“But say what you will, 'tis better to be left than never to have been loved. To pass our youth in dull indifference, to refuse the sweets of life because they once must leave us, is as preposterous as to wish to have been born old, because we one day must be old.”
Though this quote may sound familiar, the similar, more famous quote "Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all" was actually written by Alfred Lord Tennyson in the poem "In Memoriam A.H.H." almost 150 years later. However, this quote is still interesting and insightful, as it speaks to the resolution of the play - perhaps it is justified to have participated in schemes and conflict to end up with some amount of love winning out in the end.
“One no more owes one's beauty to a lover than one's wit to an echo”
This quote being spoken by a young woman is of utmost importance to the play, as much of the witty conflict in the dialogue, especially in the early acts, centers around women's ability to sustain their power and selfhood without men, while in relationships with men, and as they age. Ms. Millamant says here that she creates and owns her own beauty, and thus does not need a man to give her worth but rather to appreciate and perhaps magnify her worth.
"I'll tell thee, Fainall, she once used with that insolence, that in revenge I took her to pieces; sifted her, and separated her failings; I studied 'em and got 'em by rote. The catalogue was so large, that I was not without hopes one day or other to hate her heartily: to which end I used myself to think of 'em, that at length, contrary to my design and expectation, they gave me every hour less and less disturbance; till in a few days it became habitual to me to remember 'em without being displeased. They are now grown as familiar to me as my own frailties; and in all probability, in a little time longer, I shall like 'em as well."
In this quote, Mirabell proves to the audience that his romantic intentions with Ms. Millamant are pure. The quote, though still wry and witty, is one of the few, especially in his character's wheelhouse, that speaks to love separate from money, reputation, and secrecy. Mirabell confesses that he is not only in love with Ms. Millamant for her beauty or wit but for her faults, meaning he truly loves her completely and for herself.
"Friendship without freedom is as dull as love without enjoyment, or wine without toasting."
Two kinds of relationships are of perhaps equal importance in this story - romantic relationships and platonic relationships, especially those between characters of the same gender. Though Witwoud is justifying having spoken ill of his rival and yet supposed friend Petulant, what freedoms one has in either kind of these relationships is very important to the play, as is especially underscored in the scene in which Ms. Millamont and Mirabell lay out the terms of freedom in their proposed marriage. That the simile refers to love, "enjoyment" of love, and wine alludes to the sexy and generally debaucherous nature of the play, especially in later acts.
"If we will be happy, we must find the means in ourselves, and among ourselves. Men are ever in extremes; either doting or averse."
Again, a woman discusses her, and the ability or necessity of all women, to live for themselves rather than for men. However, this quote is ironic because of the situation the women are in in this scene and later, attempting to discover whether the other loves the same man as she, whether she is committing adultery, and how one may use the other to keep or gain money and reputation.
"Why do we daily commit disagreeable and dangerous actions? To save that idol, reputation."
This quote sums up one of the most important themes of Congreve's play - the overwhelming importance of reputation to the characters. In the climax of the play, the actions and reactions largely stop being concerned with love or even money, and what Lady Wishfort seems to fear most is a loss of good reputation for herself and her daughter. Certainly, many of the actions in the play are "disagreeable and dangerous," especially to people's reputations, but they must carry through with them for the sake of saving reputation as much as possible, with attention to fashion and wit along the way for the same reason.
"One's cruelty is one's power; and then one parts with one's cruelty, one parts with one's power; and when one has parted with that, I fancy one's old and ugly."
This quote, again of special importance because spoken by a woman, describes another facet to reputation - the interplay between youth, beauty, and power for women in upper society. Though this particular quote is spoken by Ms. Millamant, who herself is both beautiful and commanding, the character that most embodies the fear surrounding this quote is Lady Wishfort, who spends hours putting on makeup and preparing to be wooed, only to find that she was again duped, perhaps because her very age makes her desperate to be confirmed as beautiful and powerful.
"A man may as soon make a friend by his wit, or a fortune by his honesty, as win a woman by plain dealing and sincerity."
This quote again encapsulates the problematic relationship in the play between friendship, romance, money, fashion, and lies. Mirabell sarcastically implies that one cannot get a friend with wit, a fortune with honesty, or a woman with sincerity, and his point is proven at the end of the play when his schemes, along with a dash of charming wit, result in a successful ending for him regarding friendship, women, and money.
"A fellow that lives in a windmill, has not a more whimsical dwelling than the heart of a man that is lodged in a woman."
In this quote, Mirabell again makes one of his rare comments about love away from the topics of adultery or money. His saying this is perhaps an excuse for the mess his scheme gets everyone in the play swept up in - he is driven crazy by love.
"After our Epilogue this crowd dismisses
I'm thinking how this play'll be pulled to pieces.
But pray consider, ere you doom its fall,
How hard a thing 'twould be to please you all.
There are some critics so with spleen diseased,
They scarcely come inclining to be pleased..."
In both the prologue and epilogue, Congreve pleads with the audience to give his play fair analysis. This quote can perhaps be seen as a criticism of audiences throughout the ages, especially educated ones, who often attend a play looking more to criticize than to enjoy, not giving the playwright, the play, or their own happiness a fair chance.
The Way of the World Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Way of the World is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.