The Way of the World
In The Way of the World, his last comedy, Congreve seems to come to realise the importance for providing an ideal pair of man and woman, ideal in the sense that the pair could be taken for models in the life-style of the period. But this was almost impossible task, where the stage was occupied by men and women, sophisticated, immoral, regardless of the larger world around them, and preoccupied with the self-conceited rhetoric as an weapon to justify their immoral activities within a small and restricted area of social operation. Congreve could not avoid this, and for this, he had to pave his way through the society by presenting a plot which, though complicated enough for a resolution, aims at the ideal union between the hero and heroine—Mirabell and Millament. They emerge as the triumphant culmination of the representative characters of the whole period, of course not types, for they are real enough to be human.
Congreve endowed his hero and heroine with all the qualities typical of the society, but towards the end the qualities, if negative, are employed as guards against the venoms of the society. At the beginning of the play, we find Mirabell shaping up a situation so that he can win the hands of Millament and her estate as well from Lady Wishfort who has the rein of power over them. In this Mirabell is perfect Machiavellian: conscious of his surroundings. He is not at all a man from chivalric romance. That he is a past master in the game of love, of course, in the sense of the period, that is, sexual relationship—is evident from his past affairs with Mrs. Fainall, from Mrs. Marwood's fascination towards him and, one many suspect, from Lady Wishfort's unconscious longing for him. Moreover, Mirabell has mastered rhetoric to encounter men and women around them.
Consistent with the irresistible charm of Mirabell, Congreve built the character of Millament. She is the perfect model of the accomplished fine lady of high life, who arrives at the height of indifference to everything from the height of satisfaction. To her pleasure is as familiar as the air she draws; elegance worn as a part of her dress; wit the habitual language which she hears and speaks. She has nothing to fear from her own caprices, being the only law to herself. As to the affairs of love, she treats them with at once seriousness and difference. For instance, she exclaims to Mirabell:
"Dear me, what is a lover that it can give? One makes lovers as fast as one pleases, and they live as long as one pleases, and they die as soon as one pleases; and if one pleases one makes more."
This, however, may be a case for Millament who is "standing at the threshold of maturity from girlhood", as Norman N. Holland points out. But from her discussion of preconditions before entering into marriage with Mirabell, it is clear that she is intelligent and discrete enough to judge her situation.
In the Proviso Scene we find Mirabell and Millament meeting together to arrange an agreement for their marriage. The scene is a pure comedy with brilliant display of wit by both of them, but, above all, provides instructions which have serious dimensions in the context of the society. On her part, Millament makes it clear that a lover's (Mirabell's) appeals and entreaties should not stop with the marriage ceremony. Therefore, she would like to be 'solicited' even after marriage. She next puts that "My dear liberty" should be preserved;
"I'll lye abed in a morning as long as I please…"
Millament then informs that she would not like to be addressed by such names as "wife, spouse, my dear, joy, jewel, love, sweet-heart; and the rest of that nauseous can, in which men and their wives are so fulsomely familiar." Moreover, they will continue to present a decorous appearance in public, and she will have free communication with others. In other words, after marriage they maintain certain distance and reserve between them.
Mirabell's conditions are quite different: they are frankly sexual in content, directed to his not being cuckolded or to her bedroom manners. "Just as Millament's are developed femininely" as Norman N. Holland points out, "Mirabell's are developed in a typically masculine way." Each of Mirabell's provisos begin with its item: first, the general principle, "that your Acquaintance be general", then specific instructions, "no she-friend to screen her affairs", no fop to take her to the theatre secretly, and an illustration of the forbidden behaviour, "to wheedle you a fop-scrambling to the play in a mask". Nevertheless, Mirabell denounces the use of tight dresses during pregnancy by women, and he forbids the use of alcoholic drinks. The conditions are stated by both parties in a spirit of fun and gaiety, but the fact remained that both are striving to arrive at some kind of mutual understanding.
While the Proviso Scene ensures the marriage of true minds, the possession of dowry with Millament remains the aim of Mirabell for the rest of the play. At the end of the play Mirabell and Millament through their own peculiar balance of wit and generosity of spirit, reduce the bumbling Witwood and mordant Fainall to the level of false wit. Thus Mirabell and Millament dramatise the true wit that is so carefully and symmetrically defined through opposition. On his part, Mirabell informs that,
"…I like her with all her faults: nay, like her for her faults…They now to grown as familiar to me as my own frailties…"
And Millament declares to Mrs. Fainall,
"Well, if Mirabell should not make a good husband, I am a lost thing—for I find I love him violently."
These confidences do not prevent their own chances for honesty in marriage. The triumph of the play is in the emergence of lovers who through a balance of intense affection and cool self-knowledge achieve an equilibrium that frees them from the world's power. As the title of the play The Way of the World suggests, they have assimilated the rational lucidity of sceptical rake so that they can use the world and reject its demands.