An Analysis of William Congreve’s Comedy of Manners The Way of the World

Although William Congreve’s Comedy of Manners, “The Way of the World” is a fictional work, Congreve uses satire to expose the outlandish behavior of the upper class in the early eighteenth century. Fainall is a prime example of someone from the upper echelon who is consumed with himself. Fainall’s wit, self-centeredness, and outlook on marriage depict the debauchery of the Restoration and the yearning for money, sex, and power.

As the story behind “The Way of the World” unfolds, many love triangles or octagons -surface, and they all tend to be associated with the pursuit of money, sex, and power. Fainall is married to the former mistress of Mirabell, Mrs. Fainall, but he is having an affair with Mrs. Marwood. Mirabell constantly attempts to pursue Millamant. However, first he must earn the approval of her aunt, Lady Wishfort, who is in control of her fortune. Mirabell devises an elaborate plan to blackmail Lady Wishfort with the help of many others, including Mrs. Fainall and Foible (both of whom Lady Wishfort mistakenly believed would be loyal to her). He eventually wins her approval.

First, one trait that sets Fainall apart from many other characters in “The Way of the World” is his wit. Fainall is much wittier than Petulant or Witwould, but he possesses a dark type of wit. He expresses the sardonic nature of his wit in the first scene of act 1 when he says that he “would no more play with a man that slighted his ill fortune, than I’d make love to a woman who undervalued the loss of her reputation.” This quote illustrates Fainall’s wit as well as his outlook on women and his priorities regarding their qualities, such as reputation or wealth. Fainall uses his wit to gain more power, sex, and money. On the other hand, Mirabell displays his wit through his repartee between him and Millamant. Mirabell possesses what can be recognized as true-wit. Although Mirabell is viewed as an idealistic character he also shares many of the same flaws as Fainall and even uses his wit to deceive and manipulate others. For example, when Mirabell

becomes worried his mistress is going to become pregnant, he arranges for her to marry his acquaintance Mr. Fainall because he sees him as a man of almost good character. Mirabell arranges this marriage in order to hide any scandals that would occur if Mrs. Fainall were to become pregnant by Mirabell.

Fainall is unsympathetic toward women and furthermore admits he only married Mrs. Fainall for her fortune. Fainall’s relationship with his wife and his mistress, Mrs. Marwood, embody the reoccurring themes of money, sex, and power in “The Way of the World.” He marries Mrs. Fainall simply to finance his affair with Mrs. Marwood, symbolizing the pursuit of money, power, and sex respectively. In Act 1, Scene 3, Fainall advises Mirabell to “Marry her, marry her; be half as well acquainted with her charms as you are with her defects, and, my life on’t, you are your own man again.” Fainall and Mirabell have two completely different perspectives on marriage and the way a husband should treat and view his wife.

Fainall is a self-centered character who only loves himself and money. He pursues money, sex, and power in his relationship with every character. He hungers for sex from his mistress Mrs Marwood and money from Mrs. Fainall, Lady Wishfort, and Millamant,. When playing cards with Mirabell, Fainall becomes frustrated because Mirabell is not giving his full attention to the game. Fainall is pursuing power through gambling and competition with Mirabell. Mirabell is not the only one who acknowledges Fainall as a man of almost good character. His own wife apparently did not trust him either, since she secretly signed her fortune over to Mirabell when she married Fainall. It is ironic that Mrs. Fainall signed the money over to Mirabell because the entire reason Fainall married Mrs. Fainall was for her money, which he will never see. Fainall has difficulty trusting others, particularly his own wife Mrs. Fainall. He also is

suspicious of everything Mirabell says, rightfully so, since Fainall’s wife and mistress both have feelings for Mirabell.

In “The Way of the World” there is one relationship, which does not revolve fully around money, sex, and power. Although money, sex, and power do manage to have a slight impact on Mirabell and Millamant’s relationship, they do not consume it. Mirabell and Millamant’s idealistic relationship is one in which two individuals take marriage seriously and treat each other as equals. In scene 3 of act 1 Mirabell tells Fainall that Millamant’s “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.” On the other hand, Fainall says to become more acquainted with her flaws than you are her charms. Mirabell sees Millamant’s flaws as charms, whereas Fainall sees flaws simply as reasons not to love someone. Millamant and Mirabell’s relationship is built on a foundation of true love rather than finances or social status. In the end, the only ones who ultimately find happiness together are Mirabell and Millamant.

Although Mirabell and Millamant’s partnership is seen as ideal, the relationships between characters such as Fainall and Mrs. Fainall are the most important. Congreve utilizes the secondary characters to convey a message that often, it can be easier to learn from the mistakes of others rather than their successes. Congreve uses humor in these relationships to reveal to the viewers the absurdity of some relationships during the Restoration. “The Way of the World” is still applicable today because it is in fact, arguably, still the way of the world. Many people in today’s society marry for money and pursue love outside of their marriage. The search for money, sex, and power is just as prevalent now as it was three centuries ago when Congreve wrote “The Way of the World.”

In the final lines of Act 5 Congreve concludes, “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.” This is a final reminder of how common frauds are in marriage. Congreve has provided the viewer with examples of healthy relationships such as Mirabell and Millamant’s and also more problematic ones, like Fainall and Mrs. Fainall’s.

In conclusion, like most restoration comedies, “The Way of the World” begins with the struggle for money, sex, and power, and ends with marriage. Congreve mocks the upper class and their way of the world by exposure of the worldly desires and selfishness of the secondary characters like Fainall. Fainall is a vicious and manipulative character who uses his wit to try to acquire money, power, and sex. Congreve’s family comes from privilege, so perhaps earlier in life, he was witness to and possibly even involved in other relationships similar to the ones portrayed in his play. In the end, true love and affection conquer the petty love games of money, sex, and power.

Works Cited

  1. Simpson, James. David, Alfred. The Norton Anthology English Literature The Middle

  2. Ages Ninth Edition Volume A. Diss. Harvard University, 2012. New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company Inc., 2012. Print.


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