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Molière 1632-1673

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(Pseudonym of Jean Baptiste Poquelin) French dramatist.

Molière is widely recognized as one of the greatest comic writers of seventeenth-century France and one of the foremost dramatists in world literature. In such masterpieces as Le Tartuffe (1664; Tartuffe), Dom Juan (1665; Don Juan), and Le misantrope (1666; The Misanthrope), he succeeded in elevating the traditional status of French comedy from farcical buffoonery to that of an influential forum for social criticism. Molière thus profoundly influenced the development of modern comedy and established comic drama as a legitimate literary medium, equal to tragedy in its ability to portray aspects of human nature

Biographical Information

Born in Paris, Molière was the eldest of six children of a well-to-do upholsterer to King Louis VIII. Molière developed an early passion for theater, attended Paris's finer schools, briefly studied law, and inherited his father's position at court. In 1642 he met and became romantically involved with actress Madeleine Bejart. Bejart's family strongly influenced Molière, who formally renounced his royal appointment to pursue a theatrical career. He adopted the pseudonym Molière to respect his father's desire to avoid associations with the theater and established the L'Illustre Theatre (The Illustrious Theater) with Bejart's family. For thirteen years, Molière struggled as an actor, director, and stage director, even spending time in a debtor's prison, and began adapting Italian commedia dell'arte farces. Returning to Paris in 1658, Molière's troupe staged his farce Le dépit amoureux (1656; The Amorous Quarrel); the play was greeted with overwhelming enthusiasm, and the production earned them both the favor of Louis XIV and the privilege of sharing a theater with the famous Italian performers of Scaramouche. The following year, he satirized French society and manners with Les précieuses ridicules (1659; The Affected Ladies). Molière's portrayal of pretentiousness in high society was so accurate that it outraged numerous aristocrats who believed themselves the target of the dramatist's parody. Molière thus earned the first of many influential enemies; thereafter, his life and plays were almost always at the center of controversy. He married the twenty-one-year-old Armande Bejart, thought to be the daughter or younger sister of Madeleine Bejart, in 1662. The marriage was rife with difficulties and is often considered the inspiration for many of Molière's subsequent works, including his most commercially successful play, L'école des femmes (1662; A School for Women). Plagued with recurrent illnesses due primarily to exhaustion from overworking, the dramatist was diagnosed a hypochondriac by doctors angered by Molière's parodies of their profession. He died of a lung disorder in 1673 following the fourth performance of his final comedy, Le malade imaginaire (1673; The Hypochondriac). Denied both the ministrations of a priest and interment in consecrated ground because of his profession, he was granted a secular funeral after Louis XIV intervened on his behalf.

Major Works

While Molière's early plays are generally divided between full-length comedies litteraires in verse, such as Dom Garcie de Navarre (1661; Don Garcie of Navarre), and one-act farces, such as Les précieuses ridicules (1659; The Affected Ladies); from L'école des femmes onwards these two forms became fused. Despite its success, L'éecole des femmes was attacked by Molière's enemies as immoral and sacrilegious, and Molière was accused of incest and labeled a cuckold. The controversy surrounding him increased, however, with the production of his most renowned work, Tartuffe, which skewered and/or offended several aspects of upper-class French society, the Roman Catholic Church, and the the influential underground society, Compagnie du Saint Sacrement, which boasted many powerful and influential members. Although Tartuffe was extremely popular with audiences and was acclaimed by Louis XIV, the Archbishop of Paris issued a decree threatening to excommunicate anyone performing, attending, or even reading the play. It was not until 1669—after the bulk of political and religious power had shifted away from his most adamant opponents—that Molière was permitted to perform publicly the final version of the play. In the midst of the controversy, Molière produced Don Juan, a cynical recasting of the legend of the irreligious libertine who embraces hypocrisy and commits unpardonable sins. Don Juan's sensitive subject matter invited further censorship from outraged church officials, who had the play suppressed after only fifteen performances. In 1667, Molière submitted a five-act revision of Tartuffe called L'imposteur in which he renamed Tartuffe Paulphe, secularized the hypocrite's priestly mien, and subdued the overtly religious attacks of the original play. This attempt to pacify church officials was unsuccessful, however, and he petitioned Louis XIV for an official reprieve. The King's personal support of Molière was unfailing, and it is possible that without his royal favor and protection, the dramatist might well have been executed for heresy. Following the controversy surrounding Tartuffe, Molière resorted on several occasions to writing less consequential farces.

Critical Reception

Despite attempts by traditionalists, religious leaders, and medical professionals to discredit Molière's work during his lifetime, his detractors had little effect on his theatrical success. His plays were extremely popular and, despite claims that he was merely a mediocre farceur, rival playwrights and companies soon began almost uniformly imitating his dramatic style. In England, Molière's work was widely imitated and evaluated, with many English critics ranking him beside Ben Jonson. That most Restoration dramatists were familiar with his works is evidenced in the nearly forty plays that appeared prior to 1700 in which such authors as John Dryden, William Wycherley, Aphra Behn, and Thomas Shadwell adapted, translated, or borrowed freely from his comedies. Molière's positive reputation in England continued to flourish during the eighteenth century. In France, however, public and critical opinion of his works declined drastically. In the early nineteenth century, during the French Restoration, Molière's comedies regained preeminence among dramatic critics and enjoyed a tremendous resurgence of public popularity. His work was also embraced by Romanticists as detailing a revolutionary, almost tragic, individualism that transcended rigid classicism. Twentieth-century scholars have addressed a number of issues concerning Molière and his works, and the majority of critical assessments has been positive. In general, scholars have continued the objective scholarly work instigated by such nineteenth-century scholars as Sainte-Beuve, Ferdinand Brunetiere, and Gustave Larroumet, probing virtually every literary, scientific, and historical aspect of the dramatist and his work. While scholars still seek philosophical, ethical, and religious messages in Molière's comedies, critical interest has, in many instances, shifted away from assessments of Molière's didactic intent toward purely aesthetic examinations of his comic technique.

Principal Works

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La jalousie de Barbouillé [The Jealousy of Le Barbouillé] 1645?

Le médecin volant [The Flying Doctor] 1645?

L'estourdy; ou, Le contre-temps [The Blunderer; or, The Counterplots] 1653; also published as L'étourdi, 1888

Le dépit amoureux [The Amorous Quarrel] 1656

Le précieuses ridicules [The Affected Ladies] 1659

Sganarelle ou Le Cocu imaginaire [The Imaginary Cuckold] 1660

Dom Garcie de Navarre; ou, Le Prince jaloux [Don Garcie of Navaarre; or, The Jealous Prince] 1661

L'école des maris [A School for Husbands] 1661

Les Fâcheux [The Impertinents; also translated as The Bores] 1661

L'école des femmes [A School for Women; also translated as The School for Wives] 1662

La critique de “L'école des femmes” [“The School for Women” Criticised] 1663

L'impromptu de Versailles [The Impromptu of Versailles] 1663

Le mariage forcé [The Forced Marriage] 1664

La Princesse d'Élide [The Princess of Elis, being the Second Day of the Pleasures of the Inchanted Island] 1664

Le Tartuffe [Tartuffe: or, The Hypocrite; also translated as Tartuffe: or, The Imposter] 1664; revised versions also performed as L'Imposteur, 1667, and Le Tartuffe; ou, L'Imposteur, 1669

Dom Juan; ou, Le festin de pierre [Don John; or, The Libertine; also translated as Don Juan; or, The Feast with the Statue] 1665

Le médecin malagré lui [The Forced Physician; also translated as The Doctor in Spite of Himself] 1666

Le Misantrope [The Misanthrope; or, Man-Hater; also translated as The Misanthrope] 1666

Amphitryon [Amphitryon; or, The Two Sosias] 1668

L'Avare[The Miser] 1668

George Dandin; ou, Le mary confondu [George Dandin; or, The Wanton Wife] 1668

Monsieur de Pourceaugnac [Monsieur de Pourceaugnac; or, Squire Trelooby] 1669

Le bourgeois gentilhomme [The Gentlemen Cit; also translated as The Bourgeois Gentlemen] 1670

Les fourberies de Scapin [The Cheats of Scapin; also translated as The Rogueries of Scapin] 1671

Psiché [with Pierre Corneille] [Psiché; also translated as Psyche] 1671

La Femmes savantes [The Learned Ladies] 1672

Le malade imaginaire [The Hypochondriac; also translated as The Imaginary Invalid] 1673

The Works of Mr. de Molière 6 vols., 1714

The Dramatic Works of Mr. de Molière 6 vols., 1875-76

The Plays of Molière in French with an English Translation 8 vols., 1902-07

Henry Phillips (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: “Molière and Tartuffe: Recrimination and Reconciliation,” in The French Review, Vol. 62, No. 5, April, 1989, pp. 749-63.

[In the following essay, Phillips examines the changing attitudes towards Molière's drama, focusing on the criticisms of the church.]

The year 1922 marked the three-hundredth anniversary of Molière's birth. An occasion, one might think, to celebrate unequivocally the life and work of one of the three great dramatists of the seventeenth century in France and indeed one of the great figures of French literature. After all, the controversies over Tartuffe and Dom Juan, and especially over L'Ecole des femmes had surely abated by then, leaving the way open for the consecration of a supreme representative of the culture of France. Everybody could at least agree on that. Not quite.

The tercentenary revived, in a particularly acute fashion, arguments over Molière's Tartuffe, which had raged fitfully throughout the nineteenth century. The more general context was in any event the relations between the Church and the theater, especially in the former's attitudes to actors. It should be recalled that the so-called querelle du théâtre in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in France had pitted those who believed drama to have a morally improving function against those who, like Nicole, Bossuet, and Rousseau, saw in it a corrupting and socially disruptive influence.1 Generally speaking, basic attitudes condemning the public theater, actors, and above all actresses could still be found in the early decades of the twentieth century.2 But the tercentenary celebrations, while certainly critical of Molière, at the same time offered an opportunity for reflexion, with the result that 1922 became something of a watershed in the relations between Church and theater. Old problems were raised, but, happily, moves towards their resolution were undertaken by both sides. In this article, I shall give some prominence to those who wrote in various Catholic journals during the year of the celebrations. The debate, however, was carried on well into the 1930s and beyond. I have therefore chosen a thematic rather than a purely chronological perspective.

Molière had in fact always constituted a problem for literary critics who, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, had sometimes shown great hostility towards Molière's alleged anticlericalism. Even the great Lanson himself expressed reservations over Tartuffe, and saw in Molière a Voltairian avant la lettre.3 The comic playwright was, wrote Lanson, profoundly ignorant of Christianity: “il ne le comprend pas.” (526) But this view did not seriously threaten Molière's unquestionable claim to greatness. Lanson concluded that: “Molière est, en effet, peut-être le plus exactement, largement et complètement français.” His genius, in comparison to La Fontaine's, possessed “les qualités françaises portées à un degré supérieur de puissance et de netteté.” (530) Even more ardent supporters of Molière were disturbed by the possibilities of flaws in the playwright's reputation. Doumic offers a glimpse of the potential embarrassment surrounding the whole question of Molière's sincerity at the time of the querelle de Tartuffe when he remarks: “Avouez qu'il serait au moins fâcheux que Molière n'eût pris la parole que pour nous tromper.” (Quoted in Reyval, L'Eglise et le théâtre 15). Reyval reacts to those who make the charge that Molière was not only anticlerical but a liar and an imposter by an assertion that seems to start from the wrong end: “Je suis trop moliériste pour m'associer à eux.” (L'Eglise et le théâtre 16)

The Catholic Church, however, was the institution for whom Molière's place in French culture remained a highly sensitive issue. As I have indicated, their concern did not begin with the tercentenary year. Louis Veuillot, the influential, extremist Catholic journalist of the second half of the nineteenth century, had, in 1877, set out in often strident terms the grievance of the Church against Molière and Tartuffe. The tercentenary simply provided the opportunity to focus these grievances in terms of the degree to which Molière could be regarded as representative of “l'esprit français.” Undoubtedly, the subtext to the arguments advanced also focuses on a certain conception of society, and how far religious attitudes should form a part of that conception. In a sense, Catholic writers were challenging judgments issuing from the predominantly lay dissemination of culture in the Third Republic.

Indeed the position of Lanson regarding Molière's place in French culture I have cited earlier was, it seems, typical of the period 1880-1914 when Molière achieved a sort of secular canonisation as a model of the national genius of France. Ralph Albanese, Jr. records how the playwright was seen as representative of “la vieille race gauloise”. What is even more significant is that the author of Tartuffe is illustrative of a transformation in the role of Ancien Régime literature in secondary school programs as a result of the new republican cultural ideology. The notion of “l'esprit français” was taken in hand by the school system to the extent that there was created “toute une personnalité, une âme, bref, un fonds d'identité nationale inspirant une tradition académique parfaitement fixe” (Albanese 36). More fundamentally: “un des aspects essentiels de la vision républicaine de la modernité réside dans l'invention d'une transcendance bourgeoise: la sacralisation des arts, la valorisation de la culture comme succédané de la religion représentent des conséquences immédiates d'une idéologie laïque face au cléricalisme toujours menaçant” (Albanese 41). The situation I shall describe relating to the tercentenary and after, as I have suggested, was in some ways a ripost to the creation of this “Panthéon scolaire et laïque” (Albanese 42).

The contributors to the debate in 1922 (and subsequently) had however no desire to evict Molière from the Pantheon altogether. It was rather a question of qualifying his claim to fame. The most authoritative voice in the arguments surrounding the celebration of Molière's birth was Jean Calvet, a prominent Catholic scholar who was to become Doyen of the Faculté libre des Lettres de Paris. Writing in the Cahiers Catholiques of 10 January 1922, his stated intention is to “réviser ses (=Molière) titres à la divinisation.” Calvet knows that his intervention will be regarded as “outrecuidance ridicule” in the eyes of freethinkers “qui se laissent imposer par la critique consacrée des fétichismes littéraires ou sociaux.” He thus situates himself in polemical opposition to certain social and literary currents. But, he adds, “nous voulons voir clair et, en admirant Molière, marquer ses limites, parce qu'il en a” (“Le Centenaire” 977). Moreover, if one takes the view that Molière is really the most perfect and worthy expression of “l'esprit français,” then “il y aurait là un abus de confiance contre quoi nous protesterions” (978).

This cri de cœur is, unsurprisingly, echoed in H. Gaillard de Champris's volume on Les Ecrivains classiques, volume IV of the Histoire de la littérature française under the direction of Calvet himself. Molière, however great as an observer of humanity and as a writer, has his limits. Indeed Molière is condemned by the nature of his admirers who are seen as “d'excellents bourgeois à qui ont manqué le sens de la grande poésie, l'inquiétude philosophique et à plus forte raison, le sentiment religieux.” That they should regard him as representative of “l'esprit français” is “une prétention exorbitante et, dans une certaine mesure, injurieuse” (117-18).

Typically for this period of Molière criticism, the issue turns in part on the playwright's “philosophy” which is, Calvet asserts, Molière's principal claim to represent “l'esprit français.” What is this philosophy in practice? It is perceived as lying in the ridicule of family life and paternal authority in George Dandin (“Le Centenaire” 981-82), and in the contempt for a religious education exemplified in L'Ecole des femmes (979). It is true that the servants in his plays proclaim “les principes de sa sagesse” which often contain a certain aphoristic common sense. But the laughter provoked in the comedies “a presque toujours une odeur,” so that it is not to Molière that we have recourse in order to learn “le secret des vertus de notre race” (982). Calvet's wording recalls Lanson's description of Molière's greatness when he denies that the playwright represents “parfaitement et totalement l'esprit français” (981).

The real obstacle to an unequivocal acceptance of an immaculate Molière is obviously Tartuffe, which all Catholic commentators regard as embodying the very worst in his theater (along with certain aspects of Dom Juan). That Tartuffe should find acceptance with freethinkers is, according to Calvet, understandable. What is more difficult to accommodate is, on the one hand, university critics who “d'un ton pénétré et solennel” declare that the true meaning of the Gospel is to be found at Port-Royal, and on the other, claim a few pages later that Molière was careful not to attack true piety, only hypocrisy, and that he even rendered a service to Christianity in providing a portrait of the ideal Christian (“Le Centenaire” 980).

Tartuffe is the main target too of two articles in the Revue des objections (15 January 1922) attributed to Père Coubet who also wished to restrict the nature of the celebrations. Molière is not, however, regarded as a mediocre playwright (in many respects that is precisely the problem). Coubet indeed identifies as praiseworthy “son génie, son esprit caustique, sa verve désopilante” and, generally speaking, his profound knowledge of the resources and expression of the French language, all of which have placed him in the first rank of classical writers (“Le Tricentenaire” 3). In this sense, even Tartuffe has its good points (“Le Tartuffe” 10). But a distinction must be made between “le talent et la moralité.” At this level, there is no point in seeking in his drama “une idée généreuse, un noble caractère, de la beauté morale.” Quite simply, “l'homme de bien ou n'existe pas pour lui ou lui est indifférent” (“Le Tricentenaire” 5). The distinction between morality and talent is clearly adhered to by Gaillard de Champris. There are those who congratulate Molière for being a comic playwright simply intent on making people laugh: let us hope that they do not then raise him “à la dignité de grand moraliste, sinon de grand philosophe, et ne proposent pas ses enseignments à l'admiration, à la docilité des peuples reconnaissants” (116).

The content of Molière's philosophy inevitably leads to a discussion of the exact nature of his Christianity. The central focus here is on Cléante's description of the real “dévot.” Much has been written and speculated upon in this context.4 My aim is not, however, to arbitrate in that particular debate, but merely to give some account of the concerns of those who felt most directly implicated in what was interpreted as an attack on a certain conception of spirituality and worship offered by Tartuffe, but more insidiously by Orgon.

In his interesting Essai sur la séparation de la religion et de la vie: Molière est-il chrétien?, Calvet attempts to relate the question of Molière's Christianity to certain historical trends still in evidence in the seventeenth century. He argues that Molière's plays retain the vestiges of that sort of Humanism which sought to reconcile “les deux sagesses,” that is to say, the Christian and the pagan (10). Furthermore, Molière completes a stage in French thought initiated by Montaigne, namely the separation of religion from life in general, “en formulant les lois de la vie de société.” What is meant by this is that religious questions have their own place and do not impinge on a form of life in society: “l'homme qui veut vivre en société ne doit apporter dans la société que ce qu'il a de commun avec les autres hommes; il a le devoir de s'appliquer à leur donner du plaisir par sa tolérance et par ses sourires” (71). Montaigne and Molière thus managed to introduce into “notre idéal national” a sort of secular secession which, precisely, is rejected by modern religious thought (11). For Calvet, moreover, Molière holds that real Christianity is a natural religion, “un déïsme de bon ton se conformant à la coutume des lieux” (72). Perhaps at the root of Calvet's position is a rejection of the domination of a lay culture where even religion becomes just another feature of social existence, in a predominantly lay educational and cultural system. Gaillard de Champris in some way echoes Calvet's opinion in that Molière is believed to express through Cléante the view that religion is, like all other practical problems, a relative one: “Or le christianisme est la religion de l'absolu” (115). For Molière not only is religion devoid of real content, but it has no privileged position in the world.

For Calvet and others, one of their principal objections to Molière and Tartuffe is that the latter is considered to offer a model of real Christianity, when a tradition existed in the seventeenth century which gave a much sounder model of spirituality in society and which remains relevant to twentieth-century France. Calvet in fact undertakes no less than a defense of the Catholic Reform which sought through such figures as Bossuet, Bourdaloue, and, above all, St François de Sales, to evangelize seventeenth-century society in all its aspects.5 Indeed, Molière's plays, especially Tartuffe, run directly—and consciously—counter to this tradition in that they constitute a reply on behalf of the young Louis XIV and his court to attempts to curb their revelling and sexual licence. Molière was thus engaged in a polemic where “il réclame avec le Roi, avec la jeune Cour, non seulement le droit à la douceur de vivre, mais celui d'accommoder l'esprit de l'Evangile aux convenances mondaines et aux exigences de la nature” (Gaillard de Champris 59). This is a constant theme from Veuillot onwards, the latter believing the Princesse d'Elide (not without reason) to be an apology for the king's amorous adventures (50-51). He also believes that Louis XIV approved of Tartuffe for making his censors look ridiculous (151).

Calvet, however, does not adhere to a simplistic view of Tartuffe and Dom Juan. Although he agrees with the idea of Molière as the Court's advocate in the face of the new spirituality, which had its representatives even among those close to the king, he believes that Molière spoke for the “mondains” rather than for the “libertins” (“Le Centenaire” 978-79). Indeed, under the protection of the King, the playwright certainly attacked the “dévots […] qui limitent les libertés de la vie,” as in Tartuffe, but also the “libertins” “qui heurtent le bon sens”, as in Dom Juan (Essai 124). Dom Juan is regarded as a critique of atheism (88).

According to some, Orante and Daphné, the prudes mentioned by Cléante, were used in an attack on the dévots at court, for whom the direct models were reckoned to be the Duchesse de Navailles and Madame de Soissons, both of whom had criticized Louis's sexual conduct. But Calvet rejects this personalised interpretation of the play (Tartuffe too has his model), preferring to see in Tartuffe a symbol of what Molière wished to attack (Essai 73). More seriously Orgon's character provides the real opportunity for the frontal assault on the new spirituality: “le procès qui est fait ici du chrétien réformé et par conséquent de la réforme elle-même, est sans quartier et sans nuance” (68). As for presenting real “dévots” through Cléante, “ce sont des ombres, qui portent les noms d'ombres” (70). We must therefore renounce the old idea espoused by “la critique universitaire” of Tartuffe as a satire of religious hypocrisy. The play marks rather the culmination of the conflict between “l'esprit chrétien de réforme morale” and “l'esprit du monde jouisseur” (“Le Centenaire” 979-80). Calvet admits that the Counter-Reformation in France was not without its excesses (Essai 34). But this is clearly no reason to suppress in favor of Molière as representing the true “esprit français” the reputation and standing of the Catholic Reformers: “les ouvriers de la Réforme Catholique sont l'honneur de leur temps et leur œuvre d'assainissement moral s'impose au respect de l'histoire” (62). The limits to Molière's own reputation lie precisely in his attempt to cast doubt on the existence of Counter-Reformation heroism. In this context, Corneille is a much worthier figure. Molière “est l'homme pour qui la sainteté n'a pas de sens” (72-73).

For many commentators a more fundamental question than the religious content of the plays was whether Molière himself was a Christian, or more accurately what sort of Christian he was, because, interestingly, the view of Molière as an atheist, among the authors and writers I have read, is exceptional. The closest a writer comes to an accusation of atheism is when Henri d'Alméras describes Molière as possessing “une religion de façade,” which was necessary because his dependent position and the times prevented him from declaring himself openly as a freethinker (85). But, as we all know, Molière performed his Easter communion the year before he died. Is that not something in his favor? Henri d'Alméras believes that this proves nothing in itself: “pratiquer n'est pas croire” (83). Other writers are a little more generous, but by no means entirely complimentary. Coubet believes at least Molière's act of Easter devotion to have probably been sincere. But it was not enough: an act of contrition ought to have inspired in him “une attitude plus franche et plus courageuse. Mais il faut bien avouer que la franchise et le courage n'étaient pas son fort.” Instead, offering himself as spokesman for a debauched court and then pillorying its adversaries as hypocrites was in itself an act of hypocrisy and cowardice. Molière was “‘un pauvre homme' de piètre moralité” (“Le Tartuffe” 16).

As I have remarked, Calvet rejects the view of Molière as a “libertin.” Nor is Cléante's role “une précaution hypocrite.” Molière may have been mistaken about real Christianity, but he was a Christian, or wanted to be, “comme l'est un déïste de bonne foi qui va parfois à la messe” (Essai 82-83). Mauriac believes that, too indifferent to metaphysics to probe deeply into religious questions, Molière was simply against “la démesure chrétienne,” and against “la malédiction chrétienne contre ce que Pascal appelle l'usage délicieux et criminel du monde” (270).

The implicit assumption behind these very qualified opinions of Molière's status as a Christian is that he was incompetent to deal fully, and with the necessary understanding, with a matter of religion, in fact a conclusion already reached by writers in the seventeenth century. Inevitably, Molière's personal life is adduced as evidence against him. His own morality was, according to Coubet, “fort médiocre” given the deplorable nature of his home life. The consequences for his plays are therefore obvious (“Le Tricentenaire” 4). For Gaillard de Champris, religion is “un sujet réservé” which requires special knowledge, “une délicatesse de sentiments, une dignité, une pureté de vie qui ne sont pas, en général, l'apanage des auteurs comiques, encore moins des comédiens.” Even allowing for Molière's sincerity, the way he poses the problem in Tartuffe proves his total incompetence to handle such things (114-15). Both Tartuffe and Dom Juan, despite the fact that Molière may have believed himself to be a Christian, demonstrate “l'insuffisance de sa formation chrétienne” (114). Gaillard de Champris further regrets that Molière introduced matters of this sort into the theater, which is hardly the appropriate forum (116). Calvet had enlarged on this idea in his Essai where Molière's intention is identified as distinguishing “la vérité de la grimace” and “la vertu de ses exagérations ou de ses conrefaçons.” Such discrimination is not proper to the theater where the audience is “simpliste, distrait et paresseux” (40). Even Albert Reyval regards the subject of Tartuffe as somewhat delicate: its treatment by a moralist or a theologian, rather than a playwright, would have borne the stamp of greater authority (L'Eglise, la comédie 28).

What is evident from my discussion already is that Tartuffe is not just a play. Molière's choice of subject meant that it transcended the boundaries of comedy and art, however much one may attempt to justify it by providing a theory of the ridiculous, as in the Lettre sur la comédie de l'Imposteur. Contemporaries such as Bourdaloue and Massillon perceived how serious the effects of the play could be on practising Christians, afraid, because of their visible acts of worship, of being put in the same category as Tartuffe. More than this, however, the consequences of Molière's choice of subject and his manner of dealing with it transcend his own epoch. The play was and is dangerous. To what extent, then, can Molière be held personally responsible for the damage it continues to cause in the eyes of the commentators who are the object of this study? Did he know what he was doing?

Mauriac bears a definite grudge against Molière for not having admitted or agreed that, by means of Orgon and Tartuffe, he struck at the heart of Christianity (270), when the instincts of all those around him told them that the whole of Christianity was indicted by a caricature so subtle and so devious that it just had to be deliberate (266). Mauriac is therefore certain that the playwright was well enough aware that he was providing a poisoned weapon for the enemies of the Christian faith for centuries to come (270). Another writer, while not believing that Molière directly incited feeling against the Church, nonetheless finds it difficult to believe that he could not have perceived the use the Church's enemies would make of Tartuffe (“L'Eglise et le théâtre” 32). Veuillot too affirms that Molière knew exactly how people in the future would take advantage of his play for their own purposes and that the weapon he had forged would not be allowed to rust with age (164). Veuillot is indeed the source of a much repeated view that, when anticlerical feeling needed to be aroused, Tartuffe was performed (1). For Coubet freemasons have constant recourse to the play in their drive against religion (“Le Tartuffe” 13). Clearly Tartuffe in its turn became a pawn in the incessant conflict which raged between religious and anti-religious factions in French society before 1939.6 Let us leave the last word on this particular aspect of the debate with the reviewer of Reyval's book of 1924: “Le Tartuffe, considéré en lui-même et abstraction faite des intentions de son auteur, est incontestablement une des pièces qui ont fait le plus de tort à l'Eglise” (“L'Eglise et le théâtre” 28).

Hostility to Molière does not entirely eliminate charity, for, however great Molière's responsibility, deliberate or otherwise, in undermining the Church, his death and the circumstances surrounding it are a cause of considerable embarrassment and unease to Catholicism's modern representatives. No commentator is prepared ultimately to justify the treatment Molière received, although all plead the necessity to understand the reason for the Church's attitude at the time. Typical is Coubet, at least in the way he asks the initial question: “Cette sévérité du clergé n'a-t-elle pas été excessive? L'Eglise n'a-t-elle pas fait preuve d'intolérance et d'obscurantisme, de méchanceté et d'injustice envers ce grand génie? Cette attitude appelle une explication, et le tricentenaire de Molière rentre par ce côté dans le domaine de l'apologétique” (“Le Tricentenaire” 4). Later Coubet argues that it is not surprising that Molière appeared in the clergy's eyes as a dangerous and corrupting mind: “Et nous comprenons dès lors, même si nous ne l'approuvons pas sur tous les points, l'attitude qu'eurent à son endroit plusieurs des prêtres de Saint-Eustache, sa paroisse” (9). Reyval's reviewer is less grudging. Surely, the Church had a just grievance, but this was no reason for a priest to reject Molière at his final agony (“L'Eglise et le théâtre” 33). After all, another writer tells us, Molière's dying moments included “de vifs sentiments de foi et de repentir.” He therefore died a good Christian (“La Mort” 17). The conduct of the two priests who refused to attend cannot therefore be approved. But the judgment is not all black for the Church. Its rigour was regrettable but explicable: “Molière avait tout fait pour la mériter.” Today, however, things would have been different. Even then he can add: “l'intolérance reprochée à la religion se réduit à peu de chose. Elle n'exprime pas un jugement solennel de l'Eglise, ni son attitude habituelle, mais seulement la rigueur de quelques ecclésiastiques qui en portaient la responsabilité” (20-21). The spirit of the Church is embodied rather in the curé of Passy who assisted Molière's widow in her intercession with the King (19). In a sense, this writer's viewpoint has an element of truth. The Catholic Church of the seventeenth century was by no means unanimous in its condemnation of theater and the treatment of actors with regard to the sacraments. Few clerics, however, had any time for actors (even less for actresses), and it is unquestionable that hostility to the theater was more widespread than he wishes to believe. But clearly the aim of the exercise is now less categorical than the attack on Tartuffe might imply and can be classified as one of damage limitation. Molière's defenders, of course, have no reservations. Reyval, no anticlerical, regards Molière's death as “l'un des plus douloureux et, disons-le, des plus regrettables épisodes de la lutte de l'Eglise contre le théâtre” (L'Eglise, la comédie 80).

The concern among Catholic commentators I have described, even qualified, nonetheless marks a turning point in relations between Church and theater in France. From 1922 on, one is able to identify what may be termed a revisionist attitude towards the rigorist position evinced by many religious moralists who participated in the querelle du théâtre of the seventeenth century. Their positions are now seen either to have been wrong or at the very least to be outdated. Incredibly, the principal victim of these developments is Bossuet whose Maximes et réflexions sur le théâtre of 1694 mark the culmination of the seventeenth-century stage controversy. More significant in the context of this article is that the Maximes contain a withering attack on the person and plays of Molière.

The general position is put by Coubet. Even in 1922 he could assert that Bossuet's opinion was excessive in its severity: he was, we know, a rigorist in almost all things: “ici, il l'est, croyons-nous, un peu trop” (“Le Tricentenaire” 6). Other views on Bossuet's Maximes are more specific and heavily critical. Père Deman, reflecting on Urbain and Levesque's edition of the Maximes, disagrees with the editors that “la finesse de l'analyse psychologique garde toute sa valeur.” Nor is the work “une impressionnante leçon de morale”. He replies instead that “l'idéal des Maximes n'est pas trop élevé, il est déplacé.” Moreover, the French are too inclined to believe (i.e. mistaken in that belief) that Bossuet's morality is “l'infaillible expression de la morale chrétienne” (194-95). He points further to a number of deficiencies in Bossuet's arguments against Caffaro (a Theatine monk who was unwise enough to write a defense of theater which was published at the head of an edition of Boursault's works), including the lack of rigour in his interpretation of Plato and the prejudiced use of quotations from St Augustine (183). In addition, “Bossuet nous déconcerte quand il se met en peine de démontrer que le divertissement est indigne des chrétiens.” (189)

During the seventeenth century, those who espoused the cause of drama often sought justification for their views in St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa, where in Question 168 of the Secunda Secundae he offers what was perceived as a favorable view of the actor's contribution to the relaxation of the individual. Basically he denies that, as long as certain conditions are fulfilled, acting and play-going are sinful.7 We know that Richelieu held to the views of St Thomas, and certainly D'Aubignac quotes them in his Dissertation sur la condamnation des théâtres of 1666. Caffaro made Question 168 the basis of his defense of drama. Bossuet and many others, on the other hand, vigorously protested against what they regarded as a total misinterpretation of the Angelic Doctor. Several of the modern commentators I have quoted here, however, resurrect the standard Thomist line. One writer argues that only scandalous performances are to be condemned (“L'Eglise” 35), and Père Antoine de Parvillez denies that any proof exists to suggest that the theater is always, and “par une nécessité de nature,” immoral, thus implicitly arguing that drama is “indifferent” and dependent rather on the use to which it is put (219). The classic Thomist position is summarized by Père Gillet in an edition of the Figaro:

En ce qui concerne les comédiens, nous n'avons plus le droit de les rejeter en marge de l'humanité sous prétexte qu'en divertissant les hommes, ils contribuent à les démoraliser, puisqu'au contraire il est naturel aux hommes de se divertir et qu'il peut y avoir, même du point de vue moral, de beaux et de bons divertissements. (Quoted by Reyval, L'Eglise, la comédie 110)

But Bossuet's legacy, it must be said, is not considered to be completely negative. It is especially his conclusions which are now seen as obsolete. Père Carré, a major figure in the reconciliation of Church and theater, can speak of the Maximes as “admirables de ton et de langue, mais pleines d'outrance.” Bossuet's work did, however, enormous damage to relations between the two institutions (L'Eglise 26-27). Carré can therefore at the same time regret Bossuet's rigorism but admire “avec quelle ampleur il a posé les termes du débat” (29). For Parvillez, Bossuet properly called our attention to our moral accountability in terms of the way we amuse ourselves (224), and the prelate's views would have been relevant to parts of the contemporary theater, especially “la pudeur éteinte” of actresses (225-26). Even Deman argues that Bossuet has a point about carnal love and covetousness (187-88). Carré finds the important contribution in Bossuet's work to be his emphasis on “la commotion de l'esprit” experienced by actors who must give the whole of themselves to a role, which then leads to the alienation of the self (“De Molière” 173-74). Carré, however, denies the mechanistic conclusions of the Eagle of Meaux, whereby the actor of necessity becomes an immoral being (L'Eglise 37).

The grave reservations modern Catholic commentators have both over the circumstances surrounding the death of Molière and over the extremist position of Bossuet imply a break in continuity with the stage controversy of the seventeenth century. It is time to call a halt. Deman states unequivocally: “il n'est point bon que l'on prolonge ces querelles.” Such arguments present a quite erroneous impression of the real task of Christian morality (196). Quite simply, these “querelles” give modern Catholicism a bad name. Indeed the very nature of the French Church is deemed to have radically changed. Many writers, even Veuillot, utterly reject the gallican side to the seventeenth-century “querelle”. During this period, Roman bishops, unlike many (but not all) of their counterparts in France, never formally condemned actors by excluding them from the sacraments unless they renounced their profession.8 Reyval, in 1924, obviously reacting to the 1922 debate, quotes a particularly telling remark of Claudel who saw in Bossuet's Maximes “une manifestation particulière de cet esprit défensif de retranchement et de retrait qui fut celui de notre gallicanisme” (95). It is interesting, Reyval adds, to contrast the rigorist attitude of the Gallican clergy of 1673 with “l'attitude bienveillante du clergé plus catholique de 1922” (82-83, my emphasis).

The reference to an “attitude bienveillante” obviously suggests that, in Reyval's opinion at least, relations between the Church and the theater were transformed in some practical way. Indeed, from the time of the tercentenary celebrations, one witnesses an increasingly formal rapprochement between the two institutions. In the first instance, the initiative came from representatives of the theater. Georges Le Roy, a sociétaire of the Comédie Française, and his wife, the actress Jeanne Delvair, sought permission for a requiem mass for Molière. Le Roy wrote to Cardinal Dubois, archbishop of Paris, with his suggestion on 18 January 1922. The mass would close the tercentenary celebrations. It was first requested that the mass be celebrated in Notre-Dame de Paris or at the Eglise Saint-Roch. On 21 January, Cardinal Dubois replied, giving his blessing to the proposed event, but stating that it was not his place to take the initiative. He also argued that a service at Notre-Dame would be difficult to organise and his preferred location was Saint-Eustache. The mass was eventually celebrated at Saint-Roch on 17 February, although not in the presence of the cardinal “qu'un engagement formel avait seul empêché de présider lui-même la cérémonie” (Reyval, L'Eglise, la comédie 135).9 Was the Cardinal being cautious?

True to the abandonment of the Gallican position in favour of a more “Catholic” one, the formal reconciliation went beyond the national boundaries of France. In 1957 Pope Pius XII received a delegation of actors from the Comédie Française in March after a performance of Montherlant's Port-Royal, and the seventy-fourth general Congregation of Vatican II (23 November 1963) included the theater in its deliberations on appropriate means of social communication. These deliberations were solemnised by a decree of Paul VI promulgated on 4 December, 1963 (Gaquère 64). The most significant occasion in the whole process of reconciliation was the tercentenary of Bossuet's ordination when artists held a mass for the repose of Bossuet's soul (Carré, L'Eglise 46).

The Church in France was, however, to play a greater role in the reconciliation of Church and theater. From the 1920s George Le Roy had ambitions to implant the Church within the theatrical domain itself in a sort of Salesian endeavor to make provision for a form of worship (in the broad sense of the term) appropriate to the theatrical profession. Seeking formal approval for his intention to form an association of Christian actors, he was received in 1925 by Pius XI who apparently told him: “Ne tenez pas compte des outrances de votre grand Bossuet, vous avez votre place dans l'Eglise” (Carré, “De Molière” 172). The association was to be called the Fédération pour la défense artistique et morale du théâtre de France. A committee of eminent people would provide the necessary guidance, and with the active collaboration of daily newspapers and periodicals, there would be a “comité de lecture qui devait procéder à la composition du répertoire” and “une corporation d'artistes exécutants, aussi recommandables par leur valeur morale que par leur qualité professionnelle” (Reyval, L'Eglise, la comédie 156-58). But the federation failed to attract the necessary attention of significant personalities.

But through perseverance the Union catholique du théâtre was formed in 1927 with 800 members and included among its founder members Gaston Baty. It was reconstituted after the Second World War (in 1947) with Père Carré as its spiritual adviser.10 Its aim, according to Article III of its statutes, was to gather together “en vue d'affirmer leur vie spirituelle, les professionnels du Spectacle (Théâtre, Concert, Cinéma, etc.): auteurs, compositeurs, artistes, artisans etc.” A mass was to be celebrated every Sunday in the Church of the Dominicans of the Faubourg Saint-Honoré (St. Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican …), and twice a month artists would come for some instruction in their faith.

Père Carré obviously saw the Union as a part of the regeneration of lay Catholicism. As he writes:

Depuis vingt-cinq ans, ce qui s'est passé, c'est—dans le monde du théâtre comme dans les autres milieux—l'éveil à un idéal religieux conciliant la profession et la vie … Or, chez beaucoup, nous assistons à une prise de conscience grandissante des possibilités concrètes, quotidiennes, d'incarnation de la vocation chrétienne. Dès lors, pourquoi refuser l'accord entre les exigences de l'art et celles de la foi? Faut-il, là, faire exception? (L'Eglise 51)

The need of “une sorte de paroisse spirituelle” is strengthened by actors constituting “un milieu déterminé, sans cloisons étanches par rapport aux autres, mais cohérent” (52-53). Through a “centre spirituel,” the world of the theater can thus be evangelised. It would provide moreover a means whereby actors and actresses could discover a religious solution to the particular problems of their profession. Carré's book provides interesting views on the specific spiritual needs of performing artists and contains psychological insights of a certain subtlety, far removed at least in their conclusions, from those of Bossuet. (See in particular L'Eglise 61-65).

The events and attitudes I have outlined in this article are of interest from a variety of points of view. In some ways they demonstrate the tenacity of certain judgments over a very wide expanse of time. Sometimes one could be forgiven for thinking that what one is reading has come straight out of the seventeenth century. But this tenacity (some might say obduracy) also has its historical significance. It is often redolent of the defensive and conservative nature of French Catholicism before 1945. The attitudes I have described are also part of the religious divide and the trench warfare which raged between the Church and anticlericals in the Third Republic. Even after 1922, it is still possible to perceive the shifts of position I have analyzed as an attempt on behalf of the Church to recuperate certain aspects of French culture rather than an attempt at peaceful co-existence. But there is no question that the tercentenary celebrations of Molière's birth triggered a greater openness towards performing artists and the theater in general (despite gravely expressed reservations concerning the modern repertory). This eventually resulted in a genuine concern for the spiritual welfare of the profession. Calvet wrote in defense of the Catholic Reform. The change in attitudes post-1922 seems to represent what was best in the spirit of that movement.


  1. A full account of the seventeenth-century stage controversy in France is offered by Bourquin, Moffat, and Phillips. J. Barish has recently published a work on the subject which covers the same subject outside as well as in France.

  2. The Protestant Synod of Privas in 1912 stipulated that: “Il ne sera loisible aux fidèles d'assister aux comédies, tragédies, farces, et autres jeux, joués en public ou en particulier, vu que, de tout temps, cela a été défendu entre les chrétiens comme apportant la corruption des mœurs, mais surtout quand l'Ecriture sainte est profanée” (Gaquère 21-22). For the Carême of 1922 Père Janvier preached a sermon condemning the sort of theater which offers “l'apologie de l'amour coupable, des passions sensuelles, sinon de la débauche, et de l'impiété” (Quoted in Reyval, L'Eglise et le théâtre 107-08).

  3. La Pommeraye had already declared in 1877 that it would be an anachronism to interpret Molière in this way (12).

  4. Among the most recent contributions to the question of the religious implications of Tartuffe, see especially Raymond Picard's article where he in fact echoes many of the points raised by Calvet, although of course not in any polemical way.

  5. Calvet attempts to establish a link between Molière's attack on preciosity and the Catholic Reform. St François de Sales had introduced “la préciosité dans la piété, la distinction dans la manière de se tenir devant Dieu.” Many “précieuses” belonged to the “monde dévot” (Essai 39).

  6. For an interesting account of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French catholicism, see Zeldin, who provides other valuable bibliographical references.

  7. On the question of St Thomas's position in this context, see Phillips 158sq and 179-82.

  8. An excellent account of the French use of the model diocesan ritual published by Pope Paul V in 1614 is given by Jean Dubu. He points out that Bossuet never altered his ritual to include actors among those most susceptible to be refused the sacraments.

  9. Details of the arrangements for the mass are to be found in both works of Reyval and Carré's book. Paul Souday in fact claimed that the mass was an attack on Molière's memory since he was an atheist. The archivist of the Comédie Française provided documentary proof of the opposite and Souday's position was repudiated (Reyval, L'Eglise et le théâtre 86-88).

  10. There were precedents for such societies in England, France and the USA. Reyval mentions the Actors' Church Union organised by the Rev Anstruther Cardew (who was particularly concerned about the plight of dancing girls), the Catholic Theater Guild, whose chairman was the Rev Sidney Smith S.J., and a society entitled Catholiques des beaux-arts founded by M. Regnault, a distinguished Parisian architect, with 1000 members, for the most part musicians (L'Eglise et le théâtre 144-47).

David Shaw (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6097

SOURCE: “Molière's Temporary Happy Endings,” in French Studies, Vol. XLV, No. 2, April, 1991, pp. 129-42.

[In the following essay, Shaw examines Molière's use of comic denouements, contending that they suggest that real-life endings are not always happy.]

Many would say that Molière's plays end happily. Tartuffe is arrested, Harpagon finds his money, Philaminte sees the error of her ways: the obstacle is removed, the lovers can marry, order is restored, the celebrations can commence. But this is not the whole picture. His plays do not all end on a note of unrestrained happiness. If the ending of Tartuffe anticipates the ‘doux hymen’ to come, George Dandin ends with talk of suicide. If Les Femmes savantes ends with the marriage of Clitandre and Henriette, Le Misanthrope ends with the separation of Alceste and Célimène. The pattern is not obvious.

It has been claimed that Molière's endings are poor, victims of the pressure under which he worked. ‘Que n'ai-je toujours été le maître de mon temps!’, he says in Voltaire's Temple du Goût, ‘j'aurais trouvé des dénouements plus heureux’.1 Mornet argues that his endings are implausible, careless, mere concessions to fashion: ‘Ses dénouements sont rarement vraisemblables […]. Molière assurément imagine n'importe quoi. Son indifférence s'explique par celle de ses contemporains’.2

But this does not really stand up. If the endings are careless and conventional, why are they so varied? The denouement of Le Misanthrope is highly unconventional, for a comedy, because it stems logically from what we know of the characters. There is no indication that Molière considered this denouement any less important than the rest of the play, which is perhaps his most carefully crafted work. His endings are clearly not uniformly conventional nor even, in some cases, conventionally happy: as such they deserve more attention than they customarily receive.3

Up to a point, his endings seem perfectly orthodox. For example, he generally respects the ‘restoration of order’ principle common to tragedy and comedy. In tragedy, once the monster is eliminated, normality can resume. In comedy, the antipathetic obstacle figure must renounce his claims so that the young people can be happy and the audience content. Molière generally accepts this format: Arnolphe and Orgon, Harpagon and Jourdain, Philaminte and Argan all withdraw their objections just in time and the plays end in symbolic rejoicing.

Similarly, most of his plays end with a marriage. The theorists stipulated that endings should be as complete as possible with the fate of all characters known and settled. This usually meant the marriage of the main characters, a convention frequently respected in tragedy and virtually omnipresent in tragicomedy and comedy. In tragicomedy the convention was so strong that historical accuracy was no match for it: in Magnon's Tite (1660), for example, Titus ends up by marrying Berenice!

The tyranny of the ‘happy marriage’ convention, coupled with the remorseless tidiness of classical theatre, often gave rise to double, and even triple, marriages. There are two marriages at the end of both Dom Garcie de Navarre and L'Avare. For some theorists, such multiple marriages were more or less a requirement:

Les poètes doivent disposer toutes choses de sorte que ceux qui sont les amis du héros et qui se sont intéressés dans tous ses malheurs participent autant qu'il est possible à sa bonne fortune […]. De là vient qu'il se fait toujours plusieurs mariages à la fin des comédies, et les choses se débrouillent de telle manière que tout le monde est content, et que les spectateurs se retirent pleinement satisfaits.4

Thus, Rotrou's tragicomedy Laure persécutée (1639) and, remarkably, Corneille's tragedy Agésilas (1666) both culminate in three marriages. So do L'Étourdi and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Even in Le Misanthrope, if Alceste and Célimène go their separate ways, there is still the marriage of Philinte and Éliante to signify a happy ending. And Philinte's quixotic intention, expressed in the final line, to go on seeking to bring them together is clearly another acknowledgement of the importance of this convention.

A third characteristic of the seventeenth-century comedy denouement is the ‘recognition’, the belated revelation of some unsuspected identity or relationship which opens the way to the happy marriage. It might be a lover discovering a partner thought lost, as in Brosse's Songes des hommes éveillés (1646), or, more frequently, the reuniting of members of a family long separated, as in D'Ouville's Aimer sans savoir qui (1646). These separations are often ascribed to romantic adventures involving shipwreck, pirates, gypsies, etc. Such endings occur frequently enough in Molière's plays for students to refer to them as ‘typical Molière endings’! In the last two scenes of L'École des femmes, for example, we learn that Agnès has a father and that the bride whom Horace's father has chosen for him turns out conveniently to be Agnès herself. Similarly, at the end of L'Avare, the man Harpagon had in mind for his daughter turns out to be the father of both his steward and his intended bride! This family separation involved both shipwreck and pirates.

Molière's endings are also broadly conventional in terms of the number of characters on stage as the final words are spoken. The practice of assembling as many actors as possible at the denouement was universally respected.5 The idea seems to have been to create an impression of completeness, with everyone involved in the celebrations. One also suspects that the actors liked to share in the applause at the end of a performance, however small their role. The phenomenon was common to all forms of theatre. Corneille actually modified the ending of Nicomède to take account of it:

D'abord j'avais fini la pièce sans les [Prusias and Flaminius] faire revenir […] mais le goût des spectateurs, que nous avons accoutumés à voir rassembler tous nos personnages à la conclusion de cette sorte de poème, fut cause de ce changement où je me résolus pour leur donner plus de satisfaction, bien qu'avec moins de régularité. (Nicomède, Examen)

This remark underlines the tyranny of the fashion, which sometimes probed the limits of verisimilitude. At the end of Corneille's own Clitandre, with the exception of the wicked Pymante who is in prison, all the main characters are reunited, together with the corpses of two minor characters, Lycaste and Géronte, killed in the opening act!

In comedy the characters do not die; one therefore often finds the stage very crowded during the final scene. Molière's plays generally respect the tradition. There are nine characters on stage at the end of L'École des maris, ten at the end of Tartuffe, eleven at the end of L'Avare and no fewer than twelve at the end of L'Impromptu de Versailles. In the latter play, as in Scapin, La Critique and L'École des maris, the entire cast is on stage for the final scene. Moreover, when Molière wrote Le Dépit amoureux, based on L'Interesse, by the Italian author Secchi, he added several scenes, absent from the original, whose only function seems to be to allow the entire troupe to gather on stage at the end. He was thus quite comfortable with this aspect of the traditional denouement.

A final feature of his endings which might be thought of as traditional is the willingness of his characters to address the final lines directly to the audience. Originating in farce, this device is reasonably common in the comedies of the first half of the century. The idea was to bring the audience back to reality with an amusing surprise. One finds the device in plays such as Scarron's Jodelet, ou le Maître Valet and Corneille's La Suite du Menteur, both performed in 1645. Scherer notes that such denouements were condemned by the theorists and claims that they died out: ‘Aussi l'âge classique renonce-t-il presque entièrement à cette forme de dénouement’.6 The device may not have been to the taste of critics such as Chapelain, but it certainly did not die out. On the contrary, it was a regular feature of Molière's denouements: from L'Étourdi to Scapin, a dozen or so of his plays end with lines addressed directly to the audience or with some remark drawing attention to the dramatic illusion.7 At the end of L'École des maris, for example, the stage direction ‘Au parterre’ clearly indicates where the final lines are to be directed; while at the end of La Critique the characters wonder, Pirandello-like, how to make their conversations into a play.

Thus, in five significant respects Molière's endings contain traditional elements: the obstacle character who relents, recognition scenes, the happy marriage, the gathering together of most of the cast, and jokes concerning the dramatic illusion. It is easy to see why his endings are sometimes thought of as being merely conventional.

However, such judgements raise more questions than they resolve. Much that is interesting about Molière's denouements is excluded by these categories. If they contain elements which are traditional, they also contain much that is difficult to fit into any conventional pattern. Let us look at them again.

It has been argued that Molière's indifference towards his denouements is revealed most clearly in the final lines of La Critique de l'École des femmes. The characters are uncertain how to bring their play to an end because ‘il ne saurait y avoir ni mariage ni reconnaissance’ (scene 6), and they settle for the announcement that supper is served. Quentin Hope interprets this as a demonstration of the careless way Molière arrives at his denouements: ‘Molière appears to be saying that when it comes to ending your play, use a marriage and recognition scene if you can, otherwise seize on the first pretext to hand’.8 This judgement does the ending less than justice. La Critique de l'École des femmes is a polemical play in which Molière pokes fun at a range of theatrical conventions and claims the right to entertain his public as he chooses. By expressly regretting the impossibility of a recognition scene or marriage, he is smilingly drawing our attention to another convention, that of the traditional denouement. By highlighting the formula, he is underlining its artificiality.

There is a similar joke at the end of L'Étourdi. As everyone else is happily betrothed, Mascarille announces, six lines from the end of the play, that he too would like to get married:

Vous voilà tous pourvus. N'est-il point quelque fille Qui pût accommoder le pauvre Mascarille?

(ll. 2063-64)

Upon which Anselme announces, three lines from the end, that he has someone in mind for Mascarille: the latter promptly accepts, without even knowing the identity of the lady. In this implausible bid to marry off everyone in sight, it is again difficult to see anything but a parody of the usual convention.

