Although Molière in The Misanthrope humorously depicts a frivolous and hypocritical society, Alceste’s misperceptions about himself provide the play’s most biting humor. Alceste sees himself as the only honest person in his social circle, although he, too, tries to be tactful sometimes, as when he repeatedly tells Oronte that he had not criticized Oronte’s poem when he had so indirectly until disgust and frustration got the better of him. Even more strikingly, Alceste almost begs Célimène to tell him comforting lies rather than unpleasant truths. Arsinoé and Célimène, however, reveal with vicious honesty what they truly think of one another, even though each wraps her nastiness in assurances that she is criticizing only to help the other. By contrast, Alceste’s more moderate friends, Philinte and Éliante, converse frankly, and in the process each finds a loving and trustworthy mate. Molière makes is clear that Alceste cannot recognize honesty when he sees it.
Moreover, for all his much-vaunted independence, Alceste does not take responsibility for his fate or even his day-to-day actions. He has no trouble describing what he dislikes, but he seems hard-pressed to define what would make him happy, much less do it for himself. He says and probably believes that Célimène’s exclusive love, far away from the corrupt court, alone with him in his self-imposed exile, would satisfy him. He thus places responsibility for his happiness in the hands of another. In fact, he tends to react to external events instead of consciously choosing his own way. For these reasons, he sees himself as a victim of circumstances. In his view, everything that occurs—losing his lawsuit, antagonizing Oronte, bullying and alienating the woman he loves—happens to him and is the fault of someone else.
Finally, Alceste also considers himself a highly intelligent and astute critic and a perceptive observer. Certainly he can see the faults of everyone around him and, in truth, this society does deserve criticism. Nevertheless, he errs on two counts, the first being that he allows his emotions to precede his reasoned reaction (he feels, he speaks, then only does he, perhaps, think), and the second that his extremism blinds him to the value of good things right in front of him. While he believes he is offering clear-eyed criticism to a world desperately in need of reform, he is actually merely reacting...
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