Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Although in some of Molière’s plays the protagonist is deceived because he is both egotistical and foolish, in more thoughtful works, such as Tartuffe and The Misanthrope, it is an excess of virtue that makes him vulnerable. In Tartuffe, Orgon was obsessed by religion; in The Misanthrope, Alceste is obsessed by honesty.
The Misanthrope begins with a conventional opening dialogue between the central character, Alceste, and his friend, the easygoing Philinte, who is the raisonneur. In this scene, Alceste states his determination to speak nothing but the truth, and the horrified Philinte vainly attempts to warn him of the consequences. In society, Philinte points out, a little dishonesty is essential. Otherwise, there would be open warfare. Alceste, however, is adamant. The scenes that follow trace the consequences of his resolution, from the failure of a lawsuit to the loss of his beloved Célimène.
It is Célimène who is Alceste’s one irrationality. Ironically, he is in love with the most deceitful woman at court. As far as the play is concerned, Célimène fulfills the function of the trickster. Her only motivation, however, is a selfish one: She lies so as to accumulate as many admirers as possible. Obviously, she is, in her own way, as obsessive as Alceste, without the excuse of virtue. Therefore, it is not surprising that she is finally exposed through some carelessness about...
(The entire section is 616 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Alceste has been called a misanthrope by many of his friends, and he takes a rather obstinate delight in the name. This characteristic leads him to quarrel heatedly with his good friend, Philinte, who accepts uncritically the frivolous manners of the day. When Philinte warmly embraces a chance acquaintance, as is customary, Alceste maintains that such behavior is hypocritical, especially since Philinte hardly knows him.
Philinte reminds Alceste that his lawsuit is nearly ready for trial, and that he will do well to moderate his attitude toward people in general. His opponents in the suit are doing everything possible to curry favor, but Alceste insults everyone he meets and makes no effort to win over the judges. Philinte also taunts Alceste on his love for Célimène, who, as a leader in society, is hypocritical most of the time. Alceste has to admit that his love cannot be explained rationally.
Oronte interrupts the quarrel by coming to visit Alceste, who is puzzled by a visit from suave and elegant Oronte. Oronte asks permission to read a sonnet he had lately composed, as he is anxious to have Alceste’s judgment of its literary merit. After affecting hesitation, Oronte reads his mediocre poem. Alceste at first hedges but then, too honest to give false praise, condemns the verses and even satirizes the poor quality of the writing. Oronte takes instant offense at this criticism, and a quarrel breaks out between them. Although the argument...
(The entire section is 1006 words.)
Act I-II Summary
In Act I, Alceste and Philinte argue over the issue of sincerity in social interaction. Alceste maintains that one should always be completely honest and sincere about one's feelings for other people, regardless of how influential they may be. Philinte argues that it is important to behave in a pleasant, friendly manner with all people, especially those who are influential at court. Alceste, however, insists that one should always "be a man of honor" and "be sincere," while Philinte defends the importance of common courtesy. Philinte further points out that because Alceste is in the midst of a lawsuit, it would be in his best interest to make friends with someone who is influential. He adds that "ruthless truth telling" can do more harm than good and that "delicacy, tact" are virtues, as well as honesty. Philinte concludes, "Life would be an absolute nightmare" if everyone said exactly what they felt about another person to that person's face. He then brings up the fact that while Alceste criticizes everyone else for being insincere, he fails to see the many faults in one person—Celimene, the woman he is in love with. At this point, Oronte enters and reads aloud a love poem he has written, asking Alceste's opinion as to whether he should try to get it published. Alceste tells Oronte that his poem is "trash" and that he should burn it and give up writing poetry completely.
In Act II, Alceste complains to Celimene, a...
(The entire section is 519 words.)
Act III-V Summary
In Act III, Clitandre asks Acaste why he looks so happy. Acaste replies that he is happy because he is "young, blueblooded, beautiful, and rich." He boasts that he is confident in his wooing of Celimene, to which Clitandre replies that he doesn't have a chance with her. Acaste concedes that he has been given no reason to believe that she favors him in any way. The two men make an agreement that, if either of them finds out that she prefers one or the other of them, the one she does not prefer will willingly drop out of the competition. Celimene enters and tells Acaste and Chtandre that her friend Arsinoe is a hypocrite. She says that Arsinoe is not very attractive but is desperate for a man. She goes on to say that Arsinoe merely pretends to be pious and prudish as an excuse for the fact that men take no interest in her. Arsinoe then enters and tells Celimene that, as her friend, she feels she must let her know that people are talking behind her back about her reputation for flirting with so many men. Celimene responds that, as Arsinoe's friend, she feels she must let her know that she is a hypocrite and that her piety is merely a false front. Alceste enters, and Celimene walks out, leaving him alone with Arsinoe, who tells him that Celimene is deceiving him about her relations with other men and promises to show him proof if he will accompany her home.
Philinte tells Eliante about the tribunal proceedings in which...
(The entire section is 951 words.)