This self-awareness is incorporated, in a more sophisticated way, into the endings of other plays. The devices he uses to bring about his denouements are generally no more implausible than those of his rivals. But one does have the impression that he enjoys underlining the artificiality of the convention. Thus, in Tartuffe, the reversal comes as late and as unexpectedly as possible. At line 1902, with just sixty lines to go, there is no hint of a way out. Orgon's family has lost everything: even the legal system seems to be on Tartuffe's side. The play is saved from tragedy by the royal intervention, a veritable rex ex machina which nothing allows us to anticipate.

In the same vein, the artificiality of the recognition scenes at the end of L'École des femmes is underlined with a particularly blatant piece of stylization. Agnès's real father appears and his story is told by Chrysalde and Oronte. The adventure they describe, all sudden flights and exotic exile, is completely conventional. More interesting is the way they are made to tell it. The description takes the form of ten pairs of rhyming couplets, eight of them beginning with the word et, with the two narrators taking it in turn to recite them.9 The symmetry is perfect. The artificiality of the convention is thus highlighted to the point of parody: stylistically separated from the rest of the text, the sequence is shown to be a ritual whose only role is to bring the play speedily to a happy ending. To some extent, the exaggerated complications provide a useful palliative: ‘The artificiality of the recognition scene determines the note of the denouement, reminding the spectator that this is “only a comedy” and preventing him from becoming excessively concerned about the discomfiture of Arnolphe’.10

But it can be argued that such exaggeration simultaneously serves a quite different purpose. Molière's subjects—charlatanism, women's rights, religious hypocrisy, aristocratic perversity, etc—are more substantial and controversial than was the norm for comedy; and he is interested in character rather than plot. For both these reasons, he tends to create serious situations which are difficult to bring to a plausible happy ending. A play based on mistaken identity, such as Boisrobert's Belle Invisible (1656), leads fairly logically to a recognition scene; a play about a believable religious hypocrite does not. In real life the events described in L'École des femmes, Tartuffe and L'Avare would end unhappily. But Molière's deliberately contrived endings underline the gulf between art and reality. By exaggerating the artificiality of his denouements he is paying lip service to the convention of the happy ending while ironically suggesting that real-life Arnolphes, Tartuffes and Harpagons would not be so miraculously checked.

Equally interesting is his handling of the number of people onstage at the end of his plays. If, as we have seen, he is often orthodox in this matter, the endings of plays like Dom Juan and Le Misanthrope seem dramatically to flout the crowded stage convention. At the beginning of the final scene of Dom Juan, there are three characters on stage, as there have been for most of the play. But, after the statue drags Don Juan down to Hell, Sganarelle remains emphatically alone. Far from being a signal for general rejoicing, his final ‘Mes gages!’ speech is an expression of anguish. He has lost his job and faces a bleak future. Even his claim that everyone (but him) is happy leaves us unconvinced: Monsieur Dimanche has still not been paid.

Rather than closing the play on a conventional note of reconciliation, these lines provide a final twist to our appreciation of Sganarelle's character. Uniquely among seventeenth-century curtain lines, they were judged so shocking that they had to be cut. In conventional terms, it would have been more acceptable to end the play with the destruction of Don Juan. Sganarelle's final lines provide a ludicrous contrast with the divine intervention which he has just witnessed. We are unexpectedly returned to the physical world and so we laugh. But at the back of our minds, we wonder what will happen next: if the fate of the impious Don Juan has been settled, that of the materialistic Sganarelle has not. A note of ironic uncertainty remains.

Several other Molière plays end with a hint of dispersal, rather than joyous assembly. The plot of Amphitryon consists of Jupiter's morally dubious bid to obtain the sexual favours of Alcmène by taking on the appearance of her husband, Amphitryon. The tone of the final lines, unlike that of the usual communal celebration, is one of discreet reserve, as Sosie concludes, with a wink to the audience:

Et que chacun chez soi doucement se retire. Sur telles affaires toujours Le meilleur est de ne rien dire.

(ll. 1941-43)

Amphitryon's humiliation is implicit in his silence, Alcmène's presence is precluded by the bienséances and, as Sosie says in his final speech, ‘les phrases sont embarrassantes’. The ending corresponds to the prologue discussion between Mercure and La Nuit on the immoral activities of the gods. A celebration in the conventional theatrical mode would have been in poor taste. Rather than celebrating a legal union, the denouement seeks to play down an act of adultery: discreet silence and dispersal, rather than the usual rejoicing. The moral ambiguity of the situation is underlined, albeit with a knowing smile, by the unusual nature of the ending.

An even more striking instance of Molière's willingness to move beyond the conventional format occurs at the end of Le Misanthrope. Through the final act, the stage has gradually filled: as the final scene commences, there are eight characters on stage, the entire cast in fact, with the exception of three insignificant servant roles. The ending thus promises to be of the traditional kind. But Molière is teasing us: he gives us a glimpse of a conventional ending before moving on to something quite different. Throughout the last scene the stage gradually empties, as six of the characters hear unpalatable truths and successively withdraw. After Célimène and Alceste have gone their separate ways, Philinte and Éliante resolve to pursue them in a bid to reunite them. At the final curtain, the stage is empty.

Scherer claims that dispersal at the denouement is a sign of a sad ending: ‘C'est la fuite devant le dénouement, qui en manifeste la tristesse, alors que l'afflux des personnages en scène impliquait une certaine allégresse, réclamée par le public’.11

He supports this statement with reference to plays by Rotrou and Corneille in which this is clearly the case, as they all end with a lone character expressing various shades of unhappiness.12 He is on more shaky ground, however, in claiming that the ending of Le Misanthrope is similarly gloomy: ‘On trouve une forme semblable de dénouement, et elle est bien mélancolique aussi, dans le Misanthrope de Molière’.13

Such a statement requires qualification. If the only permissible token of happiness at the end of a comedy is multiple marriages involving all the main characters, then the ending of Le Misanthrope is clearly a sad one. If, however, one is prepared to consider an ending more in line with the principle of vraisemblance, the case for a sad interpretation may seem less overwhelming.

The point of the play is that Alceste and Célimène are incompatible. They may love each other, but they could not live together. Each time they meet, they quarrel. The final scene suggests that, for all their efforts, a real understanding is impossible: unlike Kate and Petruchio, they are temperamentally unsuited.

However, despite the latent pathos, Molière retains a marvellous lightness of touch. The ending is, to say the least, ambiguous. The temptations of conventional artificiality are for once resisted. Alceste and Célimène are given the opportunity to compromise, to see the error of their ways in the traditional way that usually leads to marriage. But this time it does not happen. Célimène's reluctant offer to marry Alceste is pure form: it is a typically indirect way of saying that she prefers life in society to marriage with him. Alceste declines because she cannot accept him on his terms. Their parting is the only logical solution and neither gives the impression of being particularly unhappy about it. To have condemned them to marriage would have implied a much more painful ending. Many of Molière's other eponymous characters have wedding plans which fall through, but that does not make them tragic. As Harpagon's happiness depends not on marriage but on being reunited with his money, so Alceste's only hope of happiness lies in the world outside Célimène's salon. We do not see him achieve it, but the possibility is there. The ending of Le Misanthrope may be challenging; it may leave us wondering what will become of Alceste; but it is not necessarily melancholy.

I have argued elsewhere that Le Misanthrope represents the high water mark of formal classical comedy.14 Alceste and Célimène, by retaining their theatrical integrity to the end, are the embodiment of vraisemblance. They do not undergo some implausible change of heart in the interests of a cosy ending. Here we touch on a revolutionary feature of Molière's endings. However contrived the happy ending, the main character remains unrepentant. Philaminte is still a pedant, Orgon a fanatic and Harpagon a miser. Molière's plays are concerned with fundamental traits of character so that his heroes are not to be converted in the traditional way.

Comedy is therefore maintained to the end. In the conventional seventeenth-century format, the fifth act of a comedy lacks sparkle. When the plot is just a series of misunderstandings, there is little purchase for humour at the denouement: the author is simply explaining the complications, tying up loose ends. But Molière's unreconstructed imaginaires remain incorrigibly themselves. The denouement has to be fitted round them and the comic tension lasts through the final scene. Harpagon churlishly agrees to the double wedding on condition that Anselme will pay for it; after Tartuffe's arrest, Orgon, moving from one extreme to the other, memorably condemns all men of virtue; and Sganarelle, having witnessed a miracle, can think only of his wages.

If Dom Juan ends with Sganarelle's lament, it is not the only Molière play to end on a note of comic exasperation. As in Sganarelle's case, this is usually voiced by a disgruntled figure who has been by-passed by the denouement. One recalls the other Sganarelle's blanket condemnation of women at the end of L'École des maris and the curse on literature by Gorgibus at the end of Les Précieuses ridicules, his final explosion conveying the hopeless, incomprehending rage of a little man railing against an irresistible force:

Et vous, qui êtes cause de leur folie, sottes billevesées, pernicieux amusements des esprits oisifs, romans, vers, chansons, sonnets et sonnettes, puissiez-vous être à tous les diables! (scene 17)

This is another way of maintaining comic momentum as long as possible, the function of such outbursts being that of an antidote to the ritual of the happy ending.

Fixity of character is also a springboard for the spectacular nonsense at the end of the best comedy-ballets. In Le Malade imaginaire, it is impossible to reason with Argan. He cannot understand that he is wrong to require his daughter to marry a doctor: rational argument cannot reach him. The other characters therefore resort to the medical ceremony, a subterfuge designed to flatter his neurosis and overcome his objection to Cléante. He is fooled into thinking that he is being made a doctor, and therefore in no need of a medical son-in-law. Behind the fantasy, there runs at least a thread of logic. It would have been ludicrous for Argan to lose his awe of doctors: the colourful finale ensures a happy ending even though the dotty old hypochondriac remains true to his character.

The curmudgeon forced to take part in the dance is actually a joke which occurs at the end of most of the comedy-ballets. The most dramatic example occurs in L'Amour médecin. The prudent Clitandre has brought with him, in addition to a lawyer for the wedding contract, a troupe of dancers and musicians which he uses as a kind of spiritual tranquillizer:

Ce sont des gens dont je me sers tous les jours pour pacifier avec leur harmonie les troubles de l'esprit. (III, 7)

As Sganarelle watches the dancing, Clitandre tries to steal away with his daughter and the dancers themselves prevent Sganarelle from intervening. The play's final speech therefore goes like this:

Sganarelle: Comment diable! [Il veut aller après Clitandre et Lucinde, les danseurs le retiennent] Laissez-moi aller, laissez-moi aller, vous dis-je. [Les danseurs le retiennent toujours.] Encore? [Ils veulent faire danser Sganarelle de force.] Peste des gens! (III, 8)

This is really an explicit version of what happens in more sophisticated form in other comedy-ballets: the dancers' intervention keeps Sganarelle frustrated—and therefore amusing—until the music soothes his anger.

This device is one key to the problematic ending of George Dandin. Taken at face value, the play's final lines contain a threat of suicide. Deceived by his wife and despised by her snobbish parents, Dandin apparently threatens to drown himself:

Ah! je n'y vois plus de remède. Lorsqu'on a, comme moi, épousé une mauvaise femme, le meilleur parti qu'on puisse prendre, c'est de s'aller jeter dans l'eau, la tête la première. (III, 15)

Here, Molière seems to be standing the conventional denouement on its head. Dandin is alone on stage and wishing himself unmarried; far from celebrating anything, he is unhappy, it would seem, to the point of contemplating suicide. All the usual trappings of the comedy denouement are missing. When comic characters talk of dying, it is normally an empty threat. When Scapin or Argan claim to be near death, we have no reason to take them seriously. But Dandin is different: it would not be difficult to imagine a man in his position truly desperate. So is this ending as grim as it seems?

The answer lies partly in the fact that George Dandin was written as a comedy-ballet. Félibien's Relation de la Fête de Versailles makes it clear that, in the original production, conceived as part of the Grand Divertissement royal, the verb noyer had nothing to do with death:

Enfin un de ses amis lui conseille de noyer dans le vin toutes ses inquiétudes, et l'emmène pour joindre sa troupe, voyant venir la foule des bergers amoureux.15

In the original performance, therefore, the tone of the ending was alcoholic rather than tragic: after Dandin's final expression of frustration, he was surrounded by dancers, who carried him off to the inn, where he drowned only his sorrows. Like Sganarelle, the character thus retained all his comic, out-of-step-with-the-world integrity right up to the end of the comedy proper, at which point he allowed himself to be distracted by an invitation to join the dance. Reassured of the absurdity of the aspiring lower orders, the court could not possibly have seen tragedy in this ending.

However, when the play transferred to the Palais-Royal, it lost its dancers. Molière could not afford to offer to the public the lavish musical and balletic interludes that the royal purse had subsidized. But he seems to have thought it unnecessary to change the final lines. This was presumably because the logic of the comedy-ballet ending is implicit throughout the play. Dandin lacks the stature to be tragic. He is a grotesque peasant, a rustic Monsieur Jourdain who has married above his station and is paying for it. He is too dull to interest his wife and too inarticulate to impress her appalling parents. He actually dismisses the idea of suicide as a romantic whim (III, 8). He is a splendidly prosaic creation whose impotence inspires laughter rather than sympathy.

Even the troublesome final line should be seen as another illustration of his mediocrity. The image of the unhappily married husband expressing his frustration via the idea of throwing himself headfirst into water was a comic commonplace in French literature from the Middle Ages onward. In an interesting article on George Dandin,16 Joan Crow shows that the image, originally inspired by lines in Juvenal's Sixth Satire, recurs in works as diverse as the Quinze Joyes de mariage, the Roman de la Rose and Chappuzeau's comedy L'Avare dupé, performed in 1663. Unoriginal to the end, Dandin is thus expressing his impotence in more or less proverbial wisdom rather than stating a personal intention. And from what we know of Molière's acting style, one imagines that he would have given the last line unmistakable comic resonance, perhaps through some stage business hinting at the alcoholic solution offered by the comedy-ballet finale. There is no evidence that contemporaries found any reason to disagree with Robinet's judgement that the play was ‘archicomique’.17

In some of Molière's comedy-ballets, as we have seen, a happy ending is achieved when the obstacle characters are convinced by others that they are what they are not. Jourdain is persuaded that he has acquired nobility, Argan that he has been made a doctor. These illusions persist to the final curtain. At the end of Les Précieuses ridicules, there is a curious variant on this. Mascarille is a valet whom his master disguises as a nobleman, in order to take revenge on the disdainful précieuses. He plays his part brilliantly; Madelon and Cathos are duly captivated and then mortified when his true identity is announced.18 According to normal farce practice, the play should have ended there, with Mascarille reverting to his servant identity. But Mascarille goes on playing the part. When his master strips him almost naked, he unexpectedly complains with the same high-flown language he has used throughout:

O fortune! quelle est ton inconstance! Traiter comme cela un marquis!

(scenes 15 and 16)

And the half-naked servant continues to bewail his fate with the language of an aristocrat: the comic mask seems to be fixed. He never accepts his old identity and we are left wondering what the future holds for him.

The same thing happens at the end of Le Médecin malgré lui. All seems resolved: Léandre has conveniently come into a fortune, the lovers can marry and Sganarelle is no longer to be hanged. But he does not acknowledge that he has only been masquerading as a doctor and, in his last speech, announces to his wife that he means to continue the pretence:

… prépare-toi désormais à vivre dans un grand respect avec un homme de ma conséquence, et songe que la colère d'un médecin est plus à craindre qu'on ne peut croire. (III, 11)

We have no way of knowing whether he is serious. But it would be quite in character and, again, the remark introduces a pleasantly ambiguous note at a point where comedy often degenerates into banality.

Such ambiguity is perhaps the most characteristic feature of Molière's denouements. Even when there is a recognizable happy ending, one often has the impression that little has actually changed. If Valère and Cléante can marry their sweethearts, the cause of the problem, Harpagon's avarice, has not been eradicated. If Don Juan is suppressed, Sganarelle remains behind. It is no coincidence that Sganarelle speaks both the first and the last lines of the play. Both are concerned with the physical world, his anxiety over his wages at the end recalling his praise of tobacco at the beginning. The world of materialism and credulity which spawned Don Juan remains intact: one feels he will be back.

There is similar symmetry in Le Médecin malgré lui: Sganarelle's truculent threat to his wife at the end recalls the domestic quarrel they were having at the beginning. The circle is complete. Although the lovers can marry, the play leaves no impression of lasting harmony. The curtain falls before Martine can reply. But the struggle will continue. The play could begin all over again.

The ending of Le Misanthrope is also ambiguous enough to suggest a continuous cycle. Alceste's rejection of Célimène need not mean the end of the affair. He was even ruder to her at the end of Act IV, and has long been aware of the illogical nature of their relationship (‘Il est vrai; ma raison me le dit chaque jour’ (l. 247)). So the revelations of the final scene tell him nothing new. There is often a gap between what he says and what he does. He talks of fleeing to his ‘desert’ in the opening scene but repeatedly shows reluctance even to leave the room; he claims to be brutally frank, but tries not to hurt Oronte's feelings. So it is possible that he will again fail to carry out his threat. The play closes, as it opened, with an expression of concern from Philinte. As he pursued Alceste on stage in Act I, so he now follows him off. Their endless dialogue might be about to resume.

Some of the other solutions also have a temporary ring. Jourdain's daughter can marry her Cléonte because her father thinks the latter is the son of the Grand Turk: one might wonder how long such a fundamentally honest young man will be able to keep up the pretence. The happy outcome of Le Malade imaginaire, which depends on Argan believing that he has become a doctor, seems equally precarious. The final line of Le Mariage forcé (‘Allons nous réjouir, et célébrer cet heureux mariage’) may seem utterly conventional: but the archetypal end-of-comedy formula takes on a hollow ring when we remember that this marriage concerns a bride who, three scenes earlier, has promised her lover that she will be a widow within six months.

It is clear that Molière's denouements are as rich and varied a feature of his plays as any other. From Le Misanthrope to the humblest farce, they are admirably crafted. In Jouvet's words, ‘ils sont de la plus parfaite et de la plus fine convention théâtrale’.19 If they show orthodox traits, they are also ironic and self-aware. They demonstrate respect for stage convention but also willingness to go beyond it. Like the rest of his theatre, they can be witty, stimulating, even shocking.

Unusually for the time, they ensure that the comedy continues into the final scene. The last line of Dom Juan is one of the most dangerously comic in Molière's theatre. One could infer from his endings alone that his desire to amuse was greater than his crusading zeal: one might, for example, question his claim to ‘corriger les gens en les divertissant’,20 when his own characters are so endearingly incapable of mending their ways.

But the function of these comic denouements is also a serious one. They suggest that in real life things might turn out less happily. They suggest that the solution arrived at may anyway be a temporary one, lasting only long enough to bring the curtain down on a happy ending. Some of his characters clearly have a future as well as a past. The enemies of spontaneity, nature and common sense can be briefly neutralized. But there is no proof that they can be lastingly checked. The forces of reason can win the odd battle, but the war will continue. Men and women are shown to be incorrigibly pretentious and irrational, inflexible and gullible. With a few exceptions, they are not blamed, they just are. There are no conversions. The ultimate wisdom of a Molière play often lies, not in the words of the raisonneur, but in the final scene.


  1. Voltaire, Œuvres complètes, Kehl edition (1784), ll. 834-36.

  2. Daniel Mornet, Molière, Connaissance des Lettres (Paris, Hatier-Boivin, 1962), p. 127.

  3. The best recent studies in this area are Quentin M. Hope, ‘Molière's Curtain Lines’, French Studies, XXVI (1972), 143-55, R. D. Fraser and S. F. Rendall, ‘The Recognition Scene in Molière's Theater’, Romanic Review, 64 (1973), 16-31 and C. J. Gossip, ‘Arnolphe, Alceste and Comic Closure’, French Studies Bulletin, 36 (1990), 5-7.

  4. P. Bernard Lamy, Nouvelles réflexions sur l'art poétique (Paris, A. Pralard, 1668), pp. 150-51.

  5. However, according to Jacques Scherer, this tradition did not pre-date classicism. See his La Dramaturgie classique en France (Paris, Nizet, 1964), p. 141.

  6. Ibid., p. 144.

  7. See L'Étourdi, Sganarelle, Les Précieuses ridicules, L'École des maris, La Critique de l'École des femmes, L'Impromptu de Versailles, Dom Juan, Le Médecin malgré lui, Amphitryon, George Dandin, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Les Fourberies de Scapin.

  8. Hope, ‘Molière's Curtain Lines’, p. 143.

  9. L'École des femmes, ll. 1741-59.

  10. Fraser and Rendall, ‘The Recognition Scene’, p. 26.

  11. Scherer, La Dramaturgie classique, p. 144.

  12. Ibid., p. 143. The plays are two tragi-comedies by Rotrou, Cléagenor et Doristée (1634) and L'Heureuse Constance (1635), and two consecutive comedies by Corneille, La Suivante (1633) and La Place Royale (1633).

  13. Scherer, La Dramaturgie classique, p. 144.

  14. David Shaw, ‘Le Misanthrope and Classical Comedy’, Modern Languages, 55, no. 1 (1974), 16-26.

  15. André Félibien, Relations de la Fête de Versailles du 18 juillet 1668, quoted by Despois and Mesnard, Œuvres de Molière (Paris, Hachette, 1881), VI, 614-40 (p. 622).

  16. Joan Crow, ‘Reflections on George Dandin’, in Molière: Stage and Study. Essays in Honour of W. G. Moore, edited by W. D. Howarth and M. Thomas (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1973), pp. 3-12.

  17. Lettre en vers, 12 July 1668.

  18. Les Précieuses ridicules, scene 15.

  19. Quoted by W. G. Moore in Molière: A New Criticism (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1949), p. 83.

  20. Placet présenté au Roi sur la comédie du Tartuffe, 31 August 1664.

Robert Kenny (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5944

SOURCE: “Molière's Tower of Babel: Monsieur de Pourceaugnac and the Confusion of Tongues,” in Nottingham French Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 59-70.

[In the following essay, Kenny explores Molière's struggles in creating the new genre of musical-comedy.]

Much modern criticism has positively re-evaluated Molière's comédies-ballets in the context of the argument for a ‘third manner’ Molière who turns away from high comedy of language towards an irrational world of fantasy and illusion. Gérard Defaux and Claude Abraham make this case eloquently in spite of the somewhat embarrassing presence of Les Femmes savantes, while more recently Patrick Dandrey has disagreed radically with this thesis, particularly with reference to the musical coherence of the comédie-ballet.1 The tripartite division of Molière's thought and work, though it contains many useful insights, is largely the result of neat academic hindsight and the deification of Molière the classical genius. It is perhaps worth noting that this critical view in a more benign form is already present in Sainte-Beuve's notice for his edition of the Oeuvres; ‘De la farce franche et un peu grosse du début, on se sera élevé, en passant par le naïf, le sérieux, le profondément observé, jusqu'à la fantaisie du rire dans toute sa pompe et au gai sabbat le plus délirant.’ Sainte-Beuve clearly recognised and celebrated the late comédies-ballets as ‘ces fusées[…] d'éblouissante gaieté’ and places them on a level with A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest.2 Late nineteenth-century criticism took a more solemn turn and for far too long a more just evaluation of the comédies-ballets has been hindered by the fact that the music, singing and dancing have been truncated or simply excised from performances which reduce the plays to abridged and aesthetically unsatisfying approximations of spoken comedy. More recently, critics have remembered, as Alain pointed out many years ago, ‘Shakespeare acteur, Molière acteur, ce ne sont point des hasards’ and have reexamined the works as blueprints for performance rather than judging them merely as printed literary texts.

In doing this they are belatedly complying with Molière's express wishes. In the preface to L'Amour médecin he admits that his new genre was the hybrid but happy result of an urgent royal command. As such it had no corpus of pre-existing conventions to govern its structure and Molière, Lully and Beauchamp, as seasoned men of the theatre, were engaged in a new art of improvisation. Nevertheless, as Sainte-Beuve remarked, ‘Le génie se fait de chaque nécessité une inspiration’ and Molière saw at once the potential for this new form of music theatre. The prologue is sung by ‘La Comédie, La Musique, Le Ballet’ personified, and they agree on a new form of theatrical harmony; ‘Quittons, quittons notre vaine querelle, / Ne nous disputons point nos talents tour à tour; / Et d'une gloire plus belle / Piquons-nous en ce jour. / Unissons-nous tous trois d'une ardeur sans seconde, / Pour donner du plaisir au plus grand roi du monde’ Donneau de Visé was among the first to note the originality of Molière's trouvaille; ‘Il a, le premier, inventé la manière de mêler des scènes de musique et des ballets dans ses comédies et trouvé par là un nouveau secret de plaire qui avait été jusqu'alors inconnu.’ In his preface Molière presciently warns future readers of the comédies-ballets that they must become metteurs en scène if they are to appreciate the genre; ‘Il n'est pas nécessaire de vous avertir qu'il y a beaucoup de choses qui dépendent de l'action. On sait bien que les comédies ne sont faites que pour être jouées, et je ne conseille de lire celle-ci [L'Amour médecin] qu'aux personnes qui ont des yeux pour découvrir, dans la lecture, tout le jeu du théâtre.’ In such conditions ‘Vous les verriez dans un état beaucoup plus supportable; et les airs et les symphonies de l'incomparable M. Lully, mêlés à la beauté des voix et à l'adresse des danseurs, leur donnent, sans doute, des grâces dont ils ont toutes les peines du monde à se passer.’

As early as 1661 in his Avertissement to Les Fâcheux, Molière had bemoaned the lack of rehearsal time which obliged him to invent a new genre in which the ballets were hastily stitched into the course of the action, with the result that ‘certains endroits du ballet n'entrent pas dans la comédie aussi naturellement que d'autres.’ Nevertheless he goes on to reveal that he is genuinely intrigued by the theatrical potential of this mingling of genres; ‘Quoi qu'il en soit, c'est un mélange qui est nouveau pour nos théâtres […] et, comme tout le monde l'a trouvé agréable, il peut servir d'idée à d'autres choses qui pourraient être méditées avec plus de loisir’ Molière was to meditate on this ‘mélange’ throughout the remainder of his career, often putting what are surely his own thoughts into the mouths of his characters on the stage. In La Princesse d'Élide in 1664, he makes a decisive addition to his ‘mélange’ by a massive introduction of vocal music. Molière himself, in the role of Moron, celebrates the extension of his talents to include singing, not without an ironic dig at the fanciful conventions of pastoral lyricism; ‘Jusqu'au revoir. Pour moi, je reste ici, et j'ai une petite conversation à faire avec ces arbres et ces rochers.’ In the third intermède, as Philis resists his advances, Moron clearly voices Molière's own feelings on the current vogue for vocal music; ‘… si je savais chanter, j'en ferais bien mieux mes affaires. La plupart des femmes aujourd'hui se laissent prendre par les oreilles; elles sont cause que tout le monde se mêle de musique, et l'on ne réussit auprès d'elles que par les petites chansons […] Il faut que j'apprenne à chanter pour faire comme les autres …’ A satyr arrives and Moron begs ‘mon ami, tu sais bien ce que tu m'as promis il y a longtemps: apprends-moi à chanter, je te prie.’ The lesson gets nowhere and in a later scene Molière-Moron laments his relative lack of musicianship, surely in an implied contrast with his great collaborator-rival, Lully; ‘Morbleu! que n'ai-je de la voix! Ah! nature marâtre, pourquoi ne m'as-tu pas donné de quoi chanter comme à un autre? […] Mais pourquoi est-ce je ne puis pas chanter? N'ai-je pas un estomac, un gosier et une langue comme un autre? Oui, oui, allons: je veux chanter aussi …' One further speech in La Princesse d'Élide contains a tribute to the power of song. At the end of Act IV, in the remarkably poignant monologue which prefigures exactly the tone of Marivaux's ‘surprise de l'amour’, the Princess calls on the singers in these words; ‘O vous, admirables personnes, qui par la douceur de vos chants avez l'art d'adoucir les plus fâcheuses inquiétudes, approchez-vous d'ici, de grâce, et tâchez de charmer avec votre musique le chagrin où je suis.’

In these years of experiment and collaboration (on stage as well as off) between Les deux Baptiste, as Mme de Sévigné called them, Lully learned much from Molière; as Philippe Beaussant points out in his introduction to Mark Minkowski's recording of scenes from the comédies-ballets, ‘nous comprenons que, bien avant Cadmus et Hermione, son premier opéra, Lully ait pu concevoir le récitatif à la française. Il existe des exemples achevés de récitatif “lulliste” dans les scènes pastorales de George Dandin ou dans Les Amants magnifiques, mais l'ébauche s'y trouve déjà dans La Princesse d'Élide.’ But it is also in that work that one of the keys may be found to the quarrel between the two men, namely the presence in Molière, alongside grace and elegance, of ‘le comique le plus endiablé […] que la Tragédie lyrique au ton soutenu bannira peu à peu.’3 In the last great comédies-ballets Molière-Moron continues to mock the excessively wilting and affected aspects of pastoral convention. Much as he admired the delicate minor-key laments of Lully's lovelorn nymphs and shepherds, his own artistic temperament inclined him to exploit singing and dancing for more comic effects. In Le Sicilien, Adraste orders a serenade which must be ‘tendre et passionnée, quelque chose qui m'entretienne dans une douce rêverie’. The slave Hali counsels him against ‘le bémol’. ‘Monsieur je tiens pour le bécarre. Vous savez que je m'y connais. Le bécarre me charme; hors du bécarre, plus de salut en harmonie.’4 In the end Hali offers a trio in which two lovesick shepherds lament ‘tout remplis de langueur […] sur bémol. […] Là-dessus vient un berger joyeux avec un bécarre admirable, qui se moque de leur faiblesse.’ One cannot help reading into this amusing exchange and Moron's earlier complaint an aspect of the temperamental tension between Molière and Lully, a tension which released remarkable creative energy before reaching breaking-point in 1670-71.

Critics have dealt extensively with the last two comédies-ballets, insisting on the dramatic and psychological relevance of the musical scenes to the comedy as a whole. The most fervent admirers of the genre have insisted on the richly satisfying homogeneity of the constituent elements. Philippe Beaussant, for instance, admires ‘l'imbrication du chant de la danse et de la comédie. Elle est exemplaire dès leur première oeuvre commune, elle éclate dans La Princesse d'Élide. L'action parlée et l'action chantée s'enchaînent sans rupture et se marient, de même que l'action jouée et l'action dansée.’5 Well, up to a point. Many of the entrées de ballet have no justification other than as pure choreographic spectacle but, as in present-day musicals, they are none the worse for that. Jacques Copeau maintained that ‘George Dandin me paraissait fermé aux attractions du divertissement.’6Le Bourgeois gentilhomme contains ninety minutes of music and is rarely seen with Le Ballet des Nations. The intervention of Polichinelle in Le Malade imaginaire is barely comprehensible for a non-specialist audience, unaware that it continues in parodic form Molière's long reflection on the relative merits of words and music. Most recently, Patrick Dandrey has been utterly, and surely most unfairly, dismissive of the value of the musical scenes; ‘le divertissement […] ne fait que se surajouter assez artificiellement à l'intrigue et à son dénouement. […] Et puis […] quel rôle jouent les ritournelles et trémoussements de Lully dans l'action dramatique des autres comédies-ballets?’7 ‘Trémoussements’ indeed. A word most memorably uttered by Monsieur Jourdain.

One returns again to Molière's own reminder that ‘les comédies ne sont faites que pour être jouées’. Diderot perceived this more clearly than Dandrey when he remarked ‘Si l'on croit qu'il y ait beaucoup d'hommes plus capables de faire Pourceaugnac que Le Misanthrope, on se trompe.’ Of all the comédies-ballets, and I include the last two, Monsieur de Pourceaugnac is perhaps the most formally coherent, a perfect fusion of singing, dancing and acting in the service of pure entertainment. It may be appreciated in the theatre at one and the same time as a gloriously gratuitous comic spectacle and as a further contribution to Molière's conscious inner dialogue on the nature and function of comic theatre. Music is essential to both the performance and understanding of Pourceaugnac. Without it, the piece is amputated, unbalanced, unsatisfying. Not that Molière's comic writing lacks wit, grace and verve, far from it. But the spoken scenes are paced and structured to lead into and out of the musical scenes in a way which makes both integral parts of the intrigue. Lully's music frames the entire piece; Molière obviously does not resent this but gives the last word to music for reasons which will shortly become clear.

Pourceaugnac is an excellent example of the overall internal coherence of Molière's output, of what one might call the dialectical, rather than monolinear, growth of his work. The purified essence of La Jalousie du Barbouillé and Le Médecin volant is present alongside clear pre-echoes of the world of M. Jourdain and Argan. As one attempts to unravel the apparently simple texture of the work the threads of a surprisingly rich thematic tapestry are revealed and each deserves separate consideration.

Molière never forgot his early years as a wandering farceur, nor his debt to the traditions and techniques of the commedia dell'arte. In Pourceaugnac he both openly acknowledges his debt and transforms and revivifies common material. The opening musical invocation ‘Répands charmante nuit’ has its obvious parallel in the dark openings and night scenes of the commedia (cf. Le Sicilien, scene 1; ‘Il fait noir comme dans un four: le ciel s'est habillé ce soir en Scaramouche.’) Gustave Attinger, in the course of his classic account of Molière's links with the commedia, points out that the action of the whole of Act I and the first two scenes of Act II are based in precise detail on an Italian canevas, Policinello pazzo per forza, and that later scenes including the debts alleged by the ‘marchand flamand’ and the arrival of an abandoned wife and her children are to be found in the canevas, Policinello burlato.8 In other words, the bare bones of most of the action are borrowed but brilliantly improved by Molière. In the canevas, every trick played on Policinello is revealed by a speaker in advance, thus destroying the element of surprise for the audience. Molière, on the other hand, never allows Sbrigani to reveal the next twist of his wicked imagination. It is surely with this in mind that he makes Eraste say to Julie (and the audience) ‘Ne vous demandez pas tous les ressorts que nous ferons jouer; vous en aurez le divertissement; et comme aux comédies; il est bon de vous laisser le plaisir de la surprise, et de ne vous avertir point de tout ce qu'on vous fera voir.’ Molière drives the point home in the last act where Sbrigani's final tricks are announced to Eraste in inaudible whispered exchanges. Molière gives us two abandoned wives instead of one and a whole ‘volée d'enfants’. We may also see an acknowledgement of commedia sources in the fact that médecins grotesques and the matassins with their clystères sing their entire scene in Italian, transforming an earthy old commonplace into a brightly paced comic interlude of music and dancing. Another Italian device which Molière exploited repeatedly is the use of pattern dialogue and rapid-fire, symmetrical exchanges. Such exchanges are found throughout Pourceaugnac, often in situations which suggest that they may have been accompanied by refined versions of Italian lazzi. Let us conclude this far from exhaustive list with a reminder that Molière also borrowed from the Italians (as well as from French farce) that procession of pedantic professionals (and professional pedants) whose utterances, far from throwing light on any situation, serve only to obfuscate meaning and confuse the actors and the action. Such obfuscation and confusion are a central aspect of Pourceaugnac's comic action and also of its more serious sub-text.

Jacques Copeau saw the essential action of the play as a ‘poursuite’ and this is surely one of the keys to its success in the theatre. Much of the vitality of the spoken action comes from the relentless forward drive of the chase. No sooner is the theme established with great economy in the opening scenes, culminating in Sbrigani's ‘Ma foi! voici notre homme: songeons à nous’ than the hunt is on for this ‘gibier’ who is ‘homme enfin à donner dans tous les panneaux qu'on lui présentera.’ The rhythm of the entire play could be marked accelerando, with only occasional brief pauses to allow the audience to draw breath, to emphasise the rhythm by comic contrast or to allow Sbrigani to prepare his next trick. Sbrigani's ‘gibier’ is not merely M. de Pourceaugnac but also Oronte who falls just as readily into the trap for ‘le beau-père est aussi dupe que le gendre.’ Molière has divided between the two older men a number of character types; the pretentious provincial in Paris, the lascivious older suitor, the irascible authoritarian father-figure. Neither is a match for the protean transformations or the rapid footwork of Sbrigani and his friends in an intrigue which moves to the rhythm of dance, a pas de deux, de trois, de quatre, punctuated and crowned by the entries of the entire corps de ballet. Attinger, quoting Copeau, noted that ‘tout se déroule dans une cadence qui postule la choréographie’ and that ‘la musique et la danse communiquent à toute la pièce un rythme de ballet’.9 To this observation should be added Robert McBride's very pertinent assertion that ‘Le théâtre de Molière fourmille de scènes qui sont autant de petits ballets parfaitement orchestrés et cohérents à l'intérieur de ce grand ballet des incompatibles qu'est une de ses comédies.’10 Thanks to Sbrigani, Julie's incompatibility with Pourceaugnac is ironically inverted into feigned desire and at the end of the play Eraste joins Julie in a pas de deux of feigned incompatibility. By the time Sbrigani allows Pourceaugnac and Oronte to meet, he has ensured that they are in the first stages of an incompatibility which grows more pronounced as the play proceeds. A possibly shameful medical complaint, two wives and a host of children are incompatible with ‘ce fâcheux mariage que mon père s'est mis en tête.’ Finally Pourceaugnac is utterly incompatible with all those around him. According to Copeau ‘C'est un mannequin en butte à toutes les avanies qui ont été délibérément concertées contre lui […] On pourrait dire qu'il ne se mêle pas à la comédie, mais se borne à lui faire tête. C'est le jeu adverse qui se développe en dehors de lui, autour de lui et contre lui …’.11

The verbal and visual choreography of the entire play is based largely around two types of movement, both of which contribute to the ‘poursuite’. The first is a double movement which is alternately centrifugal and centripetal. A whole series of characters, real and disguised, come from the furthest-flung and most ‘ex-centric’ corners of France and beyond, all drawn to Paris, the metropolitan centre of cultural and social refinement and, within Paris, to that classic setting for comic intrigue, the ‘place publique’. The two young couples run in to set the plot in motion then scatter in all directions, only meeting again in the finale. Pourceaugnac comes up from Limoges to play the gentleman and is chased onto the stage by the mocking crowd which met him at the coach-stop, just as he will at the very end be chased off by the entire company. Along the way we meet a bewildering cavalcade of characters and caricatures who claim to have come from afar. Sbrigani, first from Naples, then as the merchant from Flanders, no mean linguistic jump for an actor; Lucette from Pézénas in the deep South and Nérine from St-Quentin up in Picardy; grotesque doctors who sing in Italian and ‘lawyers’ who while singing in French quote legal precedents from almost every nation in Western Europe; drunken Swiss guards with their guttural Germanic drivel. In the finale we meet gypsies from … heaven alone knows where. The bemused Oronte is left spinning in the midst of these linguistically and geographically bewildering entrances and exits, hardly even recognising the ‘language’ spoken by his own daughter. The other important movement is circular. The balletic chase sends Pourceaugnac, and at times Oronte, round in ever-decreasing and ever more frenzied circles until the atmosphere is one of demented vertigo. As Pourceaugnac is finally expelled from the whirligig Eraste brings Julie back from her supposed ‘fuite’ and Oronte is brought back from his flight of paternal excentricity. The three high points of the circular chase are the dance of the matassins with their clystères, the swarm of ‘wives’ and children around Pourceaugnac who cries ‘Au secours! Où fuirai-je? Je n'en puis plus’, and the ballet of ‘Avocats, Procureurs et Sergents’ who whirl around the would-be ‘gentilhomme limousin’ at his last appearance in male attire…. The comic chase is present from Molière's very earliest works and in its crudest form it is simply another of the things he borrowed from the commedia; but in Pourceaugnac it is so refined by music and choreography that it acquires a grace and symmetry which might almost be described as elegant.

Monsieur de Pourceaugnac is perhaps the most self-consciously theatrical of all Molière's comédies-ballets, perhaps even of all his plays. With the exception of Oronte and the two speaking doctors, every actor on stage is playing a character who is playing another character. Within the play another play is being performed with Pourceaugnac and Oronte as its spectators and victims. Eraste announces this structure ‘comme aux comédies’ in the first scene and Nérine puns ‘nous lui jouerons tant de pièces’. Sbrigani, the genial stage-manager, says to his co-plotters ‘vous nous tiendrez prêts au besoin les autres acteurs de la comédie’ and Eraste reinforces the theme when he urges Julie ‘Au moins, Madame, souvenez-vous bien de votre rôle […] pour mieux couvrir notre jeu …’. Pourceaugnac is playing a role which he finds increasingly difficult to sustain and his pathetically repeated bleating ‘Je suis gentilhomme limousin’ rings ever more hollow until in the third act he too is obliged to take on an even more spurious and comic identity, a travesty of a travesty!

Much of the delight of the intrigue comes from dramatic irony, the sustained disparity between what various characters wrongly believe to be taking place among themselves onstage, what others know to be true, and the further irony of the presence of the audience. It is surely as another deliberate irony that Molière gives Pourceaugnac the line ‘Est-ce une comédie que nous jouons ici?’ at the only moment in the play when the true answer, delivered in good faith by the doctors, is ‘Non.’ For the doctors, who are real doctors, are themselves victims of the plot and their diagnoses, perfectly sound and sensible in the medicine of the day, only become ridiculous in that they are addressed to a man who is not a melancholy hypochondriac but a hearty bumpkin in search of a good dinner. In scene after scene, language, far from contributing to rational communication, serves only to cloud the issue, to misinform and to disinform. The wariness of academic pedantry which Molière originally borrows from the commedia becomes in his work a sustained reflection on the dangers and limitations of language. The theme is already present in La Jalousie du Barbouillé where all the supposed wisdom of ‘le docteur’ is irrelevant jargon and incomprehensible Latin. When this garrulous pedant attempts to bring harmony to the quarrelling family the result is that everyone ends up speaking at once and understanding nothing. This is the very first appearance of what might be called the theme of Babel and it is underlined by the fact that it results in the doctor's fall to the ground. Learned language impedes all communication in Dépit amoureux II,6, leaving the pedant Métaphraste to muse ironically on a ‘world turned upside down’ from which language and therefore meaning are absent. A similar theme is further elaborated in Le Mariage forcé, where the two pedants are far less capable of telling Sganarelle what he needs to know than a couple of flighty gypsies, whose singing and dancing perhaps reveal a glimmer of truth.

Every speech in Monsieur de Pourceaugnac contributes to the décalage between appearance and reality. Language at its most plausible is also at its most mendacious and leads ultimately to the total absurdity of a man stripped of his identity and of his clothes, mimicking the voice of a ‘femme du bel air’. In the third act Pourceaugnac literally loses his own voice and becomes one more caricature among the cackling voices of Babel. This confusion of tongues is one of the most powerful effects created by Molière in the play. Sbrigani has kept his Neapolitan accent; Pourceaugnac's French is richly spiced with ‘l'accent du Midi’; the doctors' Parisian French is incomprehensible thanks to their subject matter and their Latin interpolations; the matassins sing in Italian; the ‘marchand flamand’ speaks double-Dutch; Nérine chews her words ‘à la Picarde’. But the climax of this proliferation of competing voices comes with the arrival from Pézenas of Lucette who, abandoning completely any semblance of Cartesian or Gallic clarity, takes flight into a torrent of Gascon from which virtually all meaning has fled. It is surely no coincidence that at such a comic high point of the action Molière decided to replace French with the most extended pieces of babble in his entire work. Nor is it an accident that the structure of Lucette's speech is a parody of a form which demanded an intense purity and clarity of diction, namely, Racinian tragedy. In the last long speech of her first scene, Lucette becomes a burlesque Ariadne, ‘abandounado à las mourtéles doulous que yeu ressenti de sas perfidos acciûs’. The following scene is another Ballet des Incompatibles in which a pair of fishwives, one (the actor Hubert) in drag, outdo each other in incomprehensibility, and the entire scene is crowned by the meaningless prattle of children, enfant=infans=speechless. It is from this high point of absurdity onwards that Pourceaugnac is persuaded to divest himself of his own intended role, his legal jargon, his precious clothes and his voice, so that in the scene with the two suisses (in reality friends of Sbrigani) all three voices on stage are counterfeit. And all this was engineered by Sbrigani who Pourceaugnac believed to the last to be ‘le seul honnête homme que j'aie trouvé dans cette ville.’ When, moments later, an exhausted Oronte concludes the betrothal of the young lovers with the conventional ‘Ah! que de bruit! […] Ah, ah, ah!’ there is, in performance, a far more than conventional sigh of relief that the babble of tongues is about to be stilled.

If the performance were to end at this point with a perfunctory ‘allons quérir un notaire!’ Pourceaugnac could be seen as a wilfully perverse tale of heartless mockery and deception, a cruel Parisian confidence trick played on an elderly gentleman (Oronte was the last role played by the one-eyed and lame Béjart) and a harmless and gullible booby up from the sticks (Molière losing his Armande-Julie). But this is not a black comedy or theatre of cruelty; it is, as Eraste told Julie, a ‘divertissement’ from the moments of noirceur in the real world of Molière's moral comedy. Respecting as it does the unity of time, the action is a perfect example of the ‘folle journée’, a day of pure and harmless madness on which all proprieties and conventions may, without negative moral implications, be thrown to the winds. In other words, as in the other late comédies-ballets, it is Shrove Tuesday, ‘Carnaval’, when a temporary inversion of order into disorder is a salutary, cathartic and curative process. As we are warned in La Comtesse d' Escarbagnas, ‘C'est sans vous offenser Madame, et les comédies veulent ces sortes de choses’; in Mme Jourdain's words we are in a world of ‘carême(s)-prenant(s)’ and it is ‘temps d'aller en masque’. In Le Malade imaginaire Béralde further reassures us that ‘le Carnaval autorise cela’ and at the end of Pourceaugnac, Eraste says ‘nous pouvons jouir du divertissement de la saison.’ Molière played Pourceaugnac, Jourdain and Argan, and, as Covielle points out ‘Tout cela sent un peu sa comédie […] et il est homme à y jouer son rôle à merveille.’ The reiterated references to ‘theatre in the theatre’ remind us that we are in a privileged space of fantasy, as Plautus said ‘in festivo loco’,12 a place in which the insoluble moral ambiguities of the real world and the linguistic ambiguities of apparently logical discourse are momentarily vanquished in favour of a new language of harmonious reconciliation. For Molière the dramatist, the confusion of tongues when all speak at once leads to Babel; for the Molière of the comédies-ballets, music transforms and elevates the babble into vocal harmony.

Music enfolds and informs the entire structure of Monsieur de Pourceaugnac. The time of spoken dialogue and the tempo of music are carefully balanced throughout, creating, in the theatre, a measured and aesthetically satisfying experience which is difficult to glean from the printed page. A grandiose overture boldly asserts the importance of music in the ensuing action, and its rapid second section with breathless overlapping entries seems to prefigure the relentless ‘poursuite’. The Sérénade which follows has an integral role in the dramatic structure. Eraste says to the musicians and singers, ‘Suivez les ordres que je vous ai donnés pour la sérénade. Pour moi, je me retire, et ne veux point paraître ici.’ The solos and the trio serve as an exposition, telling in brief of the predicament of Julie and Eraste whose love is crossed by tyrannical parents. This is a clever and economical way of establishing the love theme, for there is little time for wooing once the chase has begun. Although promising a happy outcome, the music remains wistful and elegiac and even the trio ‘Aimons-nous donc’, with its plaintive falling phrases, seems more a hopeful prayer than a bold assertion. An energetic ballet then enacts a brief quarrel and reconciliation, preparing the audience for the role of dance in the action. The endless verbiage of the doctors is a perfect example of what Béralde calls ‘le roman de la médecine’ and bears little relation to reality. The doctors only succeed in making a perfectly healthy man feel confused and irritable and before administering their own dubious remedies they call on the ‘douceur exhilarante de la musique’ to calm his spirits. Thus the doctors are part of the malady not the cure. The cure, for the audience, if not yet for Pourceaugnac, lies in the conjunction of comedy, ballet and music. All three personified in L'Amour médecin declared that ‘Sans nous tous les hommes / Deviendraient mal sains, / Et c'est nous qui sommes / Leurs grands médecins.’ As soon as the doctors' pompous and dotty music begins we leave the real world for the first flight into comic fantasy in what Copeau called the ‘espaces béants de la musique’. The music begins in a mock-doleful minor mode (which Molière had called ‘le bémol’) then moves on to an elegant dance rhythm in which the singers urge us to banish melancholy with singing, dancing, laughter, wine and snuff! The ‘clystère’ scene is purified by music and dance (‘un beau bécarre’) and becomes a stylised ballet of whirling dervishes which concludes the first act. The second act similarly moves towards a fantastic musical climax of grotesque lawyers, in which the lugubrious music of the slow lawyer and the rapid patter of the stuttering lawyer eventually overlap and become incomprehensible, except as an exhilaratingly rhythmic musical and balletic pattern.

The presence of these structurally coherent and dramatically relevant musical scenes at the outset, and at the end of the first two acts, sets up a powerful aesthetic expectation of music, song and dance at the close of the last act. This is of course realised but the function of the finale is different from the earlier intermèdes. One simply cannot agree with Patrick Dandrey that the musical finale of Pourceaugnac is merely ‘un prolongement redondant’. True, it is not exactly a part of the action but it is a crucial part of the structures we have tried to examine. For Molière, ‘la fin d'une vraie et pure comédie’ now demands the absolution of all conflict into musical harmony. Language and plot dissolve as all the ‘acteurs de la comédie’ return to be reconciled with each other and the audience in a celebration of harmless folly and laughter, what Sainte-Beuve called Molière's ‘Purs ébats, son rire étincelant, redoublé, presque sans cause en se prolongeant, désintéressé du réel, comme une flamme folâtre qui voltige de plus belle après que la combustion grossière a cessé, un rire des dieux, suprême, inextinguible.’13 The stage directions remind us that the whole company ‘[cherche] à se donner des plaisirs innocents’ at the end of what might, as in L'École des maris, be called ‘le stratagème adroit d'un innocent amour.’ The text of the final chorus makes it clear that Pourceaugnac, who has played Policinello for our delight, is included in the rejoicing; ‘Lorsque pour rire on s'assemble / Les plus sages ce me semble / sont ceux qui sont les plus fous.’ What had been impossible in speech has been realised in the conjunction of words and music. The triumphant chords of C and G major remind us that ‘Hors du bécarre plus de salut en harmonie.’ The solos of the finale are delivered by a couple of ‘Égyptiens’. Paradoxically this is one last echo of the theme of excentricity of which we spoke earlier. These picturesque nomads now take the centre of the stage to wish good fortune to the entire company, and their exquisitely delicate duet (‘les biens, la gloire’, a brief moment of relative bémol) is a surprisingly poignant reminder of the vanity of human wishes. In the final curtain call, the voices of reason and erudition, ‘le divin Hippocrate’, Aristotle and his ‘trois opérations de l'esprit’, the babble of Neapolitan, Gascon, Picard, Limousin, Dutch, Italian, German and Latin, all are silenced to receive a Gypsy's blessing in music, and to respond in an impressively grandiose four-voiced harmony which triumphs over Babel. In Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, Molière-Moron who longed to learn to sing, finally realised his dream and created a prototypically coherent musical-comedy.


  1. Gérard Defaux, Molière ou les métamorphoses du comique (Lexington: French Forum, 1980); Claude Abraham, On the structure of Molière's comédies-ballets, Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature, 1984; Patrick Dandrey, Molière ou l'esthétique du ridicule (Paris: Klincksieck, 1992), p.270.

  2. Sainte-Beuve ed., Molière, Oeuvres Complètes (Paris: Lecou, 1853), p.24.

  3. Philippe Beaussant, sleeve-notes to Lully-Molière, Comédies-Ballets, Erato CD 2292-45286-2.

  4. Molière is here using the words bémol and bécarre to signify minor and major keys, not sharps and naturals.

  5. Philippe Beaussant, loc. cit..

  6. Jacques Copeau, Registres II, Molière (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), p.265.

  7. Patrick Dandrey, loc. cit..

  8. Gustave Attinger, L'Esprit de la commedia dell'arte dans le théâtre français (Neuchâtel: La Baconnière, 1950), pp. 137-8.

