Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 490
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 character who embodies a reasonable norm illustrate Moliere’s daring and complex art. Engaging one’s mind, THE MISANTHROPE is a mature comedy wherein folly provokes both laughter and logical consequences.
Gossman, Lionel. Men and Masks: A Study of Molière. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963. Divides Molière’s plays into two groups: those, like The Misanthrope, that reach a social stalemate and those, like Les Fourberies de Scapin (1671), that transcend that apparent dead end. Includes an entire chapter on The Misanthrope.
Guicharnaud, Jacques. Molière: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964. Very useful collection that treats The Misanthrope in the context of Molière’s other plays, of other theatrical and comedic traditions (including Charlie Chaplin), and as a supremely experimental work.
Knutson, Harold C. The Triumph of Wit: Molière and Restoration Comedy. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1988. Considers Molière’s influence on Restoration comedy in England and concludes that, rather than excessive English borrowing from Molière, both sorts of comedy sprang from similar social circumstances.
Lewis, D. B. Wyndham. Molière: The Comic Mask. New York: Coward-McCann, 1959. A rich description of Molière’s life and works that immerses readers in the world of seventeenth century France. Sees The Misanthrope as the greatest of his works and the one closest to his heart.
Mander, Gertrud. Molière. Translated by Diana Stone Peters. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1973. Includes descriptions and analyses of fourteen plays and a usefully detailed chronology of Molière’s life.