying to ruin the other. But not until the end, when Mirabell reveals that he has saved Wishfort’s fortune, do they openly reveal their hatred toward each other in a shocking scene of domestic violence.

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Men vs. Women ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Men vs. Women 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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Men vs. Women 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 Men vs. Women.
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 1, Scene 3 Quotes

And for a discerning man somewhat too passionate a lover, for I like her with all her faults; nay, like her for her faults. Her follies are so natural, or so artful, that they become her, and those affectations which in another woman would be odious serve but to make her more agreeable.

Related Characters: Mirabell (speaker), Fainall, Millamant
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

Fainall and Mirabell have returned to their banter, and have discussed the social situation at Lady Wishfort's house. Mirabell then begins to talk about his love for Millamant, and in this passage tells Fainall that he loves Millamant "with all her faults," declaring that even these faults are attractive because they are "so natural, or so artful." Although somewhat exaggeratedly romantic, Mirabell's words highlight the depth and earnestness of his love for Millamant. Unlike the other characters in the play, many of whom are married to one person while carrying out an affair with another, Millamant clearly has his heart set on one woman only, such that other women now appear "odious" to him. He seems prepared to love Millamant not as an ideal but as a whole person, including her flaws.

Act 2, Scene 1 Quotes

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." 

Love will resume his empire in our breasts, and every heart, or soon or late, receive and readmit him as its lawful tyrant.

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

While they are walking together in St. James' Park, Mrs. Fainall has told Mrs. Marwood that she believes that men love women to the point of suffocation and jealousy, before eventually growing to hate and abandon them, and that for this reason women should just learn to be happy by themselves. Mrs. Marwood, however, disagrees; she has admitted that it is a shame when love ends, but that "'tis better to be left, than never to have been loved." She adds that women can try to focus on their friendships with other women as replacements for relationships with men, but says this is doomed to fail, and in this passage claims it is inevitable that "love [of men] will resume his empire in our breasts." 

While Mrs. Fainall's words about the fleeting nature of love appeared cynical, Mrs. Marwood's views are arguably even more so. She claims that, try as they might, women can never be truly happy without men––even if men don't make them happy either. Her characterization of love as an "empire" and a "tyrant" depicts love as a brutal, masculine, even violent force, which exerts a ruthless power over women. Note the contrast of this depiction of love and traditional conceptualizations that construct love as a pleasant, gentle, feminine phenomenon. 

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 2, Scene 4 Quotes

While I only hated my husband, I could bear to see him; but since I have despised him, he’s too offensive.

Related Characters: Mrs. Arabella Fainall (speaker), Fainall
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

Just as Mrs. Marwood and Fainall have been watching Mrs. Fainall and Mirabell walk together in the park, so have the latter couple been watching the former. In this passage, Mrs. Fainall tells Mirabell that during the time when she "only hated" Fainall, she could bear to look at him, but "since I have despised him, he's too offensive." This comic line shows the bizarre extent of the antagonism between the characters in the play, particularly husbands and wives. Mrs. Fainall expresses a degree of acceptance over the fact that she "hated" her husband, but also suggests that there is a point when this hatred becomes unbearable. It is somewhat ironic, of course, that while she remains on good terms with her former lover, Mirabell, she cannot even stand to look at her husband.

You should have just so much disgust for your husband as may be sufficient to make you relish your lover.

Related Characters: Mirabell (speaker), Fainall, Mrs. Arabella Fainall
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

While watching Fainall and Mrs. Marwood walk together in the park, Mrs. Fainall has confessed to Mirabell that she despises her husband so much that she cannot bear to even look at him. Rather than being shocked by Mrs. Fainall's words, Mirabell encourages her feelings of hatred. In this passage, he tells her that she should feel "just so much disgust" for Fainall as to make her "relish" her lover. Although a strange and humorous sentiment, this is also a strikingly practical one. As the play shows, men and women are able to tolerate the husbands and wives they hate because of the relief their lovers provide. Although perhaps not the most harmonious or moral social system, Mirabell's words show that the characters are nonetheless able to find some degree of happiness within it. 

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 2, Scene 7 Quotes

A fellow that lives in a windmill has not a more whimsical dwelling than the heart of a man that is lodged in a woman… To know this, and yet continue to be in love, is to be made wise from the dictates of reason, and yet persevere to play the fool by the force of instinct.

Related Characters: Mirabell (speaker)
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

Having told Mirabell that she doesn't want to marry him, Millamant leaves him alone onstage, where he reflects on what has just happened. He compares Mirabell to a "whirlwind," and then complains that a man living in a windmill would be in a less silly and erratic situation than a man whose heart "is lodged in a woman." He laments that, despite all his rational capabilities, he remains in love with Millamant, a fact that forces him to "play the fool."

Note the parallel between Mirabell's words here and the earlier conversation between Mrs. Marwood and Mrs. Fainall about the nature of love. In both cases, the characters accused the opposite gender of being fickle and ruthless in love. Despite his confidence and wisdom, Mirabell feels he is no match for the emotional unpredictability of being in love with Millamant. 

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 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. 

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 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.