  9. Ibid., p.159.

  10. Robert McBride, ‘Molière, le Languedoc et le Ballet des Incompatibles’, in La Vie théâtrale dans les provinces du Midi (Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1980), p.135. In this ballet Molière made one of his earliest appearances travesti en femme. Pourceaugnac was his last such appearance, although it could be said that at the end of both Le Bourgeois gentilhomme and Le Malade imaginaire Molière is equally ‘cross-dressed’ in garments which mark him out as a creature from a fantasy world.

  11. Jacques Copeau, op.cit., p.269.

  12. Plautus, Miles gloriosus, vv.83-85.

  13. Sainte-Beuve, loc. cit.

Noël A. Peacock (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4437

SOURCE: “Translating Molière for the English Stage,” in Nottingham French Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 83-91.

[In the following essay, Peacock discusses the issues surrounding the translation of Molière's plays, focusing on three types of translators: conservationists, modernists, and postmodernists.]

If we are not careful, Molière could become one of the obstacles to a united Europe. How can you trade freely, let alone merge with a nation whose best comedy does not travel?1

This ironic taunt by John Peter in 1987, which could so easily have been taken for a backbench salvo in the Maastricht debate in 1993, gives expression to the disquiet, shared by numerous actors, directors, and especially theatre box-office managers, at the lack of performable translations of Molière in English. The dramatic ineffectiveness, not to mention unspeakability, of certain versions, has given a misleading impression of the great comic dramatist, even to the point of causing The Daily Telegraph's drama critic, Charles Spencer—paradoxically—to suspect ‘that there was nothing wrong with Molière that a sense of humour wouldn't have put right […]’.2 One of the problems is the discrepancy between page and stage: many translations are aimed at publication rather than at performance. The result is that they are often confined to library bookshelves and dusted down by those engaged in academic study and not by theatre practitioners. As John Fowles has indicated, Molière has been consigned to a theatrical limbo in Britain, to the status of a study dramatist: ‘on the whole we don't know what to do with him so we leave him alone’.3 Molière himself, in his much-cited prefatory advice in L'Amour médecin, limited readership to those willing to exercise their theatrical imagination:

et je ne conseille de lire celle-ci qu'aux personnes qui ont des yeux pour découvrir dans la lecture tout le jeu du théâtre.

A translator's unawareness of the practicalities of the theatre may be illustrated from the embarrassment inflicted on an actor by Henri Van Laun, whose recently republished translation of Le Misanthrope4 assigns to the plain speaking Alceste a line whose pedantry gives another dimension to Molière's humour:

… your ebullitions of tenderness know no bounds. Zounds!

Another problem is the low status accorded to the art of translating. Promotion Boards and Research Assessment Panels seem to pay scant attention to translations, whatever their intrinsic merits. Theatre managers tend to be equally dismissive in awarding minimal royalties (one translator recently received 3٪ of royalties, with the author receiving 10٪).

This paper, then, will explore theatrically successful solutions to the problem of translating Molière for the English stage. The ‘translators’ have been placed into three categories: conservationists, modernisers and post-modernisers. The nomenclature is used rather idiosyncratically, and has been preferred to the more conventional critical suffixes (conservatives, modernists and post-modernists), which tend, these days, to lead to confusion, and to be viewed pejoratively. By conservationists, I understand those who wish to preserve all the outward features of the seventeenth-century structure, albeit in a renewed form; by modernisers, those who have upgraded certain aspects for the modern age; by post-modernisers, those who have knocked down and rebuilt the main structure but have used some of the original materials. The boundaries between the different kinds of terminological architecture are, however, somewhat fluid.

Firstly, the conservationists, whose main emphasis is on fidelity to the original. The leading modern exponent, Richard Wilbur, produced a line-by-line translation in iambic pentameters of The Misanthrope (1955), Tartuffe (1963), The School for Wives (1971) and The Learned Ladies (1978). The only major liberties taken were in suggesting no one period and in the use of a modern idiom. Wilbur was highly critical of contemporary modernisations in which the loss of a credible social frame for him entailed a loss of meaning. He cited the example of a translation in which Alceste entered a twentieth-century American living room in hippy attire, a ten-speed bicycle under his arm, insisting ‘tell it like it is’. In Wilbur's preface to The Learned Ladies (1978), he expressed the hope that all readers would envision his translation in a ‘just historical perspective’. Wilbur's translations were praised for their elegance, wit and accuracy. The elevated tone given by the versification helped him to retain Molière's parody of tragic diction.

In America, his work was regarded as ‘the nearest thing to Molière that we have’;5 his Tartuffe was awarded a share of the Bollingen translation prize in 1963. In Britain, however, very quotable strictures applied by some of his first reviewers have perhaps had a dissuasive effect on directors. W. A. Darlington (The Daily Telegraph, 22 November 1967) dimissed the mode of expression as an ‘uninspired jog-trot translation’ evocative of the doggerel that used to be reeled out in Victorian pantomimes; ‘trumpery translation’ exclaimed Harold Hobson (The Sunday Times, 25 August 1974); Sean Day-Lewis (The Daily Telegraph, 28 November 1971) pleaded for ‘lines not chimes’; and Tony Harrison damned Wilbur with faint praise: ‘[His Tartuffe and Misanthrope] are hard polished closet drama’.6 Wilbur's rehabilitation in England has come from performances of his Misanthrope in Manchester and London in 1981, and, most recently, in the highly successful School for Wives (running at the Almeida Theatre, London, from December 1993 to January 1994), which has earned him the accolade of ‘prince among contemporary translators’.7

Ian Maclean's revision (in 1989) of George Gravely's Precious Provincials, Don Juan, The Reluctant Doctor, The Miser, The Would-Be-Gentleman and Scapin the Schemer, and his own version of George Dandin, have not sacrificed academic rigour to theatrical expediency. Maclean has preserved Gravely's awareness of the exigencies of the stage without falsifying the meaning of the original. Gravely's expression, which was probably somewhat archaic even at the time of composition,8 has been rendered into modern prose. However, Maclean emphasises the timelessness of Molière's art in retaining, albeit with a glossary for the reader, Molière's allusions to contemporary society and culture.9

Halfway between conservationist and moderniser, Miles Malleson was one of the first of the postwar ‘translators’ to subject Molière's texts to the theatrical emendations appropriate to the English stage. A modern languages graduate, with access to the original French versions, Malleson debunked the notion that Molière's scripts were sacred texts, to which not one jot or tittle could be added and from which nothing could be taken away. Malleson kept to a large extent the French setting and plot but adopted a modern idiom. The dramatic movement was altered by repetitions, disruption of long speeches with laconic interjections from audiences on stage (indignant fathers, so-called raisonneurs, and impetuous children). Central traits of character were sharpened to give comic emphasis. (Like Molière, Malleson, as an actor-playwright, was not unmindful of the need to create good parts for himself!) Malleson's quite free adaptations of Sganarelle (1955), L'École des femmes (1954), Tartuffe (1950), Le Misanthrope (1956), L'Avare (1948), Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (1951) and Le Malade imaginaire (1959), would on occasion omit minor roles (for example, the lawyer in The School for Wives, ‘Un Parent de sa Femme’ and Villebrequin in Sganarelle), or on occasion, add speeches and scenes (for example, the extra scene in The School for Wives, in which he dramatizes Horace's fall from the ladder). Malleson's Tartuffe, which takes the form of a play within a play, is an imaginative attempt to situate, in a theatrical and historical context, Molière's problematic five-act play. Malleson provides by way of preface an anachronistic reworking of scenes from L'Impromptu de Versailles, in which the King is seen interrupting a rehearsal in order to command a performance of Tartuffe. The visible presence of the Supreme Spectator throughout the latter spectacle prepares the audience for the panegyric to Louis which so many critics and directors have found embarrassing.10

Despite the modern idiom, Malleson's focus is rather traditional: his imaginaire is an entirely comic figure, misguided but not totally unlikeable. Malleson's work retained its popularity for about three decades, and even now, is a source for adaptors unfamiliar with the original French versions.

Recent modernisers have, however, been more bold. Two adaptations of L'Avare highlight the generic ambiguities which critics have discerned in Molière's text. Jeremy Sams's version, written for Stephen Pimlott's production at The National Theatre in 1991, has been described as a ‘black comedy’, or a ‘white tragedy’. In both the translation and the production, Harpagon emerges as a ‘financier for our times’, rather than as the ‘traditional pantaloon’. Sams's main innovation lies in his manipulation of registers. The ostentatiously low diction has justifiably been criticised for going beyond the verbal restraints recognised by even the most intemperate of Molière's rogues and obsessionals.11 The vituperative lexis is, however, not gratuitously shocking, but is perhaps intended to intensify a linguistic contrast inherent in the original, namely between the worlds of romance and of money. The confessio amantis of both Élise and Valère, conveyed by Molière in exaggeratedly precious prose, is expressed by Sams in rhythmic verse, which at times creeps into rhyme (in Act I, scene i). Sams has further recourse to verse upon the entry of Anselme at the end of the play to denote the rise in emotional temperature. Critical opinion was extremely divided: ‘Charnel-house Molière’ cried Benedict Nightingale in The Times (11 May 1991); ‘one of the best Molière productions I have seen anywhere, ever’ was John Peter's retort in The Sunday Times (12 May 1991).

In Mike Alfreds's farcical modernisation of L'Avare (1990, for The Oxford Stage Company) the currency is updated to that of the single European Monetary System. The world of romance is conveyed by rhyming couplets. These preserve, albeit in a less subtle form, Molière's parody of the lovers' earnest protestations:

I know I must do what I'm told

Fathers know better because they're old

Ignore this scandal

Your father is the one we have to handle.

Alfreds's rendering is, as he styled it himself, ‘a beggar's burlesque’, with its origins in pantomime, or even, as one reviewer facetiously remarked, the ‘Carry On Tradition’.12

The most influential moderniser, however, remains Tony Harrison, whose updating of The Misanthrope (1973) to De Gaulle's Paris of 1966, encouraged a radical re-examination of the presuppositions underpinning translation of Molière. Harrison condemned the almost ‘fetishistic’ belief in the fixity of the text:

It seems to me that one could do worse than treat a translation as one does a décor or production as endlessly renewable.13

For Harrison, a translation is inextricably linked to a production. It is subject to endless emendations and updating, and has a limited lifespan. For The Misanthrope, Harrison's method was a collaborative one, incorporating insights from the producer John Dexter and from the principal actors; votes were taken to decide on the best readings where alternatives were given. The originality of Harrison's enterprise lay not solely in the topical transposition but also in the fusion of epigrams and colloquialisms, and in an eclectic versification:

I have made use of a couplet similar to the one I used in The Loiners, running the lines over, breaking up sentences, sometimes using the odd half-rhyme to subdue the chime, playing off the generally colloquial tone and syntax against the formal structure, letting the occasional couplet leap out as an epigram in moments of devastation or wit. My floating 's is a way of linking the couplet at the joint and speeding up the pace by making the speaker deliver it as almost one line not two […]. I have made use of the occasional Drydenian triplet, and, once in Act III, of something I call a ‘switchback’ rhyme, a device I derive from the works of George Formby […].14

Some of his inventions are rather questionable, such as turning the ‘tribunal des Maréchaux’ into a midnight meeting of the Members of the French Academy at Maxim's, presided over by André Malraux; or assigning to Éliante, whose language in Molière is replete with abstract expressions, the occasional vulgarity: ‘his monstrous mistress with enormous bubs’. However, as The Times's reviewer acknowledged (16 March 1989), Harrison's translation set an unsurpassed standard in the reworking of French classics, ‘combining the maximum idiomatic freedom with the severest metrical precision, and yielding strings of marvellous new jokes unknown to Molière but perfectly in keeping with his comedy’. But, as Harrison predicted, his work dated quickly. In the revival at the National Theatre in 1989, the play had slipped back into a ‘comic never-never land’. De Gaulle's Paris was very different from that of Mitterand, and even from that of Giscard d'Estaing.

Nevertheless, Harrison raised the status of the translator to that of co-dramatist. The new direction was followed by John Fowles, the author of The Collector, The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman, and a former student of French literature at Oxford. His translation of Dom Juan, which, he claimed, was ‘done with the help of one of my old Oxford professors’, left an old London professor with some reservations:

I can give John Fowles a mark of only alpha-double-minus stroke beta-plus […]. There are some inadvertent mistranslations.15

Fowles's conception of the play was, however, highly innovative, as he indicated in an interview with John Higgins of The Times (6 April 1981):

Dom Juan is […] about the use and abuse of language. I see Juan as a semiologist, a kind of early Roland Barthes.

Fowles's eponymous hero constructs and deconstructs the language of his interlocutors. His servant, Sganarelle also communicates on a higher verbal plane (for example, ‘vous ne m'en aviez rien dit’ is rendered by ‘you hadn't vouchsafed me a clarification’; ‘je vous dirai franchement’ by ‘I must tell you without circumloquacity’).

Ranjit Bolt's 1987 version of Les Femmes savantes (entitled The Sisterhood) and his Tartuffe (1991) were also written under the sign of Harrison, whose Misanthrope had been an inspiration to Bolt since he first saw it at the Old Vic at the age of 15.16 Topicality in The Sisterhood included: a discussion of deconstructionists leading to the femmes savantes's rejection of Derrida, Lacan and Foucault; their adopting a Marxist response to Trissotin's poem; Ariste's reported luncheon with Raymond Barre; Martine's confusion of decompose and deconstruct; and the upgrading of Trissotin's violet-coloured carriage (the subject of his poem) to a purple Porsche.17

Bolt's Tartuffe evokes a new swaggartly-topical soteriology. The quasi-messianic pretensions of his Tartuffe are parodied by Cléante's ironic question as he watches Tartuffe pour out a glass of wine:

Have you been sent to save us from sin?

And what was the water before I came in?

Bolt's self-conscious rhyming, however clever and witty, tends to attenuate any satiric barbs implicit in the translation. In Sir Peter Hall's production in 1991 at The Playhouse Theatre, London, the actors were encouraged to end-stop each line, thus calling attention to the unconventional juxtapositions:

I must say my [pause]

Erotic tinder isn't half so dry.

What earthly happiness is equated to [pause]

The happiness of being loved by you.

Look at him, he's totally besotted [pause]

If there's Tartuffo-mania he's got it!

As for the third group of ‘translators’, the post-modernisers have transformed, or even severed links with, their French source. Their parentage may, paradoxically, be traced to the Restoration dramatists, who, like unwanted orphans were abandoned by eighteenth-century ‘formalists’ and nineteenth-century ‘moralists’. These dramatists eschewed literal translation and adaptation. The most faithful among them tended to paraphrase Molière. The majority, however, perceived the need to transform their source to cater for the different tastes of English and French audiences. Molière's respect for the bienséances was found to be less appealing to seventeenth-century English audiences whose penchant for realism led dramatists to attenuate French stylisation and to lower the status of some of the characters.18 In their search for theatrical elements likely to appeal to their public, Restoration dramatists often had little regard for the aesthetic coherence of the plays from which they pillaged. Very few Restoration comedies could, even loosely, be termed translations of Molière.19 In fact, some compositions combined incidents from different plays.20

Into the category of post-modernisers may also be placed Neil Bartlett and Jatinda Verma. In Bartlett's version of Le Misanthrope (1988), the link with the French past is cut: the setting is Célimène's ritzy pied à terre in the newly-fashionable London Docklands. The Court of Louis XIV together with its power-crazed retinue has become the world of contemporary media chic, with its obsequious fashion followers. The cast is reduced to six (most probably for practical rather than for ideological reasons, there being only six actors in the Red Shift company for whom the play was written). Bartlett's Alceste is a waspish literary critic and journalist from North of the Border who finds himself isolated amongst the media moguls and the fashionable yuppie set. The wearer o' the green is referred to as Tartan Teddie. Oronte's role is expanded to include the speeches of the marquesses.

Bartlett has retained the twelve-syllable alexandrine, which gives metrical formality to his anachronistic licence. The adaptation, commended for an epigrammatic brilliance reminiscent of Oscar Wilde, is full of media jargon. Philinte's opening line ‘Qu'est-ce donc?’ is rendered by ‘What's up doc?’; his justification of complacency, by: ‘They're part of the package, part of being a man’. Oronte's sonnet, which is read off the back of a pack of Sobranies, becomes transfixed on the London underground:

My love is like a Northern Line Station

I get stuck on it […].

The image is sustained:

Being a man what should I do

But tend upon the timetable of my desire.

Oronte's composition provokes a rare direct statement from Célimène: ‘His mind is as bland as his verse’. Alceste's language too is invaded by the vulgarity of media-speak as well as by the lexis sometimes associated with his northern temperament. The linguistic lobotomy performed on Molière's atrabilaire is perhaps best illustrated in the ‘translation’ of Alceste's mock-heroic exit:

Crippled by injustice, spat upon by shits,

I'll book a one-way ticket out of this abyss.

Trahi de toutes parts, accablés d'injustices,

Je vais sortir d'un gouffre où triomphent les vices […].

Molière's high moral discourse has to give way to the language of expediency and of commerce. This is the price for a ‘Misanthrope for our times’!

Bartlett's School for Wives (written for the Derby Playhouse in 1990) transposes the French setting to modern-day Derby. Arnolphe is a smug Tory City Councillor, who mouths Thatcherite slogans on morality while at the same time keeping in a little house a black girl from a one-parent family (Molière's Agnès). Ethical questions in Molière are thus given by Bartlett an ethnic dimension.

Ethnicity is a key issue in Jatinda Verma's recreation of Tartuffe for the National Theatre in 1990. An out-of-favour Hindu Poet, Pandit Ravi Varma, is commissioned by a bigoted Muslim leader, the Moghul Emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707) to provide a version of Tartuffe to mark the visit to the Indian Court of one of Molière's friends, the traveller François Bernier. Tartuffe is portrayed as a ‘faking fakir’ who flagellates himself in mock-repentance with scrunched-up dhoti, and who guzzles Indian delicacies while Organ's wife is grievously stricken with an attack of dum-dum fever.

In this play-within-a-play, the role of the translator is given self-conscious prominence. In his programme note, Jatinda Verma indicates that the translator's art entails transforming the original. In support of his argument he cites Salman Rushdie's notion of cultural identity:

… [is] not the entire national culture based on the principle of borrowing whatever clothes [seem] to fit, Aryan, Mughal, British, take-the-best-and-leave-the-rest? (The Satanic Verses)

The written text of Verma's created translator is subjected to a significant emendation. His ending leaves Orgon and his family as penniless exiles. The Moghul Emperor requires, however, a flattering postscriptum which approximates to Molière's introduction of the Exempt. The imperator ex machina closure seems gratuitous. In fact, as Jim Hiley quipped in The Listener (8 March 1990), it is ‘almost as if Salman Rushdie had renounced The Satanic Verses’. At one level, the ‘phoney aesthetic’ is politically subversive in its ironic presentation of the fundamentalist despot's censure of the poet's dénouement. At another level, Verma's invention reopens the debate over the Urtartuffe and invites fresh speculation with regard to Molière's original three-act composition in 1664.

In conclusion, let us assess briefly the significance of these adaptations for Molière studies. In the first place, the trend towards radical revisionism reflects the growing tendency in France to replace the authority of the text by that of the director. Even in recent translations in which there is a professed adherence to the text, there is a modification of setting (for example, Derek Mahon's School for Wives (1986) is set just before the July Revolution of 1830, with Arnolphe based in Avignon but aspiring to the nobility of Paris as represented by Horace and Oronte). It is not insignificant that a number of the ‘translations’ have been undertaken by theatrical directors, and for a particular company and production. Sometimes their work has been based on a translation and not on the original French version.21

Secondly, the mode of expression is becoming increasingly concrete and colloquial. Even John Fowles's literary rendering of Dom Juan contained ‘frank twentieth-century terms in place of seventeenth-century decorum’,22 which caused purists no little disquiet. A new low verbal threshold was set by Jeremy Sams. However, to judge from reviews, this has already been lowered by the earthy, boisterous tone of Nick Dear's Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (National Theatre 1992). It will be interesting to follow the theatrical fortunes of Ian Maclean's revision of George Gravely's more high-flown translations, and of his own version of George Dandin.

Thirdly, the divorce between stage and study is perhaps not as marked as it might appear. Though these adaptations obviously cannot be recommended as parallel texts, they give theatrical expression to debates in criticism: for example, the problematic ending of Tartuffe; the comic possibilities offered by Molière's versification (a largely unexplored area in Molière studies); those seemingly embarrassing passages—for example, the first two scenes and the ending of L'Avare; Cléante's long speeches in Tartuffe; generic problems—for example, is L'Avare a comedy, a farce or a dark play, or all three things combined in a single aesthetic?

Finally, these adaptations raise fundamental questions with regard to the art of translating Molière for the English stage. Do the aesthetics of performance justify the sacrifice of accuracy? Should the preposition in the title of the translation be changed from by to after Molière? Should the authors discussed above be termed traducers or translators? Such questions cannot, however, be answered within the scope of this paper. It is sufficient to say that, however faithful the translation, if it is incapable of stimulating the theatrical imagination of director, actors and audience, it fails the litmus test of all drama. The works discussed pass the above test—sometimes with distinction. Yet, if I may have recourse to an old cliché, even some of the more traditionally orientated versions may be seen as a betrayal of the original. However, such betrayal is paradoxically a faithful one, if judged by the ‘spirit’ and not the ‘letter’ of Molière's dramaturgy. For the ‘translators’ are contributing to a revival of interest in Molière,23 not least among a new generation of theatregoers, beyond whose philological grasp the original versions would otherwise perhaps forever lie.


  1. The Sunday Times, 18 October 1987.

  2. The Daily Telegraph, 31 March 1990.

  3. The Times, 6 April 1981.

  4. First published in 1876 (by William Paterson, Edinburgh) and revived in 1992 (by Dover Publications, New York).

  5. See John Simon, ‘Translation or Adaptation’, in From Parnassus: Essays in honor of Jacques Barzun, edited by D. B. Weiner and W. R. Keylor (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 147-57; Noël Peacock, Molière in Scotland (Glasgow: University of Glasgow French and German Publications, 1993), pp. 43, 75-76, 121-22, 139, 180.

  6. Tony Harrison, ‘Molière Nationalized’, Revue d'histoire du théâtre (1973), 169-86 (p. 169).

  7. John Gross's commendation in The Sunday Telegraph (12 December 1993) is consistent with that of other reviewers: Michael Billington, The Guardian (10 December 1993): ‘Richard Wilbur's sprightly translation’; the drama critic of The Independent (15 December 1993): ‘Richard Wilbur's enjoyably inventive translation’; George Craig, TLS, 4733 (17 December 1993): ‘Richard Wilbur's translation is assured and sensitive. There are some memorable rhymes […].’

  8. Maclean considers the style somewhat similar to that of Restoration dramatists. Gravely's versions of Les Précieuses ridicules, Le Médecin malgré lui and Les Fourberies de Scapin were originally undertaken in 1916; his L'Avare in 1919. Gravely revised these translations in 1945, and added in 1948 translations of Dom Juan and Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (see Ian Maclean, Molière: Don Juan and Other Plays (Oxford: OUP, 1989), p. xxi).

  9. For example, ‘Trivelino’, ‘Aronce […] Clélie’, ‘Cirrus the Great’, ‘petit coucher’, ‘Great Comedians’, ‘Perdrigeon’, ‘Gombaud and Macée’.

  10. For further discussion of Malleson's adaptations see: J. Copley, ‘On Translating Molière into English’, Durham University Journal, 52 (1959-60), 116-24; Peacock, op. cit., pp. 9-10, 23-25, 60-61, 69-73, 117-18, 159-61, 192-93, 212-13.

  11. See, for example: Stephen Bamforth, ‘Reflections on the National Theatre's New Miser (9 May 1991)’, FSB, 40 (Autumn 1991), 18-20: ‘… racy to be sure, but not quite the sort of thing you expect from French classical theatre, not even Molière's’; Malcolm Bowie, ‘Greed's Epic Poet’, TLS, 4598 (17 May 1991): ‘A small blemish, perhaps, in a production where such all-in gusto often works well but Molière's writing deserves better than this’.

  12. Charles Spencer, The Daily Telegraph, 31 March 1990.

  13. Harrison, art. cit., p. 172.

  14. Harrison's introduction to The Misanthrope (London: Rex Collings, 1973), p. vi.

  15. John Weightman, TLS, 4072 (17 April 1981).

  16. See Robert Gore Langton's interview with Ranjit Bolt in The Times, 4 June 1990.

  17. See the review in the TLS, 4420 (18 December 1987) by Maya Slater.

  18. For example, in Wycherley's The Plain Dealer, Molière's sophisticated coquette, Célimène, is vulgarised into the unambiguously promiscuous Olivia; l'homme aux rubans verts is transformed into a coarse, blustering sailor.

  19. There are only five generally accepted translations: Sir William D'Avenant's Sganarelle in The Playhouse to be Let, John Dryden's Amphitryon, Thomas Otway's The Cheats of Scapin, Thomas Medbourne's Tartuffe or the French Puriton, and Sir John Vanbrugh's The Mistake.

  20. The eclecticism of the Restoration dramatists can be seen in Edward Ravenscroft's Scaramouch, which brings together elements of Le Mariage forcé, Les Fourberies de Scapin and Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, or in his Mamamouchi, which was based on Le Bourgeois gentilhomme and Monsieur de Pourceaugnac.

  21. For example, Jatinda Verma openly acknowledged in his programme note that his Tartuffe was based on a translation from the French by Philippe Cherbonnier.

  22. See Weightman, art. cit.

  23. See, for example, the number of performances since 1989 in London, a theatrical centre previously regarded as unpropitious to productions of Molière: 1989—Le Misanthrope (Neil Bartlett, Young Vic), The Misanthrope (Tony Harrison, National); 1990—The Miser (Mike Alfreds, Young Vic), Tartuffe (Jatinda Verma, National), Tartuffe (David Bryer, Palace [Watford]); 1991—The Miser (Jeremy Sams, National), Tartuffe (Ranjit Bolt, Playhouse); 1992—Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (Nick Dear, National); 1993—The School for Wives (Richard Wilbur, Almeida).

Larry W. Riggs (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Desire, Disclosure, and Power: Molière's Unmasking of Hegemonic Ideology,” in Romance Languages Annual, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1994, pp. 144-50.

[In the following essay, Riggs discusses the relationships between desire, discourse, and the institutionalized world as presented in Molière's comedies.]

… the ocularcentrism of modernity, the hegemony of vision, the the installation of the reign of the despotic eye, is also a verbocentrism, the consciousness of the book, and an egocentrism, the consciousness of a separated, detached atom of individuality.—Robert D. Romanyshyn

In his Jameson, Althusser, Marx, William Dowling demonstrates that an ideological discourse contains a system of abstract rules and implies a system of concrete institutions. I would argue that such a discourse is, in fact, constituted by the ambition or desire to produce such a system of institutions, such a social and cultural world. The discourse and the institutions constitute, legitimate, and perpetuate one another. I will attempt to persuade you that it is just this relationship among desire, discourse, and an institutionalized world that is at issue in Molière's major comedies. A concretized, materialized discourse is an institutionalized desire, an ambitious hallucination transformed into a social world. This definition enables us to see that, for Molière, it is important to denounce ideological ambitions that aim to institutionalize a kind of ventriloquism: a hegemony, in the etymological sense, in which all voices are instruments of the single, central voice of power.

According to Jean Duvignaud, “La dérision trouble la cohérence des systèmes, des structures, et la gravité des observateurs” (11). If Molière's major comedies lampoon his ridicules' absolutist ambitions, it is, at the same time, because that is the vocation of comedy and because Molière and his contemporaries lived the establishment of a modern culture driven by desire for abstraction, universalization, and institutionalization. In effect, as I have argued elsewhere (“Intimations”), Molière's comedy tries to do what post-modernist thought mandates: demolishing closures, creating in meaning systems openings that prevent epistemological sclerosis, studying the motives that drive representation, making of language itself the main focus of critical consciousness. Signification, as a function of desire and power, is always at the heart of Moliéresque drama. In the period when modern culture's hegemony was establishing itself, Molière contested the major codes of that modernity (see Vernet).

The “idées souverainistes,” in Robert Mandrou's phrase (39), which the ridicules have in common with the real absolutists of the time, like their reflexive repression of dissent, reflect absolutist rationalism's ruthless hostility to cultural resistance. Reason, in the modern, universalist sense, is fundamentally paranoid: as a function of the will to universalization, it is obliged to fear all particularities. The quest for complete mastery of nature, the attempt to construct a world reflecting and supporting a whole and transcendental self, is illusory and perpetuates fear (Albanese). The dystopia that the ridicules' mad “cognitive utopia” (Tyler 132) would be, if it were realized, is inherent in modern civilization's epistemological imperialism. The ridicule is the repressed double of the transcendental Cartesian subject.

The desire to control, manipulate, and even re-create nature which modern, techno-scientistic culture and Molière's ridicules have in common, regards every manifestation of nature that escapes the totalizing generalizations of instrumental knowledge and normative discourse as an intolerable threat. The comic character who aspires to be the only subject of desire in his or her “realm” shares with absolutist monarchy and instrumentalist modernism this fear of all that is heterodox or plurivocal.

In the plays I study here, as in modern, pedagogico-therapeutic culture, a pedagogical imperative operates on the profoundest level. Molière forces us to recognize two dangerous aspects of the ridicules' desire to live in a world made by and of words: first, normative discourse hides the tyrannical preacher/pedagogues' motives and ambitions; second, the therapeutic, imperialistic attitude justified and imposed by such discourse creates a cultural environment wherein people will, in fact, have to live. Words are an important focus of comic scrutiny precisely because they can construct the world “hallucinated” by the would-be tyrant. As Benjamin Bennett puts it, one of comic theater's essential functions is to prevent excessive privileging of literary, textual signs (10).

From Arnolphe to Dom Juan and Alceste, from Harpagon to Monsieur Jourdain and Argan, Molière's ridicules want to be proprietors of a power legitimated and perpetuated by definitive knowledge. They are driven by fear and by desire for mastery. Each wants to be the sole transcendental subject of an unchallenged hegemony. Their megalomania is a refusal of drama, of the presence of the Other, of the absence that always gnaws away at dreams of absolutist plenitude. This absence and drama are present as the origin of fear and desire and as the ultimate message of the plays. Laughter recognizes and enacts these lacunae in our being and our knowledge: laughter reaffirms the primacy of the body; it is a physical act. By ending with laughter and, quite often, with a marriage and a feast, comedies celebrate appetite, openings, fertility (see Tobin). They show that control means closure, sclerosis, starvation, sterility. Pleasure and nourishment come to us in the form of exchanges through openings. To open one's mouth to laugh is to prepare for pleasure and nourishment, to acknowledge the inseparability of body and mind.

The ridicules always try to disguise their lust for power as devotion to principle, whether the principle be Arnolphe's méthode, Alceste's sincerity, the supposed ascetic idealism of the femmes savantes, or Orgon's religious zeal. Each wants to live in a world entirely structured by his or her normative discourse, while Molière undermines their project and celebrates their failure.

General discussion of appetite or desire in Molière leads to productive consideration of power and its legitimate or illegitimate uses as Molière sees them. The relation between power and pleasure is an important Moliéresque preoccupation. Consumption—of food, of words and texts, of flattery—is a pervasive theme. Molière's most energetic condemnation is reserved for those whose pleasure is power. As Ronald Tobin has recently emphasized, comedy is closely connected with the celebratory ritual of feasting. The conviviality of a feast, like that of a pluralistic society, is destroyed when the powerful seek pleasure by denying others access to pleasure.

Molière recognizes that the order of the social world is always linguistic and that language always expresses desires. He dramatizes tension between speech, or drama, and text. He understands the temptation to use words as privileged signifiers to establish power for the Self over the Other and to disguise the desire for power as devotion to principles. It is illuminating to see how often this drama turns on attempts to impose text as a means of escaping pluralistic, dramatic communication.

The relation between print and power has been studied in literary works from Rabelais and Cervantes to George Orwell and beyond. Here, obviously, I want to deal with Molière. The French comedian lived on the border between drama and literature and during the period of rapid centralization of French politics, language, and culture. Max Vernet has quite recently elucidated Molière's critique of the modernity emerging in his time. The plays dramatize a cultural battle that had begun in earnest one hundred fifty years earlier.

Theorists of absolutism, ambitious literary figures, and aggressively evangelical moralists throughout Western Europe recognized the power of print. In each case, the nation-building, absolutist project involved institutionalizing a national language, always a synthetic distillate of dialects; attacking regionalisms; and creating a professional class of writers, critics, and jurists whose expertise was in reading, writing, and inculcating the new language. Textualization of consciousness, or colonization of subjective “space” by authoritative discourses concretized in printed texts, is an important feature of early modern culture. Resistance to this process quickly came to be defined as perverse, as a threatening otherness obstructing the progress of Reason. Print, despite its impersonal appearance, has always been saturated with desire for power. Molière dramatizes and analyzes the kinds of personal fears and motives that drive attempts to engineer reality and consciousness and to stamp out unorthodox forms of discourse.

Molière's use of his own artistic voice involved him in a number of grave disputes. The adherents of préciosité, most notably Madeleine de Scudéry, were “scandalized” by Les Précieuses ridicules and managed to have that play banned for two weeks. Coming at the beginning of their career in Paris, that interdiction could have made it impossible for Molière's troupe to survive. A bit later, of course, the parti dévot succeeded in having Tartuffe banned. This crisis lasted five years. Most of the major plays analyze the effects of univocalist ideologies of conversion. They ridicule domestic hegemonies while underlining the analogies between those burlesque tyrannies and the reality of increasing cultural and moral authoritarianism in seventeenth-century France.

Molière's comic types are oblivious to the voice of their desire, which is audible to us in their discourse. They are oblivious, also, to the desire in the voices of those who flatter their ambition. The femmes savantes, like Orgon, in Le Tartuffe, are the dupes of their chosen authority figures precisely because they desire unquestioned authority for themselves. These would-be domestic tyrants want to transform complex, dramatic, familial networks, which resemble the feudal order, into absolutist entities, with all authority residing in a single figure and all “communication” going in one direction. Molière shows that absolutism would convert a family—or a society—into the collective equivalent of a single diseased personality: into a collective solipsism.

Terry Eagleton has said that “bourgeois dreams of transcendence tend to be foolish fantasies” (100). The learned ladies' abstractionist Utopia certainly qualifies as a foolish fantasy. In ridiculing it, however, Molière denounces the masked desire in all transcendentalist discourse. He also lampoons official aesthetics, or the organized production of taste, as a formula for repressive mediocrity. Taste is always desire cycled through and disciplined by a normative discourse. In the ladies' Utopia, they would control the discourse; that discourse would institutionalize their desires and interests.

Molière knows the implications of this. The play exposes the ladies' textual world as a palimpsest: their lust for power, prestige, and artificially intensified sexual enjoyment constantly shows through their immaterialist rhetoric. When hallucinations are successfully realized, they become dictatorships. This is exactly what the ladies have in mind. They define resistance as defectiveness. Their normative discourse is oppression disguised as therapy for the culturally defective.

Les Femmes savantes examines closely the way personal motives and physical desires can be disguised by transforming them into such normative language. The ladies' system is a method for acquiring power and prestige. They present it as an ascetic aspiration toward “higher” consciousness and an evangelical zeal to bring this consciousness to others. The ladies thus join in the classicist/précieux effort to control eros by encoding it in logos—to domesticate desire by controlling linguistic expression. Molière mocks this ambition as both unrealistic and hypocritical: language can only disguise desire. Normative language can hide, and serve, the pleasure of controlling others' access to pleasure. It cannot serve as a means to or expression of authentic transcendence. The body is always present as means and motive.

This purported mastery of emotion is part of classicism's effort to mask the consolidation of political power as cultural and psychological progress. This supposed “progress” toward mental control of physical impulses is both an instrument and a justification of some people's growing hegemony over others. Molière, like other writers from Rabelais to Orwell, is aware of the way language habits are used to validate political hierarchies. He was involved in hard, serious battles for cultural, and therefore for political, influence.

Préciosité, which subjects communication to a vocabulary of abstract words and rites, is a perfect example of what Bennett calls excessive privileging of literary language (10). Desires are submitted to synthetic linguistic formulas; people try to speak like books. This discipline claims to civilize material interests and desires by denying them explicit expression. Its arbiters are writers and grammarians. Explicit references to desire are banished from précieux discourse. The supposed conquest of nature is thus inscribed in language itself. However, the conquest of nature is always in reality the conquest of certain elements of society by others. Molière shows how this ersatz transcendence of desire becomes an instrument of desire.

In their relations with the hack précieux poet, Trissotin, the ladies show an infantile reverence for the literary language they associate with the desired transformation of their status. They treat words as magical possessions, as talismanic objects capable of producing metamorphoses. In Act 3, scene 2, Trissotin answers the ladies’ “prayers” by reciting some of his verses. The subtext of appetite in the ladies' attitude to Trissotin has already been betrayed by Bélise who, in the previous scene, says that the poems are “Repas friands qu'on donne à mon oreille” (line 716), and begs the poet: “Faites tôt, et hâtez nos plaisirs” (line 718). The ladies clearly intend to enjoy extreme pleasure while claiming the moral superiority of “ascetics” and blocking others' access to pleasure.

The words are status symbols, and their display is intended to weld this little group together and validate their superiority. The meal-metaphor—“Servez-nous promptement votre aimable repas” (line 746)—and the repeated sexual overtones—“On s'en meurt de plaisir” (line 810)—emphasize the physical basis of all motivation. Trissotin obviously succeeds by pretending to substitute literary signs for bodily needs and by marketing this technique as a status symbol. Molière portrays the ladies' consumption of the poem as a process of ventriloquism: their subjectivity is literally constituted from literary products even as they think of themselves as original. They ingest and regurgitate Trissotin's bookish words.

The fact that the poem is actually one by a real précieux scribbler of the time emphasizes the issue of textuality. The textual coincidence also emphasizes the issue of reproduction as a means of colonizing the consciousness of naïve language-consumers. The ladies' desire for power and prestige makes them the creatures of professional textualizers. Language is, in effect, using them to talk to itself and to achieve its own spread. Molière recognizes that the motives for a text's production and propagation always “show through.” At the play's end, of course, Trissotin's own very material motives will be revealed.

After their ecstatic session with Trissotin, the ladies begin to speak of their plans for an Academy where everything will be taught. The foundation of this universalist institution will be their absolute control over language. Moreover, as they speak of their school, the language of power, already familiar in their speech, returns: “Vous verrez nos status quand ils seront tous faits” (line 920): “Nous serons par nos lois les juges des ouvrages. / Par nos lois, prose et vers, tout nous sera soumis” (lines 922-23; my emphasis).

The self-idealizations of any dominant group are disguised and universalized through institutions, most notably through schools. The ladies' “aspirations” are really toward the exercise of a power whose legitimacy will be beyond question. This kind of power cannot be questioned because it is masked as impersonal idealism. In addition, it is impossible to question a power which is completely identified with the language in which complaints would have to be expressed and with the institutions where that language is taught. The ladies clearly aim at perfect power over the subjective experience of their “subjects.” They hope to practice a “terroristic signification” much like that referred to by Jean Baudrillard (Poster 4).

It is evident that the ladies' desire for personal power motivates their “spiritualism.” In her conflict with the cook, Martine, Philaminte asserts the independence of mind from nourishment. Molière argues that only those who inhabit a hallucinatory world made of words can assert the superiority of “spirit” over body. References to Vaugelas and Cotin emphasize that the ladies' world is constructed by and from texts. At the same time, Molière shows us that textual worlds are constructed in order to realize desires, and that the desires masked by attacks on desire are the most dangerous ones.

Tartuffe is another fascinating study of power and pleasure. The play attacks desire's disguises in their most impenetrable citadel: religion, morality, and preaching. Tartuffe himself is a crude figure whose physical appetites are rather obvious. He is gros and gras. He eats and drinks greedily. He uses the language of devoutness to pursue sexual ends. The play dissects the power-pleasure nexus on a more profound and more subversive level, however: speech, both in itself and as a means of reducing others to silence, is a source of pleasure for the tyrannical characters. Beginning with Madame Pernelle in the first scene, they constantly interrupt and pontificate. First Orgon, and then Tartuffe himself, are brought low by their excessive desire to express their power in language. Speech—and texts—are means of penetrating and consuming others. Competition for the privilege of manipulating signs is an extension of more physical conflicts.

The point here is that, if speech itself is both an expression and an extension of pleasure, then the ultimate hypocrisy is to preach asceticism to the silenced Other. Molière's long battle against the univocalist forces in seventeenth-century France is at its most intense in Le Tartuffe. The lust being unmasked is not merely that of a seedy, hypocritical buffoon; it is that of all authoritarian moralism.

In Tartuffe, Orgon and Madame Pernelle's relationship with Tartuffe parallels the learned ladies' fascination with Trissotin. From the beginning of the play, it is clear that language, power, and pleasure are at issue. Tartuffe is literally identified by Orgon with weighty, moralizing texts: Orgon recommends that his family, too fond of pleasure, read La Fleur des saints, a large book of moralizing clichés. Orgon's character parodies the dream of an all founding Word. Tartuffe's devoutness is a quasi-textual creation: it is made out of pious words and gestures. Molière makes us aware that dévotion is a performance. Like the learned ladies, then, Orgon has learned the “technique” of ignoring the biological, the bodily basis of all performances. The return, or revenge, of the body and of desire is fundamental in this play, too.

The desire for control is explicitly linked by Molière with Orgon's almost mystical respect for documents. Orgon is in a hurry to institutionalize his desires in the form of legally binding texts. He wants his desire to be the environment his family lives in. He has a marriage contract binding his daughter to Tartuffe, and a formal transfer of his wealth to Tartuffe, drawn-up. Orgon wants to institutionalize a new order chartered by authoritative texts and permitting him to escape from personal relations and obligations. He wants to disguise this desire for a world emanating from him as a quest for moral improvement. In fact, he is afraid of his family. He wants to imprison their subjectivity within legal, documentary walls and to take pleasure in blocking their pleasures.

Tartuffe corresponds rather nicely to the Church as legitimator of absolutist hegemony and to Louis XIV's militantly orthodox Jesuit counsellors. The battle for discursive dominance in Orgon's household reflects the one going on in France. Tartuffe provides both a source of religious discourse slanted to Orgon's advantage and a flattering mirror or double reinforcing Orgon's conception of himself as analogous to God. However, Tartuffe proves to be a palimpsest. Transcendentalist discourse thinly veils strong, earthy desires.

Orgon's eyes are opened to the truth about Tartuffe only when his ears are opened to the latter's voice. When Orgon hides under a table while Tartuffe is speaking with Orgon's wife, Elmire, Tartuffe's personal voice breaks through his pseudo-scriptural rhetoric. When he cannot see the mesmerizing representative of his vision, he is returned to the acoustic space of dramatic being. The eye is aggressive; it selects its objects and isolates or abstracts it from all context. Its focus is always motivated. However, in modernist culture, vision is identified with clarity and objectivity. The ear, on the other hand, can neither select its “object” nor close itself. That is why the illusory absolutist world of Orgon collapses only when, hidden under the table from where he can no longer see and be mesmerized by his idol, the dupe is forced to hear Tartuffe's voice.

Orgon's solipsistic universe evaporates when Orgon hears this voice, which expresses the desire of a rival. Orgon's mask falls off in the instant when Tartuffe's lust becomes audible to him. The motives behind Tartuffe's devout rhetoric show through when Tartuffe believes he is within reach of his object, which is pleasure. He is revealed as a competing appetite. The play-within-the-play thus has the same aim as the play proper: transcendentalist rhetoric is exposed as merely a mask for competitive desire. Orgon and Madame Pernelle, like the learned ladies, are first the dupes of their own desires disguised as a disinterested quest for “higher” reality. There can be no unmotivated quest, and no “transcendent” motives. The “gros et gras” Tartuffe could have been an honest Rabelaisian, but his effort to pass for a saintly ascetic leads to his downfall. The body takes its revenge, then, on both Orgon and Tartuffe. The hierarchical division of body and spirit, the model and basis for all other hierarchies, collapses.

Throughout Le Tartuffe, it is emphasized that language emanates from bodies. As it emerges from his body and tries to penetrate Elmire, Tartuffe's discourse makes it clear that his body is the motive as well as the means of his utterances. Language is a weapon and a symptom, not a transparent medium of truth.

Gorgibus, in Le Cocu imaginaire, also wants absolute power over his household. His method is to force his daughter to read moralizing texts. He specifically recommends Pibrac's Les Quatrains, Les Tablettes de la Vie et de la Mort by Matthieu, and the Spanish Dominican Luis de Granada's Guide des pécheurs. Gorgibus says to Célie that “si vous n'aviez lu que ces moralités, / Vous sauriez un peu mieux suivre mes volontés” (lines 39-40). Gorgibus's concern for Célie's soul is merely a mask for his will-to-power.

Gorgibus thus insists that Célie perfect her submission to his will by reading certain texts. He strongly resembles Arnolphe, the foolish tyrant of L'Ecole des femmes. Arnolphe's method, as he calls it, has the same goal as Gorgibus's: he wants to create a woman whose submission to his desire is perfect, whose very being is submission. Arnolphe wants to make himself entirely safe from infidelity, and he has educated Agnès with this goal alone in view. His technique is one of physical and mental incarceration. Agnès lives within the confines of Arnolphe's house, and he controls her access to people and experiences. As is the case for Gorgibus, a key to Arnolphe's technique for engineering a submissive woman is moralistic literature. Arnolphe and Gorgibus regard texts as the means to domesticate their female charges just as modern genetic engineers domesticate “wild,” unpredictable genes by subjecting them to rewriting. The two types imitate religious proselytizers and rationalist universalizers in reducing problems to a matter of manipulating information

In Act 3, scene 2, Arnolphe has Agnès read from what he calls “un écrit important / Qui vous enseignera l'office de la femme” (lines 741-42). The book is Les Maximes du Mariage. The resemblance between this book—Agnès reads ten maxims—and the Ten Commandments was one of the reasons for the Querelle de L'Ecole des femmes. This scene begins with Arnolphe telling Agnès what he expects of her, and saying “imprimez-le-vous bien” (line 678). Arnolphe clearly expects that Agnès will be perfectly obedient because her subjectivity will be composed entirely of texts expressing the absoluteness of her obligation to him. His desire will be the force that creates her. He wants to use moralistic texts to engineer a subjectivity of subjection for Agnès, to control the way she allocates her attention, and to determine the nature of her experience.

The action of the play turns on Arnolphe's failure to control Agnès's access to communication from outside and to determine her production of words. As she voices her pleasure and desire, Arnolphe's textual “architecture” crumbles. Agnès gains control over the allocation of her attention, over her production and reception of language. Her liberation begins when she uses language to express her desires. Appropriately, she first does this through a window—the inevitable breach in Arnolphe's textual preserve.

Arnolphe's system of architectural and textual walls is intended to create and preserve his power over a woman. Like the learned ladies, he sees education as normalization and “feminization,” as a process for creating—imprinting—the Other's subjectivity. He sees people with whom Agnès might come into contact as rival teachers. In berating her for her “infidelity,” he says “Il faut qu'on vous ait mise à quelque bonne école” (line 1497; my emphasis). This is an inadvertent admission that Arnolphe really understands the relation between desire and moralism. He speaks like a moralizing book because he knows univocal control is threatened by rival discourses.

Another of Molière's characters who tries to speak like a book is Dom Juan: “vous parlez tout comme un livre,” Sganarelle says to his master, in the opening scene of Dom Juan. Much of this play's comedy, and much of its meditation on power, turn on the linguistic differences between Sganarelle and Dom Juan. Sganarelle, like Martine, the cook in Les Femmes savantes, is superstitious and uses language like a peasant, while his master speaks the language of rationalism. To speak like a book is to reproduce orally the conventions of a written code. This gives to speech the air of having a source “above” the level of personal, dialogic communication and desire. Speech that seems to be like a text thus has authority no one would be willing to accord to a mere personal voice. Power's service to appetite is disguised as normative discourse. In Dom Juan's case, the reality of power is always discernible under the pretense of reason.

Dom Juan is not really rational: others' acceptance of his “arguments” depends on his power in the social system, not on his persuasiveness. His intelligence and reasonableness are no more at issue than is his personal attractiveness. In terms of both eros and logos, he trades on his social advantages. Molière thus suggests that rational communication is in a problematical relation with the exercise of power. He would agree with Jürgen Habermas that real community will be realized only when there is unlimited speech, free from constraint by the dominance of ideology or neurosis (xvii).

Dom Juan's major characteristic, and the essence of “speaking like a book,” is, then, his refusal of dialogue. Sganarelle's speech is deformed in at least two ways by his master's discourse of power: first, Sganarelle consciously avoids the kind of coherence that would make him Dom Juan's discursive rival; secondly, his oral, folkloric discourse is unable to match Dom Juan's bookishness in a society that has already decided to sanctify the superstition of Reason above all others. Thus, Sganarelle is obligated to pretend to be more ignorant than he is. Dom Juan's dominance has nothing to do with possessing “truth”; it suffices that he possesses power. No satisfactory dialogue can develop in this situation. Being and drama can reassert themselves only through Dom Juan's complete destruction.

The marginalizing, or silencing, of plurivocality (see Gaines) is clearly an extremely important issue in Dom Juan. Molière's own voice had been silenced by powerful figures in seventeenth-century France. The servant's obligatory inarticulateness and caution in expressing quite appropriate thoughts mirror Molière's own situation. Dom Juan refuses to listen to Sganarelle's indirect warnings, and his refusal has disastrous results. The nobleman resembles the powerful in France who tried to silence Molière rather than heed his warnings about their abuses. Molière, who played the part of Sganarelle, speaks “through” the character when the latter says that “la crainte en moi fait l'office du zèle, bride mes sentiments, et me réduit d'applaudir bien souvent à ce que mon âme déteste” (Act 1, scene 1). From inside his partial disguise as Sganarelle, then, Molière meditates on the effects of discursive tyranny. The connection between this play and Tartuffe becomes explicit when, in Act 5, Dom Juan becomes a religious hypocrite.

Molière denounces discursive monopoly. He carefully, “inarticulately,” mocks his masters as he plays the part of a servile but worried valet whose discourse is interrupted, distorted, or silenced by a master who ignores very sensible warnings. Dom Juan does, in effect, precisely what Molière's enemies had done by banning Tartuffe. Like Sganarelle's disjointed speeches, this play says what the interdiction of Le Tartuffe prevented Molière from saying more directly.

By converting his “nobility,” insofar as nobility is supposed to have a moral dimension, into an imposture, Dom Juan has undermined the whole social system's credibility. Hegemonic power undermines its own basis. It also destroys the mutuality that, finally, even the most powerful need if their power is to have any real meaning. Molière attacks, through the story of Dom Juan, the univocalism of French absolutism. His own difficulties were a direct consequence of the period's increasing moral and cultural authoritarianism.

In the universe of Dom Juan, we can already see what Rousseau will denounce as the detachment of desire from real physical needs. Such detachment, and Molière sees this as clearly as Rousseau will, produces a generalized, insatiable desire. This desire characterizes modern civilization which was, in Molière's time, already on the way to becoming the civilization of consumption. It is only on the level of abstraction that desire can be unlimited, and Dom Juan is as much an abstractionist as any femme savante. Their semiotic voracity makes these characters into signs devouring other signs. We have seen this clearly in the scenes where the learned ladies metaphorically “devour” Trissotin's poem. When Dom Juan decomposes the peasant girl Charlotte's body into a set of partial objects in order to admire it more eloquently (Act 2, scene 2), he makes her into a sort of pretext for a rhetorical exercise; by changing her body into a collection of words, Dom Juan disguises his desire as literature. By doing this, he transforms himself into a machine for manufacturing verbiage. By talking like a book, Dom Juan masks his own corporal substance. All of his substance will be consumed by the flames of a generalized desire which Molière disguises as divine retribution.

