Please discuss gender inequality in Moliere's Tartuffe.

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As was traditional in the seventeenth century setting of Moliere's Tartuffe, in which the French aristocracy was in power, the society was a patriarchal one.  As such, Orgon is clearly the head of the household although the rest of the family has much better sense than he with the exception of his mother, Madame Pernelle, who considers Tartuffe "a fine man."

Of course, in his drama, Moliere parodies the blind faith of religious believers as well as the religious hypocrisy of Church leaders. In addition, he satirizes the arrogance of patriarchs who feel superior to others in their family simply because of their position.  For, Orgon refuses to listen to either Dorine, who feels that Tartuffe "usurp[s] the master's place," or his own wife, Elmore. Furthermore, he completely dominates his children, ordering Damis out of the house because he has dared to malign Tartuffe by reporting the religious man's attempts to seduce his stepmother.

Orgon's daughter Mariane is completely dominated by her father, also.  In Act 2, Scene 1, for instance, she comes to Organ in response to his demand to see her,

MARIANE I'm deeply grateful, Father, for your love.

ORGON    That's well said, Daughter; and you can repay me it in all things, you'll cheerfully obey me.

MARIANE  To please you, Sir, is what delights me best.

ORGON     Good, good!  Now, what d'you think of Tartuffe, our guest?....In being his wife, if that should be my choice.

MARIANE  You can't mean, father...

ORGON     Yes, Tartuffe shall be

Allied by marriage to this family,

And he's to be your husband, is that clear?

It's a father privilege...

This announcement is so emotionally devastating to Mariane, who loves Valere whom her father has previously approved as her fiance, that she contemplates suicide as the only alternative to a miserable fate.

Elmire, too, is subservient to Orgon. For instance, when Tartuffe proposes his sexual advances, Elmire politely tells him that she will not report Tartuffe's inappropriate conduct to her husband in an attempt to bargain with him in return for her silence. She requests of him

ELMIRE  To advocate as forcefully as you can

The marriage of Valere and Mariane,

Renouncing all desire to dispossess

Another of his rightful happiness,....

In his male arrogance, Tartuffe refuses Elmire's request. So, she devises a trap in order to expose the religious hypocrite for the philanderer that he is.  Convincing her husband to hear for himself since he believes that she is "impudent," Elmire has Orgon hide himself under the table in the room where Tartuffe again makes his lascivious advances. It is not until she is nearly assaulted that Orgon emerges from underneath the table, and Elmire sarcastically asks, "What, coming out so soon? How premature!"  Thus, it is only because his pride is insulted by Tartuffe's advances to his wife, that Orgon takes offense against the impostor.