Two friends Mrs. Fainall and Mrs. Marwood walk in St. James’s Park, discussing men and love. Mrs. Fainall remarks that because men only love women temporarily, women would be better off to spurn men. Marwood disagrees—women would not last long, she argues, if they try to restrain their lust. She also advocates enjoying one’s youth and falling in love: though such pleasures may only be short-lived, they are better to enjoy, even fleetingly, rather than not at all.
The philosophies of both women reflect their dealings with men. Mrs. Fainall views love pessimistically, while Marwood seems to see love in terms of pleasure and enjoyment rather than anything deeper. Her views are no doubt a product of her being an adulteress. Of course, Marwood is actually having an affair with her supposed friend Mrs. Fainall’s husband, so there is a lie behind this entire interaction.
Mrs. Fainall is surprised by Marwood’s philosophy, as it stands in contrast to the anti-men ideology of Wishfort’s cabal. She accuses Marwood of hiding her true beliefs to appease Mrs. Fainall’s mother, Wishfort. Marwood admits that this is true and urges Mrs. Fainall to be honest and admit that she agrees with Marwood’s, view of men. But Fainall maintains her hatred of men, and under Marwood’s questioning confirms that her hatred applies even—and completely—to her husband.
The members of Wishfort’s group are now men-haters, a policy likely enforced as a sort of revenge after Wishfort discovered Mirabell didn’t love her. Mrs. Fainall is quick to recognize Marwood’s tendency to lie. Mirabell commented in the chocolate house that he thought Mrs. Fainall might not describe her marriage as happy—here is proof he was right. Mrs. Fainall’s marriage likely influences her views of love.
Marwood switches her stance. She tells Mrs. Fainall that she, too, despises men and only lied about liking them to see if she could trust Mrs. Fainall. Marwood adds that in fact she hates men so much, she’d like to conduct an experiment in which she marries a man and then tricks him into thinking that she was carrying on an affair without actually doing so. By only pretending to make her husband a “cuckold,” Marwood would be able to enjoy seeing her husband feel perpetually fearful and jealous and he would never be able to achieve closure by catching her in the act of being unfaithful.
Marwood is trying to feel Mrs. Fainall out and see if she can get her to trust her. Mrs. Fainall plays along to see what Marwood is up to. She doesn’t actually trust her. This conversation is a mirror of the one between Fainall and Mirabell in the chocolate house, with two supposed friends trying to find out information on each other. Marwood’s cold, deceitful experiment reflects her cruelty as well as her intelligence. Yet it also seems to suggest an even deeper hatred of men than any espoused by Mrs. Fainall.
Mrs. Fainall replies that it’s too bad, then, that Marwood isn’t married to Mirabell. Marwood blushes, and wishes aloud if only she were. When Mrs. Fainall notices Marwood’s blush, Marwood quickly replies that she hates Mirabell. Mrs. Fainall does not buy Marwood’s excuse and points out that she herself also hates Mirabell but doesn’t blush at his name.
Mrs. Fainall’s reply is meant to derail Marwood and help her find out why Marwood sold out Mirabell’s efforts to win Millamant to Wishfort. Marwood’s body betrays her lies by revealing her feelings for Mirabell on her face. Mrs. Fainall is sharp and witty, not one Marwood can trick as she tricks Wishfort (who is Mrs. Fainall’s mother).
Marwood insists that she hates Mirabell, because he’s so proud, but Mrs. Fainall insists Marwood is lying. Marwood responds that Mrs. Fainall also acts more like a friend to Mirabell than an enemy and that her coloration suggests that she likes Mirabell, too.
The characters are always concealing things from each other. This is the way of the world. Mirabell’s charm and wit make him attractive to basically every woman.
Mrs. Fainall changes the subject, saying she feels sick because she has just spotted her husband walking toward them.
Mrs. Fainall changes the subject both because she knows she is in dangerous territory regarding Mirabell. At the same time, her hatred of her husband really is that intense.