I hope it is evident that we would benefit from applying these ideas to other Molièresque plays. In Le Misanthrope, Alceste is an excellent example of the old alliance between light and power (Riggs “Optics”). That alliance, which is fundamental to the origins, in Greek thought, of modern epistemological imperialism (Blumenberg 46), is at the heart of Alceste's identification of control with an independent, definitive perspective. After all, it is Alceste who echoes Descartes by saying that “Les doutes sont fâcheux plus que tout autre chose” (line 1122) and who wants to be told only “ce qu'avec clarté l'on peut me faire voir” (line 1124). Arsinoé plays the Mephistophelean role we have seen Tartuffe and Trissotin playing when she assures Alceste that she will give him “une pleine lumière” (line 1126) on Célimène. Célimène thus becomes, in my opinion, the archetype of the object of a knowledge which wills itself to be absolute and objective. Alceste's rhetorical devotion to sincerity is a mask for his desire to possess the object of his invasive knowledge. Like the other ridicules, Alceste attempts to construct for himself a transcendental subjectivity justifying a therapeutic attitude toward others. It is also important to note that, like the other major ridicules, Alceste identifies power with text: he believes he possesses Célimène definitively when Arsinoé has given him what she claims Célimène has written (see Riggs “Purloined”).

In his analysis of Le Misanthrope, Vernet says that “Célimène … avec les autres pervertisseurs de signes … complètent la galerie de ceux qui espèrent une récompense du travail d'indifférenciation qu'ils font subir aux mots ou aux choses” (263). Célimène's art is that of writing caricatural portraits. Nothing could be more abstract than such caricatures: they fix living beings in the immobility of texts and make definitive the angle of vision of their composer. Célimène wants to be the privileged reader, and thus the writer, of her world. Her desire, as much as that of Alceste, is unmasked by the play.

In L'Avare, Harpagon's disordered appetite for gold, that paradoxical substance which seems to materialize the abstract value of money, is so closely related to death that he is obliged to bury the object of his desire. He will be unable to enjoy the feast that closes the play and defeats his effort to starve all who have lived under his power.

Whether literally or figuratively, all of Molière's ridicules are forced to perform the comic pirouette, that ineluctable performance which, along with laughter, returns the body to its rightful prominence. Molière never stops reminding us that the most “rational” universalism derives its imperialistic energy from personal, material desires. He reminds us, in other words, that culture is the materialization of motives, of desires, and that every human activity is a performance. No performance is disinterested.

Molière forces us to face the anxiety engendered by awareness that the ridiculous aspiring transcendental ego is the reflection of our own personal and cultural ambitions. This is what Orgon experiences when he hears Tartuffe's lust in his speech and what we experience in laughing at our lust for control. Molière's comedy, just as much as the Freudian unconscious, subverts the would-be definitive language of the Subject. The comic pirouette sketches the emptiness at the center of Being; it and the laughter it provokes acknowledge the encounter between desire and its limits.

There is a body in every costume, just as it is always a body that speaks and writes. Although we have increasingly identified knowledge and power with vision and reading, desire always has a voice. The petty domestic tyrannies ridiculed and undermined by Molière are would-be copies of real absolutism, whose ubuesque core it is, in my view, Molière's purpose to show. The domain each ridicule would like to dominate would be constituted and sustained by a normative univocality, an unquestionably legitimate hegemony. The ridicule wants to be the master and proprietor of a world that would be, in fact, nothing more than the materialization of that desire.

Finally, comedy shows us that chance, gaps, and openings are our “salvation.” Nourishment—intellectual or physical—comes to us only through openings. Closure is famine. Our visualist, transcendentalist, textualist epistemology, which defines knowledge as a kind of technique bestowing the power to manipulate the world, ties us to the ridicules. It is only by accepting—indeed, by celebrating—the unmasking of the desires that constitute and perpetuate that epistemology that we can see pleasure and mutuality, nourishment and surprise, are inseparable.

Works Cited

Albanese, Ralph, Jr. Le Dynamisme de la peur chez Molière: une analyse socio-culturelle de Dom Juan, Tartuffe, et L'Ecole des femmes. Jackson: University of Mississippi Romance Monographs, 1976.

Bennett, Benjamin. Theater as Problem: Modern Drama and Its Place in Literature. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.

Blumenberg, Hans. “Light as Metaphor for Truth.” Levin 30-62.

Clifford, James, and George Marcus, eds. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.

Dowling, William. Jameson, Althusser, Marx: An Introduction to the Political Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1984.

Duvignaud, Jean. Le Propre de l'homme: histoires du rire et de la dérision. Paris: Hachette, 1985.

Eagleton, Terry. The Function of Criticism: From the Spectator to Post-Structuralism. London: New Left Books, 1984.

Gaines, James F. Social Structures in Molière's Theater. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1984.

Habermas, Jürgen. Legitimation Crisis. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon, 1975.

Levin, David Michael, ed. Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

———. “Introduction.” Levin 1-29.

Mandrou, Robert, L'Europe absolutiste: raison et raison d'état 1649-1775. Paris: Fayard, 1977.

Molière, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. Oeuvres complètes. Paris: Garnier Frères, 1966-69.

Poster, Mark. ed. Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1988.

Riggs, Larry W. “Another Purloined Letter: Text, Transparency, and Transcendence in Le Misanthrope.The French Review 66.1 (October 1992): 26-37.

———. “Intimations of Post-Structuralism: Subversion of the Classicist Subject in Les Femmes savantes and Le Tartuffe.Literature, Interpretation, Theory 2 (1990): 59-75.

———. “The Optics of Power and the Hazards of Judgment in Molière's Le Misanthrope.Nottingham French Studies 18.2 (October 1979): 1-13.

Romanyshyn, Robert D. “The Despotic Eye and Its Shadow: Media Image in the Age of Literacy.” Levis 339-60.

Tobin, Ronald W. Tarte à la crème—Comedy and Gastronomy in Molière's Theater. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1990.

Tyler, Stephen. “Post-Modern Ethnography: From Document of the Occult to Occult Document.” Clifford and Marcus 122-40.

Vernet, Max. Molière: côté jardin, côté cour. Paris: Nizet, 1991.

James F. Gaines (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Molière and Marx: Prospects for a New Century,” in L'Esprit Createur, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 21-30.

[In the following essay, Gaines delineates the connection between Marx and Molière.]

Of all the avatars of structuralism that fueled the critical imagination during the third quarter of this century, none now seems more doomed than Marxism. The social-philosophical colossus that once commanded respect from worldwide scholars (in many cases, all too literally) finds itself banned in Russia, micro-miniaturized in Western Europe, and forgotten like a dimestore turtle in Asia, as Deng Chaiao-Ping uses his last breath to revive the merchant class and Castro holds photo-ops with the Chevaliers du taste-vin. The former reverend fathers of leftist thought, like Louis Althusser, and their fellow travelers, including Sartre and Foucault, are bespattered with the shame of little murders, club-footed deceptions, and careless propagation not of revolution, but of the AIDS virus. Yet at the very time when Marxism seems to have attained its absolute nadir, there may be some sense in examining a kind of intellectual counter-investment strategy, returning to see if there are any salvageable elements amid the rubble of its once-proud towers.

To recapitulate historically—for that, after all, was one of its great watchwords—the impetus for Marxist criticism of seventeenth-century literature did not come primarily from Marx himself, whose literary pronouncements are mainly limited to cryptic passages in the German Ideology, where notions about the secondary role of literature as a product of ideology are associated with an odd collective concept of the process of early modern artistic creation.1 Nor were seventeenth-century studies much indebted to Engels, nor Lenin, nor even Revolutionary-era writers like Gorky or Mayakovsky, whose views were largely framed by the dichotomy between decadence and utilitarian futurism, but to Stalinist-era thinkers like Boris Porchnev.2

Although mainly a social historian, Porchnev influenced subsequent Marxist images of the century of Louis XIV by laying down the broad outlines of class struggle, in which authoritarian monarchs played off a haughty, but extravagant and ineffectual nobility against a greedy bourgeoisie, with the help of a nefarious and frequently homicidal clergy, while all of the above exploited a downtrodden mass of peasants. One problem with the official party line was that it left little room for literature, since writing was lumped together with the rest of art as a frivolous superstructural indulgence or worse, and the “popular” element in seventeenth-century literature was so restricted that even highly motivated communists seldom bestirred themselves to seek it out.3 In light of recent historical research, we also know today that much of Porchnev's paradigm was faulty: even the peasant revolts which he highlighted, far from anticipating proletarian action, were more often than not fomented by nobles or burghers and grafted onto concepts of a (horrors!) religious or spiritual nature. More creative readings than Porchnev's were, it is true, being formulated by marginalized leftists such as Bakhtin and Bulgakov, but their works would have to await the end of the Stalin, and in some cases Khrushchev, eras before becoming widely known, even in the communist world.

It is significant that the greatest opus of Marxist literary structuralism, Lucien Goldmann's Le Dieu caché (Paris: Gallimard, 1959), adopted a much more subtle “genetic” approach that sought to link class origins indirectly with intellectual expression through the mediating factor of ideology, which he called “la vision du monde.” Unfortunately, Goldmann's fascination with Pascal's and Racine's participation in the Jansenist experience led him to a tenuous association between the relatively restricted ranks of the trésoriers de France and a much broader pietistic movement. One wonders what would have become of genetic structuralism if Goldmann had focussed his efforts on Molière instead. As it was, the prevalent Marxist voice on Molière became that of the crypto-Stalinist John Cairncross, who strove to identify the playwright as an eminent bourgeois libertine. Without really intending to, Cairncross's argument reverted to the positions of nineteenth-century positivists and Catholic revivalists such as Brunetière and Faguet. His method consisted of classification by association, insisting that, since Molière consorted with known libertines such as Bernier and Chapelle, he was consequently a libertine himself.4 As for the case for Molière the skeptic, it was developed far more convincingly by Robert McBride, without the straitjacket of early proletarian ideology.5 Nevertheless, Cairncross's image of a socially active dramatist firing off volleys against the reactionary clergy and sneaking in a few potshots at neo-feudalism was exciting and played to the popular-culture revisionist view of a century full of lusty musketeers and Capitaine Fracasses. The perdurable power of this myth can still be seen not only in the media adaptations of Ariane Mnouchkine (including her film Molière) and Roger Planchon, but also most recently in the film, la Reine Margot.

Cairncross's principal obstacle was the same bourgeois misdefinition that tripped up Goldmann, but instead of an overly narrow view of the bourgeoisie, his became far too vague and anachronistic. For Cairncross, Molière belongs by birth to a “bourgeoisie commerçante et industrielle” (39), despite the fact that his family and its milieu were neither commerçante in the seventeenth-century sense of the word, nor in any way industrial, but had roots instead in both the shopkeeper stratum and in the realm of the officers, by virtue of his father's (and later his own) venal post of tapissier du roi. More importantly, however, he was bourgeois because he was fundamentally anti-noble. In his haste to counter Bénichou's ideas about Molière as spokesman for a worldly court morale, Cairncross exaggerates the playwright's castigation of bogus anoblis like Arnolphe, George “Monsieur de la Dandinière” Dandin, and “Monseigneur” le Mamamouchi Jourdain into a full-scale campaign against social mobility through office-holding (57-58). Such a broad condemnation is necessary to the thesis that Molière despised all gentilshommes, whoever they may be or strive to be. This fault is all the less excusable because of the concurrent research revelations of the Annales school of historians.

Far more complex and detailed than the model of seventeenth-century dynamics developed by party-line Marxism, the concepts of the Annales school were ironically developed by a method that went straight back to Marx's original economic analysis, with a careful attention to the interaction between social standing, power, and financial/market function. Their findings, especially represented in the works of Roland Mousnier, Pierre Goubert, and Fernand Braudel, reveal a society arranged not on the theoretical models of (mainly) endogamous medieval orders or money-based Marxist proletarian/bourgeois divisions, but on a minutely graduated system of états, conditions or dignités that featured both limited exogamy and limited mobility. On the one hand, local loyalties of family, extended parentèle, and rural or municipal bodies were far more important in determining identity and behavior than any of the more sweeping categories that began to emerge in the eighteenth century. However, collective concerns maintained a delicate balance with a more (but rarely exclusively) personal drive for land and office-holding. Thus, there was no easy Cartesian graphing along bourgeois/proletarian axes for the seventeenth-century Frenchman, who always had to be careful to weigh appetite against obligation and to beware of a vast plurality of Others ready to judge his slightest actions. The mentality of this largely pre-capitalist société des états permeates Molière's works and resists, to some degree, all attempts at recuperation by more recent ideological systems.

Beginning in 1963, the same year that Cairncross's and Porchnev's books were published in Paris, the publishing house of Éditions Sociales began a series of individual Molière plays with introductions featuring leftist viewpoints. These rather divergent studies often present more subtle analyses than the Cairncross paradigm.6 For instance, the treatment of Le Misanthrope by Édouard Lop and André Sauvage (1963) links bourgeois and aristocratic influences, as well as the author's personal peculiarities, in the formulation of honnêteté appearing in that play. However, the tendency to present each play as a battleground of distinct, exterior social forces, more or less in the manner of a collectivist roman à clef, yields very mixed results. Suzanne Rossat-Mignod's notion of a progressive feminism in L'École des femmes (1964) would probably not pass muster by standards of today's feminist criticism, and the politically timely allusions in the introduction to Les Femmes savantes by Jean Cazalbou and Denise Sevely (1971), though published seven years later, are even more far-fetched. Rossat-Mignod's reading of Tartuffe (1970) succeeds mainly in beating the dead horse of a-historical interpretation, while failing to articulate the play with the unique dilemma of the officier groups in the mid-1660's. Guy Leclerc's disappointing presentation of Dom Juan (1968) is so closely tied to a celebration of the eponym's allegedly exemplary libertinism that it reduces the rest of the cast to truncated representative types.

It is significant, if not ironic, that the Éditions Sociales series, always more influential in the realms of French popular culture than in scholarly circles, ceased in 1971, at the very moment when a pointedly leftist version of Molière was dominating the theatre. Patrice Chéreau's Dom Juan and Roger Planchon's Tartuffe were the most acclaimed of a sequence of loosely Marxist interpretations that had begun about ten years earlier. Strongly imprinted by the “spirit of ’68,” these stagings framed the plays as confrontations between subversion (the title characters) and repression (Church and State). Supported by ingenious set designs and compellingly emotional acting that often made one forget one was watching what had ideologically become a pièce à thèse, these productions also had the good fortune to emerge at a point in theatrical history where the intensity of ritual (eventually culminating in Ariane Mnouchkine's productions) was displacing long-prevalent notions of character and plot, a conjuncture that actually gave their inconsistencies a certain positive value. Subsequent, sometimes more thoughtful productions of these masterpieces, such as the 1978-79 Comédie-Française and 1981 National Theatre versions of Dom Juan, have suffered somewhat by comparison with the lingering éclat of the Chéreau and Planchon plays, with the result that much directorial effort has been veering toward texts that had formerly languished in relative neglect, such as George Dandin, Les Fourberies de Scapin, and L'Avare.

Working on the basis of research by earlier critics such as Lionel Gossman, Jacques Guicharnaud, Judd Hubert, and Jean Alter, a group of North American critics came forward during the 1970's and 1980's to apply Annales thinking to the social analysis of Molière. Works of this group include Ralph Albanese's Le Dynamisme de la peur chez Molière, my own Social Structures in Molière's Theater, Harold Knutson's The Triumph of Wit, Larry Riggs's Molière and Plurality, and Max Vernet's Molière, côté cour, côté jardin. Though there is a tremendous range of difference in these books with respect to critical values and the interpretation of the plays, they all strive in large measure to present social interpretations that break free of the pre-determined party-line Marxist grid and that appreciate the diversity and internal contradictions of the seventeenth-century bourgeoisie as dynamic forces in the texts.

While often employing what would popularly be considered “Marxist” vocabulary and methods of determining social affiliation, the North American sociocritical school treats many central axioms of Marxism as problems rather than as established facts. These problematical topics include the determining influence of material status over consciousness, the existence of a coherent hegemonistic superstructure, the function of money within a production system based on surplus value, the notion of “class” itself as a valid operant classification, and the various historical and anthropological explanations given for these phenomena by Marx and his followers. All are concerned with the ambiguities of representation in a canon as socially rich and diverse as Molière's, and the general trend among them is to reject one-dimensional assessments of authorial intentionality on either side of the traditional Marxist class barrier, thus subscribing fully neither to Bénichou's Molière aristocrate mondain, nor to Cairncross's Molière bourgeois militant. The North Americans share a view of an effervescent social structure in the process of rapid evolution, where identity had to be constantly reaffirmed and redefined by contextual reaction and where the most fundamental terms, such as bourgeois, roturier, or noble were subject to historically and socially variable interpretations. Moreover, the very existence of the individual becomes an ongoing drama that finds natural expression on the theatrical stage.

North American sociocritics have also succeeded where many old-fashioned Marxist critics failed, in establishing a basis for understanding the polyphony in Molière's (and indeed almost any) comic theater. Cairncross's analyses, for instance, revived the outmoded figure of the raisonneur in a slightly different guise, with Dom Juan and Alceste as social critics instead of Sganarelle and Philinte as social defenders. This was necessary because Marxism postulates a single (even if collective), authoritative (even if against the perceived social authority), militant voice in any worthwhile (non-decadent) work of art. The North Americans attempt in very divergent ways to distinguish the separate voices in a work and to interrelate them, harmoniously or not, as the overall shape of the work demands. In Albanese's work, this exploration is organized around the provocation, reception, or rejection of fear, for fear is never a singular phenomenon, and its plural aspects are highlighted by the political tenor of Albanese's analysis. In my Social Structures, the polyphonic emphasis was on a qualitatively differentiated hierarchy, and particularly on the discordances created when changes unsanctioned by the hierarchical whole disrupted the relationships between existing groups within the system. Knutson's work incorporates social polyphony with his earlier archetypal research to study the historical development of Moliéresque forms as they mutate into British Restoration comedy, focusing on the multifaceted issue of deception and duperie (I would further maintain that his conclusions are applicable to French comedy of the last quarter of the century as well). Riggs articulates a junction with several important features of deconstructive theory as he shows how Molière systematically resists the formation of any univocal discourse. Vernet, for his part, adopts the viewpoint that a Molière “play” is in reality a very complex philosophical game, where the fate of the hand depends on the interaction of multiple players.

Although this school has opened numerous perspectives for a post-Marxist age, no treatment of our subject would be even nearly complete without a discussion of Jacques Derrida's Specters of Marxism.7 It is a strikingly un-Marxist assessment of the topic, one which deals with what is basically materialistic in an eminently symbolic way, a deconstructive autopsy that takes place in the absence of a corpus delicti, that is, mainly without consideration of past or present socio-politico-economic contexts.8

Derrida's book is based on a rather tricky philosophical triple play: Shakespeare to Hegel to Marx to Valéry. From time to time one catches a glimpse of Walter Benjamin roaming in this strange infield like an extra shortstop; Derrida draws heavily upon his wonderful formula of the Schein des Scheinloses (even making its translation, “the appearance of the inapparent,” the title of his final chapter!), without, as far as I can determine, ever fully crediting his Judeo-German teammate. (Benjamin himself would no doubt merely have heaved a sigh at this little ellipsis—il en a vu d'autres.) Marx, not quite completely dead yet (pace Benoist, Fukuyama et al.), rises like the spectral figure of Hamlet's father to cast a withering call for justice upon a new, and mostly reluctant, generation. Much discussion is given, in an exhaustively Derridean way, to the explication of how “the time is out of joint.” Though Derrida generally avoids the abominable double adverb “already, always” so dear to Marxists, one gets the idea after a few dozen pages that he means the same thing.

There are a few interesting bits of sleight of hand in Derrida's argument. Firstly, one has to mention the clever way he slips an atheistic axiom into the discourse, devaluing “spiritual” values even while glossing the notion of the spectral (17), and making Marx's (im)material existence the central point of any history (hence teleology and eschatology) (13).

Derrida's efforts remind one of a recent film. Burrowing into the rich fossil remains of the early modern period, he tries to find some of the fundamental living matter of Communism. Ingeniously splicing it together with frog DNA (no pun intended) collected from amphibians of the PCF and other ponds, he dreams of recreating the mighty Marxosaurus that once stalked Cold War Era swamps, striking terror into the hearts of mammalo-capitalists everywhere. But as Jeff Goldblum so aptly put it in the film, these creatures had their day and they struck out; the fuzzy little fur-bearing finance rodents endured. No amount of tinkering by (social) scientists can obviate the evolutionary fact—one that Marx, as an ardent evolutionist, would undoubtedly have ratified: Derrida's intellectual Jurassic Park of Marxism is a bust from the beginning. Ironically, the philosopher falls victim to an ill that he himself analyzes in the book, the so-called “Marcellus effect,” in which some people, like Marcellus the guard in Hamlet, assume that scholars are capable of everything, even spectral intervention.

Perhaps part of the problem with Derrida's analysis is that it is based on a tacit misunderstanding common to “Anglo-Saxon,” French and Soviet students of early communism. For if Marx refers repeatedly to Hamlet as an example, it is not because he considers that Hamlet represents any type of inheritance passed on to the British, the French, or the Russians, nor even to the as-yet nonexistent International. Marx was a child of his age, and when he referred to Shakespeare's figure, he meant, as all good Germans of the Romantic age did, that “Deutschland ist Hamlet!”9 This is not to say that Derrida's appropriation of the symbol and the “conjuring” is entirely without pertinence, but it is thrown seriously out of focus if one forgets the (like it or not) German nationalistic context from which Marx was operating. If one remembers that Lenin himself was astonished that fate decreed Russia should be the home state of communism, one can imagine what the reaction of Marx's ghost would have really been, on learning that the International was to be quartered in the Kremlin, rather than Frankfurt, Berlin, or at least London! Perhaps, as John Reed eventually came to believe, that is where the times really started to get “out of joint.”

But to return to Derrida, is there any possibility that Marxism, or even one of the Marxisms he conjures, can be raised? What can still be useful? One thing that is clear is that it makes little sense to turn to Marx for a causal or genetic explanation of early modern culture. One needs only an elementary grounding in late twentieth-century anthropology to appreciate how seriously flawed are Marx's notions about free labor, pastoral tribalism, and the evolution of community property in precapitalist society. This should hardly be surprising, since besides his confessed debt to Proudhon, Marx has little to build on except Rousseau and other more or less utopian theorists of noble savagery. One does well to remember, after all, that it was not Marx who invented atheistic determinism, but the Enlightenment philosophers.

If there are parts of the apparatus still fit for service, they are certainly the ones that Marx fashioned after his own observations of nineteenth-century reality: the alienation of human agency in the industrial production process, the rising dominance of commodities and a commodity mentality, and the problematic status of exchange. Perhaps one possible direction for those who do not wish to approach Habermas's rationalism is the autonomist approach advocated by Michael Ryan in relation to studies of modern culture.10

Closer to Molière, Pierre Force's recent study, Molière ou le prix des choses (Paris: Nathan, 1994), shows a very fruitful development in the direction of French exchange theory, based most directly on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, but encompassing fascinating articulations with previous notions of exchange all the way back to Rousseau (surprisingly, not the Lettre à D'Alembert, but the Rêveries du promeneur solitaire!) and to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. According to Force, the goal of Moliéresque comedy is to highlight the very “injustice” (221) at which Derrida takes aim, but which takes the particular comic form of imbalance and disorder (likewise points of focus in my Social Structures, 169-230). Ridicule results from any defect on either the giving or the receiving end, especially in the failure to evaluate properly (or sometimes, as in Dom Juan, to even identify) the terms of an exchange (223). Although Force does not cite it in this instance, the first scene of Le Malade imaginaire, where Argan ridiculously “capitalizes” his enemas and purgatives, thus serves as an apt capstone for the Molière canon. It also illustrates a second ironic insight, that those who seek to hegemonize the rules of exchange inevitably emerge as more risible characters than those they seek to manipulate. The ineffectiveness of Molière's bumbling, would-be authoritarians certainly turns Marxism, with its inescapable reflex to take itself seriously, quite upside-down.

Indeed, laughter in its most general and collective form constitutes a fitting conclusion to this overview and a worthy subject for the future. The reception of comedy is always an experience that impacts on the individual, but a given reader or spectator is never really alone, for a play by its very nature requires a multiplication of artistic consciousness, not only through the characters “on stage,” but through the forever-implied presence of an audience. Furthermore, as Jean-Marie Apostolidès has pointed out, in seventeenth-century France, that audience always included the virtual presence of the king himself, the symbolic embodiment of the entire hierarchy. Even when, as in Amphitryon, the king (or the king's king) is the object of irony, the reader/spectator is invited to laugh with the king. The historical moments when new comedies are able to emerge to manifest a fleeting sense of social balance, perhaps even a type of social communion, are rather rare, but even in their re-creation, these plays convey a powerful sense of ritual recommitment to society. If, in the cherished formula castigat ridendo mores, the first verb is a singular of artistic vector, the second always must be plural, for, as Molière learned with Dom Garcie de Navarre, sublime interpersonal insights are no good on stage unless the audience shares the laughter. It is time to go beyond Bakhtin's work on the carnavalesque (surely one of the richest and earliest fruits of neo-Marxist thought) more fully to comprehend a context which was not just another text, but an experience that transcends scripture, and perhaps politics, too.


  1. See for example Literature and Art by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (New York: International Publishers, 1947), 3-14 and 74-76. Although Marx reportedly had rather wide literary interests, his theoretical pronouncements seem to have been especially shaped by tensions with contemporaries such as Max Stirner and Eugène Sue; see for example Marx and Engels, On Literature and Art, ed. Lee Baxandall and Stefan Morawski (New York: International General, 1973), 77-79.

  2. The most available version is the 1963 reedition, Les Soulèvements popularies en France de 1623 à 1648 (Paris: SEVPEN), but the work itself, like its political underpinning, dates from a much earlier period.

  3. It is hard to cite a writer of truly “common” origin from this period. Even those who are accused of the most unremitting “realism,” Sorel, Furetière, minor dramatists such as Brécourt and Chevalier, could scarcely qualify as proletarians or peasants, and their analyses of popular milieux were strictly views à vol d'oiseau. The definitive study of early modern lower classes in French literature is Pierre Ronzeaud's Peuple et représentations (Aix: Université de Provence, 1988); see esp. 40-52. In fact, the first efforts to appropriate Molière as a pre-Revolutionary partisan date from before the Soviet period, as Ralph Albanese shows in “Molière devant la socio-critique,” Œuvres et Critiques, 6, 1 (1981): 57-66, see esp. n. 14.

  4. Molière bourgeois et libertin (Paris: Nizet, 1963). This method has not changed much over the following years. See “Molière subversif,” the first seven pages of Cairncross's L'Humanité de Molière (Paris: Nizet, 1988). Although Cairncross attributes the title of his anthology of essays to the well-known article on Dom Juan by James Doolittle, which he includes, one cannot quite efface the appearance of another publication under the title L'Humanité, and the efforts to recycle old class-based analyses remind me of a news agent I once frequented on the boulevard Saint-Germain who was always trying to interest his clients in the well-worn issues being dredged up again by the Huma of the 70's.

  5. Contrast, for instance, McBride's The Sceptical Vision of Molière: A Study in Paradox (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1977), where one finds a careful discussion of Dom Juan in its philosophical context (79-106), with the almost socialist-realist approach that Cairncross still maintains in a recent article (“A Structural Approach to Molière's Dom Juan.Continuum 4 [1992]: 1-7). It is equally interesting to set McBride's “precocious” reading of Amphitryon (160-86) next to another not-quite-new-historicist article, “The Uses of History: Molière and Louis XIV Revisited,” ELF 58 (1993): 25-31.

  6. Ralph Albanese's “Molière devant la socio-critique” presents a particularly nuanced and valuable analysis of the Éditions Sociales series.

  7. I refer to Peggy Kamuf's translation, Specters of Marx (New York: Routledge, 1994), because it is much more easily procured than the 1993 original by Éditions Galilée, and because Kamuf often introduces interesting observations of her own in attempting to handle Derrida's deliberate punning and language play.

  8. There are a couple of exceptions: Derrida insists on an anti-Stalinist disclaimer to distance himself from the Hungarian repression and events thereafter, and he adds a catty swipe at the Danes for rejecting the Maestricht Accords.

  9. The quote came from the poet Ferdinand Freiligrath. See Russell A. Berman, “Faust, Germany, and Unification,” South Central Review, 12 (1995): 1-15.

  10. Politics and Culture: Working Hypotheses for a Post-Revolutionary Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1989), 46-61. Ryan's ideas are closely based on those of the Italian leftist, Antonio Negri.

Criticism: L'Impromptu De Versailles

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5231

SOURCE: “Molière in the Post-Structuralist Age: L'Impromptu de Versailles,” in Theatre Journal, Vol. 34, No. 3, October, 1982, pp. 373-83.

[In the following essay, Lindsay provides an in-depth look at Molière's L'Impromptu de Versailles, commenting on possible reasons why the play has been overlooked.]

Molière's L'Impromptu de Versailles (The Rehearsal at Versailles) has not, over the critical ages, received much attention. Traditionally considered a marginal element in Molière's repertoire, the Impromptu has in the main been a singularly, even signally neglected work. For in the vicissitudes of literary history since the classical era, the fortunes of Molière's plays have provided an accurate gage of critical changes through successive generations. In The Misanthrope, for example, the honnête homme Philinte flattered the classical era's notions of restraint, moderation, and social adjustment, while the Romantics saw in Alceste a noble and kindred spirit whose keen sense of personal integrity made him near-tragically unsuited for life in the degraded society of more pliant folk. Existentialist criticism of The Misanthrope, on the other hand, has more recently indicted Alceste for his exemplary bad faith and self-deception. That the ascendancy or decline of Alceste's star can be correlated with the tides of literary criticism has been a scholarly staple since the eighteenth century formulated the textbook question of Molière-Alceste versus Molière-Philinte. While The Misanthrope has been one of the most popular of Molière's works, the Impromptu ranks only slightly higher in frequency of performance and study than such unimposing pieces as Le Médecin volant (The Flying Physician) and Molière's embarassing attempt at heroic drama, Dom Garcie de Navarre. Yet the Impromptu's more modest fortunes are equally a gage of the critical ages or, more precisely, of a critical “coming of age,” for the Impromptu is in many senses a post-structuralist pièce de résistance, a hard gem of a play that has until now resisted interpretive efforts, but which stages some of the major tenets of post-structuralist criticism. The Impromptu is a marginal text for a critical era obsessed with the marginal, a hopelessly fragmented play about the frustrations and rewards of fragmentation; it raises the question of power, performance, and the role of the intellectual in social critique. It offers as well a dazzling argument for intertextuality, reflexivity, and autonomy in the domain of artistic production; it finally leaves us balanced on a precarious undecidability between paradoxical interpretations.

The Impromptu was written in eight days in the Fall of 1663, and was performed at Versailles, apparently at the request of Louis XIV. It constituted Molière's last theatrical word in the heated “war of comedies” which broke out soon after the arrival in Paris (in 1658) of Molière's provincial theatrical troupe. Molière's first comedies, among them Les Précieuses ridicules, Sganarelle, and L'Ecole des femmes, had enjoyed an extraordinary public success that provoked consternation in the capital's theatrical community and threatened to upstage the prestigious Hôtel de Bourgogne, the official dramatic troupe of Paris, which esteemed tragedy only. Not only did Molière annex both public and royal favor (with rewards at once moral and financial), but he dared parody the acting style of the reigning tragedians as well as the mores and manners of the court nobility. Rivalry simmered until the brilliant triumph of L'Ecole des femmes, in December, 1662, which was hotly attacked by the critics as indecent and shocking. Molière's witty and satiric response, La Critique de L'Ecole des femmes, earned him several new enemies, among them Pierre and Thomas Corneille, who felt themselves the target of certain well-placed barbs. An angry pamphlet was published by one author who saw himself satirized in the Critique and who sought to champion the cause of writers, actors, women, and nobles as well as that of religion and propriety. The actors of the Hôtel de Bourgogne then presented their own counteroffensive with a strident attack on Molière in Le Portrait du Peintre, a reputedly collaborative effort by Corneille and other illustrious figures that was signed by an aspiring young dramatist named Boursault. The aspersions cast shifted from the professional to the personal realm, exploiting Molière's reputed marital problems (he had recently wed a young actress in his troupe), and suggesting that his new wife was in reality the daughter of his former mistress and thus his own daughter. Possibly affronted by the violence of the attack directed at a royal favorite, the King appears to have ordered a prompt theatrical response. It is to this exigency that the Impromptu de Versailles owes its genesis and its name.1

The scene is the salle de comédie, the King's private theatre at Versailles, where the play was, in effect, first performed. The members of the cast are Molière and his troupe, who play themselves rehearsing a new and still untitled play that is to be performed in two hours before the King, who had commissioned it. Alone on stage in the first scene, Molière conjures up his troupe, like the Creator, by calling their names. The mutinous actors complain upon entering that they have not had sufficient time to memorize their roles, while Molière frantically tries to call them to order, lamenting the difficulty of the director's task: “Actors—impossible creatures to handle.”2 Of the purportedly commissioned play, we hear only fragments from which we gather that its subject is a reply to Boursault's Le Portrait du Peintre. This rehearsed play features the mandatory ridiculous marquis (played by Molière) and the honnête homme (Brécourt), a young gentleman who champions Molière and explains his theatrical satires as social, not personal, commentary. The major portion of the Impromptu, however, is given over to Molière's stage directions and frantic conversations with his actors, a series of lively exchanges which provide a “backstage” glimpse of the actor/director/author's craft in action, as well as a scene of conjugal dispute between Molière and his young wife. Thus, the Impromptu at first seems to present a case of theatrical mise en abyme, a play-within-a-play that provides an occasion for discussing the nature of drama while it allows the bracketing of Molière's satiric barbs within the internal play. The Impromptu's general effect is disarmingly frank, spontaneous, and engaging. But the rehearsal is not, strictly speaking, a real play; it is really a pre-play playfully presenting the “real” actors to an audience which is not really supposed to be present yet. The spectator is, as one commentator has noted, both devant (in front of) and avant (temporally before) the completed, integral play.3 For despite the fragmented structure and confusion between “play” and “real,” the Impromptu as performed is a patent and paradoxical whole. The focus shifts within this whole from “rehearsal” to “play” as the actors lapse in and out of character, momentarily assume another's role, or repeat words a “real” person supposedly said.

This dizzying shift in focus is further augmented by the insertion of yet another element, a third play: a play manqué, an aborted sketch of a response to his critics which Molière has, for a variety of reasons, abandoned. In an attempt to avoid giving a performance for which the troupe is manifestly unprepared, one of the actresses suggests that Molière perform alone:

When the king asked you for a reply to the criticism of your other work, why didn't you write the play about the Bourgogne actors [cette comédie des comédiens], which you've often described to us? It would have been perfect for this occasion. When the critics did their satirical portrait of you they left themselves wide open, and your portrait of them would be a much more accurate picture than theirs was of you. They tried to spoof your comic acting, but they weren't imitating you at all, only the roles you were playing, your makeup, and the mannerisms you adopted in trying to draw a comic character from life. But if you mock an actor in a serious part, you'll come very close to mocking him as a man, because serious acting doesn't allow him to cover up his personal faults with ridiculous tricks and comic gestures. (pp. 100-01)

Thus begins Molière's counterattack on the critics who saw him in the cuckolded husband of the École des femmes, as well as his satire of the bombastic style of his rivals at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. After claiming to have abandoned the project of parodying the tragedians because he had not had sufficient time to study their performances, Molière is nevertheless persuaded to sketch out the rejected scenario in which a poet proposes a play to a troupe of actors newly arrived from the provinces. When a slender, presentable young man is designated as the actor who plays kings, the pompous poet rejects both his natural delivery of lines and his unkingly physique, proposing instead a parodic imitation of the well-known actor Montfleury. This third mise en abyme of the play allows Molière to satirize his enemies, to flatter young King Louis, and to propose a more “realistic” brand of acting.

The interpolation of the third play-within-the-play has, however, cost the troupe valuable rehearsal time, and they desperately resume the discussion, and subsequently the performance, of the “real” or commissioned play. In the movement back and forth between the three plays, the commedia dell arte tone of improvisation and burlesque gives rise to an ars comica in which Molière enunciates his theories on comedy's proper subject, form, and function. When the rehearsal of the “real” play begins, Molière adopts the role of a ridiculous marquis who quarrels with an equally absurd peer over the question of which of the two had been parodied by Molière in the Critique de l'École des femmes. Molière's ironic differentiation into an actor playing himself playing a role in which he refers to himself as author is vertiginously multiplied when another character (Brécourt) becomes the spokesman for Molière's theatrical theory: “The business of comedy is to present the flaws common to all men, and especially the men of our time. It would be impossible for Molière to dream up people who resembled nobody you've ever met. If he is going to be challenged with pillorying every living person who has the same faults as his characters, he will indeed have to stop writing plays” (p. 110). The pronouncement of this thesis on the social role of comedy is accompanied by a subtle threat aimed at Molière's detractors which links the noble ideal of artistic freedom to the more pragmatic end of not robbing the King of his royal diversions.

If the lofty formulation of poetic autonomy covers over a more political aim, it also enters into frank conflict with the Impromptu's own practices. For despite its profession of disinterested and generalized social critique, the play unquestionably contains (as did the Critique) an unflattering portrait of a contemporary author (Donneau de Visé) and satiric use of speeches from various Corneillian tragedies. Moreover, Boursault and his play are explicitly named and attacked in the rehearsed play when the ridiculous marquis boasts about Le Portrait du peintre:

His name is Boursault, and he is indeed listed as author on the placards, but I'll let you all in on a secret. A number of people had a hand in the writing. … All the playwrights and actors in Paris look on Molière as their main enemy, so we united against him. Every one of us has added a brush stroke to the portrait, but we refrained from publishing our names. People would have thought it too easy if he were crushed by the whole of Parnassus at once. We want to make his defeat more shameful by giving the credit to an unknown writer. (p. 113)4

If Molière's accusation here is clearly exaggerated, his final judgment, voiced by Brécourt, is doubtless more accurate: “I've looked at the script, and since the most amusing lines in it are lifted from Molière's own work, he won't object if the audience likes them” (p. 115). When Molière's spokesman modestly concludes that Molière should make no public response to the latest attacks—a successful new play comprising the most delicious revenge—one of the actresses breaks character to interrupt the rehearsal and express her surprise at Molière's restraint: “If I were you, I'd arrange things differently. Everybody expects you to make a vigorous reply, and from what I heard of the way you were dealt with in that comedy, you have every right to come back at them; I hope you won't spare a single one” (p. 115).

At this point, Molière too steps out of his role and appears to speak in his own name, as Molière the author-director. Having placed within the rejected play and the rehearsed scenario some genuinely nasty barbs destined for his rivals and critics, and having paradoxically claimed via Brécourt that he would not return the calumnies directed at him, Molière now speaks in his own voice, ostensibly in the “real,” virtuously and vehemently refusing suggestions that he venge himself. Even still, even as he makes an impassioned public declaration, he gives Boursault one last shot:

You'd be doing him too much honor to impersonate him in front of such a distinguished gathering. He couldn't ask for more. He's a man who has nothing to lose. He chooses to attack me because that is one way of getting his name known. Well, I intend to make a public announcement to this effect: I will not answer their criticisms or their countercriticisms. They can say the very worst things of my plays; I don't mind. I willingly offer up my plays, my face, my gestures, my words, my tone of voice. I sacrifice my tricks of the trade for them to use as they will. I have no objections to whatever they take, if only the audience likes it. But in yielding all this to them, I reserve the rest as my own property. [They must not touch on the type of subjects which I am told they have attacked in their plays.] That is all I will politely ask of this honest gentleman whom they've engaged to write their play, and that is the only retaliation they shall have from me. (p. 117)5

The Impromptu concludes shortly after this somewhat self-righteous and slightly dishonest declaration with the King's benevolent permission to put off the performance until a later date. For all its brevity the Impromptu presents a dense and complicated, often paradoxical structure; it is a play (or two) at once within a play and without the play: the play is in a sense never performed—the fiction is that the King never sees the rehearsed play, or at least must go without the play for the time being. And yet the Impromptu as multiple play-within-play was played, probably on the 18th or 19th of October, 1663; and it was played without, that is, exterior to, the play, for it took place in the real domain of a genuine professional struggle. The proof is in the plum bestowed on Molière after the Impromptu's lively success: the troupe was awarded a pension, and the King stood godfather to Molière's first child by his new wife.

The Impromptu's complex structure and strategies make it a play particularly attractive to the concerns of post-structuralism. The triple play-within-a-play multiplies roles, confuses identities, and provides the context for a vertiginously specular criticism of theatre by theatre. Neither the rejected comédie des comédiens nor the rehearsed play takes place in its entirety—even the rehearsal is necessarily incomplete and fragmented, interrupted at every turn by visitors and by the actors themselves. Nor is the play's language wholly Molière's: in the parodic comédie des comédiens, Molière counterfeits the emphatic style of tragic diction by imitating his rival actors in speeches taken from the most popular dramas of Corneille, the period's reigning tragic author. More is at stake in this intertextual war than the lambasting of theatrical rivals, however. Tragedy itself is the target of Molière's attack, and, beyond tragedy, the metaphysical and political values embodied in the heroic genre. Corneille's heroes still transmitted the old, independent spirit of the feudal nobility whom Louis XIV had politically emasculated after the Fronde, in his successful effort to place himself at the head of a unified, centralized state. While Corneille's Cinna gave a lesson in kingly conduct, Molière's Impromptu contented itself with providing a mirror of the king's omnipotence, benevolence, and wisdom. Proposing to substitute a more natural, practical, and self-ironizing style for the grandiose and philosophizing style of the tragic author, Molière signals his allegiance to the modern state and its new structure of power. The intertextual perversion and parody of Corneille's theatre opens up the play's apparent closure to a dialogue between external value systems. Just as the distinction between what is purportedly real and what is really a play is constantly transgressed in the Impromptu's performance, the integrality of Molière's textual production is willfully violated.

The same strategic aims govern both types of transgression. Molière's principal tactic in the Impromptu is to interrupt and disrupt the normal properties of classical theatrical performance and composition: unity, illusion, closure. By means of a unified, integral spectacle, the classical dramatist created, if not the illusion of reality, then the illusion of meaningfulness, of coherence, of logical and significant closure. The disruption of these conventional theatrical properties allows Molière to redefine theatre, to present his version of what is properly theatrical, to propose his own ars comica. In his distribution of roles and in his directions to his actors, Molière demonstrates his theory of theatrical realism: the role must conform to the actor's own personality, and diction should reproduce natural speech. Thus he counsels his spokesman: “Brécourt, your part is exactly the same as that of Dorante in the last play,6 an honest man at Court. Look thoughtful, speak in a natural voice, and gesticulate as little as possible” (p. 105). When, at the end of the play, Molière seems to speak in his own voice in a spontaneous public declaration, he forcefully separates proper from improper theatrical subjects. While professional matters of composition, diction, and gesture are fair game for the satire of rivals, Molière points out, the personal lives of actors or authors are inappropriate and unseemly subjects for public comment. Molière is thereby able to return with righteous indignation the charges of indecency and impropriety directed at him by the court's old guard of moralists, out-doing the dévots by changing the rules of piety and establishing new guidelines for moral behavior. Based on the premise that distinctions must be made and maintained between public and private domains, between general satire and personal vendetta, between legitimate criticism and prudish quibbling, these new guidelines are calculated to please a monarch bent on establishing a modern, secular, and rational state.

Having determined what theatre must not do, Molière can complete his version of what it can and should accomplish. Here, too, the strategy throughout the Impromptu is one of interruption and disruption; the proper nature of theatre is elaborated through the constant fracturing of theatrical convention. When the actors initially rebel at performing an unknown script, Molière abandons the rehearsal in order to evoke his own dilemma: “To stage a comedy for this kind of audience is no joke. These are not easy people to amuse or impress. They laugh only when they feel like it” (p. 99). With unerring diplomacy, Molière seeks first of all to produce a work which will merit the approval of a discerning and intelligent king. Nor is the good judgment of the public slighted; some of the cleverest gibes directed at his rivals concern the public reception of their plays: “Why should he write these wicked comedies for all Paris to see, with people in them we all recognize? Why doesn't he write like Monsieur Lysidas7 who never attacks a soul? You never hear another playwright say a word against him. His works may not be popular, but they don't offend or provoke anybody and we all agree that they're elegantly written” (p. 114). The financial success and public acclaim of Molière's comedies were a modern measure of theatrical efficacy when opposed to the critical approval granted his rivals' more correct but less entertaining compositions.

The standard enunciation of Molière's theory of comedy comes during the rehearsed play, when Brécourt defends Molière against the two marquis by quoting what he overheard Molière himself say: “His aim, he said, is to portray types, not individuals, and all of the people who appear in his plays are imaginary, phantoms if you like; he invents them as he goes along, in such a way as to entertain the audience …” (p. 109). Instruire et plaire: Molière's recipe for comedy calls for the correction of contemporary vices through laughter. The comic author takes on the function of social critic. Mixing the rehearsal, the rehearsed, and the purportedly spontaneous, the Impromptu presents theatre in the act of defining its own nature and goals. It proposes itself as a play that will respond to criticism while at the same time itself constituting a criticism of other theatrical productions. In this way, the Impromptu erases the distinction between art and its criticism, just as it blurs the boundaries between the real and the play by its vertiginous, virtuoso shifts.

The “real” is thus both inserted in and ousted from the Impromptu. The play performed in October, 1663 responded to a (probably) real command and to a very real attack from several quarters. The play's triumph allowed Molière to emerge from the fray in a much better condition, professionally and financially. Playing themselves, the actors are given the opportunity to indulge the audience's curiosity about their personalities and personal lives. Molière's spat with his wife tantalizes a public that already believes him a cuckold, yet it ultimately obscures more than clarifies the couple's relations. Molière and his troupe flirtatiously offer a glimpse of their (or their victims’) real lives only to claim exemption, in the name of satire, when their plays are mistakenly taken for reality. Molière makes an impassioned case for the autonomy of art when he insists that personality be divorced from production, and that social critique not bow to partisan pressure. In this way, the Impromptu playfully appears to put the “real” on stage only to better throw it off.

This gesture—feigning one thing in order to effect another—comprises, finally, Molière's characteristic operation in the Impromptu. And it is in its ability to deal with what is generally perceived to be paradox and contradiction that post-structuralism makes one of its most important contributions, at least in respect to Molière's play. Paradox informs the Impromptu: proposing itself as a sort of anti-play, a rehearsal that is constantly disrupted by spontaneous interjections, the Impromptu is neither spontaneous nor disrupted, nor even really a rehearsal. It is, rather, an intricate and imbricated structure, an integral play in its own right whose strategical success takes place on several levels. Molière's multiple roles comprise the principal carrier of the play's paradoxes. By the time Molière indignantly cries out against personal calumny in the public theatre, he has already roundly attacked Boursault for his ambition and ridiculed the young playwright's lack of reputation. When he seems to break character to argue for the strict separation of private and professional personae, Molière is able to carry off an audacious gamble: he wagers that his audience will be so dazzled by his virtuoso contradictions that it will either forget the earlier evidence, opting to believe his final, virtuous stance, or else applaud his daring insincerity. In either case, Molière's political aim is achieved; his rivals are at once made to seem ridiculous and menaced with the monarch's displeasure. In every instance and at every turn in the play, Molière has it both ways, and always his own way.

Yet just as he undercuts his own appeal for the separation of private man and public actor by irremediably confusing the two in his own case, Molière undoes his own argument for the autonomy of the aesthetic by destroying the distinction between the two types of discourse, artistic and critical. Paradoxically, of course, the Impromptu's strength derives from this simultaneous postulation and erosion of distinctions; all the levels and forms of discourse in the Impromptu—be they personal or professional, self-reflexive or didactic, “spontaneous” or openly calculated—serve to empower the performer. Molière's strategic parry in the “war of comedies” of 1663 transforms comedy into power. Transgressing all the limits his critical era placed on theatrical production, Molière's performance of the Impromptu was in a sense a performative accomplishing, by the very fact of its being pronounced, a variety of aims in the realm of the real: probably revenge and possibly education, but most certainly profit both political and material. The Impromptu's singular importance lies in its ability to break down the distinctions that are conventionally made between actors and roles, between forms of discourse, and between art and reality, while at the same time claiming to assert and define those very distinctions. It is in this characteristic gesture that the Impromptu has posed its greatest problems for critics in the three hundred-odd years since its performance, and it is in this gesture that this marginal play comprises a post-structuralist treasure.

All the complications and confusions in the Impromptu are, finally, about identity; who are the satirized individuals? when are the actors playing themselves and when are they playing themselves adopting a role? are they ever just themselves? do we ever see Molière the man? The frustration and possible mistakes as to identity mirror the critical dilemma this play has always posed: the difficulty or even the impossibility of deciding between alternative interpretations which are not simply dissimilar, but squarely antithetical. While Molière's contemporary critics were wholly obsessed with identifying the various individuals under attack in the Impromptu, commentators in the next century felt the play had lost its interest since the people named or aimed at were no longer alive. Voltaire vehemently rejected the play precisely because it identified too clearly its targets: “It is a cruel and excessive satire in which Boursault is openly named. Even the license of ancient Greek comedy could go no further. Both Boursault's and Molière's satire should have been suppressed in the name of propriety and public honesty.”8 The Impromptu was not performed even once during the eighteenth century.

While the nineteenth century twice revived the play (in 1838 and in 1880), it had definitively become a marginal element in Molière's work. Théophile Gautier classified the Impromptu among “those charming plays that we never get to see,”9 but critics of the 1880 production characterized the play as “without any importance at all in the work of our great author.”10 Scholars and critics of the nineteenth century who did take an interest in the Impromptu were no longer preoccupied with the questions of identity posed by the play, but saw the piece instead as an enunciation of Molière's theories on directing, acting, and the nature of theatre.

The twentieth century has evinced a growing renewal of interest in the Impromptu, both in terms of performance and study. While one commentator saw Molière himself erupt unmasked on the stage, “Appearing on the stage among his troupe at work, Molière no longer uses the weapons of a writer; he thinks aloud, forgets himself. He speaks as an injured man. He rejects trickery; he is there alive, vibrant, at work …,”11 later “New Critics” have rejected the notion of Molière's genuine unmasking at the end of the play, seeing instead in the Impromptu a forceful demonstration of the autonomy of the aesthetic in which Molière recedes behind a brilliant series of multiple masks. The New Critical analyses of the Impromptu have opted to view the play as a self-enclosed, autonomous art poétique.12

Whereas earlier criticism responded to the Impromptu's simultaneous presentation of what was viewed as two antithetical interpretations by choosing either to view the play in terms of its identification with a given reality, or to see it as a self-contained reflection on theatre by theatre, two more recent analyses have attempted to place the meta-theatrical elements in the play within the context of its political efficacy. In “La Critique du théâtre au théâtre,” Jacques Nichet sees the Impromptu as a collective critical activity involving audience as well as actor and serving to question the traditional values of the dominant ideology.13 In his 1972 essay Marc Fumaroli argues that the Impromptu forms a microcosmic version of Louis XIV's solar universe: Molière mirrors in miniature the difficulties and triumphs, the cleverness and intelligence, of the young king's reign; the art poétique doubles as a flattering vision of Louis's own art de régner.14 Both essays move toward the recognition that Molière's play is at once a declaration of allegiance to a newly constituted power, and an empowering discourse. In the last ten years, analysis has begun, albeit on a small scale, to rehearse the Impromptu's singular contribution to critical thought. Moreover, we are now in a critical age propitious for dealing with a work which has up to now resisted interpretation. We are no longer forced to choose between two approaches we consider to be antithetical, but can, like Molière, opt for the rewards of the undecidable.


