Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 991
Although Molière in The Misanthrope humorously depicts a frivolous and hypocritical society, Alceste’s misperceptions about himself provide the play’s most biting humor. Alceste sees himself as the only honest person in his social circle, although he, too, tries to be tactful sometimes, as when he repeatedly tells Oronte that he had not criticized Oronte’s poem when he had so indirectly until disgust and frustration got the better of him. Even more strikingly, Alceste almost begs Célimène to tell him comforting lies rather than unpleasant truths. Arsinoé and Célimène, however, reveal with vicious honesty what they truly think of one another, even though each wraps her nastiness in assurances that she is criticizing only to help the other. By contrast, Alceste’s more moderate friends, Philinte and Éliante, converse frankly, and in the process each finds a loving and trustworthy mate. Molière makes is clear that Alceste cannot recognize honesty when he sees it.
Moreover, for all his much-vaunted independence, Alceste does not take responsibility for his fate or even his day-to-day actions. He has no trouble describing what he dislikes, but he seems hard-pressed to define what would make him happy, much less do it for himself. He says and probably believes that Célimène’s exclusive love, far away from the corrupt court, alone with him in his self-imposed exile, would satisfy him. He thus places responsibility for his happiness in the hands of another. In fact, he tends to react to external events instead of consciously choosing his own way. For these reasons, he sees himself as a victim of circumstances. In his view, everything that occurs—losing his lawsuit, antagonizing Oronte, bullying and alienating the woman he loves—happens to him and is the fault of someone else.
Finally, Alceste also considers himself a highly intelligent and astute critic and a perceptive observer. Certainly he can see the faults of everyone around him and, in truth, this society does deserve criticism. Nevertheless, he errs on two counts, the first being that he allows his emotions to precede his reasoned reaction (he feels, he speaks, then only does he, perhaps, think), and the second that his extremism blinds him to the value of good things right in front of him. While he believes he is offering clear-eyed criticism to a world desperately in need of reform, he is actually merely reacting emotionally to everything around him. His feelings lie so close to the surface that he cannot tell a trivial slight from a serious injury, so he responds with the same vehemence to both.
This last misperception provides the key to the play’s power. The eighteenth century English writer Horace Walpole remarked that “This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.” The clever Célimène basks in the admiration of her many suitors but seems not to care deeply about any of them. Philinte, a moderate, reasonable man, can see the attraction and humor in his society’s artificiality and hypocritical flattery. He understands the spiteful wordplay as simply a game of wits; people who play by the rules do not get seriously hurt.
Although Alceste’s mistaken perception of himself makes him a fool and a figure of fun to others, his pain is undeniably real. Even when he finally recognizes that his extreme views have forced him to abandon human society, he cannot change. In this, Alceste resembles some of Molière’s other great characters, such as Harpagon in The Miser (1668). When the miser loses his treasure, he grieves for his “poor money” and weeps as others would for a dead child. His wildly excessive reaction strikes the audience as ridiculous, but he feels his loss as a tragedy. Such characters as Alceste and Harpagon experience the world at the level of pure feeling, which is what most people do when it comes to deeply cherished beliefs. At the same time that audiences laugh at the ludicrous excesses of the characters on stage, they recognize that those poor fools represent painful truths about themselves.
Many comedies aim simply to divert. By contrast, The Misanthrope, perhaps because it reflects Molière’s own situation so closely, touches a raw nerve. By the time he wrote the play in 1666, he had seen his Tartuffe (1664) banned for its supposed attack on religion and Don Juan (1665) suddenly withdrawn from production; he himself was virtually excommunicated by the Church. Moreover, he and his friend, Jean Racine, the great playwright whose earliest works Molière himself had produced, had quarreled bitterly, never to be reconciled. His increasingly frequent work for King Louis XIV had allowed him to observe and experience firsthand the supercilious manners of the court. Perhaps most crucially, the middle-aged Molière and his beautiful young wife, actor Armande Béjart, had just separated, mostly because of her involvement with several young noblemen. Armande both acted the part and provided the model for the casually cruel Célimène, opposite a Molière playing Alceste. At the time Molière was writing the play, he and his wife saw each other only on stage.
Aspects of all these events and circumstances found their way into The Misanthrope. Like Molière, Alceste gets into serious legal, economic, and social trouble for speaking the truth as he sees it. He feels betrayed by old friends, beset by two-faced courtiers, and tormented by a frivolous woman he cannot help but love. Yet, miraculously, Molière was able to make his alter ego, Alceste, not a pitiful victim but a believable human being with a full complement of human faults and virtues. Even through his pain, Molière could see a man so like himself as both a hero and a fool. That clear vision makes The Misanthrope a comedy of manners that transcends its original time and place, for characters like Alceste remain timeless.
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