Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510

The Devils is a play about a man’s destruction—both by his own values and by those of his society. Although its point of departure is the actual burning of a priest in seventeenth century France, Whiting employs only those elements that suit his theme. Grandier seeks spiritual perfection but cannot overcome his pride, lust, and desire for power. Pathetically, he attempts to purify his desires. He tells one woman that he makes love to her so that her simple mind can understand God’s love; he performs a marriage ceremony between himself and Phillipe. As Sewerman points out, however, he only deludes himself. Grandier comes to realize this, and eventually acknowledges that he is spiritually dead and pursues worldly pleasures and enterprises in hopes of creating an enemy that will kill him and send him to God.

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Sister Jeanne, who is the major instrument of Grandier’s destruction, ironically resembles the priest in her desire to combine spiritual and physical love and in her experience of guilt, emptiness, and self-destructive desires. She tells her nuns that their hoax had been designed to expose the hollowness of love and to show men that they were made only for loneliness and death. Near the end of the play, she contemplates suicide.

Other social and personal flaws also contribute to Grandier’s doom. The most obvious of these is the religious superstition that overpowers de Condé’s exposing the possessions as a hoax and elevates the exorcist Barré to regal stature. Envy corrupts Mannoury’s and Adam’s rationality and civic virtue, which they use only to build a case against Grandier. Adam misuses his surgical skill to shave Grandier’s head so that the priest will appear less impressive at his trial. The Bishop of Poitiers worries less about Grandier’s guilt or innocence than that the masses will usurp the Church’s power to condemn him. The king’s agent de Condé exposes the nuns’ hoax in part because he is a homosexual who wants to humiliate women. D’Armagnac and de Cerisay, who are truly good men of civic virtue, fail because they lack the power to save Grandier. At Grandier’s execution, people fornicate in the street and fight over his bones, which they want as cure-alls for aches and pains.

Because it dwells on human weakness, The Devils is naturally restrained about the possibilities of obtaining spiritual purity. Still, its central tension develops around Grandier’s striving for perfection, and it at least suggests that the goal is worth striving for. On two occasions, just before his arrest and in his cell, Grandier seems to find genuine peace. On the first one, he tells Sewerman that he has discovered that God exists in all nature, to which Sewerman, usually the hard-eyed realist, responds with genuine pleasure. By maintaining his innocence of witchcraft against hideous torture, Grandier invests his suffering and death with a spiritual nobility. However, The Devils leaves it to the audience to decide whether in the end Grandier achieves salvation or only further debasement.

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Characters