The Role of the Woman in The Man of Mode

by 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.

The 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. 

Still 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 conventional compliance. 

Sharing 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). 

A 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.

Also 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.”

Harriet 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?

DORIMANT.  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. 

DORIMANT.  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 country (133).    

Harriet’s 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 subjective: 

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). 2  “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. 

Works Cited

Berglund, Lisa. “The Language of the Libertines: Subversive Morality in The Man of Mode.Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 The English Renaissance 30.1 (1990): 369-386. 

 Damrosch, David, ed. The Longman Anthology of British Literature: The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century. New York, New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 1999.

 Gill, Pat. Interpreting Ladies: Women, Wit, and Morality in the Restoration Comedy of Manners. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1994.

 Markley, Robert. Two-Edg’d Weapons: Style and Ideology in the Comedies of Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve. Oxford, Great Britain: Clarendon Press, 1988.

 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.  

1 A stereotype of accepted female behavior is to participate within intimate, womanly talks, and Emilia does not deny, “company is a very good thing” (III.ii.104).

2 Harriet 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.