The Misanthrope

by Moliere

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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 letters. Nevertheless, she dashes Alceste’s hopes; she would agree to marry him, she says, but not at the cost of leaving society, as the disillusioned Alceste has resolved to do. She would rather replace the lovers who have abandoned her than spend her youth in a desert.

Although Alceste loses Célimène forever, there is another match at the end of The Misanthrope, which actually materializes through Alceste’s own insensitivity. Throughout the play, the gentle, rational Éliante has shown no interest in Philinte, who loves her and who sees in her the social but virtuous female counterpart of himself. Unfortunately, Éliante is as irrationally in love with Alceste as Alceste is with Célimène. Unlike Alceste, however, who always makes excuses for Célimène, Éliante can see the unpleasant truth about someone whom she loves. After Alceste has been rejected by Célimène, he churlishly offers to marry Éliante, making it quite clear that she is his second choice. At that moment, Éliante realizes that Alceste is less than a perfect person. Although honest, he is insensitive and inconsiderate. Without a second thought, Éliante rejects him, and, suddenly aware of the virtues of her friend, the devoted Philinte, she accepts his proposal of marriage.

With so slight a plot, The Misanthrope depends for its interest on characterization and on theme. Molière’s contemporaries recognized in his characters most of the types present in aristocratic society, for example, dilettantes such as Oronte, empty-headed fops such as Acaste and Clitandre, and hypocritical prudes such as Arsinóe. Through Célimène’s admittedly catty descriptions, Molière includes other character types who do not actually appear on stage: the incessant talker, the dramatically mysterious man, the name-dropper, the tediously dull woman, and the equally boring egotist. The result is a comprehensive view of a society that obviously deserved to be satirized.

As to Molière’s own attitude toward that society, critics continue to disagree. Although Philinte and Éliante obviously represent good sense and moderation, some argue that Molière identifies more closely with Alceste. There is good reason for Philinte to remain loyal to his friend, who, unlike most of the other courtiers, takes life seriously. As a satirist, Molière could hardly do less.

(This entire section contains 616 words.)

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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 is indecisive, there are hints of a possible duel.

Alceste then calls on Célimène. As soon as he sees her, he begins perversely to upbraid her for her frivolous conduct and her hypocritical attitude toward other people. He points out that although Célimène could slander and ridicule with a keen wit and a barbed tongue while a person is absent, she is all flattery and attention when talking with that person. This attitude displeases Alceste.

The servant announces several callers, including Éliante. To Alceste’s dismay, they all sit down for an interminable conversation. The men take great delight in naming all their mutual acquaintances, for as each name is mentioned, Célimène makes unkind remarks. The only gentle person in the room is Éliante, whose good sense and kind heart are in striking contrast with Célimène’s caustic wit. Éliante is overshadowed, however, by the more brilliant Célimène. The men all declare they have nothing to do all day and each swears to outstay the other so as to remain longer with Célimène. Alceste determines to be the last to leave.

A guard appears, however, to summon Alceste before the tribunal. Astonished, Alceste learns that news of his quarrel with Oronte had reached the authorities, who intend to prevent a possible duel. Loudly protesting that except for an order direct from the king nothing can make him praise the poetry of Oronte, Alceste is led away.

Arsinoé, an austere woman who makes a pretense of great virtue, calls on Célimène, taking the opportunity to warn Célimène that her conduct is creating a scandal and that her many suitors and her sharp tongue are hurting her reputation. Célimène speaks bitingly of Arsinoé’s strait-laced character. Arsinoé thereupon decides to talk privately with Alceste, with whom she is half in love. She comforts him as best she can for being so unfortunate as to love Célimène, and compliments him on his plain dealings and forthright character. Carried away by the intimacy of her talk, Arsinoé offers to do much for Alceste by speaking in his favor at court, but the two conclude that Alceste’s love for Célimène, though unsuitable from almost every point of view, is a fast tie.

Éliante and Philinte are in the meantime discussing Alceste and his habit of antagonizing his friends with his frankness. Philinte tells her of Alceste’s hearing before the tribunal, in which he had insisted that Oronte’s verses are bad but that he had nothing more to say. Éliante and Philinte begin to discover a mutual liking. If Éliante ever loses her fondness for Alceste, Philinte intends to offer himself as her lover.

Alceste receives an unflattering letter, purporting to come from Célimène, which describes him in malicious terms. After much coy hesitation, Célimène admits that she had sent the letter and expressed surprise at Alceste’s indignation. Other suitors appear, all much upset and each holding a letter. On comparing notes, they find that they have all been ridiculed and insulted.

Alceste has meanwhile made up his mind to ask Éliante to marry him, but reconsiders when he realizes that his proposal will seem to spring from a desire to avenge himself on Célimène. To the misanthrope there seems to be no solution except to go into exile and live a hermit’s life.

When Célimène’s suitors clamor for an explanation, she tells them that she had written the letters because she is tired of the niceties of polite conversation. For once she had decided to say what she really thought. This confession is shocking to the suitors, who consider frankness and rudeness unpardonable crimes. Hypocrisy, flattery, cajolery, extravagances—these are the marks of a gentle lady. Protesting and disdainful, they leave together, never to return.

Only Alceste remains, whereupon even the coquettish and malicious heart of Célimène is touched. When Alceste repeats his vows of fidelity and asks her once more to marry him, she almost consents. When, however, Alceste reveals that he wants them to go into exile and lead quiet, simple lives, she refuses. Célimène could never leave the false, frivolous society she loves.

Now completely the misanthrope, Alceste stalks away with the firm resolve to quit society forever and to become a hermit, far removed from the artificial sham of preciosity. Philinte and Éliante, more moderate in their views, decide that they will marry.