  1. For the historical conditions surrounding this genesis, see Percy Addison Chapman, The Spirit of Molière, An Interpretation (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1940), pp. 164-171 and Sylvie Chavalley, “l'Impromptu de Versailles,” Molière: Stage and Study (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), pp. 228-41.

  2. Molière, The Rehearsal at Versailles, tr. Albert Bermel, One-Act Comedies of Molière (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1962), p. 98. Subsequent citations from this edition will be noted in parentheses in the text.

  3. Marc Fumaroli, “Microcosme comique et macrocosme solaire: Molière, Louis XIV, et l'Impromptu de Versailles,Revue des Sciences Humaines 37, No. 145 (January-March 1972), 106.

  4. More literally, “to an author without any reputation” (un auteur sans réputation).

  5. The sentence within brackets is my own translation.

  6. La Critique de l'Ecole des femmes.

  7. In La Critique de l'Ecole des femmes as well as in the Impromptu, Molière satirizes Donneau de Visé in the character of Lysidas, a pedantic and pompous poet.

  8. Cited in the documentation accompanying l'Impromptu de Versailles (Paris: Nouveaux Classiques Larousse, 1968), p. 168. The translation is mine.

  9. Cited by Chevalley in “l'Impromptu de Versailles,” p. 244. The translation is mine.

  10. Chevalley, p. 244.

  11. Pierre Brisson, Molière, sa vie et ses oeuvres (1942), cited in l'Impromptu de Versailles (Nouveaux Classiques Larousse), p. 190; the translation is mine.

  12. See Robert Nelson, “l'Impromptu de Versailles Reconsidered,” French Studies 11 (1957), 305-14, and The Play within a Play; the Dramatist's Conception of his Art: Shakespeare to Anouilh (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1958).

  13. Jacques Nichet, “La Critique du théâtre au théâtre: Aristophane, Molière, Brecht,” Littérature, 9 (February 1973), 31-46.

  14. “Microcosme comique et macrocosme solaire,” 102-3.

Quentin M. Hope (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6346

SOURCE: “Place and Setting in Tartuffe,” in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. 89, No. 1, January, 1974, pp. 42-9.

[In the following essay, Hope maintains that the setting of Molière's Tartuffe had a distinctive, expressive function.]

The theme of place and setting in the classical theater has attracted far more attention in Racine than in Molière.1 The action of most Racine tragedies is inseparable from certain deeply expressive settings: altar, temple, sea and seaport, labyrinth, seraglio, and a palace which seems to imprison its occupants. There is also in Racine the evocative use of place names recalling a dark past or foretelling a brilliant future. Burning Troy is the backdrop of Andromaque and imperial Rome the illusory goal of Mithridate. Some of Racine's most memorable lines evoke places (“Dans l'Orient désert quel devint mon ennui”) or suggest them (“Vous mourûtes aux bords où vous fûtes laissée”).

These prestigious allusions to place belong to the world of heroic exploit and imperial grandeur rather than to a comic setting. Place can be significant in comedy, however. One has only to remember the many Shakespeare comedies in which the scene shifts from court to country and often back again as in The Winter's Tale. The contrast between the polish and corruption of civilized life and the gross and primitive simplicity of rustic life is a fundamental theme of Shakespearean comedy, the denouement offering, most often, a reconciliation of the two extremes. Even in a comedy like The Merchant of Venice, the title of which suggests an exclusively urban setting, the scene changes from the hustle and bustle of the Rialto and the lawcourts to Portia's country dwelling where the atmosphere encourages intimate feelings, introspection, and lyricism.

Place and setting are not as expressive and symbolic in Molière as in Shakespeare. Furthermore, place, climate, season, and all the material circumstances that surround the play are obviously less important in the classical theater than in either the romantic theater with its emphasis on local color or the naturalist theater with its emphasis on man as a product of his environment. It is fair to ask whether the subject of place in Molière really exists. A play has to take place somewhere, after all, and the necessities of the plot usually require a few references to place and setting. One could argue that Molière simply sketches in background with a rapid, careless hand so that he can focus attention on what counts for him: the rhythm of the dialogue, the balance of one scene against another, the confrontation of the characters, and so on. But a rereading of Molière with particular attention to setting and place references suggests that they do contribute something measurable and significant to Molière's dramaturgy.

The pastorales belong in a category apart. Setting counts for a great deal in these plays, as the name of the genre shows. Everything takes place in Greece, most often in the Vale of Tempe: “l'agréable vallée de Tempé.” Eternal springtime reigns amidst flowers, woods, fountains, grottoes, shepherds, shepherdesses, satyrs, nymphs, dryads, and fauns. These plays where the setting is most emphasized are also the most conventional that Molière wrote, and, in spite of a certain faded charm, the least interesting.

The other plays take place either in the house or out in the street, or as in L'Ecole des femmes hesitate ambivalently between the two. The street is, more precisely, a carrefour or place publique. This is the traditional setting for Plautus and Terence and for the commedia dell'arte. As one might expect, Molière uses it in his early plays; but later plays too are set out of doors: George Dandin, Les Fourberies de Scapin, and Monsieur de Pourceaugnac. Funny things happen on the way to the forum that cannot so easily be made to happen in a drawing room: abductions, serenades, chance encounters, nighttime escapades involving mistaken identity. Traditionally, the town is a seaport and the denouement is shipped in by sea. Molière shows a preference for Messina. Even when the scene is not specifically Italian the readiness with which characters reveal private feelings and secrets in public suggests a Mediterranean setting. It is understandable that Italian street corners and public squares with their well-known resemblance to stage sets and their obvious theatrically are often the sets chosen by stage designers for these outdoor plays.

The weather, too, in the outdoor comedies, has a Mediterranean clemency, or at least the young lovers find it suitable for their amorous enterprises. The jealous husband or guardian uses it as an excuse to keep his ward in the house—Dom Pèdre in Le Sicilien: “Allons, rentrons ici … le temps se couvre un peu” (Sc. viii). The valets in particular complain about being outdoors night and day in all kinds of weather. Hali in Le Sicilien: “Le ciel s'est habillé ce soir en Scaramouche, et je ne vois pas une étoile qui montre le bout de son nez. Sotte condition que celle d'un esclave” (Sc. i). Sosie in Amphitryon: “Jour et nuit, grêle, vent, péril, chaleur, froidure / dès qu'ils parlent il faut voler” (ll. 172-73). These are feelings shared by Sganarelle in Dom Juan. The most perfect expression of the topos comes not in Molière, however, but in the aria that Mozart gives to Leporello at the beginning of Don Giovanni.

Needless to say, slapstick is not banned from the stage when Molière moves his play indoors. Rough-and-tumble action, mistaken identity, miraculous denouements based on chance encounter can happen in the town house of Harpagon or Monsieur Jourdain as well as in a public square of Messina or Naples. But the comedy is somewhat higher toned, the gestures less sweeping, the deceptions less crude. Thus, the distinction between outdoor and indoor plays, while not to be drawn too sharply, remains valid. Setting contributes to tonality and resonance.

Tartuffe belongs to the category of plays that take place inside, and in particular to those that take place in a bourgeois house in Paris. Place plays a particularly distinctive role in it. The world in which Molière's characters live can be seen as a series of concentric circles: props, set, house, city, province, universe. The places they live in and the things that surround them are in varying degrees atmospheric and expressive. In Tartuffe material objects, the props and the house itself, and the places alluded to—Paris and province, heaven and earth, palace and prison—have a particular importance.

Tartuffe takes place in Orgon's house. The most notable thing about the place is that it shelters an unwelcome intruder: Tartuffe himself. Whether he is on stage or not Tartuffe's presence is felt throughout the play. His false spirituality is clothed in real flesh. “Un homme est de chair,” as he says to Elmire. From Dorine we learn that he has red ears and a florid complexion, and that he is an unappetizing fellow:

Et je vous verrais nu, du haut jusques en bas
Que toute votre peau ne me tenterait pas.

(ll. 867-68)

We see him eating, belching, sleeping, letching. Like Arsinoé in Le Misanthrope, “il a de l'amour pour les réalités.” In the seduction scene of Act IV he distrusts Elmire's “propos si doux.” A master of sweet talk himself, he knows what value to set on it. He demands “des réalités,” namely the favors of Elmire which he expects to enjoy without delay. This body, whose physical appetites are so precisely evoked, lives in a world of real and palpable things. The hypocrite who pretends to have renounced “les choses de ce monde” has more props, on or off stage, than any other character in Molière. He eats partridge and leg of lamb, sleeps soundly in a warm bed, drinks four great draughts of wine. He has not been on stage more than a moment or two before we find out about the rod and the hairshirt which he keeps up in his room, and discover the handkerchief which he takes out of his pocket and gives to Dorine so that she may cover her overexposed bosom. A moment later he is taking a lively interest in the material of Elmire's dress (“l'étoffe en est mœlleuse”) and inspecting the lacework of her bodice up close. When Cléante corners him in an argument, his pocket watch, a symbol of a regulated and pious life, reminds him that it is time for prayers and offers him a pretext for leaving the room.

Il est, monsieur, trois heures et demie:
Certain devoir pieux me demande là-haut,
Et vous m'excuserez de vous quitter si tôt.

(ll. 1266-68)

He appears to be equipped for all emergencies. When Elmire has a simulated coughing fit he draws a box of licorice from his pocket and offers it to her: “Vous plaît-il un morceau de ce jus de réglisse?” (l. 1498). There is unctuosity even in that simple line, and something that dimly suggests the association between candy and fawning hypocrisy encountered so often in Shakespeare.

Madame Pernelle is the first to define the world in which the characters in Tartuffe live. While berating the individual members of the family, she denounces the whole atmosphere of the house. She sees liberty, disorder, and anarchy everywhere. The house is ruled by a lord of misrule: “On n'y respecte rien, chacun y parle haut, / Et c'est tout justement la cour du roi Pétaut” (ll. 11-12). This is rhythmically echoed in her final outburst: “C'est véritablement la tour de Babylone, / Car chacun y babille et tout du long de l'aune” (ll. 161-62). The two place references (la cour du roi Pétaut and la tour de Babylone2) balance off. She complains at length that she never has a chance to talk. “Propos oisifs, chansons, fariboles … mille caquets divers” (ll. 154, 159)—that is all she ever hears. Cléante is forever preaching, Dorine is a “forte en gueule”—“Voyez la langue,” “Taisez-vous,” “Madame à jaser tient le dé tout le jour” (l. 143). They counterattack in the same terms. Dorine: “Pourquoi … en faire un vacarme à nous rompre la tête?” (l. 82). Cléante: “A tous les sots caquets n'ayons donc nul égard” (l. 100). In spite of her prejudice and vehemence, what Madame Pernelle says has the truth of any good caricature. As the author of the Lettre sur l'imposteur says, “Elle réussit si bien que le spectateur ôtant … ce qu'elle y met du sien … reçoit une volupté très sensible d'être informé dès l'abord … par une voie si fidèle et si agréable” (in Molière, Œuvres, ed. Despois et Mesnard, IV, 532). There is a lot of talking in Orgon's house, tempers flare up quickly, and conversations soon turn into clattering arguments ending with threats of violence. “Je ne mâche point ce que j'ai sur le cœur,” (l. 40) says Madame Pernelle, and the others follow her example. With the exception of the timid Mariane, they are a talkative and outspoken lot. Tartuffe himself affirms it when at the denouement he turns to the exempt and says, “Délivrez-moi, Monsieur, de la criaillerie” (l. 1897). Their frankness sets off his hypocrisy.

Madame Pernelle also offers a distorted but vivid glimpse of the neighborhood Orgon's family lives in and of their active social life: carriages rolling up before the door, lackeys laughing and joking, visits, dances, gatherings, and other inventions of the devil. To listen to Madame Pernelle you would imagine that the life of the family is made up of song, games, gossip, and a succession of noisy parties. It is true that Damis, Mariane, Valère, Cléante, Elmire, and Dorine are people who enjoy the pleasures of life. Tartuffe was supposed to form part of Les Plaisirs de I'île enchantée, the entertainment offered by the young Louis XIV to his mistress Louise de la Vallière. Tartuffe is a spoilsport who interrupts the pleasures of an urbane and sophisticated family. Molière's other contribution to Les Plaisirs de l'île enchantée, La Princesse d'Elide, celebrates the joys and pangs of love in a rustic setting. The pleasures evoked in Tartuffe are urban and specifically Parisian, yet Paris itself is an enchanted island, as Dorante says in Corneille's Le Menteur:

Paris semble à mes yeux un pays de romans.
J'y croyais ce matin voir une île enchantée.

(ll. 552-53)

Orgon's family is less bedazzled by the splendors of Paris than the provincial Dorante is, but no less determined to enjoy them. Les bals, les conversations, les assemblées, les visites are delights which they cherish. The theater, too, no doubt. Although there are no allusions in Tartuffe to the entertainment offered by a Molière comedy as there are in Le Misanthrope and in Le Malade imaginaire, such youthful and broad-minded people surely must form part of the audience at the Palais Royal.

“Hors de Paris il n'y a pas de salut pour les honnêtes gens,” says Mascarille in Les Précieuses ridicules (Sc. ix). To which Cathos replies: “C'est une vérité incontestable.” Dorine agrees wholeheartedly with these sentiments, as is obvious from the picture she draws of what life will be like for Mariane when she is married to Tartuffe.

Vous irez par le coche en sa petite ville,
Qu'en oncles et cousins vous trouverez fertile,
Et vous vous plairez fort à les entretenir.
D'abord chez le beau monde on vous fera venir.
Vous irez visiter, pour votre bienvenue,
Madame la baillive et Madame l'élue,
Qui d'un siège pliant vous feront honorer.
Là, dans le carnaval, vous pourrez espérer
Le bal et la grand' bande, à savoir, deux musettes,
Et parfois Fagotin et les marionnettes;

(ll. 657-66)

This passage is one of those which serves to orient the play firmly in time and place, giving its characters a well-defined habitation, a past, and a future. In addition to this satiric glimpse into the future, there are in Tartuffe a number of glimpses into the past: Orgon as supporter of the throne during the Fronde, his first wife and her exemplary conduct, Monsieur Loyal, former servant of Orgon's father, Orgon's encounter in church with Tartuffe, Tartuffe himself as protagonist of “un long détail d'actions toutes noires” (l. 1925). One might well ask what Tartuffe would be doing in this little town. The path to heaven does not usually lead through the provinces. On the contrary, Cléante's reference in Act I to “ces dévots de place … qui … prêchent la retraite au milieu de la cour” (l. 372) suggests that Tartuffe plans to remain in Paris and to continue making his way up the ladder. Presumably, Dorine supposes he would go to the country to recover the title and property he had lost because of his neglect of worldly things. That is merely the pretext for the passage, however. Its purpose is to cast ridicule on provincial life, as Molière does in Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, George Dandin, and La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas, and to support the theme of the delights of Paris, the bright Babylon. Everything Dorine says implies a sorry contrast for Mariane between the life she leads in Paris and the life she would lead in a small provincial city. Instead of her urbane and sympathetic uncle Cléante, the numberless uncles and cousins of Tartuffe, instead of Parisian parties and dances, formal calls on the wives of the local dignitaries, instead of the Palais Royal, a trained monkey and a marionette show, instead of the real beau monde of Paris, its feeble and ridiculous imitation. It is a contrast that Molière uses in many plays. Paris is the capital of social life and fashion (“nos rubans, notre rouge et nos mouches,” l. 206), of entertainment, of comedy, liberty, and youth. La province, be it country, or small town, or désert, is the domain of solitude, severity, sobriety in manners and clothing, and of everything that Sganarelle in L'Ecole des maris means by “l'ancienne honnêteté”: constraint, puritanism, masculine tyranny, and female subservience. Its inhabitants are unfashionable, boring, and ridiculous.

Only in Le Misanthrope are the corruption, superficiality, and hypocrisy of Parisian life denounced by a character who engages at least part of the sympathy of his audience. Alceste would, no doubt, find the snobbishness of Mariane and Dorine, the horror they feel at the prospect of living anywhere except in Paris, as shocking as Tartuffe's hypocrisy itself. But the sympathetic characters in Tartuffe all consider the pleasures of Paris to be very much worth pursuing, and it is only the play's cabale des dévots—Tartuffe, Orgon, Madame Pernelle, and the servant Laurent—who denounce them.

Madame Pernelle buttresses her attack on the family by telling them that their way of life scandalizes the whole neighborhood. She reports an “éclat fâcheux dans tout le voisinage” (l. 90). Everyone is talking. This elicits a counterattack from Dorine, no mean gossip herself, in which the censors are censured, and an enlightened little sermon from Cléante on the futility of trying to keep people from gossiping. That does not prevent him later on from expressing the same concern about what people are saying when he tells Tartuffe how scandalized everyone is by his presence in the Orgon household:

Oui, tout le monde en parle, et vous m'en pouvez croire,
L'éclat que fait ce bruit n'est point à votre

(ll. 1185-86)

The characters in Tartuffe live in a world populated by people who talk about them and sit in judgment on them. Orgon reports the gossip he has heard about Valère: “à jouer on dit qu'il est enclin” (l. 523). Dorine warns him that if he takes Tartuffe as a son-in-law he will be ridiculed: “je ne puis souffrir / qu'aux brocards d'un chacun vous alliez vous offrir” (ll. 547-48). Mariane is afraid of what the public will say if she displays her love for Valère without conventional girlish reticence: “Et veux-tu que mes feux par le monde étalés …” (l. 635). Elmire suggests that an appeal to the public will invalidate the contract whereby Tartuffe has become the owner of Orgon's house:

Allex faire éclater l'audace de l'ingrat
Ce procédé détruit la vertu du contrat.

(ll. 1823-24)

No one is more aware of this large and impressionable audience than Tartuffe himself, the character who plays to an audience every moment of his life. He is an expert on public opinion and knows or pretends to know what people think of him: “Tout le monde me prend pour un homme de bien” (l. 1099). He knows the power of the spoken word and the efficacy of silence:

Le scandale du monde est ce qui fait l'offense,
Et ce n'est pas pécher que pécher en silence.

(ll. 1505-06)

Tartuffe never forgets le monde and les choses de ce monde which he has pretended to renounce. The people in the background watching, admiring, despising, and gossiping give their own perspective to the play and throw the dominant figure into dramatic relief.

Fear of scandal and the provocation of scandal have an important part to play in Tartuffe. This is natural enough. Scandal is endemic to the theater. The dramatist may not always set out, as he does in Tartuffe, to portray scandalous doings, but he almost always seeks to shake, to shock, to have some more than passing impact on his audience. He aims at what we call a gut response: as Molière puts it, good plays are “des choses qui nous prennent par les entrailles” (La Critique de l'école des femmes, Sc. vi). It is to direct or reinforce this response of theater audiences to the scandalous, outrageous, or ridiculous behavior of his protagonists that Molière furnishes them with an offstage audience and shows their impact on these outsiders. Molière's characters are frequently reminded that they are being watched by a public with a sharp sense of the ridiculous or a keen nose for scandal—a public both urbane and urban which dramatizes their actions. Chrysalde to Arnolphe in L'Ecole des femmes: “Gare qu'aux carrefours on ne vous tympanise” (l. 72). Philinte to Alceste in Le Misanthrope: “Je vous dirai tout franc que cette maladie, / Partout où vous allez donne la comédie” (ll. 105-06). Anselme to Pandolfe in L'Etourdi: “De grâce, n'allez pas divulguer un tel conte; / On en ferait jouer quelque farce à ma honte” (ll. 619-20).

Madame Pernelle adds another dimension to the world the characters live in when she tells them what destination Tartuffe has in mind for them: “C'est au chemin du Ciel qu'il prétend vous conduire” (l. 53). Le ciel, a key word in Tartuffe, spoken for the first time in this line, is a euphemism for God, but there are instances where it keeps more than a trace of its primary meaning. Tartuffe contrives to mention le ciel as often as possible and no doubt reminds us of its presence by gesture as well. “Ses roulements d'yeux et son ton radouci”—a line from Alceste's description of le franc scélérat in Le Misanthrope (l. 127)—fits Tartuffe very well. Nothing, in fact, expresses piety more theatrically than eyes rolling heavenward, a favorite facial expression of baroque art and one that seems inseparable from the part of Tartuffe. Tartuffe is on intimate terms with heaven—au mieux du monde, as Orgon puts it—and gives the impression of being in almost constant communication with the heavenly father. Whether he is looking up to grace from on high or turning his back on the things of this world, everything he talks about takes on an intensely physical aspect. Paris may be just outside the door, but when Tartuffe speaks heaven is right over the roof. His imperturbable and tireless repetition of the word—“l'interêt du ciel, la gloire du ciel, la volonté du ciel”—helps persuade his victims that he has the key to heaven in his back pocket.

The opening scene of Tartuffe has much to say about the setting and atmosphere in which the action will take place: a noisy, disputatious, outspoken household; a neighborhood buzzing with talk and gossip; a family accustomed to the pleasures offered by a sociable, lively capital city that finds itself invited against its will to abandon earthly pursuits and to follow an intruder up the straight and narrow path to heaven. The whole scene is framed by an opening line which promises an exit: “Allons, Flipote, allons” (l. 1), and a final line which echoes it: “marchons, gaupe, marchons” (l. 171). It is, in fact, an exit scene, the longest and, with the possible exception of Monsieur Purgon's whirlwind exit in Act III of Le Malade imaginaire, the most expressive in Molière's theater.

Entrances and exits are crucial moments in the structure of any play. Many of them in Tartuffe are dramatically underscored and echo one another. Characters leave the house with a malediction like Madame Pernelle or are thrown out like Damis, Tartuffe, and Monsieur Loyal. They enter to take possession of the house or to be reconciled with the family. Entrances and exits underline the double significance of the house in Tartuffe. It is at once a possession symbolizing and guaranteeing Orgon's social standing and a shelter protecting and preserving the intimacy of family life. It is both pignon sur rue and foyer. Entrances and exits to this privileged place also provide, through the open door, glimpses of the world outside.

Orgon's first entrance follows Madame Pernelle's exit. She leaves a house where she sees nothing but disorder and disrespect. He returns to a house where he sees nothing but prosperity and piety. “Tout semble y prospérer,” (l. 300) he says beatifically to his brother-in-law. Tartuffe has brought about this happy state of affairs, and Orgon can talk about nothing else.

The scene takes as its point of departure a situation often used in drama: the return of the lord and master. In tragedy, the absences of the father like Thésee or Mithridate are motivated by warlike or heroic enterprises which impart a certain prestige to the absent figure. In most Molière comedies the reasons are less specific and far humbler. Orgon, like Arnolphe in L'Ecole des femmes, has gone to spend a few days in the country, presumably to oversee his property. He has certainly not been on vacation. We learn from Cléante's greeting that it is not the season to enjoy the pleasures of rustic life: “La campagne à présent n'est pas beaucoup fleurie” (l. 225). We have seen Dorine's depressing view of small-city life. This one glimpse of the countryside is not much more cheerful. It is the only reference to nature in the whole play. This is typical. In most Molière comedies, except for the pastorales, the setting is urban, and most of the infrequent allusions to nature suggest there is danger in leaving town. Dom Juan plans an abduction by water and is nearly drowned, then journeys through a forest and is attacked by robbers. Elise in L'Avare owes her life to her fiancé, Valère, who saved her from drowning, and he in turn is the survivor of a shipwreck. It is small wonder that Molière's characters rarely venture beyond the city walls. Who knows what dangers may await them? The fathers in Molière whose business takes them out of town could all exclaim with Sganarelle in L'Amour médecin: “Ah! l'étrange chose que la vie! Et que je puis bien dire avec ce grand philosophe de l'antiquité, que qui terre a, guerre a” (Act I, Sc. i). They would do well to remember Scapin's warning that it is best to expect the worst any time one returns from a trip.

Pour peu qu'un père de famille ait été absent de chez lui, il doit promener son esprit sur tous les fâcheux accidents que son retour peut rencontrer, se figurer sa maison brûlée, son argent dérobé, sa femme morte, son fils estropié, sa fille subornée; et ce qu'il trouve qu'il ne lui est point arrivé, l'imputer à bonne fortune.

(Act II, Sc. v)

Orgon's inquiries on his return are a commonplace of the comic theater: “Tout s'est-il, ces deux jours, passé de bonne sorte? / Qu'est-ce qu'on fait céans? … Comme est-ce qu'on s'y porte?” (ll. 229-30). This might be Arnolphe in L'Ecole des femmes: “Hé bien! Alain, comment se porte-t-on ici?” (l. 221). The surprise comes when we learn that it is not his wife, son, or daughter that concerns him, but only Tartuffe. He has learned from Tartuffe a new imperturbability in the face of the disasters that the returning father must learn to expect:

Et je verrais mourir frère, enfants, mère et femme
Que je m'en soucierais autant que de cela.

(ll. 278-79)

By a fundamental dramatic irony this entrance where Orgon can think of no one but Tartuffe is balanced by an exit where Tartuffe himself ejects Orgon from his own house and dispossesses him. The peripeteia, the moment which in Boileau's words “change tout, donne à tout une face imprévue,” turns on the question of the ownership of the house. Everything has changed because the property has changed hands. Orgon says to Tartuffe, “Il faut, tout sur le champ, sortir de la maison” (l. 1556) to which Tartuffe replies, “C'est à vous d'en sortir, vous qui parlez en maître” (l. 1557). Until the last scene it appears that Tartuffe is right: Orgon is no longer master of his own house and will be obliged to leave it. Monsieur Loyal serves a notice of eviction, Valère enters to hasten his departure with the news of his imminent arrest, and just as he is making a precipitous exit, Tartuffe and the exempt appear to lead him off to prison.

As for Tartuffe, we do not see his entrance. Before the play begins he has already established himself as the dominant force in the household and the problem is how to get rid of him. The scene in Act III when he finally appears is a false exit. He says to his servant Laurent: “Si l'on vient pour me voir, je vais aux prisonniers / Des aumônes que j'ai partager les deniers” (ll. 855-56). There is dramatic irony here, too. Tartuffe will indeed go to prison but not yet and not of his own free will. Orgon's house is not a house that you step out of casually. Characters leave in a rage or are thrown out with a curse. “Comme un criminel chassez-moi de chez vous” (l. 1084) says Tartuffe to Orgon when he is denounced by Damis. He has the tyrant's trick of threatening to leave in order to establish his presence more securely: “Je crois qu'il est besoin, mon frère, que j'en sorte … Laissez-moi vite, en m'éloignant d'ici / Leur ôter tout sujet de m'accuser ainsi” (ll. 1154, 1163-64). In Act IV, when Cléante urges him to withdraw, Tartuffe interrupts and, far from leaving the house, goes upstairs where an unspecified pious duty calls him. When he finally does leave, his threats make it clear that he will reappear to take possession of his property.

When a bourgeois like Orgon loses his house, he loses his identity. The bourgeois in Molière considers his house, his wife, and his children as property. Typically, he wants to keep everything for himself. His house is particularly dear to him, however, since his status depends on it, a bourgeois being by definition a person who owns property in the city. A bourgeois stripped of his possessions descends to the level of a Tartuffe before his meeting with Orgon, “un gueux … qui n'avait pas de souliers / Et dont l'habit entier valait bien six deniers” (ll. 64-65). That is what happens in the play.

Tartuffe rises as Orgon falls. Orgon was a man of wisdom and courage. “Pour servir son prince, il montra du courage” (l. 182). At the beginning of the last scene he expects to be led off to prison by order of the King. Tartuffe in the meanwhile has become what Orgon was, a trusted servant of the King. He plays the part with his usual zeal and aplomb: “L'intérêt du prince est mon premier devoir” (l. 1880). They have exchanged roles. Tartuffe was the creature of Orgon, Orgon becomes the creature of Tartuffe, “un homme à mener par le nez” (l. 1524). Orgon is psychologically dependent on Tartuffe from the start, but he has done nothing irreparable until the donation. He has learned from Tartuffe to express contempt for the ties that bind him to his family and to his worldly possessions, to his house and to his home. The donation following upon his son's disinheritance closes the gap between words and deeds. Living in a dream world, however, Orgon will not realize the hard meaning of what he has done until Monsieur Loyal has moved in with ten strong men who will help Orgon and his family move out in the morning. All this “sans scandale et sans bruit” (l. 1784). There is an ironical echo here of Madame Pernelle's attack on the household's noisy and scandalous life. The eviction of Orgon's family will no doubt bring more excitement to the neighborhood and more delight to its gossips than anything Madame Pernelle could have imagined. Orgon will be in prison, his family on the street, and Tartuffe installed in the house as its new owner.

Valère's appearance at the end also echoes a theme from the beginning of the play. Cléante argues that the parties and social gatherings of Paris life are not at all incompatible with virtue and goodness of heart. This is one of the commonplaces of libertine thought. Orgon reports that Valère does not go to church as often as he should, and is probably something of a gambler as well. But it is Valère, the spurned suitor, who comes to Orgon's rescue with a carriage and a thousand louis. Valère has a well-connected friend who values friendship over justice (another libertine commonplace) and who has the delicacy and thoughtfulness to violate a state secret and inform him of Orgon's imminent arrest. Tartuffe is not only a condemnation of bigotry and hypocrisy, but, through Valère, an affirmation of the innocence and goodness not only of those “dévots de cœur” whom Cléante enumerates, but also in a more general way, of all the attractive young people who enjoy “les bals, les conversations, les assemblées,” gambling, theater, fashionable dress, all the pleasures that you can find in Paris and nowhere else.

Valère is powerless against the evil represented by Tartuffe, however. It is only the King who can correct such abuses. The miraculous denouement recalls the crowning advantage of living in Paris: the opportunity to bask in the radiant presence of the Sun-King. The imagery of l'exempt's speech suggests the solar attributes of Louis XIV. He is an enemy of darkness, horror, crookedness, traps, deceptions, and frauds. A flood of light emanates from him and suffuses the scene. He sees straight and he sees all: “Un prince dont les yeux se font jour dans les cœurs … une droite vue … Il a percé par ses vives clartés, / Des replis de son cœur toutes les lâchetés” (l. 1907, l. 1910, ll. 1919-20). The black misdeeds and dark plotting of Tartuffe have cast a heavy shadow on the scene. By removing him the King restores to the scene its brightness and purity, and, to borrow a line from Phèdre, “rend au jour qu'il souillait toute sa pureté.” Louis' palace is so close that as soon as the curtain falls the whole family will go kneel before him in gratitude.

Tartuffe is unique in the particular importance it gives to the house itself, but many of its place references have their counterpart in other Molière comedies: apart from costume (so important in Molière that it deserves to be treated separately), props form the characters' most immediate environment. Parallels to the props which characterize Tartuffe are the catalog of worn-out, ugly, antiquated, and useless objects which Harpagon foists off on a borrower in L'Avare, or conversely, the objects symbolic of aristocratic rank and refinement among which Monsieur Jourdain moves with such delight and bewilderment. In most Molière comedies, as in Tartuffe, the audience is reminded that the characters inhabit a neighborhood where malicious gossip abounds. Harpagon finds this out when he asks Maître Jacques what people are saying about him, and Madame Jourdain knows precisely what the neighbors will say if her daughter marries a nobleman. Dorine's satiric attack on provincial life is echoed and expanded in a half-dozen plays. With the more distant place references in Molière we move from the real to the fantastic. They come from the charlatans who, like Tartuffe referring to le ciel, seek to bedazzle their victims, or from the long-lost relatives who bring a happy ending in from overseas. Thus Covielle tells Monsieur Jourdain, “j'ai voyagé par tout le monde,” to which Monsieur Jourdain answers with his usual childish wonder: “Je pense qu'il y a bien loin en ce pays-là” (Act IV, Sc. iii). Toinette in Le Malade imaginaire also comes from afar: “Je suis médecin passager qui vais de ville en ville, de province en province, de royaume en royaume” (Act III, Sc. x). Dramatically, these hoaxes are not sharply distinguishable from the miraculous denouements which also are brought in unexpectedly by world travelers: Thomas d'Alburcy from Naples in L'Avare, Enrique, the long-lost relative from America, in L'Ecole des femmes.

The affirmation of the pleasures of Paris implicit in Tartuffe is repeated in several other plays. It is revealing, however, to turn from the denouement of Tartuffe with its family gathering at the feet of the King, to the denouement of Le Misanthrope where the group scatters and the protagonist bids farewell to Paris with a final denunciation: “Je vais sortir d'un gouffre où triomphent les vices” (l. 1804). Alceste departs in search of some remote and as yet undiscovered place where a man of honor can dwell in freedom:

Et chercher sur la terre un endroit écarté
Où d'être homme d'honneur on ait la liberté.

(ll. 1805-06)

The contrast is enlightening. Molière's characters seem to live in a world whose constituent elements are sufficiently stable so that one can imagine a character from one play moving into the other. In fact, le franc scélérat who wins his case against Alceste in Le Misanthrope seems to be none other than Tartuffe himself. But le franc scélérat remains a shadowy figure in Le Misanthrope and never puts in an appearance in Célimène's salon. Paris may be the same city in Le Misanthrope as in Tartuffe but it is seen in such a harsh light that its features are hard to recognize.

The quaint notion that Molière was somehow a clumsy or careless dramatist who slapped his plays together with little care for anything except characters and ideas has been so thoroughly discredited that today we may tend to the other extreme and see in elements of his dramaturgy that are merely trivial or conventional the working out of some design. It may well be that in some of his plays the setting and place references simply furnish a painted backdrop as usable in one play as in another. Certainly in Tartuffe, however—and no doubt in Le Misanthrope as well—they have a distinctive expressive function and are integrated into an esthetic whole.


  1. All references to Molière's works are taken from Molière, Œuvres, edition Despois et Mesnard (Paris: Hachette, 1878).

  2. The motif of Paris as Babylon would be worth tracing from the kind of sermon Molière is parodying here through Henry James's “the bright Babylon” to the “cité orientale” which Proust evokes in Sodome et Gomorrhe.

Myrna Kogan Zwillenberg (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3521

SOURCE: “Dramatic Justice in Tartuffe,” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 90, No. 4, April, 1975, pp. 583-90.

[In the following essay, Zwillenberg explores Molière's use of justice in Tartuffe.]

Few will quarrel with the judgment that Molière's Tartuffe is a masterpiece, yet those who agree on the excellence of the play frequently express hostility and confusion about the intervention of the King at the end. The King's justice, it is argued, may be thorough and effective, but it is so unexpected as to cast doubt upon the dramatic coherence of the entire comedy. Probably, Molière himself is responsible for this reaction, having resorted to a deus ex machina that appears to defy internal resolution. By relying on a device which introduces a new character possessed of sweeping powers, he seems to be saying that there is a break between dramatically motivated expectations of justice and the King's own dazzling display of power and omniscience.

The earliest extant criticism of the play (thought to be written by Molière) is the Lettre sur la comédie de l'Imposteur, a pamphlet which circulated after the 1664 version of Tartuffe. In it the author assumes the conventional posture of an Aristotelian critic who defends the portrayal of the Hypocrite as a moral corrective to vice. The King's justice does not surprise this critic; on the contrary, he saves his greatest praise for the dénouement:

Il me semble que si, dans tout le reste de la pièce, l'auteur a égalé tous les anciens et surpassé tous les modernes, on peut dire que dans ce dénouement il s'est surpassé lui-même, n'ayant rien de plus grand, de plus magnifique et de plus merveilleux, et cependant rien de plus naturel, de plus heureux et de plus juste. …”1

Today such hyperbole and its critical perspective seem quaint at best.2 Nevertheless, the Lettre remains more than a charming, but useless antique. The author of that document, like so many generations of spectators after him, sensed the relationship between the tensions generated by the figure of Tartuffe and the audience's desire that he not go unpunished at the end of the play. The comic and unsympathetic nature of the character suggests that he is a ridiculous figure destined to lose the protection of his mask, opaque only to Orgon and his mother. Indeed, it seems safe to say that a final triumph by Tartuffe would betray the comic essence of the play: the folly of both Tartuffe and Orgon would not be amusing if comedy were to dissolve into melodrama, leaving the hypocrite victorious over a helpless family.

Interestingly enough, the author of the Lettre skirts completely the issue of Orgon's complicity in Tartuffe's rise to power. This embarrassing omission, no doubt motivated by a desire to defend, rather than analyse the play, has long since been corrected. Lionel Gossman, notably, has summarized modern critical opinion: “Tartuffe cannot be given credit for having bamboozled Orgon. Orgon is as much Tartuffe's creator as Tartuffe himself.”3

Here it seems, we are arriving at the heart of the dilemma. The comic tensions provoking audience laughter are directly related to situations and characters perceived as unjust. Even where no legal breaches occur—as in the case of Orgon's decision to marry off his daughter to Tartuffe or to banish and disinherit his son—the injustice of such actions is manifest to the audience. To be sure, Molière has taken the precaution of signaling such incidents by having the servant Dorine express her exaggerated moral outrage, a significant device which pinpoints the areas meant to be ridiculous. But even if Dorine were not present, the excessive authority exercised over the sympathetic characters by both Orgon and Tartuffe would be cause enough to desire that they receive their just desserts.

When considered in the light of a need for closure, however, this type of scenario poses thorny problems. Audience expectations of dramatic justice, nurtured through the repeated exposure of comic folly, demand confirmation, usually in the form of order replacing comic disorder. But if there are two strong comic figures, it would surely not do to foil only one of the protagonists. Dramatic justice, in the case of Tartuffe, would seem to necessitate the punishment of Orgon and the hypocrite, two figures whose outrageous behavior constitutes an aberration we are willing to enjoy as a comic spectacle, but only with the knowledge that it will not go unchecked.

This conclusion may help to explain the traditional hostility to the dénouement. Even if the ending did not include a deus ex machina, it would still be difficult to justify, as a solution, an ending that treats one comic figure so harshly and the other so lightly.

However, a fundamental error in this reasoning derives, I believe, from a narrow view of justice as a final rather than evolving concept. Seventeenth-century theoreticians traditionally considered only the final reversal in a series to be the dénouement,4 but if one takes into consideration the comic tensions engendered by a multiplicity of evolving characters and situations, it might be more proper to expand the dénouement to include the relaxation of all the major tensions. Moreover, appreciation of the gradual nature of such an extended process might make it possible to perceive not only the means employed, but also its effect upon the dynamics of the play.

Perhaps the most important factor is that the roles of the protagonists do evolve in the course of the play. If one compares, for example, Orgon's early posture of power and insensitivity with his plight in Act IV, scene 7, when Tartuffe announces control over the family's wordly possessions, it becomes clear that the lines of comic force have shifted. Nor is the role of Orgon the only one to change, for this scene also heralds a major change in the role of the hypocrite. Functioning formerly as Orgon's alter-ego and as a ridiculous figure inspiring laughter,5 he now appears as a menace whose power threatens the internal equilibrium of the comic process.

This striking scene, with its overwhelming reversals, may hold a key to the final proceedings. First of all, it separates the lines of force which permitted Orgon and Tartuffe to function as comic accomplices. This is important because it strengthens the individuality of each figure at the same time it separates the fate of one from the other. Secondly, it serves as a dénouement of sorts because it humbles Orgon, punishing him for his folly and humilating him for his blindness. All of his unjust acts make him ripe for humiliation, and Tartuffe's assumption of power provides at least partial justice in the spectacle of Orgon's helpless rage.

But it would be erroneous to see in this scene any complete comic closure for the play.6 Orgon deserves to be humiliated, but not in so abject—and one could add, unfunny—a manner, and certainly not by a figure who is at least as guilty of misconduct as he. In brief, this pivotal scene shifts the focus to Tartuffe's power, but resolves only a fraction of the tensions present.

If Orgon cannot dispel Tartuffe's power, who is left to do it? A rapid glance at the remaining cast of characters offers little hope of a solution. The docile daughter Marianne cannot even openly challenge her father. Damis, with his adolescent rage and simplistic idealism, has, of course, been banished. Elmire, the discreet and self-effacing wife, would appear to have some chance for success, but she already seems exhausted, having expended all her energy in the plot to trick Tartuffe, a plot so contrary to her nature that she feels obliged to apologize for it. Dorine and Cléante perceive the situation most clearly, but for all their talking, they have been lacking the force and prestige to bring about any significant change. That leaves only old Madame Pernelle, who shares with her son Orgon the blindness and gullibility which make of her another accomplice, rather than a possible savior for the family.

Boileau's suggested dénouement, which would have the family judge and then perhaps chase Tartuffe from the house in a farcical manner, is deftly dismissed by Professor Scherer, who points out that the family, devoid of its legal documents, is hardly in a position to judge Tartuffe.7 This simple fact, coupled with the dramatic havoc to be created by changing the formerly weak character of the family, would therefore make such a solution impossible. Also, once again, a concerted effort by Orgon and his family would bypass the important issue of Orgon's guilt and posture as a comic figure.

The burden of comic closure falls to Act V which, it will appear, deals with the problem in steps. The proceedings of Act IV have given ample proof of Tartuffe's true nature even to a mind as closed as that of Orgon. Therefore, Orgon's awakening comes as the proper and logical first step. Scene 2 brings the return of Damis, welcomed home by a chastened father. The rhythm then changes, bringing comic relief in the obstinate ramblings of Madame Pernelle during Scene 3. In Scene 5, after she has seen for herself the crimes perpetrated by Tartuffe's henchman, Monsieur Loyal, she, too, awakens to the truth, exclaiming: “Je suis tout ébaubie, et je tombe des nues!” Valère's offer of aid in the following scene puts the final touch on the reunion and shows him to be a worthy husband for Marianne. All would thus seem to be very sweet just before the play's final scene—except for the significant fact that the problems have again only partially been solved. This is the moment of the arrival of the Exempt, representative of the police and the King. The play's final scene is also the moment for the play's greatest reversal, the deus ex machina that resolves all of the difficulties still remaining.

It should be noted that this ending does have its supporters, and in recent years most of the arguments have centered about the thematic justification for the King's intervention.8 Given the theme of abused authority, set in motion in the play's initial scene and sustained throughout the comedy, the validity of introducing a supreme authority figure at its close seems largely justified. However, thematic coherence alone would not explain Molière's recourse to so spectacular an ending. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, the surprise of the Exempt's arrival, his silence, and then his startling revelation of the reasons for his appearance suggest a structural breach as powerful as any thematic link.

Clearly then, any full explanation for the deus ex machina must look to structural as well as thematic criteria. One clue can be found in the spectacle of Act V. These scenes are usually cited to show that Molière had reached a dead-end: that “real life” drama has brought Orgon and his family to contrition and reconciliation, without a happy ending. However, this interpretation ignores two structural details that have dominated the comedy: the impulse to justice and the pattern of comic equilibrium.

When considered as a dramatic device, the first part of the fifth act reveals itself to be a period of apprehension that makes the coming storm more impressive. The weakness of the sympathetic figures cries out for a strong and just reversal precisely because the comic structure of the play (which descends at times to a farcical level) makes highly unlikely a final victory for the villain of the piece.

Molière's careful attention to detail in Act V would also support this view. The reunion of the family, the conversion of Madame Pernelle, the hope of a wedding for the young lovers if Tartuffe's dastardly plot can be thwarted—all combine to create an emotionally charged cliff-hanger. Nor is the solution a particularly difficult one, for having disposed of the other major problems, Molière need solve only one more: foiling Tartuffe.

However, the climate of suspense means that any solution to the dilemma will have to match the emotional heights reached in the first part of Act V. A wink and a pardon, as in L'Avare, will not suffice, nor will a happy carnival setting, as in le Bourgeois Gentilhomme; on the contrary, a tonic chord will have to be very forceful.

In the final scene timing is all-important. Molière exploits the suspense to an extreme, allowing Tartuffe his final vindictive tirade in the presence of the Exempt whose initial silence seems to bear witness to the hypocrite's victory. This is the moment for the play's most startling reversal, and it comes only after Tartuffe himself has set the trap:

                                                                      Tartuffe, à l'Exempt.
Délivrez-moi, Monsieur, de la criaillerie,
Et daignez accomplir votre ordre, je vous prie.
Oui, c'est trop demeurer
sans doute à l'accomplir:
Votre bouche à propos m'invite à
le remplir;
Et pour l'exécuter, suivez-moi tout à l'heure
Dans la prison qu'on doit vous donner pour demeure.


No dramatic or linguistic flourish is spared in this or in the Exempt's following speech. One listens in stunned silence to a litany of the King's superhuman qualities and to the sentence he has decreed. Not only for the family, but for the spectator as well, the words bring sweet relief that comes from a reprieve from fear. The intolerable cloud of injustice which has loomed menacingly overhead is slowly lifted, leaving the pure light of le roi Soleil. The impulses to justice and to comic equilibrium have been fulfilled after all, and the structural integrity of the play is intact. To be sure, the suspense was painful, but the pleasure is all the more intense for it.

Another major aspect of the dénouement, distinct from the orchestration of the scene, is the means by which Tartuffe is punished and order restored to the household: Tartuffe is discovered as a result of past crimes, and Orgon is excused because of past favors rendered to the King during the Fronde. The text is very explicit on both points, noting with respect to Tartuffe that he is:

un fourbe renommé
Dont sous un autre nom il étoit informé,
Et c'est un long détail d'actions toutes noires
Dont on pourroit former des volumes d'histories.


As for Orgon's pardon, it is the result of a favor dating back about twenty years:

Et c'est le prix qu'il donne au zèle qu'autrefois
On vous vit témoigner en appuyant ses droits


When these two aspects, the surprise of the deus ex machina and the device of relating both the punishment and the pardon to the past, are examined in the light of tensions generated earlier, the ending appears anything but arbitrary.

First of all, the intervention of the King resolves all of the major tensions remaining: it punishes Tartuffe, recognizes and then excuses Orgon's culpability, restores family harmony, and guarantees that such excesses will not soon take place again. In brief, it unties all the knots (and does not merely chop them off, as a wag suggested) at the same time it releases the tensions resulting from the Tartuffe-Orgon fraternity. The audience is rewarded for its correct perception of comic forces by the spectacle of seeing the guilty defeated, and it also experiences the pleasure of suspense preceding the welcome reversal which terminates the play.

Secondly, the device of reverting back in time reveals itself to be a beautifully simple measure for solving a complex problem gracefully. Punishing Tartuffe by other means, such as a judgment by the family or an invalidation of the contract in the courts, would have still left unsolved the matter of Orgon's complicity. Moreover, this sort of ending would have been devoid of the éclat which comes from Tartuffe's final blunder, exposed for all to see in the refracted light of the reversal. Nor is the problem of Orgon's crimes ignored; they are simply separated from those of Tartuffe, permitting the King to treat each individually.

This is not to say, however, that the substance of the ending is inferior to its form. On the contrary, the device of making the King the agent of justice more than adequately meets the specific needs of the ending. The impulse to dramatic justice, which has been growing more intense throughout Act V, finds an appropriate carrier in the person of the King. Only a figure of superhuman stature could see into the hearts of men, and only he could remember good and evil dating back to the Fronde. In fact, by putting on stage the one mortal figure capable of transcending time, Molière has solved the greatest problem still remaining. Certainly, no solution is possible in the present, but an earlier time, free of complications, easily meets the need for an outside form of justice.

The point is that Molière has paced himself in such a way as to exploit all of the dramatic potential in Tartuffe's rise to power and in his subsequent, inevitable fall. Like an elastic band stretched to its breaking point, the action of Act V creates increased audience apprehension proportional to the growing threat of disaster. Unlike the subtle play of forces which marked the period of complicity between the two comic figures, the technique here is linear and cumulative, building up force for a reversal whose shock is equal to the suspense preceding it.

On the other hand, this does not mean that just any final reversal will have the desired effect. It is the mark of an expert craftsman that the means employed correspond so perfectly to the tensions generated earlier. Moreover, this would appear to be Molière's primary consideration, rather than any attempt to explain the King's interest in Orgon's dilemma. Although such interest comes as a great surprise, it is one which strengthens the force of the Exempt's pronouncements. Surely, a monarch who knows all things past and present should cause little wonder that his perception of injustice is accurate. Just how accurate becomes apparent in his balanced dispensation of justice, which corresponds not only to past crimes or favors, but also to the dramatic exigency of relaxing the tensions caused by the ascendance of a villain.

Looking back to Act IV, scene 6, the dénouement further reveals itself to be the second stage of a process begun much earlier. From a pattern of balanced complicity Molière moved to the imbalance of allowing Tartuffe apparent victory, at the expense of the family's humiliation and helplessness. This permitted him to relax one major tension deriving from the injustice of Orgon's abuse of authority. However, it left another major tension, that of Tartuffe's unjust rise to power, which then demanded an even greater reversal to redress the balance. And since a satisfying solution could ignore neither Orgon's earlier complicity, nor his present helplessness, dramatic equilibrium could be restored only by an outside agent able to transcend the present. Also, by choosing the one figure capable of perceiving all the divisions, justice could be dispensed with an even hand.

When examined in the light of both structural and dramatic exigencies, therefore, Molière's recourse to a deus ex machina emerges as a fitting vehicle for the resolution of comic tensions. It effectively restores the equilibrium of the comic universe, releases all remaining tensions, and confirms the validity of the spectator's perception. Tartuffe may disappoint those looking for “real life” drama, but the play itself has no such pretensions. Its internal comedy, nourished by examples of injustice, constitutes a closely controlled dramatic mechanism whose evolving plan leads us to expect a just ending. Tartuffe clearly fulfills this expectation, and provides masterful comedy in the process.


  1. The Lettre consulted for this study appears in the Despois-Mesnard edition of Molière's works (Paris, 1878), IV, 529-66. This edition is also the source for direct references to the play.

  2. As Jacques Scherer and others have pointed out, the force of the argument, for all its attractiveness, suffers from an excess of uncritical praise.

  3. Lionel Gossman, Men and Masks: A Study of Molière (Baltimore, 1963), p. 110.

  4. See Jacques Scherer, La Dramaturgie classique en France (Paris, 1950), pp. 125-26.

  5. Three such moments, grouped by Marcel Gutwirth, are the handkerchief scene where Tartuffe tangles with Dorine (“Couvrez ce sein que je ne saurois voir …” III,2), his grotesque attempts at seduction in his first meeting with Elmire (III,3), and his recourse to the truth, in the fervent hope he will not be believed, after being denounced by Damis (III,6). See Molière ou l'invention comique (Paris, 1966), pp. 179-83.

  6. John Cairncross's theory, in New Light on Molière: Tartuffe; Elomire Hypocondre (Genève, 1956), of the three-act “Urtartuffe” of 1664, ending with Orgon chasing Tartuffe from the house, would be only slightly more satisfying. Since Orgon is largely responsible for Tartuffe's rise to power, it would be difficult to appreciate an ending which failed to take that fact into consideration.

  7. Jacques Scherer, Structures de Tartuffe (Paris, 1966), p. 192.

  8. Scherer cites the King's role as “roi-père” and the probability that he has followed the fortunes of Orgon (Structures de Tartuffe, pp.200-207). See also Judd Hubert, Molière and the Comedy of Intellect (Berkeley, 1962); and Jacques Guicharnaud, Molière, une aventure théâtrale (Paris, 1963).

Andrew McKenna (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6437

SOURCE: “Tartuffe, Representation and Difference,” in Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature, Vol. XVI, No. 30, 1989, pp. 76-93.

[The following essay, McKenna discusses Molière's Tartuffe, focusing on misinterpretations embodied within the work that serve to entrap its audience.]

Molière's Le Tartuffe, ou l'Imposteur is a play about sex, religion and politics, the canonical topics of adult conversation. It affords the requisite opportunities for a radical critique of desire, the sacred, and power, the canonical topics of our demystifying fervor—with which we often remystify readers by the use of such terms as theophallogocentrism. Moreover, it is a text whose misunderstanding-misinterpretation is inscribed within it, thereby deploying tactics of entrapment (of reader or spectator) which are deemed by many as indispensable to strategies identified as deconstructive. Finally, it is a text in which psychological and rhetorical structures are imbricated, mutually implicated and complicated, so that the allegory of true and false devotion unfolds as an allegory of reading. As a consequence, its analysis serves in this essay as the occasion for interrelating a critique of representation and difference, as exhibited most notably in the writings of Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, with a critique of violence and desire, particularly as we find it in the writings of René Girard.

