Molière World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3724

Molière’s art derived from two sources. The first was the French farce, a story of trickery, punctuated with physical action, which had delighted simple audiences during the Middle Ages and continued to please more sophisticated audiences in Molière’s own century. The second was the commedia dell’arte, which had originated in Italy and had only recently been introduced to France. These were plays with set situations but with improvised dialogue, presented by actors in masks, who represented character types. In developing his own kind of comedy, Molière depended for his plots on farce, with its elaborate schemes of deception, mistaken identity, disguise, and misdirection. The commedia dell’arte, however, suggested possibilities for stylization in production and even in dialogue. Furthermore, the characters who are the targets of Molière’s satire, for example, the miser, the greedy doctor, the jealous husband, and the coquette, are based on the stock characters of the commedia dell’arte. What Molière did with these characters was to individualize them and to place them in the society of his own time, while still retaining in them the outlines of the universal types that they represented.

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Molière’s comedies are structured like the old French farces, which first identified the person to be deceived, then played a number of tricks on him, and finally exposed and humiliated him. At the beginning of the play, Molière establishes some obsession in the dupe, which justifies his being embarrassed or thwarted, and similarly, he gives enough good qualities and appropriate goals to his tricksters so that at the end of the play, when they win, the audience is delighted. An example of such a gull would be Sganarelle in The School for Husbands. Because he is obsessed with his distrust of women, he deserves to be tricked. The ward and her young lover are attractive, their love is appealing, and their goal is to marry each other. Obviously, the audience identifies with them as they try to outwit the tyrannical Sganarelle and is delighted when they succeed.

In most comedies, as in this one, the tricksters are the disempowered, the servants or slaves instead of their masters, the young instead of the old, and women instead of men. It is for this reason that one does not disapprove of the lies and deception to which such characters must resort, for, after all, a person without power must triumph over the powerful by wit alone.

In neoclassical comedy, there is also a raisonneur, or a man of reason, who speaks for the author, while also reflecting the dominant intellectual tendencies of his time. In the speeches of Molière’s raisonneurs, the audience would recognize Aristotle’s theory of the Golden Mean, which in most cases placed virtue in a middle place between two extremes, for example, praising financial prudence as being neither extravagance nor miserliness. The obsessions of Molière’s gulls would be examples of these extremes, where neither reason nor virtue dwells. The raisonneur would exemplify the ideal of the age, the honnête homme, the moderate, polite, honest gentleman, who is both rational and good.

If Molière’s plays were nothing more than a dramatization of the advantages of moderation, however, they would be amusing but hardly memorable. Molière’s best comedies not only warn of the consequences of obsession; they are also reminders that, by nature, human beings are obsessive creatures, and that although obsession may lead to embarrassment or even to tragedy, it is also obsession, not bland moderation, that creates lovers and saints. It has been suggested that Molière’s plays reflect his own realization that two selves were at war within his own nature. One of the selves stressed the advantages of moderation; the other was at the mercy of his own emotions. Thus, Molière could see how foolish the lovesick older man might be, but he himself was tormented by his own love for his young, faithless wife; similarly, he could understand the need for discretion, but he could not deny his own idealism, and he castigated hypocrites wherever he found them, thus risking his career and even his freedom. Molière’s best comedies do justice not only to the prudent plan for life that is the playwright’s official stance, as voiced by his raisonneur, but also to the idealism, the passion for justice, and even the illusions whose loss, if perhaps necessary for survival, gives a tragic dimension to human existence.

The School for Wives

First produced: L’École des femmes, 1662 (first published, 1663; English translation, 1732)

Type of work: Play

An older man discovers that he cannot manipulate a young woman as if she were a mere object.

The first scene of The School for Wives establishes the pattern of the drama. Arnolphe is the man in power, the guardian and virtual jailer of his young ward Agnès, whom he has kept in seclusion and in ignorance so that she will make him a virtuous wife. He refuses to listen to his friend Chrysalde, the raisonneur, who warns him against carrying out his plans. It soon becomes clear that Arnolphe deserves to be thwarted, not only because of his treatment of Agnès but also because he has other unappealing qualities. He is ill-natured, a man who spreads vicious gossip about husbands whose wives have cuckolded them; he is also a social climber, who has changed his name to “Monsieur Delafield” in order to pretend that he is an aristocrat.

This change of name makes possible a confusion of identity central to the plot. Because he is unaware of the name change, young Horace, the son of Arnolphe’s friend Oronte, is soon innocently confiding in Arnolphe himself about the progress of his love affair with a girl whom he knows only as the ward of a Monsieur Delafield.

