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.
Men vs. Women ThemeTracker
Men vs. Women Quotes in The Way of the World
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.
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.
’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?
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?
While I only hated my husband, I could bear to see him; but since I have despised him, he’s too offensive.
…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…
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.
I, it seems, am a husband, a rank husband, and my wife a very errant, rank wife,—all in 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?
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.