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 code, with one message for Harpagon and another hidden message for each other. When Harpagon’s faithful old servant dares to tell the truth, he is beaten for his effort. Simply to have the chance to communicate with Harpagon, everyone else must become something of a liar. Harpagon’s obsession thus forces hypocrisy on those around him, and even vows of love may become suspect.
Structurally, The Miser derives from a classical model, The Pot of Gold (c. 195), a farce by the Roman playwright Plautus. That work focused on a poor man who receives a pot of money and becomes terrified of losing it; he finally gives it away so he no longer has to think about it. Molière clearly took this theme in a different direction. Like most farces, however, Molière’s work revels in exaggeration, mistaken identities (Valère and Mariane are actually brother and sister, and Anselme, the rival for Élise’s hand, is their long-lost father), coincidences (Harpagon is unwittingly the usurious lender to his desperate son), and a massively improbable ending that reunites all the lovers with their loves, including Harpagon with his money box. Molière heightens the contrasts by neatly pairing...
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and balancing all the characters: fathers (one stingy, one munificent), brothers and sisters (extravagant Cléante and cautious Valère, feisty Élise and timid Mariane), and servants and go-betweens. Perhaps to emphasize the relationship between love and money, he cleverly uses economic words in the context of personal and romantic relationships. Love and money may appear to be opposites, he implies, but people need a modicum of both for a happy life, and all the characters except Harpagon realize it.
Molière also experiments with comedy as a form. For instance, at a time when most five-act comedies were written in verse, he wrote The Miser in prose. Most strikingly, he flouts the conventions of the theater by having Harpagon break through “the fourth wall” in his great tirade in the fourth act. Harpagon virtually explodes beyond the stage in his anguish, searching the whole audience for the thief and reacting frantically to the spectators’ mocking laughter. He weeps for his “poor money,” as if it were a living being. In this way, he directly confronts the audience with an appalling vision of unmitigated obsession. Though the audience members laugh at his extreme ideas, they also recognize a man beside himself with grief and panic, a man who cannot tell where he himself ends and his possessions begin. In other words, they see a portrait of madness.
At that point, the play comes close to veering into tragedy, which it would become were the audience to regard events from Harpagon’s point of view. After all, from his perspective, he is an old man whose ungrateful children defy him at every turn, whose only security and joy consist of gold that unscrupulous people are forever trying to steal. In his own eyes, he might as well be King Lear. That is why Molière instead concludes the play with a family reunited, lovers requited, and a generous and grateful father lavishing money to obtain happiness for everyone. In spite of the sugar coating, however, a serious, even bitter message remains at the heart of the play: Harpagon has learned nothing from his experiences. He still cares for no one and nothing except his money. The distorting evils of greed and obsession remain alive and well, in the world as in the play. Thus, although The Miser works as a cheerful comedy, this brilliant creation never loses its disturbing power.