Unlike his two greatest contemporaries Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine, who wrote everything from tragedies based on Greek and Roman history to scathing contemporary satires, Molière concentrated primarily on comedies of manners, particularly those dealing with the urban middle class. The scene is frequently a comfortable bourgeois home, and the plot usually revolves around tensions between husbands and wives or parents and children—tensions that arise because at least one member of the family has developed some sort of obsession that disturbs family harmony. It was Molière’s genius to weave dark threads of tragedy into his comic vision of this comfortable life, and he never did so more effectively than in The Miser and in The Misanthrope (1666).
Like The Misanthrope, The Miser focuses on a monomaniac, but while Alceste the misanthrope directs all his attention outward onto the faults of the courtly society that surrounds him, Harpagon the miser could probably live with no social contact, as long as he has his treasure to console him. Though he seeks a new young wife, his motives for doing so remain vague. He definitely hopes to secure a dowry from her family, but he probably wishes to acquire cheap domestic labor; he may also want to beget a new heir, the better to disinherit his two existing children whom he holds in contempt. After all, he curses his only son, and he tells his daughter he would not care if she had drowned. By contrast, he constantly breaks off conversations to go and check his beloved money, and, when it is stolen, he becomes so distraught that he stands ready to kill himself.
Harpagon’s monomania affects everyone around him, for, unlike Alceste, he holds considerable power as a father and as a wealthy man. This combination of obsession and power makes Harpagon an irrational tyrant, who can do real damage to the lives of those who should be dearest to him. His single-minded focus on money and his unwillingness to hear any opinion that contradicts his own distort every social interaction in which he participates. His children have no choice but to rebel against him, unless they want to be treated as possessions, not as people. Moreover, as Valère notes early on, the only way to approach Harpagon is through flattery and indirection; other characters, including Frosine and Cléante, soon follow suit. In the presence of such an egocentric fanatic, nearly all the characters have to speak in...
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