Although at first it seems that Arnolphe will be able to outwit the lovers, actually his advantage is very slight, because he discovers their encounters only after they have occurred. In scene after scene, Horace tells Arnolphe how his preventive measures have only served to benefit the young lovers. For example, when, in obedience to her guardian, Agnès threw a brick at Horace, she attached a love letter to it. Later, when Arnolphe set a trap for Horace, in the commotion, Agnès managed to escape from the house where her uncle had been keeping her a prisoner.

In their first conversation, Chrysalde warned Arnolphe that merely keeping Agnès ignorant would not keep her virtuous; in fact, he argued that a well-educated, rational woman would be better able to deal with her world than one who was too innocent to suspect wrongdoing. Certainly, the conversations that Agnès has with her guardian support Chrysalde’s position. It is fortunate that Horace is honorable, for Agnès easily concludes that anything that brings her such pleasure as Horace’s embrace could not possibly be wrong. Yet even if Agnès is too innocent to be skeptical about such delights, she is not stupid. It does not take her long to realize that the book about women’s duties that Arnolphe gives her to read is biased; every maxim in it is intended to persuade women that they exist only for the pleasure of men. Not surprisingly, she prefers Horace’s romantic devotion to Arnolphe’s obvious distrust of women. Furthermore, Agnès is manifestly unwilling to remain passive, the mere ball of wax that Arnolphe boasts that he can mold as he wishes. Just as Chrysalde warned it would, Arnolphe’s plan for producing a faithful wife fails, as it deserves to fail, because it is based on his own overwhelming egotism.

Agnès, however, does live in a hierarchical society, where women’s freedom is extremely restricted. Therefore, in order to bring the lovers together, Molière must turn to fate or coincidence. In the final act of the play, Oronte appears with his long-absent friend Enrique. The two men have agreed on a marriage between Horace and the daughter of Enrique, whose identity has long been kept secret, but who in actuality is Agnès herself. Thus, Arnolphe loses his intended wife, and the lovers are married with the blessing of their parents.

There are a number of themes in this play. Obviously, one of them concerns the status of women. Molière is proving that men will be happier with women who are educated, respected, and trusted than with those who are deliberately kept in ignorance. Another is the theme of irrational obsession, as embodied in the character of Arnolphe. Essentially, Arnolphe’s nastiness toward unfortunate husbands, his tyranny over Agnès, and his snobbishness, as reflected in the assumed title, are all aspects of a single character flaw, the fact that Arnolphe has no sense of himself, but only a consciousness of externals. That is the point of Chrysalde’s long speech in act 4, where he attempts to persuade Arnolphe that he has misdefined honor, thinking of it as reputation, when it should be internal integrity. That is, of course, the ideal of the honnête homme. Chrysalde then says that he is not advocating the kind of tolerance that rejects all moral values; that would be the other extreme, not the Golden Mean. Instead, he is insisting on the middle way of the prudent man, who, unlike Arnolphe, finds his security not in the conduct or the opinions of others but in himself.

The very fact that The School for Wives was so successful inevitably brought bitter criticisms of the play from Molière’s rivals. In order to answer them, he wrote a one-act sketch, meant to accompany the play whenever it was performed. La Critique de “L’École des Femmes” (The Critique of “The School for Wives,” 1957) was first presented on June 1, 1663. It is an interesting commentary on Molière’s art. For example, he describes his characters as realistic but defends himself against the charge of personal ridicule by arguing that his satire is universal. To those who object to his double entendres, Molière responds that sexual suggestions come from the reader, not the writer. The Critique of “The School for Wives” makes it clear that Molière was not only an inspired dramatist but also an extremely careful craftsman who took his work very seriously.

Tartuffe

First produced: 1664 (first published, 1669; English translation, 1732)

Type of work: Play

A decent but gullible man is nearly ruined by the machinations of a religious hypocrite.

With Tartuffe, Molière moved further away from the simple structure derived from French farce. In this play, there is again a middle-aged man, Orgon, who can be tricked because of his obsession. Yet, although the trickster, Tartuffe, is a person outside the power structure, in this case he is a vicious hypocrite who must be stripped of his power over Orgon if poetic justice is to prevail. Therefore, there is another pair of tricksters—Orgon’s wife Elmire and his servant Dorine—who must set things right and aid the usual young lovers.

The structure of this play is also unusual in that the title character does not appear until the third act. In the first two acts, the characters voice their opinions of Tartuffe, this mysterious, seemingly pious man whom Orgon, the head of a prosperous Parisian household, has taken into his home as an honored guest. Except for Madame Pernelle, Orgon’s mother, the family members are unanimous in voicing their dislike of the man. Orgon’s young wife, Elmire, her stepson Damis, her stepdaughter Mariane, and her brother Cléante, the raisonneur, as well as the impertinent servant Dorine, all see Tartuffe for the hypocrite that he is.