Orgon-“orgueil”: if that word-play has any validity, it suggets that pride is the inscribed subject of the play, the literal and figurative subject in the twofold sense of the noun “subject”: as the principle of identity, of action, the locus of agency; and as the matter, the theme, the topic. Orgon imposes Tartuffe on his household in order to dominate its members in a way that exceeds the authority and mastery he already enjoys as pater familias, as undisputed head of the household. His daughter Mariane, whom he would marry to Tartuffe, provides the formula for Orgon's ascendancy:

Contre un père absolu que veux-tu que je fasse?

Un père, je l'avoue, a sur nous tant d'empire Que je n'ai jamais eu la force de rien dire. (II, iii)

But the spectator has already witnessed in an earlier scene that Orgon is not satisfied with such mastery. He seeks control from within the minds and hearts of those subordinate to him:

Mariane: Qui voulez vous, mon pére, que je dise Qui me touche le coeur, et qu'il me serait doux De voir par votre choix devenir mon époux?

Orgon: Tartuffe.

Mariane: Il n'en est rien, mon père, je vous jure, Pourquoi me faire dire une telle imposture?

Orgon: Mais je veux que cela solt une vérité: Et c'est assez pour vous que je l'aie arrêté. (II,i)

The principle impostor of Molière's play, as critics like Gossman and Guicharnaud have not failed to point out, is Orgon himself, for whom “devotion”, the subordination of all conduct and attitudes to absolute, transcendent values, is but a mask, a means to an end: domination. It is one of the fundamental ironies of the play that absolute values are no such thing here: they are relative to the tyrannical ambition of the father. It is a symmetrical irony that Tartuffe, who is enlisted in the service of this goal, should enjoy indisputable mastery over Orgon, who calls him his “brother”, but who dotes on him like a lover on his mistress:


Il l'appelle son frère et l'aime dans son âme Cent fois plus qu'il ne fait mère, fils, fille, et femme.

Il le choie, il l'embrasse, et pour une maîtresse On ne saurait je pense, avoir plus de tendresse:

Enfin il en est fou; c'est son tout, son héros; Il l'admire à tous coups, le cite à tout propos; Ses moindres actions lui semblent des miracles, Et tous les mots qu'il dit sont pour lui des oracles.

(I, ii)

Dorine's hyperbolic metaphors translate the relation of Orgon to Tartuffe as one of idolatry. Orgon is a member of a religion whose god is, undecidably perhaps, himself and Tartuffe. The desire to be god or to play at being god is structurally destined to idolatry, which we define as devotion to a false god, to a mere representation, a signifier. Religious devotion, as institutionalized in the seventeenth century, is the appropriate focus for Molière's critique of representation, which is inseparable from his critique of desire. For what idolatry signifies is the desire of the other's desire. This takes the form of worship of the other's desire. Orgon's subjugation to Tartuffe emulates, is the model for the desired subjugation of his family: his adoration of Tartuffe replicates the adoration he seeks from his family. Tartuffe is to Orgon as Orgon would be to his family—and as Elmire will be for Tartuffe. There is no center to this structure other than the other's desire, which explains why, at the geometrical center of the play (III,iii), Tartuffe in turn is lead to express his desire for Elmire in the language of slavish devotion: “J'aurai toujours pour vous, ô suave merveille, / Une dévotion à nulle autre pareille.” “Hubris” and humiliation alternate with each other; like signifier and signified for the Saussurean sign, they are two sides of the same indivisible page, of the same “interdividual” desire (Girard, Des Choses cachées III).

To speak of Dorine's discourse, or anyone else's, as metaphorical hyperbole here is perhaps redundant, both metaphor and hyperbole being but discursive equivalents of speaking “as if” (Johnson 62-76). The ontological question then arises: what is not “as if”, what is not translation, and correlatively, what is that is not “always already” being translated? The interest of such questions (of representation as rhetoric) is evidenced by Orgon's inability to predicate Tartuffe's superior essence: “C'est un homme … qui, … ha! un homme … un homme enfin” (I,v). Tartuffe's divine difference consists in nothing else than in Orgon's election of him as a lever by which he seeks absolute power over his family. Orgon's inept tautology here, in the context of his (self-)defense of Tartuffe before the remonstrations of Cléante, translates the vacuity of his own bid for absolute sovereignty: “Qui suit bien ses leçons goûte une paix profonde, / Et comme du fumier regarde tout le monde” (I,v). His peace is constructed on the virtual annihilation of all around him. He does not wish this, but the transcendence which this represents. Similarly, when he intones “Allons, ferme, mon coeur, point de faiblesse humaine” in response to his daughter's entreaties (IV, iii), we rightly suspect that it is the “humaine” rather than the “faiblesse” that he seeks to transcend.

We might recall a symmetrical dilemma posed by La Bruyère, whose portrait of the true dévot (Les Caractères, “De la mode,” § 23) reads like the negative exposure of the false (§ 2l). This textual structure issues from a social structure which Michael Koppisch has analyzed as The Dissolution of Character in La Bruyère's world: what has indeed dissolved, as the author notes, is “the substantiality of man's very essence” (112) in a world given over to the comparison of appearances. Molière too is a comic witness to this dissolution, above all to its potential for violent rivalry.

Orgon's all out devotion to Tartuffe is consonant with the totalitarian character of his desire. Such a desire is properly metaphysical: it has no object in its quest for a transcendence which, as such, forever eludes it: it knows no term, unless it be that of pride, which we invoke in the original sense of “hubris”, a rivalry with divinity connoting a hybrid relation, a relation of doubles. It is in this sense that pride is everywhere the subject, the sovereign principle and the principle of deluded sovereignty in Molière's comedy. The Prince, who intervenes from above and without, Dorine, the servant who mediates symmetrically from beneath and consequently outside the circuit of desire and power, and finally Elmire, the faithful wife, are all prominent exceptions to the rule of pride, of mimetic desire, which dominates the action of the play. The Prince is exempt from the struggle because he is deemed or ordained as one confident in his possession of power: Dorine, because she is symmetrically confident in her lack of it: Elmire, because she is confident in her indifference to it. All the other character's are pawns in Molière's power play.

Madame Pernelle, a caricature of her son, sets the tone in her peremptory denunciation of a household whose offense is that “de me complaire on ne prend nul souci”: “Oui, je sors de chez Vous fort mal édifiée: / Dans toutes mes leçons j'y suis contrariée” (I, i). As each member of the household is cut off, progressively, at their first (Dorine: “Si …”; Damis: “Mais …”), second (Mariane: “Je crois …”), third (Elmire: “Mais, ma mère …”), and fourth word (Cléante: “Mais, Madame, après tout …”), we know that dictatorship, not worship, is at issue. Sganarelle, whose first words in Le Médecin malgré lui are “Non, je te dis que je n'en veux rien faire, et que c'est à moi de parler et d'être le maître,” is in the wings. The wife-beater in Molière's farce is the violent heresiarch of sexual difference, just as the slap Madame Pernelle will give to her servant marks her as the heresiarch of social (and moral-intellectual) difference:

(Donnant un soufflet à Filpote)

Allons,vous, vous rêvez, et bayez aux cornellles. Jour de Dieu! je saurai vous frotter les oreilles. Marchons, gaupe, marchons. (I,i)

“Listen! Hear me, first and last,” she is saying with a violence toward her servant which represents the violence of her bid for moral ascendancy. “Violence,” as Girard has noted, “will come to an end only after it has had the last word and that word has been accepted as divine” (Violence 135). In Madame Pernelle's words we have the fated union of violence and the sacred, which is what transpires when hierarchical institutions governing social differences break down. As Girard notes, “The withering away of the transcendental influence means that there is no longer the slightest difference between a desire to save the city and unbridled ambition, between genuine piety and the desire to claim divine status for oneself” (ibid.). Religious devotion testifies to a sacrificial crisis, a crisis of eroding differences, which pervades Molière's world. The radical privatization of worship, a new religious form born of the Counter-Reformation (Argan 22-3), embodies a crisis of consciousness, of subjectivity released willy-nilly from adherence to absolute values, or, much the same thing, from their credible public representation. That Molière's Dom Juan should contemplate the career of a hypocrite, of a “faux dévot,” as the displacement and perfection of his career as seducer-rapist, as heresiarch of desire, is pertinent in this regard. Dom Juan's panic individualism and Orgon's panic abdication are complementary expressions of this same crisis, as is the totalitarian “sincerity” of Alceste. It is expressed as a crisis of “character” in La Bruyère, where this term designates a unified totality, a principle of identity and agency whose dissolution in mimetic bondage to the desires of others has been traced by Michael Koppisch through succeeding editions of Les Caractères within the courtier's own lifetime.

Madame Pernelle's violence is a transparent refutation of her piety, which Dorine does not fall to detect, indeed to thematize, in Orgon:

Orgon: Te talras-tu, serpent, dont les traits effrontés … ?

Dorine: Ah! vous êtes dévot, et vous vous emportez? (II, ii)

Physical violence accompanies verbal abuse: it is the apposite dramatization of the sacred which is being bid for in the play. Violence will out in a competition for power in which the individual will, the principle of autonomous agency, has no role to play. For the latter is but an object of desire rather than a source or origin of agency.

Molière's sense of the sovereignty of violence, as it issues from mimetic desire, is born out in the conduct of Damis. As true and loyal son in his righteous indignation at the attempted seduction of Elmilre by Tartuffe, Damis differs not a wit, nor by a word, from the “emportement” of his outrageous father against all around him.

Et la bonté du Ciel m'y semble avoir conduit Pour confondre l'orgueil d'un traltre qui me nuit, Pour m'ouvrir une voie à prendre la vengeance De son hypocrisie et de son insolence, A détromper mon père, et lui mettre en plein jour L'âme d'un scélérat qui vous parle de l'amour. (III,iv)

The first two verses of Damis's outburst might have been uttered by Orgon. His election of Tartuffe in spite of the opposition of his family, i.e., because of the opposition of his family, betrays the reactive, relative force of his desire:

Mais plus on fait d'effort afin de l'en bannir, Plus j'en veux employer à l'y mieux retenir; Et je vais me hâter de lui donner ma fille, Pour confondre l'orgueil de toute ma famllle. (III,vi)

Orgon's desire to retain Tartuffe is a function—a reaction and an invitation—of others' desire to be rid of him, of which Damis's desire is the most strident, the most like the desire of his father in its imperious violence:

Que la foudre sur l'heure achève mes destins, Qu'on me traite partout du plus grand des faquins, S'il est aucun respect ni pouvolr qul m'arrête, Et si je ne fais pas quelque coup de ma tête! (III,i)

The insubordination of the son emulates the imperious will of the father and is accordingly bound to oppose it; bound indeed by the double bind that destines the son (or the disciple) to oppose the father (the model) wherever and whenever he seeks to resemble him (Girard, Violence 145-8). Once again Damis's words on Tartuffe might just as well have been those of Orgon on Damis. The father's “coup de tête” responds like clockwork (tic/toc) to the son's resistance to his will—the will being merely that which opposes what resists it, or the mystified imitation of a rival desire:

Damis: A recevoir sa main on pense l'obliger?

Orgon: Oui, traître, et dès ce soir, pour vous faire enrager. Ah! je vous brave tous, et vous ferai connaître Qu'il faut qu'on m'obéisse et que je suis le maître. Allons, qu'on se rétracte, et qu'à l'instant, fripon, On se jette à ses pieds pour demander pardon.

Damis: Qui, moi, de ce coquin, qui, par ses impostures …

Orgon: Ah! tu résistes, gueux, et lui dis des injures? Un baton! un baton! ne me retenez pas. (III,vi)

In the midst of the conflict between father and son, Tartuffe, for his part, has only to confess the literal truth for Orgon to confuse his language with the rhetoric of devotion:

Chaque instant de ma vie est chargé de souillures: Elle n'est qu'un amas de crimes et d'ordures:

Pourquoi sur un tel fait m'être si favorable? Savez-vous, après tout, de quoi je suis capable? Vous fiez-vous, mon frère, à mon extérieur? Et, pour tout ce qu'on voit, me croyez-vous meilleur?


Tartuffe's essentially rhetorical question to Orgon questions the essence of rhetoric for Molière's audience. The intemporal rhetoric of original sin disguises Tartuffe's temporal, concrete, literal transgression by its very hyperbole. Tartuffe performs a quid pro quo, metonymical in its structure, by which a whole displaces one of its parts, the doctrine of original sin being just such a generalization of particulars, just such a hypostasis of experience. Orgon's folly consists in just such a total investment in figure, a massive quid pro quo whereby the sign is ever taken for the thing itself, whereby the name is invested with an essence. The quid pro quo follows from the qui pro quo whereby he takes himself for a master. He takes himself for being what he is, whereupon, by a predictable contortion of the ontological project, he usurps the power—let us call it theoroyalogical—which is infinitely beyond and above him and which makes him what he is. Orgon, in the manner of Hugo as portrayed by Cocteau, “est un fou qui se croit Orgon.” His identity can only be restored to him by the Prince, in whom divine power is invested. The latter's intervention at the close of the play is indeed a deus ex machina but it is not fortuitous. Rather it is one whose logic is motivated by the crisis of identity and of difference which informs the play from the outset.

Princely clairvoyance is by definition exempt, as declared by the character bearing that name, from fraudulent illusions (V,vii)—but only, of course, in principle, that is as the imaginary and appropriately off-stage locus of authority, as a sovereign, autonomous will immune to mimetic rivalry. One has only to read Saint-Simon to know that no such will exists, to know that Louis XIV was no less madly and destructively jealous of his royal prerogatives, no less prey to mimetic rivalry and no less deleterious to his household and kingdom than Orgon. Saint-Simon's Tartuffe is Madame de Maintenon, throughout; Louis's model-rival for Saint-Simon is the Prince of Orange. (For Louis's rivalry with his own court at large, consult the episode in the Mémoires concerning Courtenvaux [II: 516-18]; for his rivalry with his own minister, Louvois, consult IV: 958ff.) Molière's investment in such a principle is doubtless obligatory in view of his need of royal patronage. But in view of his analyses of desire and hubris, it is probable that his monarchism is informed by the same political intelligence as Pascal's: to foreclose violent rivalry (consult §§ 89, 294, 299, 310, 313 in the Brunschweig edition of the Pensées). Orgon's radical “méconnaissance”, which is infallibly that of “His Majesty the Ego” (Freud), accounts for the way his own words have an unconsciously double meaning which, at another level, the literal, redounds to his mockery:

Je vois qu'il [Tartuffe] reprend tout, et qu'à ma femme même, Il prend, pour mon honneur, un intérêt extrême; Il m'avertit des gens qui lui font les yeux doux, Et plus que moi six fois il s'en montre jaloux. (I, v)

What is a “point d'honneur” for Orgon is punctuated by a “point d'ironie” for the public. Double meanings in this play are but the linguistic modality of the rivalry of doubles which informs the psychological conflict of the play.

Only those who, out of their own tyrannical ambition, wish to be fooled by him are fooled by Tartuffe: Orgon, Madame Pernelle. Other characters, his brother Cléante signally, are fooled by Orgon when they believe that Orgon is actually fooled by Tartuffe. Cléante believes that his brother is blind, not that he is tyrannical. Cléante believes in his brother's good faith: he consequently remains blind to his brother's tyrannical ambition. Cléante sees the comedy of devotion being played by Tartuffe, but does not see the comedy being played by his brother Orgon. Cléante knows that true piety does not parade itself before us in the manner of Tartuffe, that the word is not the thing, that one must not always trust appearances, etc. (I,v). But Cléante is helpless to enlighten his brother, who must be blindfolded by his wife in order to hear the truth. Like Molière's other “raisonneurs”, (Philinte in Le Misanthrope, Chrysale in L'Ecole des femmes), Cléante is a nominalist. He believes as much in the exteriority of truth to falsehood as in that of the word to the thing itself. Today we would call him logocentric, and rightly so: analysis of his remonstrations to Orgon (I,v) would but demonstrate Derrida's maxim: “Chacun de nous est le mystagogue et l'Aufklarer d'un autre” (“D'un ton …” 462).

Because the thing is not itself, not even that thing we call hypocrisy. I do not mean that there is no such thing as hypocrisy, but that there is no such thing in itself. Hypocrisy as the difference between saying and doing, between the word and the thing, between appearance and being, mask and the real, etc., is opposed to sincerity, authenticity, true devotion, etc. This opposition, like others of its stamp, breaks down in Molière's comedy. What is comic is just this breakdown of antinomies, just this loss of difference. It is the presumption, the error, the sin of hypocrisy to impute to others an evil which is not in oneself, or to judge others by standards one does not apply to onself. That is the injustice of hypocrisy, its inequity. It is in the name of that injustice, and for the sake of equity, that Orgon's household urges the expulsion of Tartuffe from its midst. He condemns indulgence in the flesh while avid in carnal self-indulgence. Hypocrisy is the name for this duplicity, this internal difference, or difference within, evidence for which invalidates the difference the hypocrite makes between himself and others. Molière's comedy is not for all that reducible to a condemnation of hypocrisy. That is what hypocrites do: denounce the difference between virtues we profess and vices we practice, between sign and referent, theory and practice. There is a profound hypocrisy in denouncing hypocrisy, which is always the hypocrisy of the other. Differance, as difference within, invades hypocrisy as it does every other substantial determination or judgment. Molière's comedy does not merely condemn hypocrisy—for all, including hypocrites, do that—but deconstructs it, by revealing its subjection to desire, by revealing it as but one of the many detours of desire.

Conflict in Molière is not a matter of individual character, nor of psychological stereotypes. It is the consequence of the mimetic structure of desire, of which such notions as character or personality are the illusory effects, the imaginary reflection. Or, to speak more precisely and psychoanalytically, they are the reflection, as we read of it in Lacan's “Mirror Stage,” of the Imaginary, which is ever the image of the other as a complete being, the image of completeness which is every only apprehended in the other. Orgon's existence, which Dorine has correctly diagnosed as madness, is imaginary in just such a Lacanian sense: he mistakes the Symbolic for the Real (cf. Séminaire II 66-72). Whence the structural homology between Lacan's “Mirror Stage” and Girard's dialectics of mimetic desire, where “Le désir selon l'autre” (Girard) takes another for its model of autonomous selfhood: it takes the other, whole in its apparent otherness (as is the reflection of the self in the mirror for Lacan's infans) as Wholly Other, or, much the same thing, Holy Other, this delusion being the ground of Orgon's worship of Tartuffe. Both Lacan and Girard are engaged in deconstructing that ideological construct of Western secular humanism called the Subject, which is variously identified as the sovereign ego, as the autonomous will. It is what Molière “always already” reveals as an imposture, as it emerges from the vacation of the center formerly occupied by the divinity.

For the will is not the center of subjective agency in Molière's play, it is the object of competitive desire. Molière thoroughly anticipates Freud's insistence that “the Ego is not master in its own house” (S.E. XVII: 144). Such indeed might have been the subtitle of this play, or its translation. We need not, for all that, subscribe to very arcane machinations of the unconscious. It is sufficient for the ego to desire mastery, as Orgon does, or to imagine it, as Arnolphe does in L'Ecole des femmes, to find itself opposed by rival doubles. This is altogether Alceste's situation in Le Misanthrope; his targeting of the coquettish Célimène as the object of his desire is preposterous to the reasoning of Philinte, who is as duped by Alceste's imposture as Cléante by Orgon's. Alceste's attraction to Célimène finds its rationale, its origin, unsuspected by either Alceste or Philinte, in the rivals surrounding her, as in Célimène herself, both rival and model of his “own” desire.

Lacan's observations are richly apposite here: “C'est qu'Alceste est fou et que Molière le montre comme tel,—très justement en ceci que dans sa belle âme il ne reconnait pas qu'il concourt lui-même au désordre contre lequel il s'insurge” (Ecrits 173). Translation: “Célimène, c'est le même, c'est lui-même.” (In response to this essay, Robert Nelson further ventured “ça le mène”: yes, that too, as long as we transliterate “ça” as “Sa”. For it is not, despite his protestations to the contrary about blind passion, any Freudian id that leads Alceste on, but the signifier, the “signifiant” or “Sa”, in its abbreviated form: for the object of desire is but the signifier of another's desire.)

“C'est cette passion de démontrer à tous son unicité” that Lacan labels “l'agression suicidaire du narcissisme” (Ecrits 174). But to speak thus of narcissism is to deprive it of any center which in not located in others. Thus Orgon's bid for uniqueness, for transcendence, transforms all around him into mortal rivals:

Oui, je deviens tout autre avec son entretien:

Il m'enseigne à n'avoir affection pour rien,

De toutes amitiés il détache mon âme;

Et je verrais mourir frère, enfants, mère et femme,

Que je m'en soucierais autant que de cela. (I, v)

Orgon utters a properly sacrificial vow, the immolation of all to his divinity. Orgon's discovery of a rival “frère ennemi” in Tartuffe himself, who becomes a rival for the possession of his wife, is a necessary consequence of this radical decentering, to which no one is immune, not even Tartuffe, least of all Tartuffe. Tartuffe will be as easily duped by Elmire as Orgon by Tartuffe, for as Elmir states. “Non: on est aisément dupé par ce q'on aime. / Et l'amour propre engage à se tromper soi-même” (IV, iii). These verses apply as well to Orgon as to Tartuffe, of whom they are said. They find their apt summary, their structuring principle, in the title of Lacan's Séminaire XXI: Les Non-dupes errent.

The unconscious in Molière, as in Lacan, is “structured like a language” because language is structured by the desire of the other. The symmetrical “mal-entendu” which takes place between Mariane and Valère, lovers and rivals at once, displays the dynamics of this law, to which all are subject whose “amour propre”, whose desire, whose pride, is “engagé”. Mariane balks at making too frank a declaration of love when she complains to Dorine: “Ferai-je dans mon choix voir un coeur trop épris?” (II, iii). When the lovers confront each other over Mariane's marriage to Tartuffe, there ensues a verbal duel which is formally reminiscent of stychomythia in Corneille:

Valère: Moi, je vous l'ai donné pour vous plaire, Madame.

Mariane: Et moi, je le suivrai pour vous faire plaisir. (II, iv)

They say the same thing because, like Don Diègue and Don Gomès in Le Cid, they desire the same thing, which in Corneille's play is royal recognition and which in Molière's play is, more to the point, each other's desire. For lack of a better word, we call this sentiment: love, and Lacan: “agression suidicaire du narcissisme.” Valère for his part is finally bound to name its admixture with pride: “Un coeur qui nous oublie engage notre gloire.” The hostilty of the lovers is as mimetic as their affection, which is only too susceptible to Racinian affectation, as Valère utters lines we might have heard from Oreste, Hermione or Pyrrhus in Andromaque: “Et cette lâcheté jamais ne se pardonne, / De montrer de l'amour pour qui nous abandonne.” For all such characters, “il y va de ma gloire,” as we read in Racine. “Le désir,” writes Girard, “s'attache à la gloire mais la gloire n'est que l'objet auquel s'attache le désir” (“Racine …” 587).

For Dorine, who is external to this structure, and therefore cannot fail to mark its symmetry, this is “sottise des deux parts:” “Vous êtes fous tous les deux.” In Dorine Molière has staged and thematized the role of the observer, whom we might conceive as the psychoanalyst at his or her ideal, imaginary or impossible best: immune to transference and countertransference, this figure can enunciate the truth of the structure, the truth of desire: “A vous dire le vrai les amants sont bien fous!” The madness of the lovers is a veritable “aliénation mentale,” whereby the desire of each is captive of the symmetrical, reciprocal and consequently conflictual desire of the other. The lovers only react to each other's desire and are in no way in command of their own. Each is prey to the other's desire in a hybrid relation in which no one is in charge but desire itself. As Girard states, “Si le désir est le même pour tous les hommes, s'il n'y a jamais qu'un même désir, il n'y a pas de raison de ne pas faire de lui le veritable ‘sujet' de la structure, sujet qui se ramène d'ailleurs à la mimésis” (Des Choses cachées 327).

This alterity of self to self, this difference within the self such that each self is not so different from another as it is from itself, this constitutive alienation or “folie” is the psychological modality of Derridean “differance”, where the “a” testifies to the difference within a sign or entity rather than to the difference between signs or entitities, such as we have in a binary opposition (“La Différance” in Marges). In other words, the psychological modality of differance is desire itself, to whose internal division Lacan's paradoxical formula, “agresion/suicidaire,” testifies as well. Post-structruralism is just that problematic of difference as exercising signs, entities, institutions alike: from within. Intersubjective conflict (difference) is ruled by intrasubjective differance, whereby the ever-mimetic reclamations of autonomous subjectivity are prey to their symmetrical “origin” in the other, their arbitrary point of origination in the desire of the other. It is the subject's “possession” by the desire of other subjects to which Molière gives everywhere the name “folie”. Orgon says as much when he unwittingly remarks of Tartuffe: “Oui, je deviens tout autre avec son entretien.” In fact he is literally beside himself, “hors de lui,” a condition which is no less true when he fawns over Tartuffe than when he rages against his household. “Vous avez là, ma fille, une peste avec vous,” he says of Dorine,

Avec qui sans péché je ne saurais plus vivre.

Je me sens hors d'état maintenant de poursuivre:

Ses discours insolents m'ont mis l'esprit en feu,

Et je vais prendre l'air pour me rasseoir un peu. (II, ii)

Orgon's lines, particularly for their reference to a plague, serve to remind us that the conflict of this play in theme and substance is tragic: the violent opposition of father and son, the ruin of a household owing to the hubris of its master. It has, alas, been too often played as tragic, usually by the representation of an all too nasty Tartuffe, who is nonetheless as much the comic dupe of his own pride as other characters in the play. Our hatred, our diabolization of Tartuffe, our consecration of his difference, as of some sovereign ill will, only guarantees his stay among us, for it requires the postulate of a supreme good will which we are only too readily prone to confuse with our own person: His Majesty the Ego, the subject as irreducible substance, indeed such a will as Molière invests in his fabulously off-stage Prince (V, vii). Molière deconstructs the subject, as he is bound to do when he dramatizes its interaction with other subjects, where he uncovers its fundamentally dialectical character, its reactive substance, its unsubstantial, volatile structure.

This is nowhere as evident as in the character of Tartuffe himself: he likewise falls prey to the illusion of mastery in his own house, which is the necessary and sufficient condition for his own downfall. He can don and doff his mask at will, it appears—to him as to all about him. It is that will, or power, or mastery, which is the object of desire. In his gluttonous satisfaction of his appetites, as described by Dorine (I, iv), Tartuffe does not know himself as prey to this desire, but mistakes himself as master of his destiny—though his gluttony is but the physical caricature of Orgon's metaphysical desire. Tartuffe is as much a buffoon as a rascal, and should be played as such. There is no fool like one's own fool, and that is what Tartuffe is. It is ever the case with the “dupe double” in Molière that he (or she) is fooled by others because he is first and foremost duped by himself (cf. Livingston).

Only our blind faith in the psychological unity of character, our belief in the autonomy of the desiring subject, could wish to decide whether Tartuffe speaks from the heart or the head when he attempts the seduction of Elmire. It is just such unity—theoroyalogical, psychologocentric, etc.—that is undone by the play. That belief is just the trap that the play in its entirety springs upon us: that we can know the outside from the inside, judge essences by appearances, sentiments by words, character as intention, etc. That is Orgon's error and all too frequently our own, as “hypocrite lecteur” of Tartuffe. Precisely because we know that Tartuffe is not a true “dévot”, whose thoughts are only heaven bound, whose desire is only for salvation, we cannot be sure that his devotion to Elmire is not genuine, as least at the stage of his first declaration. The ambiguity of Tartuffe's language testifies to his psychological and emotional difference, his difference from within, from himself, whereby we cannot know for sure what he is saying because he does not know. His posture is, strictly speaking, structurally speaking, undecidable. His ignorance in this respect is just what constitutes our knowledge, and the comic pleasure we take in it.

Readers of Le Misanthrope know at any rate that no truth is to be decided on the basis of what is sincere in the expression of sentiments, or on the basis of the unity of character that a notion like sincerity advertises. Tartuffe is too often played as if Molière had never written Le Misanthrope, i.e. as if Molière were Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose resolutely tragic identification with Alceste, in his Lettre à d'Alembert sur les spectacles, is so notorious. The connection with the author of La Nouvelle Héloïse is instructive. For Tartuffe's verses compose one of the most passionate declarations of love we find in all of Molière: it rivals with the best of them in all of classical French literature:

Que si vous contemplez d'une âme un peu bénigne

Les tribulations de votre esclave indigne,

S'il faut que vos bontés veuillent me consoler

Et jusqu'à mon néant daignent se ravaler,

J'aurai toujours pour vous, ô suave merveille,

Une dévotion à nulle autre pareille. (III, iii)

To worship a woman in the place of, or as, celestial divinity is simply to manifest the detours, the displacements to which desire is susceptible. In his representation of desire as idolatry, Molière invites us to consider every passionate lover as a “faux dévot”, or to conceive the “faux dévot” as the exemplar of the passionate lover. In the ardent lover's discourse, adoration is misplaced or displaced towards a mortal creature: the language properly addressed to a divinity is improperly, that is rhetorically, figuratively, addressed to a human: the essentially hyperbolic nature of rhetoric, its detour or perversion of terms from their “proper” reference is exhibited. Rhetoric is just that detour, distortion, turning or troping endemic to poetry as to desire itself. I am, of course, employing a logocentric, “metaphysical” notion of rhetoric, whose functioning depends upon a belief in the proper sense of words as original to their meaning. Such a notion of direct vs. indirect reference, of literal vs. figurative representation is superseded by contemporary speculation on language (cf. Gans, The Origin of Language, chs I and II on the relation between desire as deferral and representation as structurally metaphorical). It is just that notion that is undecidable in Molière, especially in Tartuffe's discourse to Elmire. Such consideration would take us a long way towards understanding the profound (or “unconscious”) tartuffery of Rousseau's Saint-Preux, not to mention that of Rousseau himself, who more than once filled the role of a Tartuffe to the households which took him in. Such consideration should doubtless extend to Baudelaire, whose tartuffery, especially in his love poetry, is strategic and self-conscious, with the result that desire as sadomasochistic excess, the “agression suicidaire” of “L'Héautontimoroumdnos” and of “Le Voyage”, is fused with the poet's vocation. This vocation announces itself accordingly as the revelation of hypocrisy in the justly famous address “Au lecteur” which concludes “Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère!” For this too, Molière sets the stage and we are fools upon it when, with the violent Orgon (V, i), we proudly rejoice in the expulsion of tartuffery.

Works Cited

Argan, Giulio Carlo. The Europe of the Capitals: 1600-1700. Geneva: Skira, 1964.

Derrida, Jacques. Marges de la Philosophie. Paris: Minuit, 1972.

———. “D'un ton apocalyptique adopté naguère en philosophie” in Les Fins de l'homme: A Partir du travail de Jacques Derrida. eds. Ph. Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy. Paris: Galilée, 1981.

Freud, Sigmund. Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. eds. James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth, 1953-74.

Gans. Eric. The Origin of Language: A Formal Theory of Representation. Berkeley: University of California, 1981.

Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. trans. Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1978.

———. “Racine, Poète de la Gloire.” Critique (June 1964).

———. Des Choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde. Paris: Grasset, 1978.

Gossman, Lionel. Men and Masks: A Study of Molière. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1963.

Guicharnaud, Jacques. Molière: Une Aventure théâtrale. Paris: Gallimard, 1963.

Johnson, Barbara. Défigurations du lanquaqe poétique: La Seconde Révolution baudelairienne. Paris: Flammarion, 1979.

Koppisch, Michael. The Dissolution of Character: Changing Perspectives in La Bruyère “Caractères”. Lexington, Kentucky: French Forum, 1981.

Lacan. Jacques. Ecrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966.

———. Séminaire II: Le Moi dans la théorie de Freud et dans la technique de la psychanalyse. Paris: Seuil, 1978.

Livingston, Paisley. “Comic Treatment: Molière and the Farce of Medicine.” MLN. Vol. 94. No. 4 (1979).

Saint-Simon. Mémoires. Paris: Gallimard, Pléiade ed., 1961.

Peter H. Nurse (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: “Tartuffe: Comedy or Drama?” in Modern Languages Journal, Vol. 70, No. 2, June, 1989, pp. 118-22.

[In the following essay, Nurse surveys aspects of Molière's Tartuffe, examining the long disputed question as to which genre it belongs: pure comedy, satirical comedy, drame bourgeois, or tragedy.]

If ambiguity is one of the necessary characteristics of a masterpiece, then Tartuffe clearly qualifies for such a distinction, for, together with Dom Juan and Le Misanthrope, it is one of the plays which has consistently stirred controversy since its first performance. The critical arguments centre on two interrelated problems, one of them specific and one more general, namely: how should the character of Tartuffe himself be interpreted, and to what kind of dramatic genre should the play be assigned, with the choice ranging between pure comedy (with a large dose of farce), satirical comedy, drame bourgeois (anticipating the 18th-century category of that name) and, finally, tragedy. However, if the latter rates a mention, it is mainly because of a famous pronouncement by Goethe referring to the ‘eminently tragic situations’ in such plays as Tartuffe or L'Avare where family conflicts led to fathers cursing their sons. This encouraged somewhat inflated statements such as Jules Janin's remark in 1839 that ‘Le Tartuffe est la plus terrible tragédie qui soit sortie de la tête des hommes’. I think no one would today pursue this line, which is only of interest in so far as it highlights the problem of how far the play goes beyond the normal boundaries of the comic. This article will limit itself to the question of the dramatic tone of the play and the possible moral implications of its vision.

The kind of controversy caused by Tartuffe first made its appearance with the fierce polemics which surrounded L'Ecole des Femmes in 1663. It flared up again with the banning of Tartuffe in 1664 (denounced as a work ‘absolutely harmful to religion’), a ban that lasted for five years with only a brief interruption in 1667. Meanwhile the situation was aggravated by the almost certain banning of Dom Juan in 1665, since the play disappeared permanently from Molière's repertory after only a handful of performances.

It is this historical perspective that no doubt accounts for the fact that a major critical tradition persists which sees Molière's theatre as voicing a kind of naturalistic philosophy, with its roots in Renaissance humanism, from which it derived its celebration of natural instinct and its unremitting mockery of those who sought to repress it. Largely concomitant with this view is the notion that Molière is essentially a satirist with a more or less coherent ideology expressing indignation at certain vices such as puritan intolerance, religious hypocrisy and avarice. Opinions differ as to how subversive this ideology was, some stressing the free-thinking, virtually pagan, libertinage, others emphasising the so-called ‘bourgeois’ ethic of bon sens and moderation supposedly echoed by the raisonneur figures like Cléante in Tartuffe or Philinte in Le Misanthrope. Both of these sub-groups accept that Molière is a committed author with a positive moral programme, and perhaps the leading exponent of this critical tendency is Professor Antoine Adam, author of the outstanding Histoire de la Littérature française au XVIIe siècle (1952). For Adam, from 1661 onwards with L'Ecole des Maris and L'Ecole des Femmes, Molière's comedy is no longer gratuitous, no longer a simple satire of ridiculous fashions. These plays now reveal his thinking on the moral problems of his age, showing him to be firmly behind the new optimism characteristic of the ‘société galante’ of the salon world:

Une grand idée l'inspirait: sa foi dans la vocation morale du théâtre. C'était depuis plus d'un siècle l'enseignement de l'humanisme. Molière, comme ses maîtres, croyait que la scène est “l'ecole des moeurs” et qu'il appartient au théâtre de rappeler sans cesse les principes de la vraie morale, qui n'est pas soumission aux préjugés mais noblesse et générosité. Il ne pouvait prévoir qu'un jour certains lui reprocheraient d'enseigner une morale de la médiocrité et de la platitude. Il pouvait encore moins imaginer que, pour mieux le louer, d'étonants historiens refuseraient de voir en lui autre chose qu'un amuseur.

It is this last sentence which recalls that there is indeed another flourishing critical tradition, still vocal, which rejects the whole idea of a committed author with a coherent moral vision. Spearheaded by Professor René Bray, in his book: Molière, homme de théâtre (1954), these critics emphasise the pure theatricality of Molière's work, with its roots in medieval French farce and Italian commedia dell'arte. For Bray, the plays constitute an imaginary world, and when we enter it as spectators, we abandon our everyday social persons. It is a domain of pure illusion, alien to all considerations of pragmatic morality, so that we cannot be said to be dealing with satire in the strict sense of the word, but with pure comedy. And so René Bray writes: ‘Quand il peint Tartuffe ou Dom Juan, le poète cherche non pas à ridiculiser un hypocrite ou un libertin, mais à en dégager la force comique.’ It is typical of Bray's book that it begins with a chapter entitled: ‘Molière, pense-t-il?’ and concludes with a negative. Critics who share this persuasion clearly attach little value to Molière Preface to Tartuffe where he underlines the didactic and polemical character of the play: this is seen as special pleading forced upon the playwright by his enemies' denunciation of the subversiveness of the work.

Inevitably, when one turns to examine Tartuffe in order to measure it against these different critical perspectives, it is at first sight difficult to believe the play could ever have been quite so innocent of moral and ideological significance, given the furore it aroused when first put on in 1664. On that occasion, only three acts were performed and we do not know whether this was an early version complete in three acts or whether it was just the first three acts of the play more or less as we now have it. One theory argues that it was probably roughly Acts I, III and IV of the final draft. However, all this is pure speculation; all we know, apart from the published 1669 text, is that Molière put on a compromise five-act version in 1667, known to us in some close detail from an anonymous pamphlet published in its defence that same year, called the Lettre sur la comédie de l'Imposteur,—an invaluable document not least for the evidence it offers of the nature of Molière's production. The 1667 version seems to have been quite close to the final text; at all events, it was again speedily banned and Molière was not free to give regular public performances until 1669.

As was remarked at the beginning of this [essay], the problem of the dramatic tone of the play is essentially bound up with the question of how we view Tartuffe, whose character is problematic in a much more fundamental sense than that of the protagonist, Orgon, played by Molière himself. Orgon is recognisably cast in the same comic mould as the other great creations brought to life by the playwright's acting skills. Like Arnolphe, Alceste or Argan, he meets perfectly the conditions of the comic first defined by Plato in one of his dialogues when he wrote:

Mirth is generally evoked by the sight of self-ignorance or self-conceit, as when a man fancies himself richer, more handsome, more virtuous or wiser than he really is; and this mirth must be occasioned by one who is powerless to inflict hurt on others, otherwise he would not be a source of mirth but of danger.

This spells out the sense in which Orgon is what Molière called an imaginaire, or fantasist, playing out the rôle of a dévot, affecting to repress natural instinct, but in fact deeply self-indulgent. This point is admirably highlighted in the 1667 Lettre where it comments on Act IV, scene 3 (lines 1279-1293) in which Orgon insists that his daughter Mariane must accept Tartuffe as her husband:

D'abord Mariane se jette à ses genoux et le harangue si bien qu'elle le touche. On voit cela dans la mine du pauvre homme; et c'est cela qui est un trait admirable de l'entêtement ordinaire aux bigots, pour montrer comme ils se défont de toutes les inclinations naturelles et raisonnables. Car celui-ci, se sentant attendrir, se ravise tout d'un coup et se dit à soimême, croyant faire une chose fort héroîque,—“Ferme, ferme, mon coeur, point de faiblesse humaine!”

Cloaking his authoritarian bullying in puritanical language, Orgon urges his daughter to mortify her senses. It is a replay of Arnolphe's hypocritical tactics with Agnès, and with both characters Molière exploits a vein of mock-heroic comedy to satirise bigotry.

The reference in the Lettre to the ‘inclinations naturelles et raisonnables’ which the bigot suppresses recalls an earlier scene (Act I, scene 5) where Orgon has boasted of the spiritual lesson he learned from Tartuffe:

Qui suit ses leçons goûte une paix profonde

Et comme du fumier regarde tout le monde.

Oui, je deviens tout autre avec son entretien,

Il m'enseigne à n'avoir affection pour rien,

De toutes amitiés il détache mon âme;

Et je verrais mourir frère, enfants, mère et femme,

Que je m'en soucierais autant que cela.


Cléante's ironic rejoinder:

Les sentiments humains, mon frère, que voilà!

has far-reaching implications when one remembers that Orgon is here echoing one of the most problematic of Christ's saying in the Gospels—namely, Luke 14, verse 26: ‘If any man come to me and hate not his father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.’ Passages such as this certainly suggest why the parti dévot was so hostile to the play, but that becomes even more apparent when we turn to the rôle of Tartuffe himself. In this respect there is one piece of evidence which almost certainly tells us something quite specific about the character as presented in the early version of 1664. It is the Placet of 1667, in which Molière explains how he has modified the appearance of his hypocrite, dressing him as a fashionable man of the world:

En vain j'ai déguisé le personnage sous l'ajustement d'un homme du monde; j'ai eu beau lui donner un petit chapeau, de grands cheveux, un grande collet, une épée et des dentelles sur tout l'habit … tout cela n'a rien servi.

If we take the opposite of each of these details—grand chapeau, petits cheveux, petit collet, no sword and plain coat—we have Tartuffe's probable dress and appearance in 1664: in other words a man of clerical garb. Indeed, Furetière, in his Dictionnaire Universel (1690) specifically glosses petit-collet as ‘un homme qui s'est mis dans la dévotion.’ Professor Adam is right to say that there was ambiguity about the hypocrite's exact status, but clearly he was near enough to suggesting a priest for the dévots to be enraged:

L'un des traits les plus curieux de la société française à cette époque, c'est l'existence d'une classe sociale mal définie, intermédiaire entre le clergé et les laîcs … Faut-il même parler des prêtres régulièrement ordonnés qui vivaient à Paris sans charge déterminée en marge de la hiérarchie dans une indépendance à peu près complète? Il était donc possible à Molière de laisser dans le vague la véritable condition de Tartuffe. Celui-ci appartenait à cette classe incertaine. Etaitil prêtre? Molière ne le dit pas, mais il ne dit pas le contraire nulle part.

So much for Tartuffe's appearance and status; but what of the way he was played? Once again, the problem is clearly stated by Professor Adam:

On hésite à définir Tartuffe. Faut-il voir en lui un calculateur profond qui mène son jeu avec une froide lucidité? Est-il au contraire un rustre dont toute la force est d'instinct, une sorte de bête de proie, un gros animal qui finira par tomber lourdement dans le piège? Machiavel ou Raspoutine? Ou bien même Machiavel et Raspoutine, figure mal cohérente où Molière a mêlé des traits incompatibles?

The text itself provides evidence for both views. We are told he is ‘gros et gras, le teint frais et la bouche vermeille’ with a greedy appetite suggesting crude manners. Dorine says that when he first arrived he was a shoeless beggar, and Damis calls him a pied plat, which is defined as ‘un paysan, un homme grossier, un gueux.’ On the other hand, Dorine concedes that he is wily and will be difficult to trip up. He is well versed in the language of religious mysticism: in the first seduction scene with Elmire (III, 3), he exploits the neo-Platonic idea that in loving her, he is loving the reflection of the Divine Being. And again, in the second seduction scene (IV, 5), Tartuffe shows he is well versed in Jesuit casuistry, notably ‘l'art de diriger l'intention’ attacked by Pascal in the Lettres provinciales.

Historians of the theatre suggest that actors playing the rôle of Tartuffe have seldom managed to reconcile these two aspects of the character and have usually settled for one or the other. This is how the point is made by the critic Jules Lemaître:

Du temps de Molière, conformément à sa pensée, Tartuffe fut joué en ‘comique’ et même en ‘valet comique’ … ‘Aussi l'habitude de jouer chaque soir Hector ou Crispin avait rétréci le talent des comédiens, circonscrit leur horizon: leur unique tâche étant de faire rire, Tartuffe fut joué comme valet, et peu à peu, ce grand rôle ne fut plus qu'un sournois plaisant et cynique dont les charges et les paillardises égayaient le public. Cette grossière interprétation du rôle devint la tradition …’

Mais un beau jour on s'avisa que Tartuffe ne devait pas faire rire à ce point … Mieux qu'aucun de ses devanciers, M. Worms a sauvé Tartuffe du ridicule. Ce qu'il a exprimé peut-être le plus fortement, c'est l'ardente passion sensuelle dont Tartuffe est dévoré. Il lui a prêté aussi une sorte d'âpreté triste, une allure sombre et fatale, et qui fait songer tantˆt à don Salluste, tantôt à Iago. Enfin il semble qu'il ait voulu surtout nous rendre sensible cette idée, que Tartuffe se perd parce qu'il aime. Et, en même temps, il nous a montré un scélérat si élégant, d'une pâleur si distinguée dans son costume noir, si spécial par l'ironie sacrilège qu'il mêle à ses discours, que, si Elmire lui résiste, ce ne peut plus être chez elle dégoût et répugnance … Oh! qu'à ce moment le premier Tartuffe, le bedeau, le truand d'église, est loin de nos yeux et de notre souvenir!

(Les Deux Tartuffe, 1896)

Such evidence of theatrical tradition explains why different producers and actors can arrive at completely contrasting dramatic tonalities. If a clownish element enters into the rôle, the play obviously moves towards more naked farce, as was the case when Leonard Rossiter acted Tartuffe. If, on the other hand, you play the hypocrite as a cool calculating seducer, a sinister note is quickly established. That was how the celebrated producer, Roger Planchon, chose to present the play when he brought his French company to the National Theatre in London in the 70s. Here is an extract of The Times's report on the production:

And in the second half, the pretence to comedy all but vanishes. When Orgon refuses to relent over the Tartuffe marriage, Mariane is carried off in a state of hysterical frenzy. The trick that removes the scales from Orgon's eyes is likewise played for terror. It seems that a rape is about to take place over the table; and when Tartuffe quits the room, Elmire whips the cloth away and orders her husband out in a paroxysm of wrath.

The Lettre of 1667 offers significant evidence that Molière himself similarly stresed the darker side of the action, for here is how it comments on the fifth Act:

Permettez-moi de vous faire remarquer que l'esprit de tout cet acte et son seul effet et but jusqu'ici n'a été que de représenter les affaires de cette pauvre famille dans la dernière désolation par la violence et l'impudence de l'imposteur, jusque-là qu'il paraît que c'est une affaire sans ressource dans les formes, de sorte qu'à moins de quelque dieu qui y mette la main, c'est à dire de la machine … tout est déploré.

On the other hand it is similarly the Lettre which reminds us of the comic pattern in the way the hypocrite was played in the two crucial seduction scenes. Here quite unambiguously the emphasis is upon the conception of a man who, though normally wily and controlled, loses his head through passion, so that he imperils his own scheme to take possession of Orgon's household. In other words, it is the classic ironic formula of the trompeur trompé, or, to use the fashionable metaphor, the case of an over-reaching trickster whose mask slips to give himself away. This is particularly apparent when the Lettre describes Act III, scene 2 where Dorine tells him that Elmire has asked to see him:

Enfin elle fait son message, et il le reçoit avec une joie qui le décontenance et le jette un peu hors de son rôle: et c'est ici que l'on voit représentée mieux que nulle part ailleurs la force de l'amour et les grands et beaux jeux que cette passion peut faire, par les effets involontaires qu'il produit dans l'âme de toutes la plus concertée.

There then follows the step-by-step description of each of the private interviews with Elmire; first, that in Act III, scene 3:

A peine la dame paraît que notre cagot la reçoit avec empressement qui, bien qu'il ne soit pas fort grand, paraît extraordinaire dans une homme de sa figure … Les choses étant dans cet état, et, pendant ce dévotieux entretien, notre cagot s'approchant toujours de la dame même sans y penser, à ce qu'il semble, à mesure qu'elle s'éloigne; enfin il lui prend la main, comme par manière de geste … et, tenant cette main il la presse si fort entre les siennes qu'elle est contrainte de lui dire—‘Que vous me serrez fort’, à quoi il répond soudain, se recueillant et s'apercevant de son transport: ‘C'est par excès de zèle.’ Un moment après, il s'oublie de nouveau, et promenant sa main sur le genou de la dame, elle lui dit, confuse de sa liberté, ‘ce que fait là sa main?’ Il répond, aussi surpris que la première fois, qu' ‘il trouve son étoffe moelleuse’, et pour rendre plus vraisemblable cette défaite, par un artifice fort naturel, il continue de considérer son ajustement … Enfin, enflammé par tous ces petits commencements, par la présence d'une femme bien faite qu'il adore et qui le traite avec beaucoup de civilité, et par les doucerurs arrachées à la première découverte d'une passion amoureuse, il lui fait sa déclaration … Il s'étend admirablement là-dessus et lui fait si bien sentir son humanité et sa faiblesse pour elle qu'il ferait presque pitié s'il n'était interrompu par Damis.

Everything here stresses the idea of a man out of control, undone by instinct, resulting in a défaite, as is again the case with the second interview, where the commentator uses similar metaphors such as ‘il commence à s'aveugler’. The second interview is in fact based on an even more classic comic formula, namely: à trompeur, trompeur et demi. To trick Tartuffe, Elmire exploits the ambiguities of the contemporary language of gallantry, as used by coquettes to save appearances. She can thus explain her reserve in the earlier scene as a typical coquette's ploy for egging on the suitor.

With both Orgon and Tartuffe, the comic mechanism of deflation repeatedly points to the same moral implications, suggesting a view of the human condition which gives primacy to what the 1667 Lettre called ‘les inclinations naturelles et raisonnables’. Hence the label of ‘naturalism’ often applied to the underlying philosophy; and, as Paul Bénichou writes in his brilliant Morales du Grand Siècle (1948), the term is appropriate in so far as it expresses the surrender of human pretensions to the all-powerful facts of experience. The whole of Molière's moral system, he says, consists of knowing how to yield to a certain number of facts, and, throughout his work, the force of custom defies justice just as much as the force of our desires defies social codes of behaviour.

It is when Bénichou concludes that it is in this sense that Molière's work is ‘amoral’ that one sees better why critics like René Bray contest the legitimacy of speaking of ‘la morale de Molière’ and prefer to talk of ‘pure theatre’ with its roots in farce. However, what is distinctive about plays like Tartuffe is that they anchor the action in a recognisable social reality, justifying the playwright's contention that he was not dealing with abstractions but with ‘les hommes de notre siècle’. That, of course, explains why Tartuffe can no longer be contained within the boundaries of ‘pure comedy’ and why we are here faced with a hybrid genre in which the drame threatens to take over. And this, as was remarked at the beginning of this article, is exactly related to the process by which Tartuffe himself ceases to be a purely comic character, because, in Plato's terminology, he changes from a source of mirth into a source of danger. Only the King can save Orgon's household from this threat, just as in reality it was Louis XIV who finally checked the parti dévot in 1669.

David Shaw (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: “Egoism and Society: A Secular Interpretation of Molière's Dom Juan,” in Modern Languages, Vol. LIX, No. 3, September, 1978, pp. 121-30.

[In the following essay, Shaw considers Molière's ambiguity towards the issues brought forth in Dom Juan.]

That Dom Juan is the most ‘difficult’ play in the whole Molière canon is something of a critical commonplace: fault has repeatedly been found with its alleged incoherence:

Dom Juan révèle une incohérente ténèbre … Molière, comme jamais, donne l'impression de ne tendre, pour l'immédiat, qu'à ficeler de bric et de brac, un succes au hasard des prises, des échos, des coins de table. [J. Audiberti, Molière Dramaturge. L'Arche, 1954, p. 73.] … l'intrigue reste décousue, incomplète. [G. Michaut, Les Luttes de Molière. Hachette, 1925, p. 148.]

Cette tragédie-comédie fantasque et bouffonne est une macédoine incroyable de tous les genres: elle est étrange, elle est bizarre, elle est hybride, elle est obscure en diable. [J. Lemaître, Impressions de théâtre. Paris, 1888, 1920, I, 57.]

