The Untenability of Restoration Marriage Arrangements
Wycherley presents two marriages that are sadly typical of the Restoration period: Jack Pinchwife cultivates his wife’s ignorance in order to ensure her fidelity and submissiveness, and Sir Jasper Fidget neglects his young wife and seeks to keep her mind off other men by occupying her with trivial pleasures and “safe” companions. Wycherley thus takes two common assumptions about marriage—that wives should be kept in ignorance and that wives can safely be neglected—and shows them to contain contradictions that can only lead to marital breakdown. Women, no less than men, desire gratifying sexual contact; if long deprived, they will gladly avail themselves of someone like Horner, whose aphorism proves right: “a foolish rival and a jealous husband assist their rival’s designs; for they are sure to make their women hate them, which is the first step to their love for another man.” As P. F. Vernon points out, Horner is merely a “catalyzing agent,” enabling the married couples around him to fall apart on their own terms: Sir Jasper is so eager to unload his wife that he actually compels Horner and Lady Fidget to spend time together; and Pinchwife leads his own wife into adultery, because the precautions he takes against Horner merely give Margery the means to gratify the very sexual appetite that Pinchwife, the broken-down and tyrannical, stints.
Wycherley was repelled by hypocrisy, above all by the commonplace variety—the ordinary desire of men and women to be thought more virtuous or gifted than they are. Thus, Horner early on curses “all that force Nature and would be still what she forbids ’em; affectation is her greatest monster,” and Dorilant generalizes the critique: “Most men are the contraries to what they would seem.” Not only men but women: Lady Fidget and “the virtuous gang” come in for some of the sharpest criticism in the play, as their public personas conflict egregiously with their private activities. Indeed, the entire play is predicated on the pervasiveness of hypocrisy: Horner’s ruse, on which most of the action depends, would fail without the eagerness of wives and husbands to maintain an extreme disjunction between the true nature of women and their outward appearance.
Town and Country, or Innocence and Experience
Margery, the country wife of the title, represents a state of rustic innocence that contrasts strongly with the sophistication of the town. She has no natural inclination for deceit, and thus she composes what Horner calls “the first love-letter that ever was without flames, darts, fates, destinies, lying and dissembling in’t”; she takes things at face value, and thus she expresses disbelief that anyone who professes to love her would seek to “ruin” her. Some critics argue, however, that in the course of the play Margery picks up the London tricks of duplicity and pretense, as she tricks Pinchwife into delivering to Horner first the love-letter and then Margery herself. The question of whether these tricks indicate the corruption of Margery is an important one, for if she maintains her ignorance throughout the play, then, as B. A. Kachur puts it, “her remove to Hampshire [at the end] suggests a form of banishment from the real world which cannot accommodate honesty, simplicity, and ingenuousness.” If, on the other hand, Margery in Act V is on her way to becoming a Hampshire version of Lady Fidget, then the thesis of the play would seem to be what is perhaps still more dismal, the idea that civilization is bound to corrupt even such a simple child of impulse as young Margery.
True Wit vs. Foppery
As David Cook and John Swannell suggest, one of the major themes of the play is “man’s intellectual ascendency over those conditions which tend to hem him in and diminish him.” In this context, the vitality of Horner, which he expresses in the form of intellectual as well as sexual dominance, entitles him as a heroic figure who triumphs (albeit in a morally ambivalent fashion) over the deadening thought-patterns of specious “honor.” By contrast, Sparkish’s feeble pretensions to wit degrade not only the human intellect but the human moral faculties. His brand of cynicism functions not to expose the failings of society but to reinforce them: his attitudes toward marriage, including his desire to feed his vanity by having “rivals in a wife,” reveal moral idiocy rather than moral insight.
The Cash Principle
Sir Jasper Fidget is a specimen of a new type, the bourgeois man of business. The Restoration saw the rise in earnest of capitalism, as social fluidity and developing markets allowed many entrepreneurs to achieve wealth in the modern way. Whatever admirable qualities may be attributable to the aspiring man of business, the besetting sins of his type are avarice and materialism. Sir Jasper exhibits this debasement of values and priorities, as he is constantly abandoning his wife to attend to “[his] pleasure, business,” placing business contacts and opportunities above the marital bond. The Fidgets, then, typify not only the new economic patterns but also the more specific issue of the commercialization of marriage, the basing of marriage on financial interest rather than love. “Almost certainly contracted as a commercial enterprise,” says W. R. Chadwick, their marriage “has foundered on materialism, and Lady Fidget has every right to feel neglected.”
The Poverty of Loveless Sex
The basic target of the audience’s laughter in The Country Wife is, most simply, the sexual impulse and the absurdities to which it sometimes drives its human subjects. Not that sex is categorically absurd in Wycherley’s view: the mutual attraction of Alethea and Harcourt, for instance, is ultimately not at all risible. Rather, Wycherley encourages the audience to laugh at sexual relations in which the participants view each other as objects, as means simply to personal pleasure. As B. A. Kachur says, “loveless, mechanical copulation is, as portrayed by a master like Wycherley, embarrassingly titillating, brutally honest, and inherently disquieting.” Horner epitomizes what Wycherley considers the dehumanizing effects of this impoverished view of sex: although he is in one sense the most commanding character in the play, controlling events by means of his ruse, nevertheless his compulsive sexuality renders him, most clearly in the “china scene,” a passive and mechanical sexual instrument, passed among various partners and utilized to the point of physical depletion.
From the first scene of the play, in which Horner and his friends sound the hackneyed note of derogating women and praising male friendship, there persists a motif of the conventional notion that the truest companionship obtains among members of the same sex (especially the male sex). The three wits, however, never realize that ideal very successfully: Horner keeps an important secret from his two friends, Harcourt’s deepest personal connection is with a woman (Alethea), and Dorilant scarcely exists as a distinct personality. Interestingly, what is perhaps the most successful instance in the play of this clichéd sexist bonding occurs not among the male wits but among the “virtuous gang” of ladies, plus Horner, in the “banquet scene” of Act V. Here, the ladies drink, sing songs, and derogate the opposite sex, quite after the traditional pattern of male tavern behavior, but with more reason and more honesty; as a result, their bonding session ends with the sharing of secrets, as they each admit the relation they bear to Horner, and a swift laying-aside of differences in the interest of collaboration in the ruse. Perhaps Wycherley means to suggest that the men’s commitment to besting each other in the romantic arena precludes any genuine bonding, while the women’s oppression in the conventional sexual scheme gives them incentive to be, as Lady Fidget puts it, “sister sharers” in more ways than one.
The Country Wife Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Country Wife is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The attractive young “country wife” of the title, Margery is newly married to Jack Pinchwife and is visiting London for the first time to see Alethea’s wedding. Unaccustomed to city ways, she is largely guileless and not...