What are the defining visual images or motifs that recur in Tartuffe?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One of the biggest central motifs in this brilliant and hilarious play comes from the repeated allusions to the Tower of Babel, the story in the Book of Genesis in the Bible that comes to explain how we speak so many different languages as God came down and confused the tongues of man. In Act I scene 1, this is alluded to directly when Madame Pernelle criticises Elmire and those involved in the hard partying that is going on:

People are driven half-insane
At such affairs, where noise and folly reign
And reputations perish thick and fast. 
As a wise preacher said on Sunday last, 
Parties are Towers of Babylon, because
The guests all babble on with never a pause;

This allusion points towards the way in which language is so often manipulated and confused by various characters for their own purposes and ends. Of course, Tarfuffe is a prime example of this. Note what he says about religion in the following quote:

Some joys, it's true, are wrong in Heaven's eyes;
Yet Heaven is not averse to compromise; 
There is a science, lately formulated
Whereby one's conscience may be liberated, 
And any wrongful act you care to mention
May be redeemed by purity of intention.

Tartuffe thus cunningly dispenses with the need to follow any form of higher rules or values whatsoever. The linguistic dexterity of Tartuffe is refered to again and again throughout the play as he uses language to confuse and bamboozle those around him. In a sense, the motif of the Tower of Babel reminds us that this is a play about the potential of language to be confused and manipulated, and the need that we have to cut through that confusion and use language to communicate clearly.


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