Honesty and Hypocrisy
The overriding theme of The Misanthrope is honesty and hypocrisy. Alceste, the central character, is a misanthrope because he is disgusted by the hypocrisy that, in his view, characterizes human society. Alceste claims to be the only truly honest person he knows. As the play opens, he is criticizing Philinte for insincerely behaving with affection toward someone who is merely a mild acquaintance. When Oronte asks for Alceste's opinion about the love sonnet he has written, Alceste is brutally honest in claiming that the poem is "trash" and that Oronte should refrain from ever writing another poem. Against Alceste's diatribes, Philinte argues for the value of insincerity in social interactions for the sake of the feelings of other people, as well as in the interest of endearing oneself to those with influence. Critical discussion of the character of Alceste, however, reveals that he may be the biggest hypocrite of all in claiming to be the only honest man around. Nicholas Dromgoole, in an introduction to a translation of Moliere: The Misanthrope, argues that, while, in theory, Alceste's argument is one that most people might agree with—that the world would be a better place if people were more honest and sincere with one another—"Alceste carries this idea to the point of obsession, of absurdity."
Peter Hampshire Nurse, in Moliere and the Comic Spirit, observes that Alceste's so-called sincerity in speaking his mind to others is merely a "rationalization for self-centered passion"; hence, "the inauthenticity of Alceste's whole code of sincerity." Thus, D. B. Wyndham Lewis asserts in Moliere: The Comic Mask, "A moral theologian could indict [Alceste] almost at sight for the sin of pride." By allowing for this ambiguity in Alceste's true character and motives, Moliere's play thus leaves open the question of the value of absolute sincerity as advocated by a misanthrope.
Throughout the play, Alceste is concerned with the issue of justice, both in the abstract, moral sense and in more concrete terms, as practiced by the judicial courts. Among the characters in The Misanthrope, litigation seems to be the rule of the day. Lawsuits are apparently so common that characters frequently refer to "my lawsuit" without explanation of the nature of the suit. In...
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