Female Sexual Agency in William Wycherley’s THE COUNTRY WIFE

January 20, 2010 at 5:22 pm (Uncategorized)

Consensus among the male characters in William Wycherley’s THE COUNTRY WIFE presumes the certainty of infidelity among smart women, or women of “wit.” Indeed, the paranoid cuckold Mr. Pinchwife even marries a country wife because he believes her ignorance disinclines her from straying. Pinchwife asserts that “[g]ood wives and private soldiers should be ignorant . . . What is wit in a wife good for, but to make a man a cuckold?” (1.1.427-428, 459-260). Pinchwife parallels the noun modifier “good” with its structural corollary “private,” thereby evoking the standard to which society holds female sexual agency. If a wife is “good” in the same way that a soldier is “owned by an individual…”, then feminine value is measured by the exclusivity of a woman’s sexual utility to a man, in this case Pinchwife (“Private”). Furthermore, he asserts that “ignorance” is the key to preserving her utility and that the “cuckolding” of a man proceeds directly from “wit” itself. In this exchange, the same value of exclusive sexual utility is preserved. If she is ignorant, she brings value to her husband through fidelity, but if she has wit, she devalues her husband by making him a cuckold, or philandering.

The either/or flow of intelligence to sexual agency in COUNTRY functions a textual binary that contrasts ignorance and fidelity with wit and infidelity. Although the jealous husband certain has his suspicions, it appears this binary pervades the gallant’s perspective, as well. Mr. Horner, the scheming libertine of the text, actually prefers wit in his women; “methinks wit is more necessary than beauty, and I think no young woman ugly that has it, and no handsome woman agreeable without it” (Wycherley 1.1.455-457). In the value exchange of a woman’s sexual utility, she brings value to Mr. Horner, the would-be lover, by her sexual exclusivity to him (if only for a time). Independent of moral “goodness,” women in the text are only “as good as” the sexual usefulness they provide to the man in question, and whether husbands or lovers, the men in COUNTRY seem to presuppose the manifestation of female sexual agency along the ignorance/fidelity and wit/infidelity binary.

Contrarily, while the male characters of the text affirm the intelligence/sexual agency binary, the actions of the female characters reveal a more subjective sexual agency. Rather than dependent upon the sheer fact of her cleverness or naivety, the causes for each woman’s action are varied, robust, and often complex. Mrs. Margery Pinchwife, for example, repeatedly demonstrates her ignorance. In fact, her affair with Mr. Horner is ultimately facilitated by Lucy’s wit, not her own. Here the ignorant woman is unfaithful, while the cunning Lucy is never characterized in sexual terms at all. Her only desire is to join her mistress Alithea with Mr. Harcourt, and much like her clever servant Lucy, Alithea shrewdly detects Mr. Harcourt’s masked insults toward her fiancé Mr. Sparkish. However, Alithea’s intelligence does not sentence her to Mr. Harcourt’s bedchamber; rather, she remains faithful to her fiancé throughout the play. Finally, Lady Fidget, Mrs. Dainty Fidget, and Mrs. Squeamish maintain a calculated, intellectually-rigorous façade of propriety to mask their ulterior extramarital motives. Yet, during their masquerade at Mr. Horner’s home, they complain that most refined and shrewd women, such as they are, have much trouble bedding a lover, as men prefer more “common women” (5.4.80-83). Despite their willingness and wit, these three women find it difficult to cuckold their husbands.

Question: Male consensus in THE COUNTRY WIFE dichotomizes women along the ignorant/faithful and wit/unfaithful binary. Is it possible to reconcile this with the above-cited manifestations of female sexual agency that circumvent and contradict the binary?

Works Cited
“Private.” Def. 3. Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Ed. Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson. 11th ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.
Wycherley, William. The Country Wife. Ed. Ken Bush. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.

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