Consider the theme of hypocrisy with respect to the two sexes. Does Wycherley treat men and women about evenly when criticizing the human inclination to hypocrisy, or does one sex receive a harsher censure?
The form of hypocrisy that Wycherley proposes most insistently as an object of criticism is surely the pretense of ladies to sexual “honour”; Lady Fidget, for example, harps upon her honor so frequently, while violating it so egregiously, that the very concept comes to seem almost grotesque. The gentlemen of the Restoration were not, in Wycherley’s telling, susceptible to this particular form of hypocrisy; the greatest monster of affectation among the men is Mr. Sparkish, whose pretense is to wit rather than virtue. As the play’s crucial plot device, namely Horner’s impotence ruse, turns directly on the sexual hypocrisy of women rather than on the affectations of men, it would seem to be the former that truly inflames Wycherley’s moral sense. Indeed, the so-called “banquet scene” of Act V, which shows the ladies shamelessly embracing and justifying their fraudulent version of honor, has drawn the disapproval of commentators who consider Wycherley to have lost control of his material in this episode, giving in to his disgust with the depravity of the opposite sex. The rather misogynistic bent of the overt satire seems thus to suggest that women merit greater censure for hypocrisy than men do. Digging deeper, however, one may choose to conclude that the sexual hypocrisy of the women implicates the men as well: as the play’s conclusion demonstrates, the empty honor of wives depends in no small part on what is no less hypocritical, the willful blindness of their husbands.
Assess Alethea’s hesitation before leaving Sparkish. In what ways is her reluctance consistent (or inconsistent) with what we know of her personality? Is her reluctance morally commendable, or could it bespeak a moral flaw?
Many readers will feel that Alethea, being as lively and intelligent as she is, has no excuse for not leaving Sparkish for the superior Harcourt as soon as the latter makes his offer; indeed, many have felt it incomprehensible that she should not have seen through Sparkish from the beginning and refused to marry him in the first place. Marrying Sparkish, however, was never Alethea’s idea to begin with; her brother Pinchwife arranged the match, and Alethea’s conventional deference to his wishes, along with her desire to preserve her own honor, now prevent her from breaking it off. Once she has committed herself to Sparkish, her too-generous interpretation of his obtuseness (which she construes as trust and patience) arises less from a defect of her intellect than from her self-interested desire to believe that her future husband will not seek to curb her independence. In hesitating to leave Sparkish, then, Alethea is concerned for two things: her honor, which she identifies in part with the appearance of propriety in marital matters; and her independence, which she thinks Sparkish will respect. Both of these concerns are consistent with what we know about Alethea, though there is a dash of hypocrisy in her concept of honor and more than a dash of self-delusion in her concept of Sparkish. Ultimately, Lucy is probably right to say that there is little real honor in Alethea’s marrying a man she does not even like, no matter how peremptory her collateral motives may seem.
How does Wycherley present the character of Horner—as basically sympathetic and admirable, as basically depraved and repulsive, or as something in between?
A whole range of responses to Horner are justifiable: some readers have gone so far as to call him a monomaniacal nightmare figure; many others have regarded him much more positively. Horner’s intelligence, humor, and moral insight cannot fail to win our admiration, but what he does with his intellectual superiority is more ambivalent. He seems to have certain impulses toward decency, as when he praises wit in women and laments Harcourt’s apparent loss of Alethea; his collaboration in the corruption of marital relations, however, along with his total lack of interest in using his wit to benefit others, suggests that his goodness remains mostly latent. However one chooses to judge him morally, there can be no doubt that Horner is the lynchpin of the play: his ruse drives the plot, his dialogue provides much of the explicit satire, and his psychology, whatever one makes of it, is perhaps the play’s most absorbing puzzle.
Does Margery retain her innocence during the play, or is she well on her way to becoming a second Lady Fidget when the curtain drops? What difference does it make to the themes of the play?
Margery certainly assimilates some of the tricks of the town ladies over the course of her dalliance with Horner: Pinchwife teaches her to write letters, and Lucy teaches her to tell lies and make up stratagems. In the final scene, however, when Lucy and Horner scramble to keep her quiet, it appears that Margery is as open and guileless as ever, or nearly so. Whether her isolation in the country will drive her to ever more drastic stratagems is a question beyond the scope of the play; individual readers will decide whether London hypocrisy is contagious, infecting permanently even Margery, or whether her sexual vitality will continue to express itself with the artlessness that typified it in the early stages of the play.
How does self-interest, particularly financial self-interest, play into the weakness of marital bonds?
The new economic conditions of the Restoration encouraged financially motivated marriages, as aristocrats who had lost their estates during the Interregnum began to make lucrative matches with the increasingly wealthy entrepreneurial bourgeoisie. Basing their marriages on a principle other than love, many husbands and wives found themselves contracted to indifferent or even hostile spouses; thus, the business-oriented Sir Jasper has a wife he neglects, and Sparkish is ready and eager to wed Alethea, for whom he cares nothing, in order to snag her £5,000 dowry. (Pinchwife, too, had a financial motive for wedding Margery: he kept losing his investment on paying mistresses.) Worse, the notion of marriage as a financial enterprise infects the men’s concept of the marital bond itself: most of them seem to understand a husband’s relation to his wife as one of ownership rather than partnership.