Its seemingly endless succession of ambiguities and false trails might indeed suggest, at first sight, a hastily composed baroque tangle of conflicting ideas, a confused answer to the ban on Tartuffe. On the other hand, is it not possible, without hurting one's back, to see in the play a paradoxical kind of order, even simplicity, which, in fact, probes many of the usual assumptions made about Molière?

Perhaps the most fundamental assumption questioned by the play is the famous theory of the ‘raisonneur’. The popular idea of ‘Molière's point of view’ being presented in each play by one character owes its respectability almost entirely to the wholly exceptional role of Cléante in Tartuffe. This character's function is almost entirely polemical: it was largely developed after the 1664 ban in order to underline the careful distinction between true and false piety. In the other major plays, however, the function of characters like Chrysalde, Ariste, Philinte, Béralde, etc., is primarily comic, intended to form the maximum comic contrast with the central character rather than to state an attitude identifiable beyond doubt as that of Molière.

If one thing is certain about Dom Juan, it is that it contains no single character likely to be taken for Molière's mouthpiece. The sympathy we undoubtedly feel, in varying degrees, for Elvire, Don Carlos and Don Louis is always contaminated by admiration of the way in which Don Juan outwits them. Given the size of his role and his constant willingness to give moral advice to his master, Sganarelle comes closest to the traditional concept of the ‘raisonneur’. But we are, surely not expected to identify Molière with such a pathetic buffoon. Indeed, in view of the evident link between the two plays, one might even have been tempted to suggest an angry parody of the clearly drawn factions in Tartuffe if it were possible to know more about the enigmatic 1664 version of this play.

In the absence of an obvious ‘spokesman’, the most contradictory interpretations of Dom Juan have been seriously put forward. Perhaps the standard reading is that the play is a furious reply to the critics of Tartuffe and that the key is the diatribe on hypocrisy at the beginning of the final act. Having seen his prudent condemnation of hypocrisy vilified and banned by clerics with vested interests, Molière is now, according to this theory, retaliating with an attack on the fundamental tenets of Christianity itself. As Don Juan is evidently Molière's mouthpiece on medicine and hypocrisy, might he not have the same function everywhere else in the play? He is therefore a witty, elegant, superior creature offered up for our admiration. His superiority is constantly underlined by the stupid credulity of Sganarelle, equally fearful of Devil, werewolf, ‘moine bourru’ and God, and in whose mouth even the most traditional proofs of the existence of God sound comically naive. We cannot admire Sganarelle: he is cowardly, gluttonous and more than a little cynical. ‘Il n'y a pas de mal’ he says [III,2] when inviting the hermit to blaspheme, and he resorts to crude violence in order to avoid paying his debts [IV,3] without even the excuse of his master's menacing presence.

The impression of parody is heightened by the nature of the two speeches from Sganarelle within which all the play's action is framed. From a strictly Christian point of view, the denouement would clearly have been more satisfactory if the play had ended at the very moment of Don Juan's death. But, with Sganarelle's final cry ‘Mes gages! mes gages!’, the comic perspective is fully restored. The play's final statement, far from underlining the demonstrated power of divine wrath suggests that heaven is rather irrelevant. At the moment Sganarelle discovers he has been right all along, he is shown unmoved by the fact and totally preoccupied with material values.

The curious tribute to tobacco, at the beginning of the play, is interesting for the same reason. At first sight it seems almost a parody of the conventional exposition of the time: it tells us little about Don Juan himself and seems to have no relevance to the ensuing action. However, for a seventeenth century spectator, the significance of the allusion would have been quite specific. Tobacco, which had been introduced into France in the sixteenth century as a treatment for migraine, was, in 1665, still sold only on prescription. The purely social use of tobacco had been expressly forbidden by the ecclesiastical authorities who feared, rightly or wrongly, that it increased the power of the Devil over the user. Both snuff takers and smokers thus officially faced excommunication. Nevertheless, the enormous popularity of tobacco was such that a flourishing black market was established and in 1674 its sale was finally legalised by a Colbert always quick to spot new sources of state revenue through taxation. To speak of tobacco in 1665 was therefore to speak of a popular but illegal physical indulgence totally opposed by the Church. To praise it in Sganarelle's glowing terms was therefore to cock an unmistakable snook at the parti des devots. The mention of Aristotle in the opening line and the link forged between tobacco and virtue constitute virtually a direct parody of the orthodox position concerning tobacco. Sganarelle's statements on Christianity are thus largely devalued in advance and all the play's action is framed between two expressions of downright materialism pronounced by heaven's principal spokesman.

However, in spite of all this, it is difficult to accept the play as nothing but an apology for atheism. In 1665, such an enterprise would still have been highly dangerous; for a theatre director with Molière's responsibilities it was more or less unthinkable. Indeed, it has been argued, by critics of the standing of Michaut and Jouvet, that Dom Juan should in fact be seen as a clumsy defence of Christianity with Sganarelle as a simple, but basically sympathetic, defender of heavenly interests. The original play on the Don Juan theme was, of course, a highly edifying work by an austere religious. The Don Juan in Tirso de Molina's El Burlador de Sevilla is a debauched, violent young man who never actually denies the existence of God: his sin is overconfidence: he tries to lead a totally immoral life with the intention of reforming at a later date. But he puts off his repentance too long and is finally carried off by the statue while calling for a priest. Our play is therefore basically similar to the original: Don Juan is visibly wrong and the Christians are finally vindicated by the action of the statue. Warnings of his impending fate rain down on Don Juan from beginning to end. He sometimes appears frankly odious, as when he needlessly curses his dignified old father. His marked lack of curiosity when confronted with supernatural phenomena could moreover be construed as fear and when he draws his sword to attack a ghost he comes close to ridicule.

In one sense, Molière's play is even more edifying than any of the Spanish, French or Italian versions. He adds symbolic characters: the veiled spectral lady and ‘le Temps avec sa faux à la main’ figure in no other version. Further, Don Juan's achievements are really very few in number: he seduces Elvire only by marrying her, fails to obtain even a kiss from Charlotte and does not succeed in persuading the hermit to blaspheme. His actual crimes are far less numerous than those of his predecessors: if he killed the commander, it was apparently in a duel (‘Ne l'ai-je pas bien tué?’ he asks in 1,2); if he persuaded Elvire to leave her convent, it seems as if she was a very willing party to the abduction. No question of the murder and rape of which earlier Don Juans were guilty; and no suggestion in the play that Elvire had actually taken vows or intended to become a nun. It is therefore arguable that, like Phèdre, Don Juan is condemned less for actual crimes than for sacrilegious attitudes.

But again, this is not a satisfactory explanation of the play's teasing complexity: too many important elements remain outside it. Any interpretation which attempts to reduce the play to the level of a simple religious treatise runs the risk of raising more problems than it solves. Unless the play is totally and obscurely ambiguous, there must be a third, less simplistic, interpretation.

One of the major preoccupations of the classical age was how to define the relationship between reason and passion. All the major writers are concerned with the problem. Corneille seems to feel that some men are capable of dominating their passions through the exercise of reason; in Racine's theatre, on the other hand, man is usually the rather pathetic plaything of his emotions. Molière's attitude in this debate seems to have been quite subtle. L'Ecole des Femmes (1662) demonstrates that reason alone can never suffice and that it is dangerously absurd to attempt to ignore the natural feelings that everyone experiences. Tartuffe and Dom Juan examine the other side of the problem, showing the fatal power that the passions can develop if they are not moderated by reason. In Tartuffe, the force of criminal desire is, perhaps a little arbitrarily, neutralised by excessive self-confidence. But in Dom Juan, which represents the ultimate development of this line of argument, we have a terrible combination of limitless desire and total cynicism in a character who is also powerfully intelligent.

Sganarelle's portrait of Don Juan, in the opening scene, is highly significant:

… un chien … qui passe cette vie en véritable bête brute … un grand seigneur méchant homme.

Don Juan's animality is indeed his most striking single characteristic. He acts as if nature is for him a kind of god, as if all desires may be realised if they derive from nature:

… je rends à chacune les hommages et les tributs où la nature nous oblige. [I,2]

And he pursues his desires with a kind of relentless, single minded intelligence which makes him a terrible adversary:

Il n'est rien qui puisse arrêter l'impétuosité de mes désirs … songeons seulement a ce qui nous peut donner du plaisir. [I,2]

It is therefore tempting to see in Don Juan the elemental force of egoism, a kind of incarnation of the most selfish facets of human nature liberated by his rank, his cynicism and his intelligence from all normal moral constraints. Instead of moderating his desires, his intelligence and judgement are placed squarely at their disposal.

At the same time, given his paradoxically total subservience to his physical desires and to his constant need to dominate, it is clear that Don Juan is not without his comic side. A tenuous kind of comedy, perhaps, but, as we have seen, there is certainly a duality about the character which sometimes makes him seem rather less independent than he claims to be. His need to dominate causes him to seek out a succession of difficult obstacles in order to prove again and again his own superiority. Hence the analogy with Alexander, the storming of a convent, the pursuit of the engaged girl, and so on. Worse than a sadist, he is totally indifferent to the feelings of other people who are to him mere objects to be exploited at his whim. His description of his attitude towards women is strikingly filled with military vocabulary:

On goûte une douceur extrême à réduire par cent hommages un coeur … à voir de jour en jour les petits progrès qu'on y fait, à combattre … l'innocente pudeur d'une âme qui a peine à rendre les armes, à forcer pied à pied toutes les petites résistances qu'elle nous oppose, à vaincre les scruples … [I,2] (my italics)

Women are mere objectives, adversaries to be conquered. He feels no affection: the only sentiment that he feels is the pleasure of triumph. The list of Don Juan's opponents is, in fact, bewilderingly varied: a man prepared to challenge, in quick succession, a noble woman, a hermit and a statue is evidently not following a carefully prepared plan. But it is clear that Don Juan derives a large part of his power precisely from the fact that he behaves in a totally unpredictable way. He is strong because, in a society based on codes and conventions of all kinds, he is the only one who respects none of them and because he is always prepared to pretend to accept any code of behaviour if it appears to offer him a new chance of conquest. Poor Gusman cannot believe that so visibly perfect a lover could fail to keep his word:

… et je ne comprends point comme après tant d'amour et tant d'impatience témoignée, tant d'hommages pressants, de voeux, de soupirs et de larmes, tant de lettres passionnées, de protestations ardentes, et de serments réitérés, tant de transports enfin et tant d'emportements qu'il a fait paraître … je ne comprends pas, dis-je, comme, après tout cela, il aurait le coeur de pouvoir manquer à sa parole. [I,1] (my italics)

Gusman's conventional mind is thus easily taken in by Don Juan's hypocrisy.

We know that seventeenth-century polite society attached great importance to questions of precedence, to elegance, to codes of etiquette in general. There was thus a very real danger of appearance being taken for reality, elegance for merit, hypocrisy for virtue. Many of Molière's major comedies satirise a tendency to attach undue importance to facades and codes: the code of romanesque love in Les Précieuses Ridicules, that of refined society in Le Misanthrope, the facade of religiosity in Tartuffe, medical mystique in Le Malade Imaginatre, etc. But only in Don Juan are all these themes brought together in the context of one cynical, chameleon-like figure, in order to demonstrate the dangers facing a superficial society in its entirety.

Just for a moment, Elvire, in her first appearance, seems to have Don Juan's measure. She is aware that he has been playing a part for her benefit:

Ah! que vous savez mal vous défendre pour un homme de cour … Que ne vous armez-vous le front d'une noble effronterie? Que ne me jurez-vous que vous êtes toujours dans les mêmes sentiments pour moi …? [I,3].

Her tone is that of the prompter reminding the actor of lines forgotten. But Don Juan is too clever to be neutralised in this way: one code having been declared inoperable by Elvire's irony, he simply switches to another, that of pious sincerity:

Je vous avoue, Madame, que je n'ai point le talent de dissimuler, et que je porte un coeur sincère. [I,3]

And there is even heavier irony in the unexpected concentration of religious terms with which he continues: within the space of eight lines or so he mentions concepts like conscience, belief, sin, scruples, soul, vows, divine anger. He thus pays her the compliment of tacitly revealing his virtuosity but without giving her another chance to outflank him. This little confrontation is a kind of ironic prefiguration of the scene in act V where Don Juan again puts on his mask of piety to outwit his father. It has been suggested that the show of hypocrisy in the final act destroys the unity of the character: given Don Juan's courage and spirit, he would surely never stoop to such an unworthy ploy:

Don Juan hypocrite, voila qui ne répond guere a l'idée que nous nous faisions de lui. [G. Michaut, op.cit. p. 150]

To argue thus is surely totally to misunderstand his nature; from one end of the play to the other he continually adopts whichever mask seems to him the most likely to have the effect he wants. That is the real source of his power.

The change of decor at the start of the second act represents a fairly violent visual shock. For the seventeenth century spectator, to pass from sumptuous palace to rustic sea coast was the greatest possible social contrast. But the dramatic parallel between the two settings is quickly obvious. The peasants of act II are far from being noble savages in the eighteenth-century sense: they are rather mean, petty people and are as preoccupied with formal codes of behaviour as are the courtiers. Like Harpagon, Pierrot believes that love can be bought: he cannot understand why his expressions of devotion, in the form of ribbons, blackbirds and hurdy-gurdy serenades, have not had a more tangible effect. His idea of how lovers should behave is simplistic and superficial: he is distressed because Charlotte does not imitate the dangerous horse-play of Thomasse, their lovelorn neighbour. He seems much more concerned that Charlotte should conform to this ideal than that she should actually have deep feelings. For her part, Charlotte feels her honour safe if she can make Don Juan marry her. The idea is traditional but clearly cannot be applied to Don Juan; he is ‘l'épouseur du genre humain’, for whom marriage is simply another convention which can sometimes be useful as a means to an end.

From act II onwards our attitude towards Don Juan becomes increasingly ambiguous. In spite of ourselves we admire his effortless superiority over the peasants; but, at the same time, he begins to demonstrate a kind of comic, and paradoxical, impotence. His plan to seduce the engaged girl was thwarted by the storm; he owes his life to a peasant. His reaction to the peasant girls is automatic: he desires them on seeing them. As we already know from Sganarelle, ‘Dame, demoiselle, bourgeoise, paysanne, il ne trouve rien de trop chaud ni de trop froid pour lui’ [I,1]. His sexual appetites ignore questions of rank or ‘qualité’, a lack of delicacy and taste which might have appeared faintly ridiculous to the seventeenth-century courtier. In scene 4, Don Juan's stylised confrontation with the two girls, Charlotte and Mathurine, conveys a clear image of how his own behaviour contains the seeds of his own defeat. He has made the same rash promises of marriage to both girls and now has to try, albeit brilliantly, to play them off against each other when they try to compare stories:

Mathurine.—Quoi! Charlotte …

Don Juan, bas à Mathurine.—Tout ce que vous lui direz sera inutile: elle s'est mis cela dans la tête.

Charlotte.—Quement donc! Mathurine …

Don Juan, bas à Charlotte.—C'est en vain que vous lui parlerez; vous ne lui ôterez point cette fantaisie. [II,4]

The scene is a masterly demonstration of virtuosity, but it only helps Don Juan evade exposure as a liar; ultimately, he seduces no-one, precisely because of the glib, automatic promises he has made to both. Don Juan, here on the defensive, is suddenly far removed from the lyrical disciple of Alexander of act I: we find him, not for the last time, having to use his considerable intelligence merely to extricate himself from embarrassing situations brought about by his own impetuous appetites. In a sense then, the fatal invitation made to the statue is already anticipated: like Tartuffe, Don Juan is incapable of profiting from his errors; like Tartuffe also, he finally tempts fortune once too often.

The discussion which opens the third act amply demonstrates the undogmatic nature of Don Juan's libertinage. The attack on medicine was, in itself, fairly predictable. Given the closeness of the links between the faculties of medicine and theology, it was normal for a libertine to mock the doctors. Indeed, part of the disapproval of Molière in pious circles stemmed from his tendency to see doctors as either fools or crooks. But Don Juan's very eloquence where medicine is concerned underlines his curious reticence on the subject of religion. His replies to Sganarelle's questions are suddenly evasive and monosyllabic:

Laissons cela … Eh! … Oui, oui … Ah! ah! ah! … La peste soit du fat! etc. [III,1]

There is clearly no suggestion of an unexpected show of respect for Christianity, but it is equally clear that, whatever he is, Don Juan is not a doctrinaire atheist. He seems, quite simply, reluctant to get involved in a debate on a difficult question with an unworthy opponent: Don Juan has no real interest in arguing the case for atheism except in so far as it gives him another chance to prove his own superiority. With the hapless Sganarelle, his usual tactic, as here, is simply to lapse into silence and to permit his opponent to lose himself in his own hilariously muddled reasoning.

The poor hermit in scene 2 evidently seems to him a more worthy opponent. He promptly attempts to reduce him to the level of a self-interested beggar by turning against him the sense of his simple words: when the poor man innocently says that he prays ‘pour la prospérité des gens de bien qui me donnent quelque chose’, Don Juan seizes on this to make it seem as if the hermit is, in fact, praying for his own prosperity. But he finds in the hermit an unexpected bedrock of faith which constitutes a kind of elemental force more powerful than Don Juan himself; the hermit is thus cushioned against the temptations raised by the outrageous offer of the Louis d'or. This might be regarded as the first positive demonstration of divine power, more tangible even than the storm. But Don Juan, as always, is impervious to the hint and is more concerned with finding a way out of a discussion which he is not quite managing to dominate. He gives the Louis d'or to save face and because it is easier to give it than to put it back in his purse. His ‘pour l'amour de l'humanité’, far from signifying some complex system of rational humanism, is simply a glib and apathetic formula, a convenient means of escape like his sudden interest in saving Don Carlos from his assailants.

Again, therefore, Don Juan shows no appetite for a philosophical debate on the subject of Christianity: he quickly loses interest if the expected victory does not materialise quickly. Rather than a militant, free-thinking philosopher, Don Juan begins to look like the slave of a nature which prevents him even from asking questions. The enigmatic declarations—such as ‘deux et deux sont quatre’ and ‘pour l'amour de l'humanité’—which have caused critics to find hidden depths in the character are, on the contrary, mere convenient clichés demonstrating a disturbingly total apathy in respect of everything but his own most immediate needs.

Elvire's brothers seem, at first, much less serious opponents. Don Carlos is hopelessly entangled in a complex code of honour of which he can see the shortcomings only too well. He is painfully conscious of being ‘asservi par les lois de l'honneur au dérèglement de la conduite d'autrui, et de voir sa vie, son repos et ses biens dépendre de la fantaisie du premier téméraire …’ [III,3]. He is a sensitive man and we sympathise with his attempt to reconcile his personal debt towards Don Juan with the demands of family honour. His is a subtle concept of honour worthy of the age of the ‘honnête homme’. But his urbanity is such that Don Juan is easily able to exploit this attitude towards honour both by unexpectedly rescuing his own mortal enemy and then, as always, by simply adopting the same language as his chivalrous opponent, winning his respect by claiming to be jealous of his ‘friend's' honour.

Alphonse is far less sympathetic: his conception of honour is much less subtle, much more brutally direct:

Tous les services que nous rend une main ennemie ne sont d'aucun mérite pour engager notre âme … l'honneur est infiniment plus précieux que la vie … [III,4]

Anyone capable of saying that in 1665 would have appeared quaintly anachronistic: the heroic days of Le Cid were already a very distant memory. The snag is that Alphonse's unpleasant brutality promises to be rather more effective in dealing with Don Juan than Carlos' gentlemanly good manners: Carlos mistakenly assumes that Don Juan respects the same code as he and, as we have seen, Don Juan always gets the better of respecters of codes. Alphonse's more primitive thirst for vengeance would have posed him far more serious problems: it is a narrow escape.

A progression is now evident in the order of Don Juan's adventures. At the beginning of the play, he is a handsome, predatory animal who seeks out his prey and then moves in, seemingly infallibly, for the kill. Gradually, however, the kill becomes increasingly difficult to execute as he finds his plans thwarted by the storm, the peasant girls' jealousy, the hermit's faith, etc. Then, from act III onwards, it is Don Juan himself who becomes the prey, hunted by forces set in motion by his own nature. It is quite logical, therefore, that, having narrowly escaped death at the hands of Elvire's brothers, Don Juan should immediately taunt the commander's statue. For the invitation issued to the statue is no more frivolous than his other challenges, his constant tactic having been to reduce his opponents to the level of mere playthings. There is thus a certain dramatic irony in the way in which Don Juan himself will be eliminated by the most elemental thing of all, a lump of stone. It is as if only such an adversary could have the brutal, single-minded simplicity required to crush Don Juan's constant diversity which is, in itself, merely a sophisticated mask disguising the naked force of instinct.

The fourth act opens with a brief pause in the downward course of Don Juan's fortunes. The entries of Monsieur Dimanche and of Don Louis have been criticised for being ill-prepared and largely gratuitous additions. On the other hand, given the nature of Don Juan as he has been presented to us, Molière really had little alternative. Don Juan exists only in the present. He faces up to problems as they occur but is quite unable to make long term plans; that he is good at forgetting unpleasant experiences is amply demonstrated by his lame, almost absent-minded, explanation of the moving statue:

… c'est une bagatelle, et nous pouvons avoir été trompés par un faux jour ou surpris de quelque vapeur qui nous ait troublé la vie. [IV,1]

Neither curiosity nor memory, it would seem, of the fact that two dangerous rendezvous now await him. M. Dimanche and Don Louis are characters trying not to suffer the same fate: they are more or less irksome figures from the past who insist on returning from the oblivion to which Don Juan has attempted to consign them. As we are seeing them largely through Don Juan's eyes, there was thus no other way to prepare for their appearance.

With M. Dimanche, Don Juan rediscovers his early panache in order to deny him the time to state his demand in any meaningful way. Again, he attempts to belittle his adversary by inviting him to supper and this time he is successful: in accordance with the rules of etiquette of the time, the tradesman has to refuse the aristocrat's invitation. Don Juan thus mockingly reminds Dimanche of the unbridgeable social gulf between them while, at the same time, effectively getting rid of him without paying him a sou. The contrast with the other supper invitation, so unexpectedly accepted by the statue, underlines the fact that Don Juan need only fear a supernatural which has as little respect as he has for man-made codes and conventions.

With his father, his reaction is quite different: panache gives way to unpleasant cynicism. It would, however, be wrong to see in this meeting a simple confrontation between good and evil: if the play is an allegory, it is a more complex allegory than that. Don Louis is certainly sympathetic but he is basically an anachronism: like Alphonse, he remains obsessed with simple, old-fashioned values, those of the past. His conception of virtue is very moving:

Nous n'avons part à la gloire de nos ancêtres qu'autant que nous nous efforçons de leur ressembler. [IV,4]

But it is precisely this preoccupation with his ancestors in an idealised and black-and-white past which makes it so easy for Don Juan to fool him at the beginning of the final act. For Don Louis represents, perhaps better than any other character, the society which has spawned Don Juan, a society dominated by convention and rules of all kinds. Confronted by his father's eloquence, Don Juan refuses to meet him head on: ‘Monsieur, si vous étiez assis, vous en seriez mieux pour parler.’ [IV,4] It is another attempt to ‘chosifier’ the opponent: the sudden reminder of the physical plane in the middle of the well-drawn moral tirade effectively deflates his father. The tradition was of course for actors in tragedy to remain standing, whereas those in comedy tended to be seated. Don Juan is thus, in a sense, attempting to reduce Don Louis to the level of a mere obstacle, a ‘père de comédie’ like Gorgibus or Géronte. And at the end of the scene, Don Louis’ impotent fury tends to conform to the role created for him by his son:

Mais sache, fils indigne, que la tendresse paternelle est poussée à bout par tes actions, que je saurai, plus tôt que tu ne penses, mettre une borne à tes dérèglements, prévenir sur toi le courroux du ciel … [IV,4]

Pure bluster of course, as we see by his overjoyed reaction to Don Juan's feigned conversion in act V; he has indeed degenerated into a noisy but innocuous obstacle. Given the absence of true danger, Don Juan's curse of his father is unpleasantly gratuitous:

Eh! mourez le plus tôt que vous pourrez, c'est le mieux que vous puissiez faire. [IV,5]

But he has been threatened and so his response is instinctive and brutal; the filial bond, more precious than life itself to Don Louis, is another value that means nothing at all to his son.

There then follows a series of return visits by characters that Don Juan would clearly rather not see again. They are all seeking Don Juan's salvation but the latter, obsessed as always by his pathetic desire to dominate, cannot appreciate this. No real communication is therefore possible. Elvire's sincere concern, in scene 6, serves only to stir up again Don Juan's old desire. When the statue is announced, we see again Don Juan's blinkered obstinacy: ‘Allons voir, et montrons que rien ne me saurait ébranler.’ [IV,7] And he greets the statue with another show of effusion, offering him wine and song and generally attempting, this time in vain, to reduce this new guest to the level of another M. Dimanche. Don Louis returns at the beginning of the final act and Don Juan, donning once more his mask of piety, makes the virtuous noises that are enough to send his father away happy.

The lyrical tirade which follows, extolling the benefits of hypocrisy, is clearly meant to balance the one in I,2 on the pleasures of amorous conquest. In both cases we have a description of the pleasure to be derived from a superior kind of trickery. The vocabulary is identical: the ‘transports’, ‘larmes’, and ‘soupirs’ of the first correspond exactly to the ‘grimaces’, ‘roulement d'yeux’ and ‘soupir mortifie’ of the second. And both culminate in a description of a kind of military campaign against conventional morality. The two main facets of Don Juan's libertinage, his sexual appetites and his religious scepticism, are thus highlighted in an almost self-consciously symmetrical way; far from being incoherent, the play in fact has a profound kind of order which transcends superficial questions of conventional neatness.

Moreover, the tirade on hypocrisy is framed between practical demonstrations of its possibilities and of its limits. If Don Louis, as we have seen, is just a passing irritation, Don Carlos, when he returns in V,3, is a much more difficult proposition. He is now obsessed, like his brother, by the idea of vengeance and Don Juan's hypocrisy immediately shows itself to be less effective against another obsession: Don Carlos refuses to recognise the particular mask that he is now wearing and so Don Juan has to agree to a dangerous duel.

The series of reappearances, which is becoming increasingly dangerous for Don Juan, is completed by that of the supernatural. Faced with the spectre, he again rejects the evidence of his eyes:

Si le Ciel me donne un avis, il faut qu'il parle un peu plus clairement, s'il veut que je l'entende. [V,4]

In view of the profusion and the variety of the warnings that he has received, this remark epitomises Don Juan's ultimate refusal of reality. He naturally seeks to reduce the significance of the spectre by claiming to recognise its voice and by drawing his sword against it. As we have seen, this is a tactic which works very well with human opponents and their relative values. But to go on using it in the face of the implacable supernatural is patently absurd. This pathetic response to heaven's final offer of mercy demonstrates that, ultimately, all his power was based on an illusion: he cannot adapt to a reality different from his own vision of the world. In this, he paradoxically comes to resemble the Arnolphes, the Alcestes, the Argans, the Orgons, all the other ‘inadaptés' who inhabit Molière's stage.

Society in Dom Juan is like an enormous stage production, with everyone accepting a particular role and a particular set of rules. Only Don Juan, good actor though he undoubtedly is, is incapable of accepting this discipline, but spends his time poking fun at, and exploiting for his own ends, the conventions which are visibly at the base of this society. As society is obviously imperfect, it might be argued that some of its conventional values could be usefully questioned. However, when these are merely replaced by cynical indifference towards the rights and feelings of others, the result is anarchy and chaos. Don Juan and the Christian ethic are clearly incompatible. A ray of hope may therefore be derived from the fact that the final victory is won by heaven and that Don Juan is destroyed. This was, after all, the main point of the original story. But the real conclusion of Molière's play is more complex than that: the effects of Don Juan's egoism are still appreciable even after his death. Sganarelle's very complacency about Don Juan's other victims demonstrates that the underlying danger has not been suppressed:

Voilà par sa mort un chacun satisfait: Ciel offensé, lois violées, filles séduites, familles déshonorées, parents outragés, femmes mises à mal, maris poussés à bout, tout le monde est content. Il n'y a que moi seul de malheureux.

Sganarelle's continuing credulity forcibly reminds us that, on the level of society, heaven's intervention has really achieved very little. The debts have not been paid, Elvire is still dishonoured, the peasants have not regained their tranquil mediocrity and Sganarelle has actually lost his job. The final lines of the play therefore bring us back to earth, where the real problems remain largely unsolved, even after Don Juan's death. Sganarelle is convinced that this event, for most of the victims, signals the end of the problem: he thus demonstrates the concern with appearances which allowed Don Juan to dominate a whole society. Don Juan could reappear in a different guise and no-one would notice. If the play does at any moment go beyond comedy it is surely in the implications of its ending.

The key to any interpretation of the play is one's reaction to Don Juan himself. Sganarelle, although the source of most of the laughter, really presents fewer problems than his master. His function is to strike the maximum comic contrast with Don Juan: total gullibility and fear in the company of total scepticism and bravado. The presence of a ‘raisonneur’ would inevitably have weakened the argument as well as the comedy. Molière is showing us a whole society in danger through its obsession with rules and codes: a single wise and superior character would therefore have seemed a rather arbitrary exception. Sganarelle is shown torn between terror of his master, almost, but not quite, equal terror of heaven and his own basically sensuous nature. Moreover, far from floundering itself in the disorder of which it has often been accused, the play follows a precise line, Don Juan's character is developed in a logical manner and, in view of the warnings and signs, his end has almost the inevitability of tragedy. Molière does not seem to be arguing strongly either for or against Christianity, in Dom Juan at least. The attitude that permeates the play is already that of Philinte: society consists essentially of a series of conventions and codes, religion among them. While it is important to bear in mind the perhaps sobering reality underlying the codes, it is also vital to resist the youthful temptation to debunk them all at once, for fear of having nothing but naked egoism to put in their place.

Nathan Gross (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12131

SOURCE: “Obligation in Dom Juan,” in From Gestures to Idea: Esthetics and Ethics in Moliere's Comedy, Columbia University Press, 1982, pp. 39-71.

[In the following essay, Gross presents an in-depth discussion of Molière's Dom Juan, focusing on the gestural nature of the play.]

Dom Juan, composed in the shadow of the banned Tartuffe, is a machine-play, a “spectacular” in the etymological sense, whose use of mechanical devices in the tomb and the Statue belongs to a pattern of gestures implicit in the text which shape the comedy's structure and meaning. Sganarelle's gestures during his opening speech supplement his praise of snuff. Like the allusions to kneeling in Tartuffe, they are recalled throughout the play and, in an entirely different sense, in his final speech as he cries for his wages. Molière, playing the role in 1665, must have brought the full tradition of comic turns and pranks, inflection and gesture of the Italian commedia to his delivery. But seventeen years had passed and Molière was dead when the play was first printed by La Grange, who, acting Dom Juan, may never have seen Sganarelle's gestures at the play's beginning or end. He was offstage, probably preparing to enter; and by 1682 memory of Molière's gestures during rehearsals would have dimmed. Even if the edition were based on Molière's own script, no detailed gestural directions would appear, since the author-director would need no written reminders. Besides, stage directions are rare enough in classical plays, and must be inferred from the speeches. La Grange included a few obvious indications: holding a snuffbox, falling down, and so on. The text must furnish other gestures as Molière might have directed: performance style, always a question of varying declamation and movement, reflects the text most closely when the playwright participates in the staging and realizes auctorial intentions.

When the curtains part, Sganarelle holds a snuffbox as an instrument for challenging the authority of Aristotle and philosophy on the subject of ethics. His mock-serious attitude jars with the patent absurdity of his statement, particularly in the mid-seventeenth century when snuff was considered a doubtful substance, a vice rather than a source of virtue.

Quoi que puisse dire Aristote et toute la Philosophie, il n'est rien d'égal au tabac: c'est la passion des honnêtes gens, et qui vit sans tabac n'est pas digne de vivre. Non-seulement il réjouit et purge les cerveaux humains, mais encore il instruit les âmes à la vertu, et l'on apprend avec lui à devenir honnête homme.

The surprising juxtaposition of Aristotle and snuff provokes laughter: Aristotle said nothing about tobacco, which entered Europe as a result of Renaissance voyages of discovery in the New World. The declaration that life without snuff is not worthy of humans exemplifies Sganarelle's ridiculous reasoning, accompanied by pedantic gesture: the forefinger raised, the eyes staring at the snuffbox. This section may even be punctuated by a sneeze if Sganarelle takes snuff at this moment. (If he sampled it before the curtains opened, he may have sneezed before beginning the panegyric, in a startling opening gesture.) The sneeze marks the absurd assertion linking snuff and virtue: a gesture shows the foolishness of Sganarelle's claim that snuff is indispensable to virtue, the ethical and happy life which is sought by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics and which is the principal aim of philosophy.

Sganarelle then develops the notion that snuff affects the honnête homme in society:

Ne voyez-vous pas bien, dès qu'on en prend, de quelle manière obligeante on en use avec tout le monde, et comme on est ravi d'en donner à droit et à gauche, partout où l'on se trouve? On n'attend pas même qu'on en demande, et l'on court au-devant du souhait des gens: tant il est vrai que le tabac inspire des sentiments d'honneur et de vertu à tous ceux qui en prennent.

He offers snuff to people imagined all over the stage and to Gusman. This polite gesture has ramifications beyond social amenities, according to Sganarelle, for he would persuade Gusman that snuff leads to the good life. Sganarelle poses as a benefactor who does not wait to be asked for a gift of inestimable value if it miraculously confers honor and virtue. Were snuff such a wonder drug, Gusman would owe his bliss to Sganarelle. Could he ever adequately express his gratitude, or free himself of the debt with some commensurate action? Molière did not lightly choose his words as Sganarelle describes the “manière obligeante” of offering snuff by people “ravi” to pass it around. “Obliging,” derived from ob-ligare, means “binding to,” usually through service or favor; even the relatively rare “much obliged” still contains the notion of debt implied as an expression of gratitude. Sganarelle's civil gesture, performing the most valuable service, would place Gusman in his infinite debt; and while he should delight in conferring virtue upon Gusman, he is “ravi” because Gusman, unable to repay the obligation, must, as a virtuous man, acknowledge Sganarelle as the source of his happiness. Through Sganarelle, whose ridiculous speech and movements provoke laughter, Molière parodies civil gesture to raise the serious question of the dynamics of egoism underlying the practices of bonnêteté.

The encomium of snuff introduces Dom Juan's fundamental dilemma concerning the “dialectic of obligation”: how to remain free of debts not easily reckoned in measurable, and consequently commensurable, terms; how to shun obligations that reduce him to infinite debtor status; and how to appear the boundless creditor of people to whom in fact he owes much. Dom Juan, Sganarelle, and most other characters expect a person performing a service or favor to enjoy an ethical advantage. The recipient is indebted to the benefactor until a commensurate service, rendered in payment, cancels the original debt. Most relationships among men occur within such a dialectic of obligation, and the favors are answerable: few services are infinite in worth. An offer of snuff, without the ultimate value Sganarelle attributes to it, typifies the polite gesture that creates a “social obligation,” usually taken as a matter of course, and with a pinch of salt, in honnête circles. According to one point of view, however, Pascal's, La Rochefoucauld's, and Hobbes', civil gestures actually disguise the gentleman's self-interest, his amour-propre, his instinct to tyrannize by creating relationships of master-slave between himself as benefactor and his social peers. “Chaque moi est l'ennemi et voudrait être le tyran des autres” (Pensée 455 in Brunschvicg's standard numbering), even in polite society where conventional gesture establishes an appearance of civility without changing the fundamental nature of man, which breaks out in moments of stress and challenge.1 Generous gestures are seen to spring from egoistic motives; mutually reciprocal “obliging” gestures sublimate the desire for irreversibly obligating acts. The dialectic of obligation is a version of Hegel's master-slave dialectic.

The basic ethical structure of Dom Juan concerns the debtor's response to his awareness of debt, particularly when life-and-death is at stake. That is rarely the case in comedy, or in real life; but in this play, after act I, it is a question of life-and-death at every moment. The play's larger content, which is the point of contact between the comedy and reality, concerns the basic relationship of life-and-death between God and man: the initial giving of life and, in a Christian framework, the remission of sins and the eternal salvation of the soul. Those gifts lie outside the dialectic of obligation, for reasons to be discussed in the context of the great scene of the Poor Man (III, ii). Dom Juan invents debts to himself to reverse relationships with creditors; he follows the strategy of a self-interested creditor to exaggerate his services and paralyze his debtor. But Dom Juan fails, trapped by situations of enormous debt and reduced to a paralyzed slave.

The final gesture in Sganarelle's praise of snuff epitomizes the strategy of reversing debtor relationships. “Mais c'est assez de cette matière. Reprenons un peu notre discours,” he says, as transition to the subject of Elvire's pursuit of Dom Juan. Matière means both “subject” and “stuff’: “enough of that subject (snuff)” and “enough of that material (snuff).” The double meaning indicates that Sganarelle relinquishes the snuffbox to Gusman; it does not reappear in the play because it belongs to Gusman, a character whose language marks him as closer than Sganarelle to elegant circles where snuffboxes are found. Sganarelle covers his embarrassment with the pun on matière. Gusman's gestural claim to the snuffbox startlingly provokes the intuition that Sganarelle played benefactor with Gusman's own snuff. Gusman must have offered a pinch before the curtains parted. Did Sganarelle intend the praise of snuff to distract from a simple social obligation while using Gusman's snuffbox to annul the obligation and create a debt of virtue and happiness toward himself by Gusman? That would summarize the pattern of Dom Juan's actions: attempts to cancel or distract from real obligations and embarrassments, while making creditors appear indebted to him. The snuff-speech provides a paradigm for later episodes, exaggerated to absurdity in words and gestures that partially veil its significance. The pun of the transition acts like a shock, making the audience quickly reconsider the praise of snuff and accompanying gestures, while it laughs at Sganarelle, forced to return the snuffbox to its owner: snuff has produced no virtue in this would-be pilferer.

Although Sganarelle fails to become Gusman's benefactor, he proceeds to establish superiority in judgment over Gusman and in ethics over Dom Juan through criticism of his master. Sganarelle again plays Gusman's benefactor with his character analysis, as he later acts the part with the peasants in act II, giving similar derogatory information about Dom Juan to elicit their gratitude. Some of his pleasure lingers when Dom Juan enters (I, ii): he answers Dom Juan casually, challenges Dom Juan's behavior, and wisecracks that he had not mentioned Elvire's presence because, “Monsieur, vous ne me l'avez pas demandé.” He apparently feels no obligation to volunteer significant information! Dom Juan's own good mood shows in his eager account of constant infidelities, which develops Sganarelle's observation that Dom Juan “se plaît à se promener de liens en liens, et n'aime guère demeurer en place.” Along with movement and change, those baroque categories, Molière stresses the breaking of bonds, liens, derived also from ligare. Dom Juan resembles a purveyor of snuff, who offers love to beauties all around him, creating obligations toward himself, and feeling no bonds toward the women chosen for seduction. After all, he is giving, they are taking.

He plays on the idea of engagement, a form of obligation: gages—wages—are pledges of good faith, and he introduces a more general obligation, dictated by nature, the only one he respects because it permits him to ignore the civil and legal obligations implied by marriage. “J'ai beau être engagé, l'amour que j'ai pour une belle n'engage point mon âme à faire injustice aux autres; je conserve des yeux pour voir le mérite de toutes, et rends à chacune les hommages et les tributs où la nature nous oblige.” The speech leads to a comparison with Alexander the Great, wishing for new worlds, and with conquerors who cannot “se résoudre à borner leurs souhaits”: “je me sens un coeur à aimer toute la terre,” he exclaims. The image of a limitless conqueror is revealing in the light of the dialectic of obligation, for Alexander could leave conquests because it was in the nature of things that he move on without restriction from one place to another in order to satisfy his destiny. He operated on a level where ordinary obligations did not obtain. He owed nothing, while all was owed to him.

Sganarelle correctly perceives that Dom Juan talks like a book. Dom Juan follows the Petrarchist-précieux conceit of woman as a fortified place to be captured; and Alexander, in Molière's period, represented a type of romantic hero for whom women would abandon their virtue with no thought for tomorrows. (Alexander, of course, came to be a figure for Louis XIV as well.) But Sganarelle's remark suggests that happens only in fiction, while in reality women expect to be courted and wed within the dialectic of obligation. Dom Juan is not free, after all, to love “toute la terre,” but is limited to a finite number of conventional women.

Molière does not delay in confronting Dom Juan with the most recent woman, whose presence creates an embarrassment Alexander never knew. Elvire comes to recall her husband to the bonds of marriage. Dom Juan's euphoria, culminating in the comparison with Alexander, is interrupted, and he shifts the burden of her vexation to Sganarelle who, also embarrassed, explains his and Dom Juan's departure with a reference to the comparison, now odious to Dom Juan because Elvire has proved it inaccurate. Molière allows Dom Juan a chance to seize the ethical advantage, however, after Elvire's enumeration of a courtier's conventional defenses; his response draws on what she should have argued: obligations to heaven, vows and pledges broken to marry him. He pretends to be her benefactor, instead of the faithless moral pauper he is. Like Sganarelle with the snuffbox, he borrows arguments Elvire had at her disposal and uses them hypocritically against her to establish her ethical inferiority.

Characteristically, he ignores her final imprecations and, after a pause for reflection, a strange stage direction for silent gesture, he goes off, his euphoria dampened but already on the upswing through his posture as Elvire's ethical superior and benefactor, and through his eagerness to break the bonds between a young couple whose happiness has aroused his desire.

In act I, obligations are engendered by: snuff, which creates a social obligation, an infinite one if snuff were really a means to a virtuous and happy life; and marriage, which creates legal and heaven-sanctioned obligations. Self-styled benefactors, Sganarelle and Dom Juan, behave exclusively for reasons of self-interest. In the remainder of the play, benefactors give life, and Dom Juan's relationships occur in a context of life-and-death. The stakes are increased infinitely; unlike those associated with snuff, they are real and everlasting. Dom Juan persists in mocking these terms with civil gestures meant to distract from the overwhelming debt of life he incurs, and to make him seem a creditor-benefactor instead of an infinite debtor. If his subterfuges are perceived as brilliant esthetic gestures, the point is missed, and Dom Juan cannot be appreciated as a comic creation. For the gestures do not hide the fact that no polite motion can countervail the gift of life. The crucial question, though, that Dom Juan's displays of virtuosity sidestep, is whether any recompense at all is required to offset this gift: is the gift of life contained within the dialectic of obligation?

Life-and-death may seem too serious a topic for a genre that usually excludes death. A protagonist may be laughed off the stage, but is not punished with death for errors and misdeeds. Dom Juan is exceptional, for death is ultimately the wages of his sin: his life is the pledge forfeited for breaking faith. Death, however, does not simply occur as a miraculous intervention to destroy Dom Juan, or as an opportunity to exploit machines on stage. The shadow of death is cast more and more deeply across the play from act II onwards; in act III the theme of life-and-death recurs in each episode; and the appearances of the Statue in subsequent acts are like visitations of Death personified.

When act II begins, Dom Juan has been saved from death by Pierrot. Against this background, the act's single episode exhibits Dom Juan's frustration and embarrassment when confronted by two peasant girls to whom he has promised marriage. A situation he has made turns against him. This reversal is typical of Molière's comic dramaturgy in other plays (for example, L'École des femmes and Les Femmes savantes), and it is repeated in act III. But the ethical point supported by this basic comic action deals with a greater theme, the great lord's treatment of the benefactor who has saved his life. Pierrot's narrative of the rescue provides a context for the act, as Sganarelle's praise of snuff sets the context for Dom Juan in act I. Molière again uses gesture to bolster the text, even extending gesture to the language itself: the patois establishes character and makes the audience perceive that Dom Juan is beholden to a bumpkin. Pierrot intends his narrative to impress Charlotte, his fiancée, and consequently, while acting out the account, he stresses his own qualities of keen eyesight and shrewdness in persuading Lucas to bet against him on a sure thing. (A bet, incidentally, is another form of pledged obligation.) Molière emphasizes Pierrot's lack of specific moral worth: he is immodest, self-interested (he collected the bet from Lucas before setting out to the rescue), and more taken with the profit from his wager than with having saved a life. All that detracts not a whit from the fact that the great lord's life depends on him.

Pierrot is also bound to the dialectic of obligation, not with Dom Juan, however, from whom he asks no reward, but with Charlotte. His possessiveness shows in a demand that she respond to his attentions, as gifts and serenades obligate her to. Dom Juan's attempt to seduce Charlotte betrays his benefactor, who sets great store, in his engagement to Charlotte, on the dialectic of obligation reduced to the absurd level of serenades, tokens, and love-pinches. Dom Juan at no time mentions his debt to Pierrot. Worse, on learning of Charlotte's engagement, he courts her more ardently: “Quoi? une personne comme vous serait la femme d'un simple paysan! Non, non, c'est profaner tant de beautés …” He strikes Pierrot when the peasant claims his rights, but grows silent when Pierrot recalls the rescue: “… ça n'est pas bian de battre les gens, et ce n'est pas la récompense de v's avoir sauvé d'être nayé.” Dom Juan threatens Pierrot again only after Pierrot regrets having saved him, as if the remark nullified Dom Juan's debt: “Si j'avais su ça tantôt, je me serais bien gardé de le tirer de gliau, et je gli aurais baillé un bon coup d'aviron sur la tête.” Dom Juan reacts viciously when he feels himself quit of obligation by the expressed wish that he had been knocked underwater by Pierrot's oar. This manipulation of the dialectic of obligation is specious, for the fact of the rescue remains. Dom Juan seizes an opportunity to escape the debt easily, and to pose as Charlotte's benefactor.

Charlotte and Sganarelle also pose as benefactors, with regard to Pierrot. Charlotte tries to convert her broken engagement into a service: “Va, va, Pierrot, ne te mets point en peine: si je sis Madame, je te ferai gagner queuque chose, et tu apporteras du beurre et du fromage cheux nous.” Playing the grande dame, the embarrassed obligee caught in the act imitates Dom Juan to appear the benefactor. She abjures the unmeasurable ethical values implicit in betrothal, and invents material values owed her. Sganarelle also pretends to serve Pierrot, and is struck for his pains. He intervenes to obligate Dom Juan's victims to himself; that is why he denounces his master, out of earshot, at the end of the act. But the debts do not take shape, as Dom Juan's slap and return make Sganarelle abandon his poses of philanthropy. His apparent pity for Pierrot turns into “peste soit du maroufle,” while he must swallow Dom Juan's taunt, “Te voilà payé de ta charité.” But charity the gesture cannot be, if a self-interested Sganarelle wants superiority and obligation. Such self-seeking is typical of all the characters in this act, none of whom respects ethical obligations and performs services disinterestedly. Pierrot comes closest to performing a service freely by saving Dom Juan; its selflessness is mitigated, however, by his insistence on the wager.

But Dom Juan's debt to Pierrot differs in nature from all the other obligations, actual and desired. Betrothal and the protection of victims seem pale next to the debt of life itself. The stakes of benefactor-obligee relationships are increased to that level in act III, where every episode involves life-and-death. While Dom Juan refuses in act II to acknowledge his debt of life to a peasant, from act III on he is disconcerted by the thought of owing his life to nearly every character introduced, from the hermit to the Statue. He is caught by the consequences of construing his debts, great and small, in terms of the dialectic of obligation. That attitude must now be examined, before we look at the events of act III, particularly the scene with the Poor Man.

Within the dialectic of obligation, a benefactor remains superior until the recipient of a service has rendered an equivalent one. Certain acts of great magnitude, however, produce unrepayable debts. The value implicit in giving or saving life, bestowing a great fortune, or raising to a rank of undeserved merit cannot easily be matched in equivalent action, because the benefactor will probably never be in need of such action. That creates a problem, for although people generally consider great gifts desirable, they are uncomfortable with the consciousness of debt such gifts induce. As Pascal noted, “trop de bienfaits irritent” (Pensée 72).

But immeasurable services do not properly belong to a dialectic of obligation, a movement back and forth between parties who hold a measurable, temporary ethical advantage: a pinch of snuff can be offered to the original purveyor, and it confers no boundless ethical values of virtue and happiness, Sganarelle to the contrary. Acts like saving life do not originate in a desire for moral slaves, but in grace and charity. (The whole question of générosité in Corneille is at issue here, incidentally.) A gap exists between common and commensurable action within the dialectic of obligation and acts of charity: in seventeenth-century terms it is an abyss. Pierrot did not save Dom Juan to alter or establish dynamics of power between himself as creditor and the nobleman as debtor. He seeks no reward, and does not speak as though Dom Juan were immeasurably beholden to him. He mentions a “récompense” strictly in reaction to Dom Juan's treachery. The peasant's behavior stands as an object lesson to the man saved, and to the audience, of an act of charity; and this point is strengthened by Molière's insistence on Pierrot's toeing the line on the dialectic of obligation where his fiancée is involved, and by Pierrot's relegation of importance to the keenness of his eyesight rather than to the actual rescue. Dom Juan acts ungratefully, feeling overwhelmingly burdened with a debt of life to Pierrot. He is comic not only because the situations he manipulates entrap and embarrass him, but especially because he is caught by the dialectic of obligation where it does not apply: he misinterprets a fundamental relationship of charity as equivalent to Sganarelle's pinch of snuff, a civil gesture that the valet claims to confer immeasurable, unpayable values and correspondingly large debts; he cannot imagine acts of grace committed without expectation or desire of reward or obligation. And this misconception demeans and reduces the sublime, the saving of life, to the ridiculous and the vicious, the pushing of snuff à la Sganarelle. The scenes with the Poor Man in act III and with Dom Louis and Done Elvire in act IV will permit Molière to expand the profound source of Dom Juan's comic nature to a similar misreading of the relationship of God to man, in another mistaken application of the dialectic of obligation.

Situations of life-and-death that should transcend the dialectic of obligation occur in every episode of the third act, which structurally telescopes and repeats three times the overall dramatic pattern of act II. The first two acts contain single situations, Dom Juan's flight from Elvire and his attempted seduction of the peasant girls. Act III, by contrast, contains no extended episode. Four incidents induce a comic rhythm, where Dom Juan's enjoyment and frustration, his euphoric inflation and deflation alternate. The structure is basic to Molière's plays and is most apparent in L'École des femmes. It contributes to the comic nature of the action, but as a factor of dramaturgy, not of the philosophic “comic vision” of the play. Dom Juan finds a scornful pleasure in discussing beliefs with Sganarelle; then the hermit's lesson in charity embarrasses him. He enjoys the ironies of his incognito after rescuing Dom Carlos, but loses the advantage when his own life is spared in turn. Finally, the Statue of the Commander accepts his mockingly extended invitation: the rest of the play works out the full deflation, and destruction, of Dom Juan as part of the comic rhythm pattern. In all these incidents death is an element. Dom Juan and Sganarelle joke about how doctors kill; they meet a man starving to death and learn of dangerous bandits in the wood. Carlos is nearly killed. Alonse demands Dom Juan's life on the spot. The act ends at the tomb of a man killed, not by doctors but by Dom Juan. The recurrent structural detail, and the consequent expectation that Dom Juan's euphoria and mockery at the tomb will eventually be followed by his deflation lend to the audience feelings of excitement—how will Molière arrange the deferred comeuppance?—and of assurance that the character it condemns will not triumph. If ancient tragedy uses dark oracles to prefigure the inevitable ending, Molière follows a classical esthetic and uses patterns of structure.