After this preparation has been made, Orgon enters, and Molière begins to substantiate the fact that he is indeed besotted by this stranger. In a hilarious dialogue, Dorine attempts to report on the family, only to be answered over and over again by Orgon’s anxious inquiry, “And Tartuffe?” followed by a heartfelt “poor fellow.” Since Tartuffe’s activities involve gluttonous eating and a good deal of sleeping, Orgon’s concern about the man is ridiculous. The fact that Orgon’s infatuation could have serious results is soon made clear, when he reveals his plan to make Tartuffe a member of the family by giving him his daughter in marriage. It is at this point that Elmire and Dorine begin to formulate plans to deceive the deceiver by attacking his own weaknesses.

Tartuffe’s susceptibility to lust is revealed as soon as he makes his long-awaited entrance in the third act, when he begs Dorine to cover her bosom, so as not to tempt him to sin. Elmire’s plan seems foolproof: She will lead him to make his designs upon her explicit and then threaten to tell Orgon unless Tartuffe relinquishes his claims on Mariane. The plan fails, however, and Tartuffe plays upon Orgon’s emotions so skillfully that he manages to get Damis disinherited and himself made Orgon’s heir. Now both of Orgon’s children are powerless, and, of course, the raisonneur is still being ignored. Somehow, Elmire and Dorine must expose Tartuffe’s perfidy so that even Orgon cannot deny it. They do have an ally, Tartuffe’s own weakness.

Actors, directors, and critics agree that the nature of that weakness is the central issue of Tartuffe. There is no doubt that Tartuffe is bent on having his way with Elmire. Yet even in the scenes where he attempts to seduce her, he can be seen as dominated by the desire for power. Whether his later arrogance is the result of his humiliation by Elmire or merely his true nature, Tartuffe viciously seeks to deprive his former patron of his property, his freedom, perhaps even of his life, and he is stopped only by the intervention of the godlike King, who Molière says cannot be deceived.

This graceful compliment was not only politic but also probably expressed Mohere’s gratitude to Louis XIV, who had supported the playwright through his various attempts to stage this play. For some time, Molière had been suspect in the eyes of an influential group at court, which considered itself the guardian of public morals. This group managed to have two versions of Tartuffe suppressed, first in 1664, then in 1667. Only after Louis XIV obtained the opinion of a theologian who was too prominent to be refuted was the final version of Tartuffe presented. Within its first year, it was performed fifty-five times. It has continued to be one of Molière’s most popular plays, and it is considered one of his greatest masterpieces.

The Would-Be Gentleman

First produced: Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, 1670 (first published, 1671; English translation, 1675)

Type of work: Play

A commoner who wishes to climb the social ladder becomes an easy dupe.

Even during his final decade, when he was producing comedies as complex and thought provoking as Tartuffe, Molière sometimes wrote works that were much more like French farce in their simplicity and lightheartedness. The Would-Be Gentleman is such a play.

The gull in this comedy-ballet is M. Jourdain, a commoner who has inherited some money and now wishes to become something that he is not, a gentleman. Like so many of Molière’s obsessed characters, Jourdain defines what a person is in terms of externals. In contrast, his practical wife, Madame Jourdain, sees clearly what he is, what she is, and where they belong in society. Perhaps because this play takes place among the bourgeoisie, not among the gentry, there is no honnête homme in it to serve as the voice of reason. Instead, the function of the raisonneur is filled by Madame Jourdain herself, who, along with the servant Nicole, points out the merits of moderation.

As far as structure is concerned, The Would-Be Gentleman consists of a series of episodes, each one act long, which are brightened by songs and separated by interludes of dance. In each episode, tricksters take advantage of M. Jourdain’s social ambitions. In the first act, a musician and a dancing master are instructing him; in the second, they are joined by a fencing teacher, and finally by a master of philosophy, who astonishes M. Jourdain by convincing him that he has been talking prose all of his life. M. Jourdain’s willingness to be duped is illustrated when he sees his new coat, made with the flowers upside down; all his tailor has to say is that this is the fashion of the gentry, and once again M. Jourdain denies his reason and accepts the coat. If he can be so easily fooled by tradespeople, the would-be gentleman is no match at all for an impecunious nobleman. For some time, Count Dorante has been “borrowing” money from M. Jourdain. Now he has plans to maximize his profits by persuading his victim that the aristocratic Dorimène might become his mistress, if only M. Jourdain will send enough magnificent gifts to her.

