The Role of the Woman in The Man of Mode
Jennifer L. Jacknewitz
Around the mid seventeenth century,
England, renowned for its theatrical genius, introduced a new, astounding
feature to its public stage: actresses. Heroines
played vital roles within authors’ satirical plots, and audiences flocked to
the playhouses to witness the portrayals.
However, were these productions presenting actresses as autonomous
female subjects, which women authors like Aphra Behn described, or were they
just making use of the actresses as traditional, oppressed objects?
Despite the multidimensional nature of female characters that was
developing in literature, Sir George Etherege’s dramatic satire illustrates
a return to the traditional treatment of women within the process of courtship
and love. Premiering
several years after the addition of women to the stage[s] of the London
theaters, The Man of Mode depicts women within Restoration society as
oppressed, inferior objects.
Man of Mode revolves around the life of Mr. Dorimant, a witty, seductive
man involved with Mrs. Loveit, Bellinda, and Harriet, but subplots concerning
other characters such as Emilia also exist.
Amongst these individuals, several project their true selves, but
others wear “masks” that, according to Lisa Berglund, “conceal his or
her identity, but substitute another face for his own…exchange a dangerous
subject for an innocuous one” (381). Ultimately, most of the characters wish to be accepted by
society on the surface; almost all of the women remain under the constraint of
their male lovers’ authority and society’s customs.
adhering to the passive role assigned to her through society’s accepted
custom, honest Emilia remains an object of male affection. She and her love interest, the also virtuous Young Bellair,
avoid the scheming activities of their peers, but do not censure them either.
In order to appear like an accepted lady,1
Emilia participates in Medley’s recounting of the latest rumors of scandal.
In actuality, she has grown to enjoy the conversations.
Upon Medley’s arrival, she exclaims to Lady Townley, “I love to
hear him talk o’ the intrigues. Let ‘em be never so dull in themselves, he’ll make ‘em
pleasant in the relation” (II.i.73-74).
Language of and about seduction seduces Emilia.
The narration pleases and interests her, not the immoral significance
of the words. Pat Gill interprets
this connection to signify that “[Emilia’s] innocence may be merely a
consequence of her ignorance” (46). Because
she lacks insight and possesses a reserved demeanor, she does not respond to
the gossip or to the initial flirtations of Old Bellair.
She is unaware and undesiring of anything except identifying herself
with her husband in a joyous marriage. For
her, the play ends happily; she and Young Bellair are joined.
Blinded by innocent passion, Emilia willingly assumes the role of
a similar sightlessness from love, vulnerable Bellinda voluntarily assumes the
role of object of a man’s yearning, abandoning any hope for true autonomy as
a subject in the process. Infatuated
with Dorimant, she wishes for him to sacrifice his old mistress, Mrs. Loveit,
for her even though she knows that he is a womanizer, and she will just be one
in a series of interchangeable women (Gill 38-39).
“I sigh to think that Dorimant may be / One day as faithless and
unkind to me” (II.ii.233-234), she says early in the play. Later, she admits, “I knew him false and helped to make him
so. Was not her ruin enough to
fright me from danger? It should have been, but love can take no warning”
(V.i.252-253). Bellinda is
conversant with Dorimant’s intentions; she has had ample occasions to
observe his vows of faithlessness while acting as Mrs. Loveit’s socially
acceptable friend. In spite of
this, she allows him to gain the advantage over her and defeats herself (Young
67). “She satisfies Dorimant’s desire for [a woman] but does not satisfy
desire itself. As soon as
Bellinda surrenders to Dorimant, she no longer differs from his previous
conquests” (Gill 39).
previous conquest, the passionate Mrs. Loveit refuses to accept abandonment by
her lover, Dorimant. She rejects
remaining a passive object and actively seeks revenge, first through the
avenue of jealousy, using foolish Sir Fopling:
He [Dorimant] is not jealous; but I
will make him so, and be revenged a way he little thinks on…’Twill make
him uneasy, though he does not care for me.
I know the effects of jealousy on men of his proud temper…’Tis the
strongest cordial we can give to dying love.
It often brings it back when there’s no sign of life remaining.
But I design not so much the reviving his, as my revenge.
