The Way of the World


William Congreve

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The Way of the World: Style 1 key example

Act 1, Scene 6
Explanation and Analysis:

Typical of a play during this period, Congreve's play has five acts: the first two for setting up the plot, the third for inciting major conflict, and the fourth and fifth for the conflict to reach a climax and resolution. Throughout all this, the play treats all sorts of people with satirical irony and humor.

Because there is very little description of what is going on (only sparse stage directions, mostly regarding who is present on stage at any given time), the characters represent themselves in their speech. The style thus varies from character to character. For instance, Fainall, the misanthropic villain who tries to trick and control everyone, often talks in carefully crafted speeches full of self-righteousness and contempt for other people. In Act 1, Scene 6, Fainall insults Petulant to Witwoud:

You may allow him to win of you at play, for you are sure to be too hard for him at repartee; since you monopolize the wit that is between you, the fortune must be his of course.

Fainall compliments Witwoud's smarts by insulting Petulant's. But before Witwoud came in the room, Fainall described him as a fool too. Fainall is a manipulator who says whatever he needs to say to come out looking like the smartest person on stage.

Fainall is not the only character who is always trying to outwit others, even if he is the most mean-spirited about it. Many characters pepper their speech with figurative language (especially similes) that they extend as far as they can through a volley of exchanges. For example, in Act 2, Scene 5, Millamant and Mirabell have an extended battle of wits. Millamant compares women's lovers to mirrors and echoes because they are "vain" and "empty." Mirabell goes on to insist that if this is the case, women owe their lovers the pleasure of observing their own beauty and hearing their own voices bounced back to them. These extended debates, in which characters build on one another's figures of speech, run all throughout the play. Because the play is a comedy, the good guys win. Mirabell, Arabella, Waitwell, and Foible, who all generally use their wits for good, end up outwitting the misanthropes who use their wits primarily to hurt other people.