Is Wycherley’s account of romantic love totally cynical, or does it contain some redemptive elements?
Most of the romantic relations in the play are relations either of victimization (as in the case of Pinchwife and Margery) or of keeping-up-appearances (as in the case of Sir Jasper and Lady Fidget) or of empty and mechanical copulation (as in the case of Horner and all his mistresses); an observer would be justified in concluding that Wycherley believed that romance was nothing more than an expression of the brute and selfish instincts of humanity. Alternatively, however, the intensity of Wycherley’s focus on loveless sex may be a measure of his horror at the corruption of sexual love and thereby an affirmation of the value of that love in pure form. The example of Alethea and Harcourt, the virtuous couple, would seem to support this latter conclusion, though whether the virtuous couple are compelling enough to offset the impact of the more cynical areas of the play is a separate question.
Analyze the character of Pinchwife. Is Wycherley’s portrait of a jealous husband mainly comical, or do certain darker elements seem dominant in his characterization?
On the one hand, the jealous and aged husband is one of the great comic types; Jack Pinchwife is among the major instances of it in English literature, though perhaps the most famous occurs in Chaucer’s “Merchant’s Tale,” in which January, age 60, weds the youthful May, who soon commits adultery with the youthful Damian. Chaucer’s story ends, however, with January’s happily accepting May’s lies about her sexual behavior, with no violence either threatened or enacted; by contrast, Wycherley seems to present the sinister aspects of the kind of marriage in which an old husband takes a young wife simply for his own sexual pleasure, with no intention of considering her rights or wishes. At several points in the play, Pinchwife threatens physical violence against Margery and others; just how dark one perceives this portrait of a marriage to be will depend in part on how seriously one takes these threats. Perhaps, when the Pinchwifes have returned to Hampshire and none of the London men are on the scene to intervene, Pinchwife finally will, for example, carve “Whore” into Margery’s face. Notably, however, Margery herself never seems either alarmed or disturbed by her husband’s aggression; perhaps her calm is simply a reflection of her innocence, which cannot understand the evil nature of others, but it could just as plausibly be Wycherley’s signal that Pinchwife truly is all bark and no bite.
How effective are Alethea and Harcourt as ambassadors of a positive moral vision? Do they embody compellingly a view of the right way to approach romantic love and marriage?
Alethea and Harcourt certainly represent the most auspicious example of romantic love in the play: Alethea is virtuous and intelligent, Harcourt rightly values her for these qualities, and eventually they come together. Wycherley thus lays the groundwork convincingly for the presentation of a marriage founded on mutual respect and affection rather than greed or sexual exploitation, and Harcourt’s gallant defense of Alethea in Act V (“I will not only believe your innocence myself, but make all the world believe it”) is one of the play’s major enunciations of the trust and devotion that ideally characterize marital relations. Coming from Harcourt, however, this sentiment may be less impactful than it sounds out of context. Harcourt has not distinguished himself as a moral heavyweight, and his personality in general is rather vague. Alethea, too, is a bit pallid in comparison to the vibrant Margery, and the failure of the virtuous couple to register as vividly as the vicious and ambiguous characters prevents them, in the view of many readers, from offering a compelling alternative to the cynicism of the main plot.
Characterize the note on which the play concludes. Is it a straightforwardly happy ending, or does it seem ambiguous? What does this question signify with respect to the themes of the play?
Like all comedies, The Country Wife ends with a restoration of order: when the assembled company all agree that Horner is impotent (and thus, no harm, no foul), all relations return to status quo ante. The fact that what accomplishes this restoration of order is precisely a determined denial of reality, however, somewhat limits the optimism one can feel. Moreover, Wycherley avoids achieving closure through the meting-out of punishment: neither the adulterous women nor the brutal men receive any decisive comeuppance. Wycherley thus declines to establish, in the conventional way of comedies, a circle of rewarded “good” characters from which the irremediable “bad” characters must be excluded; individual readers will decide whether this refusal to draw bright ethical lines is a sign of Wycherley’s cynicism (i.e. a suggestion that in such a corrupt world there is no point in apportioning praise or blame) or of his generosity (i.e. a suggestion that all apparent guilt has mitigating factors).
Discuss the role played by Lucy in the action and themes of the play.
Somewhat like Horner, Lucy functions in part as a catalyst to the plot, providing other characters with the means to attain the objects that they are not courageous or resourceful enough to attain on their own. Thus, she urges her mistress Alethea to drop Sparkish for Harcourt, and when Alethea declines to take this advice, she takes it upon herself to engineer the destruction of the match with Sparkish; similarly, when Margery comes to Lucy seeking a means to get to Horner, Lucy provides her with a stratagem; finally, at the end of the play Lucy comes up with just the right lies to extricate all of the endangered characters, including even Horner. Moreover, she sometimes serves, like Horner, as the author’s mouthpiece; unlike Horner, however, she speaks not for cynicism but for a sort of pragmatic idealism, and when she disparages “honour,” she does so not in order to cast doubt on the existence of virtue but rather to advise against letting false ideals subvert the ideal of true romantic love. On the whole, then, Lucy provides Horner’s services of plot-work and enunciation of themes, but she does so from an affirmative perspective that offsets, though perhaps in a minor way, Horner’s cynicism.