(III.iii.160-161, 165-166, 168-170)
Nonetheless, Dorimant uncovers her
plan. “I know she hates Fopling
and only makes use of him in hope to work me on again” (III.iii.264-265).
Later recognizing this obstacle, she opts to completely unsex herself,
sacrificing the “female traits” of honesty and reputation in a rash
attempt to corrupt Dorimant. According
to Pat Gill, while trying to even the score, Mrs. Loveit, who seems more
victim than victimizer, is exorcized by the play as if she were a sinister
menace. Her behavior becomes a
threat that must be repudiated. Unlike
Bellinda, she attempts to gain an advantage and does not admit to her gender
(43). Mrs. Loveit’s venture
into the masculine domain of sexual intrigue and power manipulation is
suppressed not only by the male but also by the female characters.
She is punished for engaging in the male activity of assertiveness
regarding her wild, uncontrolled desires.
considered wild, Harriet is a departure from the passive, modest woman,
exhibiting several “unfeminine” traits.
Unlike Mrs. Loveit or Belinda, she expresses her desires and feelings;
her perspectives dominate instead of society’s or others’ beliefs.
By refusing to settle for the man her mother has selected for her to
marry, Harriet demonstrates independence.
“I think I might be brought to endure him [Young Bellair], and that
is all a reasonable woman should expect in a husband; but there is duty in the
case, and like the haughty Merab, I ‘Find much aversion in my stubborn
mind,’ which ‘Is bred by being promised and designed’” (III.i.41-46).
Besides rebelling from the accepted standard of arranged nuptials, she
also abstains from the female practice of using “hoods and modesty, masks
and silence, things that shadow and conceal – [women] think of nothing
else” (III.i.21-22). Harriet
does not feel it is necessary to “patch or paint like Lady Dapper or even to
soften her expression for the man she loves” (Gill 47).
She rejects the artificial nature of civilization’s “masks.”
is one of the few characters who prefer to shun hypocrisy; she proudly
publicizes her true persona, wild yet virtuous and witty.
Her true feelings, however, are hidden throughout the entire play.
“I feel as great a change within, but he [Dorimant] shall never know
it” (III.iii.52). She
uses her acknowledged intellectual and conversational wit to mirror
Dorimant’s behavior and desires, and, unlike the other women in his life,
does not reveal her own. “Harriet
evades Dorimant’s language, disrupting the flow of his wit with sarcastic
retorts and mocking gestures, trapping him as he has trapped others” (Gill
46). In order to accomplish this
task, she acquires a deep understanding of love and his character, bringing
him to face his enemy, confessing the pangs of sincere passion in words and
actions. “When your love’s
grown strong enough to make you bear being laughed at, I’ll give you leave
to trouble me with it” (IV.i.136-137).
“Do not speak it if you would have me believe it.
Your tongue is so famed for falsehood, ‘twill do the truth an
injury” (V.ii.108-109). Until
he amalgamates his words and his actions, “Harriet treats Dorimant the way
he treats Mrs. Loveit” (Berglund 379).
However, Harriet still maintains her wholesome respectability.
“Dost think I have no sense of modesty?
May he hate me – a curse that frights me when I speak it – if ever
I do a thing against the rules of decency and honor” (V.ii.142, 144-145).
“Harriet play[s] the role of the wit to entice Dorimant into a
relationship that is both sexual and honourable” (Markley 134).
She ungenders the act of seduction by actively participating in it:
HARRIET. To men who have fared in
this town like you, ‘twould be a great mortification to live on hope.
Could you keep a Lent for a mistress?
In expectation of a happy Easter; and though time be very precious,
think forty days well lost to gain your favor.
HARRIET. Mr. Bellair! Let
us walk, ‘tis time to leave him. Men
grow dull when they begin to be particular.
Y’are mistaken: flattery will not ensure, though, I know y’are
greedy of the praises of the whole Mail…As I followed you, I observed how
you were pleased when the fops cried, “She’s handsome”… how wantonly
you played with your head, flung back your locks, and looked smilingly over
your shoulder at ‘em.
