On “The Way of the World”

At the end of the first act in Congreve’s The Way of the World, Petulant declares, “Then let ‘em show their innocence by not understanding what they hear, or else show discretion by not hearing what they would not be thought to understood.” Here he is responding to Mirabell’s challenge, aimed to satiate his desire to “be severe”, by “putting the ladies out of their countenance with [his] senseless ribaldry,” and thus placing blame upon women encountering his lascivious humor and their inevitable embarrassed flush. Despite Petulant’s lewdness in the hypothetical situation, the blush of a woman ultimately signifies a physical representation of her impurity. In this passage, the supposed woman’s honor is the only one in question, while Petulant’s is not. He goes on to explain that he would not be abashed, as he perceives blushing as “either for a sign of guilt, or ill breeding.” This is exceptionally harsh. The standards of behavior- as well as beauty in the case of the latter explanation- are heaped abounds upon women, and, it appears in The Way of the World, that men do not have to follow the same, nor is innocence (as typically historically synonymous with honor during this period) and the lack thereof nearly as damning for men. Neither does a man have to “show discretion” by refraining from shouting obscenities. Simply a women’s blush, whether from Petulant’s racy comments- which one may understand if she is married (something Petulant and Mirabell don’t seem to consider)- or even from something as simple as the weather incriminates her. Instead, a woman is expected to be prepared to “show discretion” and stifle the physical symptoms. The key lies in the determining power within the masculine witness’s grasp, and if he chooses, like Petulant, to view a women’s blush following his pestering, then her virtue is ruined.

In this aptly named play, the above-mentioned loss of ingenuity appears to be “the way of the world.” Although Petulant clearly lays out his intentions during their conversation, Mirabell claims, “You are in the right, that you may plead the error of your judgement in defense of your practice.” Mirabell’s language demonstrates the total control a man has over the situation as well as the complete lack thereof a woman maintains. It insinuates that Petulant can shout something akin to, “Oops, I’m sorry,” in order to save himself the degradation a woman would get simply from flushing. Due to this, he is totally free of blame and may act howsoever he chooses. Furthermore, neither of the men in this section explain a way through which the now corrupt woman can similarly redeem herself. There doesn’t look to be a distinction between “the way of the world” and “honor”; rather, they are connected, and the loss of the latter at the hands of the man is “the way of the world”. Maybe a man’s lack of honor is, consequently, “the way of the world”.


1 thought on “On “The Way of the World””

  1. Hi Manda, Thanks for your posting! You make some great points about the double standards in terms of gender in the cosmos of Congreve’s play. Blushing plays such a key role in The Way of the World–as it does in Much Ado (though in different ways)–in terms of smuggling in others’ ideas about a women’s proper place and honor in society. As you aptly observe, the societal judgment does not cast its glance as harshly at men as women. It’s great that you’ve enlisted direct quotations from the text in your reflections. Happy reading!


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