Academia – Literature

The Way of the World: the Lovers

By Abby Pittman

February 28, 2014

“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 affections which in another woman would be odious, serve but to make her more agreeable.”

These lines come from act 1 page 327, where Mirabell is first describing his love for Millamant. Though it does not sound romantic because he is describing all of her faults– on the contrary he is showing that he loves her for her faults. Throughout the play we see a sort of realism in the relationship of these lovers that is impossible to be seen from any other characters; these two are the only admirable characters in the play.

Despite the common theme of love at first sight, Mirabell and Millamant show that true love is more than just initial attraction. In fact, the couple did not even like each other at first. For example, the couple debates on the topic of lovers, as well as the role of man and woman within the relationship (343). This intelligent discussion later proves the point that they can work as a couple when Millamant says, “Well, an illiterate man’s my aversion” (356). Millamant goes on to describe all the reasons she and Mirabell will not work; as well as all of the reasons she does not want to be in a relationship: “And yet our distemper in all likelihood will be the same; for we shall be sick on 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” (344). Yet these two figures are realistic about love; they state what they want out of their relationship. They are able to recognize that each has individual needs and individual pleasures that must be met. During one scene, Mirabell and Millamant each have a separate list of demands (367-68). It is their own kind of contract, as opposed to a state regulated one. The fact that they are so realistic makes this clear-eyed love that much more beautiful. This couple did not fall in love at first sight; they did not even like each other at first; they learned each other’s faults and through time and came to appreciate the beauty of them. They fell in love slowly– then all at once. Yet they are still able to stay rational– with a wonderful balance of passion as well. They do not forfeit romantic love for partnership: they are able to create a relationship as two separate and distinct individuals, yet are able to come together and mesh exceedingly well. This is a couple that is able to shine through all of the malice, foolishness and egotism of the other characters in the play.

The other set of lovers consist of Mrs. Marwood and Mr. Fainall, who are vastly different characters than Mirabell and Millamant. To reinforce their nastiness, Congreve deliberately names these characters to reflect their most obvious traits. Mrs. Marwood mars everything in order to get what she wants; including her friendships.  Mr. Fainall feigns all of his emotions and hides who he really is. He pretends to love his wife when truly is attempting to get her fortune; yet he still feigns affection: “Oh, my dear, I am satisfied of your tenderness; I know you cannot resent anything from me, especially what is an effect of my concern” (337). Just before this, he insults his wife’s looks; however, he has put her in such a position by excusing the insult with his “concern” that she must just accept it. He is one of the most despicable characters in the play. However, Mrs. Marwood rivals that despicableness. Not only does she sleep with her close friend’s husband, she has the audacity to allude to marrying him; in a sick and twisted kind of way: “if I could find one that loved me very well and would be thoroughly sensible of ill usage, I think I should do myself the violence of undergoing the ceremony” (336).  Psychologists say that when looking for a mate, people tend to look for characteristics that they have themselves, which is exactly what these lovers do. However, these are not the only despicable characters in the play. Lady Wishfort, whose name describes her exceedingly well, desperately wishes for any kind of man to satisfy her desires. Yet she slut-shames her daughter by threatening to cut off her inheritance if she finds out that she was not a virgin before marriage. However, it is also this situation that depicts Mr. Fainall’s true nature because he uses this knowledge for his own personal gain; as well as an excuse to continue his affair with Mrs. Marwood. After Fainall’s and Mrs. Marwood’s plot has been found out, Fainall still refuses to leave; “not while you are worth a groat, my dear” (386). All of these characters show their terrible faults; yet it is Mirabell and Millamant that are able to embrace each other’s faults and still love each other .

Mirabell and Millamant’s pure love is contrasted clearly with Fainall and Mrs. Marwood’s more twisted infatuation. It is clear that their infatuation comes after the love that they have for themselves. Yet, often there is more Fainall’s and Mrs. Marwood’s in the world; hence the title The Way of the World. In essence, the play depicts two lovers who are surrounded by negative and self-absorbed people, who will do anything to anyone for their own gain. Yet, when love is brought into that terribleness: it is a more blind love, and more importantly a more selfish love. Fainall and Mrs. Marwood love each other because of what they can do for each other. It is a utilitarian infatuation rather than the beautiful, realistic, individual partnership kind-of-love that Mirabell and Millamant have. Yet, that is the way of the world, the world will always be more full of ugly couples, who seek nothing but personal gain and quick passion. Rather than the beautiful long lasting partnership that Mirabell and Millamant depict. The amount of debauchery and foolishness in the play is a horrendous– yet accurate, and brightly illuminated– representation of the same society in which the play is being aired.

When this play was running in theaters, the audience there would include a lot of the Mr. Fainalls, Mrs. Marwoods, and perhaps a lot of Lady Whishforts. Congreve, I believe, was attempting to capture a sort of horrified interest with the play, as the audience would soon realize that they themselves were being depicted.  Rarely, though, would there be the clear-eyed love that Mirabell and Millamant represent. The Way of the World is a devastatingly insightful satire of this upper-crust 1700’s society- where Congreve attempts to show that to be successful lovers, every part of ourselves must be involved– not just passionate emotion, but also morality and practicality. However, this was Congreve’s last play– it appears that he lost hope for society. What is truly remarkable is that this play that was made and shown in the 1700’s, could easily be about today’s society. There will always be more Mrs. Marwood’s and Fainall’s in the world than there will ever be the Mirabell’s and Millamants. Yet, it is these two positive characters that give everyone hope for love, even if Congreve himself lost it.

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