HARRIET. I do not go begging the men’s, as you do the ladies’ good
liking, with a sly softness in your looks and a gentle slowness in your bows
as you pass by ‘em. As thus,
sir. Is not this like you?
(III.iii.66-73, 75-76, 78-80)
By mocking his seductive actions
and deceptive charms, Harriet is demanding equality. According to Robert Markley, Harriet’s continual mimicking
is a form of control. Her
success in winning Dorimant’s love results from outplaying him at his own
game and demanding actions from him; she is able to force him into the role of
the dutiful suitor, who is even willing to leave London and court her in the
actions at the play’s conclusion, however, do not finally support a reading
of her character as feminist. Douglas
Young’s interpretation views Harriet’s final appearance as substantially
Etherege could hardly have drawn
the character of Harriet without having some respect for women as individuals
in a world in which feminine individuality did not count for much… That
Harriet can insult, defy, and make fun of Dorimant and, at the same time, win
his admiration indicates her power…In Etherege’s play-world, she stands as
his equal. (82, 79)
However, this opinion is strongly
undercut by the arguments of Markley and Gill. It appears that Harriet may have solely used her
wit as a means to lure Dorimant into marriage and fatherhood, using her wit as
a vehicle for patrilineal succession (Markley 135).
“Harriet is transformed into a superb patriarchal fantasy: she
demands no more than what is necessary to reflect customary moral concerns and
to [satisfy] male desire” (Gill 49). The
beguiling strength that Harriet displays as an assertive, independent subject
in the presence of both men and other women begins to crumble into that of a
submissive object. Instead of
continuing to make use of her equalizing wit, Harriet abandons the notion of
pressing Dorimant further regarding his sincerity, trust, and honesty.
Instead, she settles for the role of the weak woman.
Just like Emilia’s, Harriet’s goal is marriage, and once its
achievement nears, her independence seems to disappear. However, the marriage
of Dorimant and Harriet is left unresolved at the termination of the play; it
is up to the imagination if Harriet’s honorable wit will cause the
“devil” or the “undefaced angel” to prevail in his heart (Berglund
383). Nonetheless, her wit
dwindles as she decides to submit herself to him without his making any
further concrete commitment. Additionally,
her submission is noticed when in one breath, she disobeys her mother, yet
wishes to maintain her loyalty by saying, “I would, and never will marry any
other man…But I will never marry him [Dorimant] against your [her
mother’s] will” (V.ii.278, 280). Harriet’s
success in winning Dorimant’s love fades into an objective act of surrender;
she retreats to the accepted, time-established standards.
Even though female characters mostly dominate the actions of The Man of Mode, the overall portrayal of Restoration women is pessimistically downgrading; the apparently subversive act of placing actresses upon the stage only “masked” the social degradation of women’s strength of mind. The characters of Emilia and Bellinda voluntarily settle for the role of object. They imply that the roles of women have regressed; instead of being educated, assertive, and independent, their lives center on the acquisition of or servitude to a husband/man. The character of Mrs. Loveit initially appears powerful, but is eroded from her position by society because of her vigorous, uncontrolled passions and desires. The subjecthood of the witty and virtuous heroine, Harriet, is upheld throughout the work only to dwindle into submissive obedience within the patriarchal value system at the very end. Etherege’s sense of social practices in the Restoration world does not endorse equality of the woman in the husband-wife relationship; the woman may be allowed to wittingly pursue her lover, but, ultimately, she is still an object at his mercy.
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David, ed. The Longman Anthology of British Literature: The Restoration and
the Eighteenth Century. New York, New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.,
Pat. Interpreting Ladies: Women, Wit, and Morality in the Restoration Comedy
of Manners. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Robert. Two-Edg’d Weapons: Style and Ideology in the Comedies of Etherege,
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Young, Douglas. The Feminist Voices in Restoration Comedy: The Virtuous Women in the Play-Worlds of Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, Inc., 1997.
stereotype of accepted female behavior is to participate within intimate,
womanly talks, and Emilia does not deny, “company is a very good thing”
provides a solution to Dorimant’s dilemma, a way out of his succession of
self-bred longings and self-reflexive speech.
Because Harriet initially possesses the qualities of autonomy and
wit, Dorimant would not be forced to sacrifice them by marrying her.