In William Wycherley’s “The Country Wife” we see many quintessential elements of the restoration era. Because this era is one of liberation from the strict puritan-like rule of the Cromwell’s it’s literature is characterized by its opposition to modesty. We see this frequently throughout “The Country Wife” as sexual innuendos and racy themes frame a more complex story of romantic relationships and marriage in connection to society at the time. Throughout this restoration comedy we come to see that marriage has become a social obligation as opposed to a union of two people who love and support one another. It seems among the society we are introduced to there is a common understanding that wives may be mistreated and neglected, kept around only for appearances. “The Country Wife” draws attention to the danger of this notion of marriage as a means to maintain appearances and the doomed nature of the restoration marriage dynamic.
Consisting of a disinterested party and an object to be possessed, the dynamic between the two involved in these restoration marriages is inevitably a disaster. Men treat woman like a means to societal integration and pay little attention to their true desires. The woman is either neglected or mistreated and then tempted to look outside of marriage for what they are missing. This is recognized only by Horner who realistically despises the restoration marriage and its dynamics. He hates the men for how they treat woman and comments in a discussion with the Quack “If I can but abuse the husbands, I’ll soon disabuse the wives.” (3) Horner’s goals are to punish the men while showing the women the passion and pleasure they are held from.
Prominent throughout “The Country Wife” is the idea that a man must have a wife to participate in society. The only qualification of these unions, it seems, is that both people are in good social standing and have a good reputation. The men do not even seem to like woman as the mock-eunuch Horner reveals through his fabricated discourse with the other men. Because he fakes castration to sleep with the men’s wives, he must act like the other men in order to gain their trust. We see the nature of these men through his attempts at imitating their feelings. While speaking with Harcourt and Dilorant Horner declares demonstratively that “woman serve but to keep a man from better company” (5) and both Harcourt and Dilorant agree. Horner’s expressive statements are made only because he knows the other men feel this way. This disdain for women then is apparently fueled by an importance placed on homocentric relationships.
The neglect women face in restoration marriages seems to stem from misogynistic and demeaning ideals. When Horner is speaking with Harcourt and Dilorant we see in his lines the epitome of the restoration man and the patriarchy. He makes comments such as “I will have only those glorious, manly pleasures of being very drunk and very slovenly” suggesting that only men can do this and further reinforcing a male dominant world view. He then says things such as “I tell you tis as hard to be a lover of women as tis to be a lover of money. You cannot follow both.” This speaks to the idea that women first do not have any relation to money making it sound like a woman could not earn some herself. Second it parallels directly to Horner’s conversation with the Quack where Horner is being congratulated on the success of his trick so far. Horner then comments “thou art an ass. Don’t you see already upon the repot and my carriage, this grave man of business leaves his wife in my lodgings, invites me to his house and wife, who before would not be acquainted with me” (3) Speaking of Sir Jasper as a man of business being blind to his trickery reiterates the sarcasm in his previous comment about money and women. This sarcasm is present in all of his lines which makes this the comedy that it is.
As well as the misogyny, the objectification of women is not lost upon the reader. They are treated like prizes and kept locked up like they’re somebody’s belongings. They are seen as inanimate and are considered little when it comes to feelings. At one point Harcourt compares a woman to a book saying “If you pour upon them too much, they doze you and make you unfit for company.” (5) Not only is he actually comparing women to a legitimate inanimate object but he is literally making women into something that is not living with a stream of consciousness. Using words like “doze” and “unfit” are further degrading as they imply boredom and superiority to make such decisions.
The men in this play are not only degrading when it involves woman. They are almost mean when it comes to dealing with Horner who they all believe to be a Eunuch. He is pitiful in their eyes because he has lost his manhood. At one point Sparkish makes fun of Horner saying “he’s a sign of man” (6) implying Horner is now, without his manhood, an object not as much as a woman but less than a man. They imply without his manhood to sleep with women Horner is “useless” and lifeless, yet these men have woman (at least to society it looks the way) while they secretly neglect them and entertain one another while Horner pleasures them and shows them passion.
Overall we can see a general recognition by way of Horner that restoration marriage dynamic is deeply flawed. Through sarcasm and wit we begin to understand that it is not enough to marry for appearances, or because society tells you you should be married. You should only marry if you can emotionally and physically fulfill the requirements of a healthy romantic relationship. To treat other people as a means to your own selfish goals is damaging to society. The recognition of this theme was likely the results of understanding this and hoping others could grasp it as wel