In most early British literature a woman is often presented as only one thing: an object. They can be objects of desire, objects of beauty, or merely objects to be owned, but it is rare that a woman is anything more than that. It is even more uncommon to find a female character in literature that is presented as an equal to the men around her. In William Congreve's The Way of the World he plays on the similarities of both his female and male characters to establish just how much of an issue gender really is because though their actions might be similar, the consequences are not.
The tangled web of relationships that connect each character in this story are what drive Congreve's play forward. With each past affair (or current) affair that is revealed the plot gets more and more complicated, but what does not change is the double-standards that arise because of them. The reader is made aware quite early in the play that Mirabell was once known as a rake, someone society would identify as a womanizer by today's standards. It seems that every character is also aware of this fact, that Mirabell used to be a man that slept around, but it is never made much of an issue. He was previously linked to Mrs. Fainall and apparently wooed Lady Wishfort to get closer to her niece, Millamant, who he is attempting to wed throughout the story. It is puzzling that Millamant never seems to have any reservations about him, knowing all of this information. What is even more puzzling, however, is the fact that such a reputation would permanently damage any of the women in this play. It's no secret, to the audience that Fainall is cheating on his wife with Mrs. Marwood and it probably wouldn't be too hard for the other characters to discover this. However, he is never truly punished for his adultery. While he is the prime candidate for most "evil" character of the play due to his plotting and his affair, the only thing Fainall is denied is money that was never meant for him in the first place. Conversely, there are only hints that Mrs. Fainall also slept around during her marriage to Fainall, particularly to Mirabell who she seemed to have past history with. Rather than overlook such information, like was done with Mirabell, Mrs. Fainall's "affair" manages to threaten the reputations and plans of several other characters in the play. Lady Wishfort, Mrs. Fainall's mother, is forced to give Fainall her inheritance as hush money so that he does not publicly scandalize her family with the information of his wife's affair. As a result, the impending marriage of Mirabell and Millamant is also in jeopardy because they would no longer receive Wishfort's money. It's such a huge difference in the amount of drama that is caused by someone's affair, and only because that person was a woman.
Congreve's play seems to establish equality amongst both sexes based on the similarities of their actions. Both males and females in this play plot against each other, lie, and deceive to get what they want. Fainall blackmails Lady Wishfort to give him his wife's inheritance while his wife, almost sensing such a plot would occur, had signed over her money to Mirabell for safekeeping. However, the victims of these types of actions often turn out to be the females a majority of the time. First of all, everyone is after Lady Wishfort in the story, of course this is because she's got the money everyone wants, but a reader can't help but think that maybe a man wouldn't allow himself to be taken advantage of so frequently in the same situation. She almost marries a servant, almost gives her fortune away to someone not even related to her, and ends up giving the fortune to her niece and a man that had previously wronged her and still came out on top. It's also important to note that Lady Wishfort never committed any blatant wrong-doing. She only wanted her niece to marry someone suitable and someone who didn't have a questionable past, in reality this would be considered a...
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