Valère, the steward of Harpagon’s house, is in love with his employer’s daughter, Élise. Valère is sure that he is of a good family, but until he can find his relatives he has little hope that Harpagon will give his consent to a marriage between his daughter and his steward. Harpagon is a miser of such great avarice and stinginess that he loves nothing but money. He lives in constant fear that someone will rob him of the large sum he has buried in his garden. Valère knows that his only hope lies in gaining Harpagon’s affection by flattering the old man shamelessly.
Harpagon’s son, Cléante, is also in love. The object of his love is Mariane, a poor girl who lives with her widowed mother. Cléante’s love is as hopeless as that between his sister, Élise, and Valère. Since Mariane has no money, Harpagon will not consent to a marriage, and Cléante keeps his love for the girl from his father. What he does not know is that his father has seen Mariane and wants her for himself. He has been a widower for many years, and the young girl’s beauty makes him desire her. He must first, however, secure a dowry for her; his miserliness is stronger than his love.
Élise learns from her father that, against her wishes, she is to be married to Anselme, a wealthy man fifty years old. The fact that Anselme will take his daughter without a dowry is too good a proposition for Harpagon to miss. Élise appeals to Valère for help. The clever lad pretends to agree with her father while he whispers to her to take heart and trust him to prevent the marriage. If all else fails, he and Élise will flee from the house and be married without her father’s consent.
Cléante is so determined to marry Mariane that he arranges through an agent to borrow from a moneylender. Never is a higher rate of interest demanded. Cléante is to pay twenty-five percent interest and to take part of the loan in goods which he must sell. With no choice but to agree, he meets the moneylender. He is horrified to find that the moneylender is his own father. Harpagon is equally angry that his son should be such a spendthrift that he must borrow money at such high rates. The two part without completing the loan, Cléante to try to arrange a loan elsewhere and Harpagon to try to secure a dowry for Mariane.
Harpagon arranges a party in honor of Mariane, whom he has not as yet met. He cautions the servants to be very sparing with the food and drink, as it is an injustice to one’s guests to stuff them full. Although Mariane finds Harpagon repulsive, she is bound by her poor mother’s wish that she take a rich husband. When Mariane learns that Harpagon is the father of her beloved Cléante, she detests him more than ever. Cléante gets a small measure of revenge on his father by taking a huge diamond ring from his father’s finger and presenting it to Mariane after telling her that Harpagon wants her to have it. The miser is helpless; he cannot get it back unless he admits his stinginess to the girl he wishes to marry.
After Harpagon tricks Cléante into admitting his love for Mariane, the old man vows more than ever to have her for himself. Cléante curses his father and swears that the old miser will never have the girl, and Harpagon disinherits his son. Then a servant rushes in with the news...
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that Harpagon has been robbed of his buried money. All else is forgotten by the miser as he cries out for help. He suspects everyone of stealing the money, even himself. He will have the whole household hanged, and if the money is not found he will hang himself.
A jealous servant tells Harpagon that Valère took the money. Harpagon orders the magistrate to arrest the steward, even though there is no true evidence against him. Anselme arrives in time to hear Valère shouting to Harpagon that he will marry Élise in spite of the miser’s objections. Anselme says that he will bow out of the courtship, for he has no desire to take the girl against her wishes. Harpagon is furious. Where else can he find a wealthy son-in-law, particularly one who will demand no dowry? He presses the magistrate to arrest Valère, but that young man stops the official with the announcement that he is the son of Don Thomas d’Alburci, a nobleman of Naples who was forced to flee his native city.
Valère says that he and a manservant survived a shipwreck and made their way to Paris. He produced the family seals to prove his identity. Then Mariane rushes to him and tells him that she is his sister, that she and her mother had also been saved from the wreck and had thought the rest of the family dead. There is more joy to come for the reunited brother and sister. Anselme is their father, the former Don Thomas d’Alburci, who had also been saved. Thinking his loved ones dead, he had settled in Paris under the name of Anselme.
These revelations make no difference to Harpagon. He still insists that Valère return his money. While he is ranting, Cléante enters the room and says that he has found the money and will return it to his father as soon as his father gives him permission to marry Mariane. This is no hard choice for Harpagon to make. He will gladly exchange Mariane, even his own children, for his money. Anselme also gives his consent to the marriage. Harpagon insists that Anselme pay for both weddings. Anselme is willing to do this, and the happy couples and Anselme leave to find Mariane and Valère’s mother. Harpagon has an errand of his own. He goes to examine his cashbox, the true love of his mean and stingy nature.