Throughout all of these incidents, the audience remains delighted but disengaged, sympathetic only with the sensible wife who, like all raisonneurs, is certain to be ignored. When the happiness of two young lovers is threatened because of M. Jourdain’s social ambitions, however, it is time for a trickster of a different kind. As so often in these comedies, this turns out to be the thwarted young man. Because he is not a nobleman, Cléonte has been refused the hand of M. Jourdain’s daughter. In a wonderful fifth act, Cléonte takes advantage of M. Jourdain’s reliance on appearances. Dressed as the Grand Turk and speaking in gibberish, he wins his lady, and the play ends with several marriages, including that of Dorante to Dorimène, and, of course, the final ballet.

It is obvious that, except for the use of a woman as raisonneur, The Would-Be Gentleman is much like Molière’s simpler early plays. Because it avoids the dark possibilities of plays such as Tartuffe and satirizes the pretentious bourgeoisie for an audience that considered itself vastly superior to it, The Would-Be Gentleman produced no controversy at court. It is interesting that Louis XIV pronounced it his favorite of Molière’s works. The play has continued to delight later audiences even as it once pleased Molière’s king.

The Misanthrope

First produced: Le Misanthrope, 1666 (first published, 1667; English translation, 1709)

Type of work: Play

An idealist who insists on being honest finds that he cannot survive in society.

Although in some of Molière’s plays the protagonist is deceived because he is both egotistical and foolish, in more thoughtful works, such as Tartuffe and The Misanthrope, it is an excess of virtue that makes him vulnerable. In Tartuffe, Orgon was obsessed by religion; in The Misanthrope, Alceste is obsessed by honesty.

The Misanthrope begins with a conventional opening dialogue between the central character, Alceste, and his friend, the easygoing Philinte, who is the raisonneur. In this scene, Alceste states his determination to speak nothing but the truth, and the horrified Philinte vainly attempts to warn him of the consequences. In society, Philinte points out, a little dishonesty is essential. Otherwise, there would be open warfare. Alceste, however, is adamant. The scenes that follow trace the consequences of his resolution, from the failure of a lawsuit to the loss of his beloved Célimène.

It is Célimène who is Alceste’s one irrationality. Ironically, he is in love with the most deceitful woman at court. As far as the play is concerned, Célimène fulfills the function of the trickster. Her only motivation, however, is a selfish one: She lies so as to accumulate as many admirers as possible. Obviously, she is, in her own way, as obsessive as Alceste, without the excuse of virtue. Therefore, it is not surprising that she is finally exposed through some carelessness about letters. Nevertheless, she dashes Alceste’s hopes; she would agree to marry him, she says, but not at the cost of leaving society, as the disillusioned Alceste has resolved to do. She would rather replace the lovers who have abandoned her than spend her youth in a desert.

Although Alceste loses Célimène forever, there is another match at the end of The Misanthrope, which actually materializes through Alceste’s own insensitivity. Throughout the play, the gentle, rational Éliante has shown no interest in Philinte, who loves her and who sees in her the social but virtuous female counterpart of himself. Unfortunately, Éliante is as irrationally in love with Alceste as Alceste is with Célimène. Unlike Alceste, however, who always makes excuses for Célimène, Éliante can see the unpleasant truth about someone whom she loves. After Alceste has been rejected by Célimène, he churlishly offers to marry Éliante, making it quite clear that she is his second choice. At that moment, Éliante realizes that Alceste is less than a perfect person. Although honest, he is insensitive and inconsiderate. Without a second thought, Éliante rejects him, and, suddenly aware of the virtues of her friend, the devoted Philinte, she accepts his proposal of marriage.

With so slight a plot, The Misanthrope depends for its interest on characterization and on theme. Molière’s contemporaries recognized in his characters most of the types present in aristocratic society, for example, dilettantes such as Oronte, empty-headed fops such as Acaste and Clitandre, and hypocritical prudes such as Arsinóe. Through Célimène’s admittedly catty descriptions, Molière includes other character types who do not actually appear on stage: the incessant talker, the dramatically mysterious man, the name-dropper, the tediously dull woman, and the equally boring egotist. The result is a comprehensive view of a society that obviously deserved to be satirized.

As to Molière’s own attitude toward that society, critics continue to disagree. Although Philinte and Éliante obviously represent good sense and moderation, some argue that Molière identifies more closely with Alceste. There is good reason for Philinte to remain loyal to his friend, who, unlike most of the other courtiers, takes life seriously. As a satirist, Molière could hardly do less.

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