Women take on a variety of characters in Molière's Tartuffe. How do these characters serve to challenge or support traditional power structures?
After Orgon introduces Tartuffe—the scam artist who presents himself as a pious and holy man—into the household, other members of the "family unit" are critical and suspicious.
Madame Pernelle, Orgon's mother, refuses to continue to live under the roof where the family refuses to heed the religious messages of Tartuffe. Madame Pernelle would represent the devout followers of the religious community who believed without opening their eyes, following the rhetoric when it was no longer guided by faith, but by men (i.e., Tartuffe).
Orgon's wife Elmire, and his daughter Mariane are presented as subservient women who will follow the dictates of the head of household dutifully, even if it means their feelings—or even religious and social dictates—are ignored. In terms of the power structure, these women have no free will, and would be expected to conform without question. It is not until the end that Elmire devises a way to show her husband what Tartuffe is really like—because even after all he has heard from others, he will not believe what his wife says but must see (or hear it) for himself.
The one female character who opposes the power structures in the play is Dorine. Dorine (Mariane's maid) tries repeatedly to explain to Orgon why Mariane's marriage to Tartuffe would be a mistake. It is she who tells Mariane that she must refuse her father's wishes for the marriage (but Mariane is too obedient to consider opposing her father). It is also Dorine who says she will come up with a plan to make certain that Mariane and Valère do marry, while taking steps to guarantee that the couple does not lose sight of their love for each other.
Molière portrays three very different kinds of women, within the society presented in his play.