Disgusted by fashionable society’s effusive displays of politeness and phony affection, Alceste espouses honesty and plain speaking. His principles are immediately tested: The fop Oronte seeks Alceste’s judgment of a sonnet dashed off in fifteen minutes. Alceste at first hedges, then criticizes the sonnet openly. Oronte is so offended that he takes Alceste to court.
A more serious test of Alceste’s principles is his love for the coquette Celimene, the brightest ornament of fashionable society. Caught between his principles and his love, Alceste pursues a strange manner of courtship: He nags Celimene to change her ways.
Celimene, however, is not about to change; she too much enjoys being the center of attention and excelling at society’s two-faced games, such as backbiting and coquetry. Even after her game seems up, when her other suitors expose her coquetry and walk out, she cannot abandon society. She turns down Alceste’s proposal to marry and live together in the desert, so Alceste angrily heads for the desert by himself (though his friends hope to stop him).
No character represents a reasonable norm in THE MISANTHROPE, not even Alceste’s friends who compromise so easily and certainly not the fops or the jealous prude Arsinoe. The unhappy ending points up the ridiculous nature of Alceste’s excessive reactions, while Celimene’s unmasking underlines her folly.
The play’s unhappy ending and lack of a...
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