When act III begins, Dom Juan and Sganarelle are disguised, and Molière draws attention to Sganarelle's doctor costume by recalling Dom Juan's intention of exchanging clothing with his valet. The doctor suit permits an apparently casual reintroduction of the theme of life-and-death. Doctors, master and man agree, are not committed to saving life: their privileges alone count, and they may kill with impunity, demanding, and getting, boundless admiration and gratitude. Sganarelle believes in medicine because of the measureless consideration it confers on a doctor, even an impostor dressed as one. He believes in heaven, hell, the devil and the bogeyman for similar reasons: they are beyond him, and he stands in awe of them. Molière juxtaposes the beliefs on medicine and religion to suggest analogous qualities in the reasoning beneath the apparent foolishness of Sganarelle's argument. As the peasants bow to a man dressed in the mystery-bearing costume of a doctor, treating him with boundless respect no matter what in fact he is or does, so Sganarelle thinks of heaven as wondrously mysterious. Whether the doctor saves or kills the patient, he performs incomprehensible acts. Analogously, man and the world are full of mystery; they must have been created by a being whose nature and action, like the doctor's, are incomprehensible, before whose measureless power and essence Sganarelle bows in wonderment. Sganarelle trips himself up in farcical conclusion; the pratfall is an absurd counterpart of the moral attitude implied by his reasoning.

The argument from necessity and mystery is not original to Sganarelle. It may be taken as typical of a school of believers, including Pascal, who find in infinite grandeur and infinitesimal petitesse reasons, though irrational, for belief in God. But Sganarelle is no spokesman for any formal or popular theological position; his function is dramaturgic, to furnish a contrast for Dom Juan's rationalist credo: “Je crois, Sganarelle, que deux et deux sont quatre, et que quatre et quatre sont huit.” Belief is simplified to the measurable and predictable. Dom Juan refuses to acknowledge what Sganarelle claims to be immeasurable, for which arithmetic—logical rationality—cannot account. (He would like to be limitless himself, hence the wish for new worlds to conquer, like Alexander; but Elvire's intrusion deflates the wish.) Sganarelle seems to state the position of the “esprit de finesse,” lacking, however, the clarity of intuition and expression typical of this mode of perception, while Dom Juan states a case for the “esprit de géométrie,” with the significant difference that he refuses to accept the promptings of intuition as a base on which to reason. Molière is not aping or parodying Pascal: the Pensées were not published until 1670. But could he have had prior knowledge of them? Molière seems to present a brief for what Henri Gouhier calls “un humanisme chrétien en train de tourner au christianisme humanisé.”2 At the least, Molière was familiar with the ideological context of libertinage whose terms Pascal knew and used. Molière's strategy parallels Pascal's, presenting two postures of the human mind, both of which separately are inadequate. Dom Juan's belief in “arithmetic” corresponds to his refusal to acknowledge and deal with obligations that are not strictly measurable and payable (even though he will not honor them either). He resists the notion of the infinite, since in that perspective nothing differentiates him from Sganarelle, or from Pierrot: “Dans la vue de ces infinis, tous les finis sont égaux” (Pensée 72). The dialectic of obligation itself withers in the face of the infinite. But while Dom Juan may shrug off Sganarelle's questions about heaven, the devil, and the bogeyman, just as he ignores relationships that conform to no manageable dialectic of obligation unless he holds the immeasurable advantage, his refusal to acknowledge belief does not mean that heaven, at least, does not exist, nor that the fact ever escapes him. To cite Pascal once more, “Tout ce qui est incompréhensible ne laisse pas d'être” (Pensée 430), and one could probably find a similar position in the Lucretian sources of seventeenth-century Epicurean libertinage.

The contrast between two and two are four, and the marvelous, inexplicable, and immeasurable, along with Dom Juan's pleasure over Sganarelle's clumsiness when he sees his servant trip, provide the context for the encounter with the Poor Man. As Dom Juan observes, Sganarelle's reasoning about the mystery-defying reason has made them lose their way. They must seek help from the poor hermit who happens to be there when they need him. If his directions are viewed in the perspective of the dialectic of obligation, the debt is measurable: eventually, Dom Juan could find a way out of the wood; and an equivalent gesture could easily be found in a piece of money or food. (If the forest is a symbolic place, signifying the perilous darkness of Dom Juan's soul, the debt is boundless. But seeing the scene as allegorical creates dramatic inconsistencies—until one realizes that the whole play is an allegory of divine charity. That will become clearer later in the discussion.) There is a greater peril to Dom Juan, and the warning about thieves in the wood, added by the hermit, engenders a much greater sense of debt in the dialectic of obligation, for it concerns life-and-death: “Mais je vous donne avis que vous devez vous tenir sur vos gardes, et que depuis quelque temps il y a des voleurs ici autour.” Dom Juan's studiedly polite reply is meant to counter his debt in words: “Je te suis bien obligé, mon ami, et je rends grâce de tout mon coeur.” The hermit says “je vous donne”; Dom Juan answers with “rendre,” paying for precious advice with a polite formula, like Harpagon. While a coin would be more appropriate compensation to an obvious pauper, Dom Juan remains unmoved by the man's appearance. He combines polite words with the familiar “tu”—Sganarelle had used “vous”—to mark a bonhomie the Poor Man cannot use. The hermit then asks for charity. He needs alms to survive, like any hermit under vows of poverty: he is not without reason called “Francisque” in the cast of characters, even though the name is not spoken. (Did his costume suggest a mendicant's habit?) Dom Juan interprets the plea as a demand within the dialectic of obligation: “Ah! ah! je vois que ton avis est intéressé.”

Dom Juan attacks the hermit's principles to distract from his own embarrassment, caused by the beggar's lesson in charity: “grâce” is not rendered through words, but in a saving deed or gesture that shows the effect of being touched by grace. All the fatuity and absurdity of Dom Juan's polite formula, “je te rends grâce de tout mon coeur,” is revealed when he fails to respond to the hermit's obvious need. His heart is not touched. Neither he nor Sganarelle, each unmoved by tales of the doctors' victims, is capable of pity or conversion. Sganarelle even takes his master's part with the hermit, having learned his lesson after sympathizing with the peasants in act II. To cover his lack of charity, Don Juan resorts to schemes of finite obligations, like a bookkeeper tallying debts and credits in the mode of two and two are four, a concept unknown to the hermit faced with the peril of imminent starvation. Despite that concern, though, he is moved to caution two strangers about thieves in the wood; such warning, perhaps saving their life, cannot be compensated for within the bounded dialectic of obligation. Thinking in his usual manner, Dom Juan must feel himself once more in a situation of measureless debt, the kind he cannot acknowledge without recognizing his own smallness.

But Dom Juan is mistaken, for the hermit's request for alms cuts through the dialectic of obligation. He is in dire need: “Hélas, Monsieur, je suis dans la plus grande nécessité du monde”; “je vous assure, Monsieur, que le plus souvent je n'ai pas un morceau de pain á me mettre sous les dents.” No one starving in a forest beats around the bush serving a potential benefactor with warnings in order to create a debt repayable with money or food. He straightforwardly asks for charity, just as the grasshopper loses all shyness when she realizes she may starve to death. (The cigale shows she understands the uncharitable nature of the ant when she offers to repay principal and interest, within the dialectic of obligation!)

The hermit does not argue with Dom Juan, but, insisting on his poverty and vocation, promises to respond gratefully to alms: “Je suis un pauvre homme, Monsieur, retiré tout seul dans ce bois depuis dix ans, et ne manquerai pas de prier le Ciel qu'il vous donne toute sorte de biens.” Since Dom Juan is incapable of charitable giving, and because the hermit needs help, he answers Dom Juan's rebuff in terms similar to those of the dialectic of obligation, but on the infinite level that Dom Juan cannot bear. His life saved by Dom Juan's alms, he will pray for Dom Juan's salvation in a measureless sense. For a coin, the hermit will return something of infinite value well beyond two and two are four, adding to the debt already existing. Dom Juan is close to realizing an enormous return on his investment, winning the sweepstakes as it were; but the grand seigneur cannot be bettered by a hermit, even if he comes out the winner.

Both the hermit and Dom Juan are in mortal peril, though in different senses. The dark wood in traditional literature suggests the peril of the soul, from which only a figure of love as caritas can bring rescue, like Beatrice when she sends Vergil to Dante. This is another source of wonder, like the mysteries Sganarelle alluded to. That traditional meaning may color the hermit scene. Even without this coloring, however, the subject of the encounter remains charity in extreme situations of life-and-death. Dom Juan immediately, and deliberately, confuses the issue, making the hermit's warning seem intended to oblige him to pay a coin in return; he reads the warning as a civil gesture, without sensing the abyss between offering snuff and giving charity. Advice and coin are parts of a system of ethical values involved in the saving of life: and the saving of life is the most exalted manner of imitating God. This is no dialectic of obligation, but Charity with a capital C. The hermit, nearly a dead man whom Dom Juan can revive, invites Dom Juan to act according to an analogon with God that Dom Juan cannot understand because he misinterprets God's relationship to man as following the dialectic of obligation. God, however, does not push snuff. Dom Juan refuses to be moved to a charitable act by the Poor Man's extreme need. He is frustrated in his own terms, and, because he refuses to acknowledge charity, he is not converted to a system of values that would free him from the stultifying dialectic of obligation that deprives him of his fullest humanity. He prefers to spare himself embarrassment by compromising the hermit's ethical values.

The Poor Man's refusal to swear again frustrates Dom Juan. By raising the subject of self-interest, Dom Juan shows his sense of debt for the hermit's advice, and he finally agrees to pay off that imagined debt, cheaply enough, with a single gold piece. Dom Juan must hand over the coin because otherwise, in his own terms, he will remain immeasurably obligated to the hermit. He wants neither to owe nor to satisfy the debt, and getting the man to swear converts the coin into a reward for the blasphemy, in a kind of unholy bargain. Dom Juan will no longer owe, nor will he have paid the debt, and he will have destroyed the hermit's ethical values. When his browbeating fails, he tosses the Poor Man the gold piece “pour l'amour de l'humanité,” upsetting the formula “pour l'amour de Dieu” to distract from his failure. The witty saying, however, cuts sharply along double edges, for the phrase contradicts the situation where it occurs. Repayment of the debt is a totally interested act; it is not charity. Giving for love of mankind, though, without expectation of reward and desire to rid himself of his sense of debt, would be charity. Giving disinterestedly “pour l'amour de l'humanité” constitutes an imitation of God, who gives and restores life, in creation and salvation, without expecting his creature ever can match such gifts in return. That is the recurrent theme of Augustine's Confessions, and it shapes Augustinian Catholicism as practiced by a Pascal who wonders whether God asks anything of man “sinon qu'il l'aime et le connaisse” (Pensée 430). God is the greatest benefactor possible, a philanthropist in the etymological sense, outside any dialectic of obligation.

Dom Juan's witty phrase turns ironically against him as a reminder of genuine free giving; it makes us draw distinctions between, on the one hand, Dom Juan's charity-devoid attempt to conceal embarrassment before the hermit's lesson in charity and, on the other hand, the God of charity, outside the dialectic of obligation, who gives “pour l'amour de l'humanité.” The audience does not laugh at the intended stroke of wit, which instead pierces Dom Juan's desired concealment of defeat. He unwittingly parodies God's loving relationship to man, and does not understand how close he has come to escaping the dialectic of obligation with a free, disinterested act of charity. What should be a profound, religious, humanizing experience, the imitation of divine love, becomes a grandiose mocking gesture meant to save face.

This episode concerning charity in the extreme situation of life-and-death expands the vision of the play to include fundamental questions of God and man. Dom Juan's willful misinterpretation of the hermit's motive at the beginning of the scene makes him miss a rare chance to understand and imitate seriously God's relationship to man, to grasp the wonderful mystery Sganarelle had vainly reasoned about. That is genuinely sad, but Dom Juan remains comic. A tragic protagonist would face his shame and humiliation on understanding the significance of his action; he would convert to the ethical values implicit in the act whose form he had imitated, albeit unwittingly; and he then would face the consequences of conversion, whatever they might be, whatever the values might demand. That is the mechanism of Cornelian conversion and of Rotrou's Saint Genest, where the metaphor of performance as imitation is extended to the utmost limit: Genest learns to grasp the ethical content implicit in the play of conversion and martyrdom that he acts out. But Dom Juan remains dominated by the need to maintain the appearances of a dignity he lacks, not only when measured against God's infinite worth, but also when placed on the scale of the Poor Man, whose scruples are firm. He resists conversion, which could confer dignity, even though almsgiving closely imitates the divine act that should convert him, and us. Insistence on the dialectic of obligation, refusal to entertain the notion of free giving, determination to destroy the hermit's ethic, based on hope in God's loving charity: these deprive Dom Juan of an opportunity to correct a false perspective that condemns him to live without the full humanity he is capable of as one of God's creatures. But he is still not deprived of God's love or grace, since, although he misses the chance afforded by the crucial encounter with the Poor Man, it is not the last time Dom Juan is offered an opportunity to be moved and to act charitably in knowing or unwitting imitation of God.

An opportunity to save life, but not in imitation of God, arises right after Dom Juan tosses the Poor Man a coin. He may rush to rescue Dom Carlos because “la partie est inégale, et je ne dois pas souffrir cette lâcheté”; but he bore easily enough with unequal odds as he and Sganarelle ganged up on the hermit. Dom Juan creates an immeasurable debt of life that he does not expect Carlos to repay. Still disguised as a country gentleman, Dom Juan savors a private comedy of ironies, with the man seeking to kill him owing him life. Molière develops the scene (III, iii) to expand on Dom Juan's pleasure in toying with the idea of infinite obligation to himself. He cuts short Carlos' speech of thanks—“Souffrez, Monsieur, que je vous rende grâce d'une action si généreuse, et que …”—affecting modesty, and avoiding the possibility that an expression of gratitude, a polite verbal gesture, will reduce the debt as he tried to do in response to the hermit's warning. (Pierrot's impolite verbal gesture, it may be recalled, had nullified Dom Juan's debt to him in Dom Juan's eyes.) Carlos keeps mentioning the obligation after Dom Juan admits friendship with the man Carlos pursues:

c'est bien la moindre chose que je vous doive, après m'avoir sauvé la vie …

après ce que je vous dois, ce me serait une trop sensible douleur que vous fussiez de la partie …

Faut-il que je vous doive la vie, et que Dom Juan soit de vos amis?

Dom Juan's pleasure evaporates during Carlos' debate with his brother on vengeance, when Carlos satisfies the debt Dom Juan had presumed to be immeasurable and unpayable. He is no longer “redevable de la vie” to Dom Juan, for, as two and two are four, so one life spared compensates for a life saved, one infinite value equals another. From the position of superiority and arrogance implicit in his private comedy, Dom Juan is diminished as Carlos satisfies, within the dialectic of obligation, a life-and-death debt. The debate between the brothers serves a dramatic purpose more important than the analysis of aristocratic behavior and vendetta, for it reduces Dom Juan to silence and shrinks his advantage to nothing.

Dom Juan voices vexation in his response to Carlos: “Je n'ai rien exigé de vous, et vous tiendrai ce que j'ai promis.” In the light of the hermit scene, there may be another unwitting parody of God in these words, with Dom Juan pretending that he had not meant to obligate Carlos by saving his life. Of course he had not demanded that Carlos be sure to “rendre le bien que j'ai reçu de vous”; he should have preferred an attack by Elvire's brothers, less threatening than the band of thieves just driven off, to losing advantage over Carlos. He also vents rage on Sganarelle, whose scatological reply distracts from Dom Juan's frustration, allowing him, and the audience, to start building toward another brief life-and-death episode, in which pleasure is succeeded by disappointment, surprise, and fear. Molière uses jokes to make the audience lose track of Dom Juan's discomfort, duplicate his euphoria, and react more strongly when his pleasure vanishes. The comic rhythm generates a quasi-identification between protagonist and public. We recognize, however, that the euphoria is short-lived; and when the Statue agrees to come to dinner, we may be shocked by the supernatural element but are hardly surprised by the dramaturgy.

Dom Juan's invitation to the Statue parodies polite gesture. To the objection that visiting a man he killed is not “civile,” Dom Juan argues, “Au contraire, c'est une visite dont je lui veux faire civilité, et qu'il doit recevoir de bonne grâce, s'il est galant homme.” He goes “au-devant du souhait,” as it were, like Sganarelle with the snuffbox, in a parody of civil behavior to obligate the Statue to himself, silly as that seems. Fresh from frustration with Dom Carlos, Dom Juan needs to be someone's creditor, even a statue's, as a concomitant of his sense of perpetual debt to God; and he desperately needs to amuse himself to forget the frustrations of his encounters with the Poor Man and Carlos. So he mocks the vanity of the Commander dressed as a Roman emperor in a grandiose tomb.

The measure of his frustration and despair is indicated by his reduction to parodying civil gestures with a statue, which, he is certain, cannot repay the simple, measurable obligation in an invitation to dinner. The scale of his gesture is radically reduced from the infinite scale of saving life on which the rest of act III occurs. But even the foolproof joke backfires and grows to that scale; the parody of ordinary civil gestures which conceal a latent will to dominate turns on Dom Juan and destroys him. The Statue will not only come to dinner, but will return the favor; and at the end of act V he will come for his guest as another civil gesture, just as Dom Juan parodically offers to see out his guests in act IV. Dom Juan calls the Statue to life, in another possible unwitting parody of divine action. In fact, though, the Statue is given movement as a divine miracle meant to restore Dom Juan to life—or to lead him to hell should he refuse conversion. True to the pattern of act III, Dom Juan's expectations about a debt that cannot be satisfied are frustrated; and the social debt, within the ordinary dialectic of obligation, that he had parodied to his surprise becomes one on the immeasurable scale of life-and-death. But Dom Juan misunderstands, as usual, fearing to incur an immeasurable debt, and refuses to convert. The parody of civil gesture that backfires sets in motion the mechanism of the Statue; and death, which spans the act from the doctor jokes to the substantial presence of the commander's funeral monument, will overarch the rest of the play.

From the parody of civil gesture in Sganarelle's snuff speech the action has led to Dom Juan's parodic gestures directed to the Statue. In act IV Dom Juan uses quasi-polite and parodic gestures to defuse the serious purpose of four unwelcome visitors, variants of the device of intruding fâcheux, who keep Dom Juan from enjoying distractions like those in acts II and III. He cannot dine in peace, even after dismissing the intruders with marks of courtesy, or impertinence, in the guise of civil gestures. In extending hospitable invitations to be seated—which recall his frustration in being kept from sitting at the table—or to stay for the night, or to be seen out by a punctilious host, his purpose concerns his advantage, not the comfort or pleasure of the guest. Superficial gestures are intended to manipulate obligations and avoid paying serious ethical debts.

In one recurrent gesture, Dom Juan offers to see out his guests. The “flambeau pour conduire Monsieur Dimanche,” ordered by Dom Juan, occurs metaphorically in Dom Louis's speech: ancestral glory is “un flambeau qui éclaire aux yeux d'un chacun la honte de vos actions.” Elvire leaves before Dom Juan can see her out: “ne faites aucune instance pour me conduire et songez seulement à profiter de mon avis,” she says, rejecting polite gestures that defuse serious concerns. The Statue also rejects any accompaniment: “on n'a pas besoin de lumière, quand on est conduit par le ciel.” (We shall see how the Statue returns the gesture at the end of act V, when the image of the torch is extended, in a familiar baroque poetic process, to match Dom Juan's torch in the flames of hell to which the Statue leads him.) After the first, farcical episode where Dom Juan dazzles Monsieur Dimanche, his civil, but cheap, gestures turn against Dom Juan, who cannot deflect the visitors' intention of counseling him.

The style for dealing with intruders is announced before Monsieur Dimanche enters. “Il est bon de les payer de quelque chose, et j'ai le secret de les renvoyer satisfaits sans leur donner un double.” Faced, as it were, with a financial “lord” who wants an obligation honored—a meaning implicit in the derivation of “Dimanche” from dominus—Dom Juan substitutes imagined ethical values by insisting on the chair and by inquiring about his creditor's health and family. He raises in Dimanche a sense of boundless obligation to keep him from mentioning the finite material obligation. Dom Juan toys with the acknowledgment of his debt—puns run rampant on a vocabulary of interest, obligation, and profit—which, after all, belongs to the measurable mode of two and two are four, while he produces a sense of ethical worth in Dimanche, infinitely superior in nature to worth based on wealth. The merchant's reply, “Nous vous sommes infiniment obligés,” is entirely accurate. “Tant de civilités et tant de compliments” render him ineffective as a moneylender collecting debts: paralyzed, he cannot follow his best interest, for fear that materialist concerns might diminish Dom Juan's esteem.

The instant replay between Monsieur Dimanche and Sganarelle shows in brutal terms what the master thinks of the creditor. Sganarelle throws him out; and his offer, “Je vais vous éclairer,” refers less to torchlight than to enlightenment concerning Dom Juan's, and Sganarelle's, intention. The episode with Dimanche, interpolated by Molière into the plot of his sources, provides an easy victory for Dom Juan and furnishes a context for Dom Louis's visit, and for Dom Juan's impertinent put-down in the form of a “sit-down.” In other circumstances, the remark, “Monsieur, si vous étiez assis, vous en seriez mieux pour parler,” would denote respect for a father; here, it marks contempt, and is meant to distract from Dom Juan's vexation. His shifts from ethical concerns to a superficial polite gesture, however, cannot counter ethical debts to a father as progenitor, protector, counselor. Dom Juan's civil-contemptuous gestures with his father and with Elvire lend him no advantage: as in the hermit scene, the audience does not laugh, and even Sganarelle, shocked, disapproves. The dramaturgic strategy allows Dom Juan no immediate diversion. Embarrassing visits rapidly follow and are not defused by his interruptions. Dom Louis's long speech conditions us for Elvire's subsequent plea for conversion; both speeches, and the Statue's visit, stand out from their immediate contexts, which involve Sganarelle in brief episodes of farce that do not allow Dom Juan sufficient distraction.

The father's entrance stops the action. He analyzes Dom Juan's behavior and expounds a scheme of relationships governing men in the kingdom. He, and later Elvire, restate and develop themes of self-interest, obligation, and charity. But Dom Louis is not saintly; he is dominated by self-interest. Each stage of his quasi-Cornelian tirade dwells on his shame. His values exclude genuine conversion: Dom Juan is told to reform to restore the family's good name as a matter of conformity, not as a result of a change of heart. (This point of view is hardly Cornelian.) Self-interest frames his words: he had begged heaven for a son, he will implore heaven to destroy that son to purge his shame. His appeal to ancestral honor is not advice freely given for love of Dom Juan—the phrase “tendresse paternelle” seems out of place in the speech—but is intended to restore his own rank and honor at court. He is alarmed that he caused heaven to act not through grace in giving him a son but to rid itself of a pest, that he has invited punishment through his son's behavior, and that his self-interest has been justly rewarded: “ce fils, que j'obtiens en fatiguant le Ciel de voeux, est le chagrin et le supplice de cette vie même dont je croyais qu'il devait être la joie et la consolation.” The king also has lost patience:

De quel oeil, à votre avis, pensez-vous que je puisse voir cet amas d'actions indignes, dont on a peine, aux yeux du monde, d'adoucir le mauvais visage, cette suite continuelle de méchantes affaires, qui nous réduisent, à toutes heures, à lasser les bontés du Souverain, et qui ont épuisé auprès de lui le mérite de mes services et le crédit de mes amis?

Within a surviving feudalism and according to the dialectic of obligation, royal protection and aristocratic privileges represent payment for services. A second source of privilege, however, beyond the king's debt for service, lies in “bontés,” royal favors. Once Dom Louis's measurable stock of credits is exhausted, he is reduced to begging for favors—as he had begged heaven for a son—and thus risking the king's displeasure. This second relationship of noble to king, outside the dialectic of obligation, cuts to the quick of the play. While the king satisfies debts for services rendered, he may grant favors because he loves the subject; but he may be wearied by importunate pleas, and the result may resemble heaven's “favor,” extended not out of grace and love, but to teach a moral lesson in the monster that is Dom Juan. Molière used analogical reasoning in Sganarelle's argument in act III and does again here.

Once the king has honored his debts, the noble, subscribing to the dialectic of obligation, stands naked of value before him. Only the sovereign's grace can restore his dignity. His service had distinguished him from common people, but now he senses the enormous gap separating him from the king. The notion here is that there is no intrinsic worth, that only continued service can establish and maintain merit; this conception is worthy of Corneille, whose protagonists successfully enhance their nature through action. The dialectic of obligation had spared the noble the acknowledgment of the essential difference between himself and the sovereign. That explains Dom Juan's need to maintain and manipulate the dialectic of obligation; like us all, he cannot bear to contemplate himself as inferior in nature or reduced in stature.

These issues are related to those raised in the critical encounter with the Poor Man. The qualitative difference between sovereign and noble, as between God and creature, cannot be measured; the mode of being of one is not statable in terms of the other. Dom Juan refuses to contend with a measureless gap beyond which infinite power and being exist. He refuses to risk the moral paralysis of feeling reduced to nothing against the limitless value of king and God, and he concludes that only two and two are four makes sense in order to keep the vast difference in nature between himself and God-king from overwhelming him. He refuses, where he is concerned, to concede the gap in the great chain of being between the creator and the created which does not permit the continuity along the chain throughout creation to extend from creation upward to God. Dom Juan unwittingly imitated God's charity with the Poor Man; now it can be observed that, where others are concerned, he manipulates the dialectic of obligation as a deliberate parodic imitation of king and God to prove a gap in nature between himself and his victims. But that gap, unlike the one in the great chain of being between creator and creation, does not exist: Molière's Dom Juan never succeeds in establishing superiority. The specious ethical value he pretends to confer makes only a Charlotte or a Dimanche sense a gulf conjured up between them and the great lord; only they are rendered ineffectual before the parodically grace-ful lending of value that bridges such a gap, and emphasizes it. Dom Juan predicts Monsieur Dimanche's response on the model of his own—if he would allow himself to acknowledge his worthlessness in the perspective of king and God. But critical differences distinguish Dom Juan's conception of divine and royal relationships to creature and subject from seventeenth-century humanistic views, including Pascal's, according to which neither God nor king commands total abnegation of value from the creature or subject. And while Dom Juan acts through self-interest to paralyze his victims, God and king exercise grace to free their chosen. Dom Juan's signs of value remain gestural, empty, parodic; God's and the king's confer genuine worth derived from, but not diminishing, their own transcendent absolute value.

Father and son, Dom Louis and Dom Juan, mistakenly explain grace and favor with parameters of human behavior that promote moral paralysis in a super-dialectic of obligation. Grace and favor, however, are freely given: per-donare, par-don, for-give, through gift. They are extended for mysterious love of the creature—“pour l'amour de l'humanité”—to bridge the gap, to convert man so he may acknowledge and emulate in imitation, not parody, superior modes of being and begin to merit his redemption through actions imitative of the charity that touched the heart in conversion. These terms, reminiscent of Pascal and Corneille's strategy, are incompatible with the dialectic of obligation. They obviate the desire to indemnify others, by the gestural equivalents of offering snuff in daily life, and to forget the essential differences from God or king. In this light, the prayer “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” is pointless, for the context of grace and favor eliminates awareness of debt to God; we forgive our debts when, converted, we realize that pardon is the proper imitation of God, a form of charity. When we stop imagining God's relationship to us as a dialectic of obligation we can imitate God and grow closer to our prelapsarian nature; we begin to bridge the unclosable gap in the chain of being between God and man.

Molière's thought implicit in Dom Louis's speech draws upon Augustinian assumptions: God loves man in spite of sinfulness and fallen nature; to be restored to his nature before the Fall, man must recognize and respond to God's love; happiness consists of the imitation of God's charity subsequent to the recognition of God's love. This vision, of which Dom Louis remains unaware because of his self-interest, is extended and developed by Elvire. She comes to convert Dom Juan for love of him, in the sense of love as charity. The arrangement of her speech marks that concern. Its first section ends on the note of her lack of self-interest in visiting him: “[le Ciel] n'a laissé dans mon coeur pour vous qu'une flamme épurée de tout le commerce des sens, une tendresse toute sainte, un amour détaché de tout, qui n'agit que pour soi, et ne se met en peine que de votre intérêt.” Dom Juan's mocking aside to Sganarelle, “Tu pleures, je pense,” meant to distract from his embarrassment, only draws attention to the words “votre intérêt.” After the interruption Elvire again stresses detachment, and begs for Dom Juan's conversion, as if her ultimate happiness were at stake.

De grâce, Dom Juan, accordez-moi, pour dernière faveur, cette douce consolation; ne me refusez point votre salut, que je vous demande avec larmes; et si vous n'êtes point touché de votre intérêt, soyez-le au moins de mes prières, et m'épargnez le cruel déplaisir de vous voir condamné à des supplices éternels.

Sganarelle's aside, “pauvre femme,” highlights a notion related to the king's favor and God's grace in the phrase “accordez-moi, pour dernière faveur.” Dom Juan's salvation is posed as a favor extended to Elvire outside the dialectic of obligation. Her interest lies mysteriously in his salvation; by converting he would act analogously to king and God, who act without self-interest for the good of the subject and creature. Like the hermit, Elvire gives him an opportunity to imitate nonparodically God and king, and to escape the dialectic of obligation. She also places her beatitude in his hands, identifying her self-interest with his salvation. Elvire is in the literary tradition of female Christian mediators, deriving from Augustine's mother, Saint Monica, and self-interest cannot properly be attributed to her. She brings into sharp focus, through her example and her pleading, the meaning of concepts found in Dom Louis's speech; and she offers a nonmiraculous means of persuading Dom Juan to convert. The miracle of the Statue is an intervention of power, and a show of the lengths to which God will go to make the wayward creature convert. Elvire's attempt to convert Dom Juan is mysterious, but not miraculous. Her words suggest that the ethical life and happiness, promised by Sganarelle through snuff, are found by imitating God: “Pour l'amour de vous, ou pour l'amour de moi,” Elvire pleads, echoing “pour l'amour de l'humanité” and the lesson of charity. She risks Dom Juan's scorn, but, like the Poor Man, does not allow humiliation to dissuade her from charitable actions.

Dom Juan's contempt, particularly for departures from expected social behavior in other people, means nothing to her in the light of her conversion to ethical values. That is why she advises Dom Juan, on entering, not to comment on her unusual clothing—she is veiled—as he had in act I. She must have overheard his remark then as she entered: “est-elle folle, de n'avoir pas changé d'habit, et de venir en ce lieu-ci avec son équipage de campagne?” (The comment introduces the theme of clothing, dear to the Renaissance, which has not been followed in this discussion.) As she wards off attention to meaningless conventions of dress, so she declines and avoids Dom Juan's gestures of hospitality, refusing to stay for the night—an extension of offers to sit—or to be seen out. With social debts on a petty scale Dom Juan would counter or defuse the ethical obligation he mistakenly sees in Elvire's wish to convert him. It is true that she conjures up the dialectic of obligation by referring to a “récompense” in the last section of her speech; but a dialectic whose terms, Dom Juan's salvation and Elvire's happiness, are infinite, is no dialectic but a stasis of equal, eternal terms. Dom Juan cannot reduce, through parodic civil gestures, the enormity of what Elvire freely offers him, with no interest in being his creditor. In this, she resembles the God who purified her heart.

Nor can Dom Juan succeed in mocking the Statue, who visits in response to his invitation. The Statue enters in a context of farce: Dom Juan has asked Sganarelle to sit at dinner with him—a gesture showing the real significance, as mocking shows of courtesy, of other invitations to sit since he has the dishes removed before Sganarelle can touch them. Sganarelle serves again as a scapegoat for the embarrassment brought by Dom Louis and Elvire. Dom Juan extends courtesies to the Statue by asking Sganarelle to join the feast, to sing, and to toast the Commander's health, another contemptuous gesture, since the Commander is dead and Dom Juan killed him! The perfect host's every courteous gesture within the dialectic of obligation is designed to cover his amazement and to increase his guest's debt, while his commands to Sganarelle reveal the parodic nature of the gestures, meant to frighten the valet and to offend the Statue. But the Statue remains faithful to the dialectic of obligation initiated in the graveyard: he acquits himself of liability, no matter how contemptuous the original indebting gesture, by inviting Dom Juan in turn to dine. He delivers no moralizing speech, as the audience expects according to the pattern set by Dom Louis and Elvire (that speech is deferred until the end when the Statue, as host, may choose the subject of conversation, as it were); but the earlier visitors came for Dom Juan's reform, while the Statue visits because he is obliged to, in response to an invitation accepted.

The forces at play here are greater than in previous scenes, no less than divinity and death, infinite though concretized in the Statue. They nevertheless obey the comparatively petty laws of the dialectic of obligation; and it is according to those laws, the laws of two and two are four on a level of measurable and commensurable gestures, that Dom Juan is to be destroyed: in his own terms. Whereas he should recognize the presence of infinite forces in the miraculous Statue, he refuses, and the Statue obligingly responds in the only terms Dom Juan will acknowledge. Instruments Dom Juan uses to gain advantage, parodically, over the Statue of the Commander he had killed become instruments of his own destruction. The torch, passed by Dom Juan to Sganarelle as the fourth act ends to see the Statue out, gains its full significance at the play's end when the Statue returns the gesture, within the dialectic of obligation, but on an infinite scale, as only God can: the torch is repaid boundlessly and endlessly in the fires of hell. Dom Juan is finally made to acknowledge the presence of the infinite and everlasting, when the grace and favor of heaven are shown to be exhausted. The life-and-death situation ends in death, despite the extreme charity of the Statue.

The Statue visits, it is true, because he accepted Dom Juan's invitation. But within a pattern of decreasing self-interest on the part of the fourth-act visitors, the Statue has the least self-interest: in effect, as an instrument for Dom Juan's salvation, he acts despite his own interest within the aristocratic code and the dialectic of obligation. Charity succeeds vendetta; and only when Dom Juan refuses charity is he struck down, but not even then for the Commander's vengeance. The operation of grace through the Statue portrays the effects of conversion, the loss of the Commander's self-interest, and, only finally, the effects of a refusal to convert.

Dom Juan's hypocrisy and parody of conversion provide material for act V and trigger his destruction. As a hypocrite, he intends to put off those who press for his repentance while indulging his desires and placing enemies in his power. The strategy seems to work when the act begins, for Dom Louis believes his son and praises “la bonté du Ciel” for effecting conversion. He leaves to “rendre grâce au Ciel,” still thinking of heaven's free gifts in the improper terms of the dialectic of obligation. Dom Juan's hypocritical posture as heaven's defender seems successful.

In the second scene his delight on fooling his father breaks out, and he eagerly describes for Sganarelle a gamut of gestures designed to satisfy his desires à la Tartuffe while he pretends to serve others as a spiritual and ethical guide. As in his explanation of inconstancy in love in I, iii, the Alexander speech, in this long discourse he is anxious to expound his thought to Sganarelle, to justify his behavior, and to enjoy the valet's shock. Both speeches recall Sganarelle's praise of snuff. Passing around a parody of religion, Dom Juan uses heaven as Sganarelle offered snuff in a parody of civil gesture. Sganarelle provoked laughter with his claims and Gusman was unimpressed; Dom Juan seemingly offers nothing less than salvation, and nobody laughs. Dom Juan's parodic gesture would place in his debt people ready for grace and real conversion, just as Sganarelle meant to obligate the real owner of the snuffbox. But while a receiver of snuff can easily repay his benefactor in kind, no service matches the benefits of religion: eternal life and beatitude.

Dom Juan expects his gestures performed in the name of “le Ciel”—his response to Carlos' every objection in scene iii—to shield him and afford him ethical advantage. The structure of act V, a counterstructure to act IV, allows him increasing euphoria until the Spectre and the Statue appear. He refuses conversion, but for once honors his word, to join the Statue for dinner. The dialectic of obligation begun in the graveyard is thus satisfied, and the Statue, acting truly in heaven's name, leads Dom Juan to a death provoked by his refusal of grace and his abuse of heaven's name. As the sovereign must act to protect the state and his subjects from Tartuffe's ultimate crime, his false serving of the prince for his own self-interest, so heaven must renounce its grace and destroy Dom Juan for the sake of those creatures who are open to grace and salvation, lest Dom Juan's hypocrisy in the name of heaven threaten their spiritual welfare. Dom Juan receives the wages of sin because of God's love for man, “pour l'amour de l'humanité”; death, which has hovered over the play since act II, claims Dom Juan.

The matter of wages for years of service dominates Sganarelle's final, shocking speech. It contains no word of lament for his master, nor a moral. Molière concludes with a frustrated Sganarelle, bounding around the stage searching for signs of Dom Juan, demanding his wages of the air peopled with imaginary benefactors, like Harpagon pleading for his strongbox with the people he conjures up around him, then with the audience laughing at him. Sganarelle is also laughed at, as, obsessed, he shouts for his wages, again and again: at the beginning of the speech, “Mes gages! mes gages!”; at the end, “Mes gages! mes gages! mes gages!” La Grange, having disappeared through a trap door, could not have seen Molière's stage movements and may have wondered why he heard laughter following Dom Juan's damnation.

The gestural play no longer involves Sganarelle's polite offering of what was not his to obligate a circle of imagined snuff-takers. He gestures wildly to demand what is owed him in the dialectic of obligation that bound him to his master. Everyone is satisfied and content, made happy not by snuff, as it were, but by Dom Juan's death—and of course Sganarelle is wrong: no character is satisfied by Dom Juan's death. Sganarelle is left with nothing to show for his servitude, compromised by association with a wicked master. He had remained with Dom Juan in the expectation of payment: not for ethical values, but for material values contracted for and deliverable as part of a dialectic of obligation between master and servant. He is not like Sancho Panza, who remains faithful to Don Quixote long after it becomes apparent that any reward his master might bestow cannot compare with the ethical and spiritual ties between them.

Sganarelle is as comic as Dom Juan, perhaps more so, because the point escapes him. After witnessing miracles in a drama of divine charity, he can think only of the wages his master pledged to him. The last laugh is on Sganarelle, because the purveyor of snuff, cheated in the dialectic of obligation, should have learned from experience that his master never honored debts and because he is still concerned with material obligations when he, who had argued in act III for something wondrous responsible for man, has witnessed miracles of charity outside the dialectic of obligation. A comedy with reconciliation, or a tragedy, would end with a hymn to God's charity and power. But Sganarelle does not see beyond his wages. Like his master, he is totally bound to the dialectic of obligation—stultifying, reducing everything in the manner of two and two are four to the measure of only one element in man, and ultimately destructive of qualities deemed by the period of Molière and Pascal, of humanist freethinkers, noble and bourgeois gentlemen, believing philosophers and apologists for religion, to confer dignity and value on the incomprehensible monster, man.


  1. Jan Miel has a pertinent discussion of this point in his Pascal and Theology (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969), pp. 170-71.

  2. Henri Gouhier, “L'Inhumain Dom Juan,” La Table ronde 119:67-73.

Larry W. Riggs (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: “Ethics, Debts, and Identity in Dom Juan,” in Romance Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 2, May, 1987, pp. 141-46.

[In the following excerpt, Riggs explores the role of the individual in society as presented in Molière's Dom Juan.]

In Molière's comedy, the desire to eliminate or avoid the risks in social and sexual relationships is a fundamental theme. The issue of debt, or obligation, is explicitly central in some of the plays, and it serves as a metaphor for the cohesiveness of society itself.1Dom Juan is a play in which this theme is particularly important, and whose progress explores the social implications of debt, risk, ethics, and identity. Like Le Tartuffe, whose interdiction forced Molière to write Dom Juan in order to have a new play to produce, Dom Juan studies the relationship between gestures and meaning as that relationship either supports and renews, or exploits and exhausts, social beliefs and ethical significances. A nobleman's effort to make himself independent of the very network of meanings and obligations that is the basis of his status as nobleman is an excellent vehicle for exploring the issue of identity and the ineluctably social ground of individuality.

Dom Juan dramatizes the refusal of ethical risk in such a way as to show that society can be either a stagnant, ceremonial game, circling toward total disillusionment, or a collective effort to conceive and realize values. It can be the latter only if the interdependence of identities and the primacy of ethically significant exchanges are recognized. As Dom Juan's deception reduces others' respect for him to the level of superstition, he becomes a phantom analogous to the loup-garou of Sganarelle's fantasies. Ethical meaning and social value can exist only in a context of substantial exchanges involving both risk and mutual benefit, and individual identity can be expressed and preserved only in ethically meaningful relationships.

The play begins with a burlesque praise of generous social gestures that states, in quasi-absurd fashion, the basic themes of the play. Molière does full justice to the complexities of his subject by having this overture performed by a character whose egotism is showing: Sganarelle illustrates the benefits of generous gestures by distributing imaginary pinches of someone else's snuff.2 Indeed, the social consequences of gestures intended to create an impressive appearance of generosity without actually giving anything of substance are a principal preoccupation of this play. Gestures whose purpose ought to be to establish meaningful linkages among persons can be used to deceive and manipulate. This destroys both social cohesiveness and individual identity.

Sganarelle's burlesque “praise of tobacco” gives a brief glimpse of honnête society as, like any social group, a system of linkages established and preserved by gestures whose commonly accepted meanings express shared values. Immediately after his speech about the merits of tobacco, Sganarelle explains to Done Elvire's servant, Gusman, that Dom Juan has no respect for social gestures and institutions, nor for the meanings they reflect.

Marriage, as an institution and as a system of gestures reflecting obligation and benefit, is a major theme in Dom Juan.3 Dom Juan tries to remove all risk and obligation from this most fundamental of social relationships. However, he does not try to avoid marriage. On the contrary, he attempts to empty marriage—as gesture and as institution—of its significance and its power to obligate him by repeating and thereby trivializing it. Sganarelle describes the situation perfectly when he says: “Un mariage ne lui coûte rien à contracter” (Act I, sc. i). Dom Juan, despite the superficial differences, resembles the protagonists in Molière's other major comedies in that he destroys his own substance by destroying that of his relationships.4

The contradiction at the center of Dom Juan's effort to transcend the social network is that his successes in escaping from obligation depend largely on his social status. Even—or perhaps especially—the nobility is inextricably embedded in the context of social perceptions and meanings.5 At least as much as Molière's other ridicules, Dom Juan is deluded: he believes that he can retain his identity while avoiding the risks of social interchange. The status of gentilhomme is meaningful only within a given context, and its possession, as Dom Louis forcefully reminds Dom Juan in Act IV, sc. iv, is a debt as well as a privilege: “Et qu'avez-vous fait dans le monde pour être gentilhomme? Croyez-vous qu'il suffise d'en porter le nom et les armes, et que ce nous soit une gloire d'être sortis d'un sang noble lorsque nous vivons en infâmes? Non, non, la naissance n'est rien où la vertu n'est pas.”

By this definition, nobility is a dramatic quality: it exists in and depends on social interaction. It is a quality of relationships, not a static attribute permanently possessed by totally self-sufficient individuals. Thus, Dom Juan's principal advantage in dominating others is itself a debt and obligation. His identity is created and limited by the social meanings and expectations associated with his status. Like Molière's other comic leads, Dom Juan needs to have the authenticity and power of his identity confirmed by the same people whom he tries to reduce to a state of ethical nonexistence.6 The very nature of his enterprise underlines the importance of others and of what they give to him, even as he tries to avoid all obligations to them. The inescapably social basis of Dom Juan's identity is emphasized by the fact that the peasant girl, Charlotte, is first attracted to Dom Juan by Pierrot's description of the nobleman's clothes. She is “softened up” for seduction, before she has seen Dom Juan's person, by an evocation of his costume (Act II, sc. i).

A particularly important aspect of Dom Juan's manipulation of obligations is that he tries to evade or “repay” real debts with empty gestures. The Scène du Pauvre (Act III, sc. ii) and Dom Juan's meeting with his bourgeois creditor, Monsieur Dimanche (Act IV, sc. iii), are excellent examples of his manipulation of gestures. In the Scène du Pauvre, Dom Juan and Sganarelle have just discovered that they are lost in the forest. Dom Juan has Sganarelle ask a passing man for directions. Significantly, it is Sganarelle who must contract the obligation, while Dom Juan reserves for himself the privilege of thanking the Pauvre, and thus discharging the debt. The poor man shows them their way and warns them of the presence of bandits in the forest. Having offered real assistance, he asks for thanks in a form more tangible than Dom Juan's “je te rends grâce de tout mon coeur.” Dom Juan feigns surprise at the poor man's venality and offers him a gold coin if he will use God's name in vain.

Here, Dom Juan is trying to nullify the other's ethical substance and set himself up as the rival of God by showing that material self-interest governs even the hermit's behavior. At least as important, however, is Dom Juan's desire to escape from an obligation by obscuring the whole issue of mutuality. His efforts to reduce others to ethical nullity is, ultimately, self-destructive: he attempts to empty his relationships of meaning by merely “miming” gestures of generosity and commitment and in the process reduces himself to the level of Sganarelle's feigned distribution of snuff. By trying to extricate his identity and his freedom from the network of social dependencies, Dom Juan makes himself a phantom—a kind of dangerous clown. His only resource in this deluded deception is an advantage whose meaning and potency are social creations. Dom Juan “borrows” his status and gestures from the collective fund of meanings, but he does not replenish that fund by confirming the meanings. He exhausts trust as a social resource by overexploiting it. He wastes both personal and social resources and, thereby, undermines the ground of his own identity.

Dom Juan owes a financial debt to Monsieur Dimanche. However, he avoids paying it by overwhelming the creditor with purely formal gestures. Because he is a nobleman, the fund of impressive gestures is easily accessible to him. The very chairs in his house can be used to flatter Monsieur Dimanche and to make him feel indebted to Dom Juan. Monsieur Dimanche finds it impossible to mention Dom Juan's debt: “Il est vrai; il me fait tant de civilités et tant de compliments, que je ne saurais jamais lui demander de l'argent.”

Again, as with his female conquests, Dom Juan exploits the advantages of his position in the system of social meanings as a way of gaining independence from those meanings. This independence is, ultimately, illusory. He intends to destroy the ethical significance of his relationships—their place in a context of debts or obligations—but his enterprise depends on gestures and reactions drawn from the collective fund of ethical significances. His entire identity is a form of debt, in that it is constructed of materials belonging to the collective realm.7 As his father tells him, Dom Juan's nobility is a social resource which must be renewed often by authentically noble acts. Dom Louis speaks of his son's behavior as a waste of valuable resources: “… cette suite continuelle de méchantes affaires, qui nous réduisent, à toutes heures, à lasser les bontés du Souverain, et qui ont épuisé auprès de lui le mérite de mes services et le crédit de mes amis?” (Act IV, sc. iv).

Throughout this speech, Dom Louis makes it clear that noble status is, in a sense, borrowed from the ancestors who earned it and from the contemporaries who acknowledge and thus confirm it, and that it can be exhausted by overexploitation. Without noble acts, Dom Juan's status and therefore his identity are as phantasmagoric as Sganarelle's loup-garou. A grand seigneur méchant homme reduces nobility to a mere social superstition—the commoners' naive belief in the veracity of gestures and trappings without substance. Dom Juan is destroying his own and his family's credibility and converting himself into a phantom.

In the final analysis, Dom Juan refuses to acknowledge limits. His thirst for transcendent freedom rejects limits, and yet only limited entities can be valuable elements in meaningful exchanges. The statue of the slain Commander represents the ineluctability of limits. The statue is made of stone, and it commemorates a death, thus serving as a reminder of the materiality and finitude of life. At the same time, since it represents a man whom Dom Juan has killed, the statue symbolizes the inescapability of consequences in a human world which is a closed system, or network. Indeed, acts and persons have ethical significance precisely because the social world is a finite system. Dom Juan's hypocrisy, too, shows his attachment to the social world; he, like the other ridicules, wants to triumph over, and therefore in, the group.

Dom Juan, having sought to escape from ethical entanglements, can only disappear from the scene where ethical implications are explored. Sganarelle's anguished cry—“Mes gages, mes gages, mes gages”—serves as a final commentary on Dom Juan in two ways: first, it is a reminder that Dom Juan always avoided paying real debts; secondly, it confirms the suggestion in the play that those who refuse obligations can only be “phantoms” and reveals that Sganarelle's expectation of a reward for his loyal service has, in effect, been mere superstition. To the extent that Sganarelle has been an admirer and small-time imitator of Dom Juan, his desperation is poetic justice.

Dom Juan is, then, a play which dramatizes the perception that without the acknowledgement of mutual need and benefit, the human world would fly apart. The social world can have neither practical cohesiveness nor ethical significance without the acceptance of mutual indebtedness. Risk and limitation are inescapable, and Dom Juan's quest is futile. Marriage in Dom Juan represents the fundamental social reality which is composed of risk, limitation, benefit, and obligation.

Dom Juan's spurious transcendence depends on the perceptions, motivations, and reactions of his victims, and these depend on Dom Juan's ostensible place in the web of social meanings. His very successes in his chosen avenue of individuation confirm the contingency of his identity. He tries to individuate himself radically by escaping from risk and debt.8 Virtually every scene in the play, however, brings proof that both risk and debt are inescapable. The grand seigneur méchant homme destroys the ethical substance of interactions by exploiting his status without renewing and legitimating its basis. Like Alceste in Le Misanthrope, Dom Juan hopes to receive all the benefits of social existence without paying its price. This is abundantly clear in Act V, wherein Dom Juan has explicitly chosen to become a hypocrite. All meaning would eventually evaporate from a system of purely manipulative gestures, and mutual respect would be reduced to a foolish superstition. Hypocrites choose and, little by little, create an ethically sterile world of dupes and phantoms. In such a world there can be only superstitious, irresponsible credulity, or nihilism. A world without lenders and debtors would lose its principle of coherence and meaningfulness. By virtue of his self-undermining egotism, Dom Juan clearly belongs in the gallery of Molièresque ridicules.

The critics who treat Dom Juan as a metaphysical rebel beating against the limits of human possibility, or as a lucid witness of the disintegration of his class fighting nobly for free individuality, miss two key points: first, Dom Juan is fundamentally similar to Molière's other egotists; and, secondly, Dom Juan's means of escaping from obligations and limiting others' freedom are social tricks permitted him by his status. The twentieth-century tendency to see in Dom Juan a hero of anti-conventional “authenticity” is anachronistic: in an elaborate, hierarchical social structure such as that of seventeenth-century France, the self is not separable from its roles and accoutrements. Honor, nobility, and ethical veracity depend on deserving to be oneself—on meriting one's “costume.” We, on the other hand, tend to regard all structures and roles as mystifications and only the “naked” self as authentic. Thus, in our zeal to discover the truth of the unrelated self, we demand the abandonment of all that which actually sustains the identity. This is, of course, a version of the very predicament Molière warns against.9


  1. Nathan Gross, From Gesture to Idea: Esthetics and Ethics in Molière's Comedy (Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 11.

  2. Gross, p. 43.

  3. G.J. Watson, Drama: An Introduction (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983), p. 83. Professor Watson discusses the link between marriage as a traditional theme in comedy and as the fundamental social institution.

  4. Kenneth Burke, Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method (University of California Press, 1966), p. 18.

  5. Bruce Wilshire, Role-Playing and Identity (Indiana University Press, 1982), p. 44.

  6. Wilshire, p. 185. On the decline of the nobility as an ethical entity, see Erica Harth, Ideology and Culture in Seventeenth-Century France (Cornell University Press, 1983), pp. 46ff; and Davis Bitton, The French Nobility in Crisis (Stanford University Press, 1969), pp. 78ff.

  7. See my “Context and Convergence in the Comedy of Le Misanthrope,Romance Notes, 25 (1984), 65-69.

  8. Of course, Dom Juan shows no fear of physical risk. It is the ethical risk of real social interaction that he rejects.

  9. For an example of what I regard as an anachronistic view of the issue of freedom in the play, see Laurent Romero, “Dom Juan ou les périls de la liberté: pour une critique dramatique intégrale,” Revue d'histoire du théâtre, 31 (1979): 81-88.

Beryl Schlossman (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Disappearing Acts: Style, Seduction, and Performance in Dom Juan,” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 106, No. 5, December, 1991, pp. 1030-47.

[In the following essay, Schlossman evaluates Molière's approach to portraying Dom Juan indirectly through other character interpretations of him.]

Quel diable de style! Ceci est bien pis que le reste.

(Molière, Dom Juan, V, iv)

Molière's Dom Juan ou le festin de pierre begins after Dom Juan's disappearing act. His absence in the first scene allows other characters to allude to his flight, and to present a ‘disembodied’ version of his rhetoric of seduction. Molière subtracts the initial seduction scenes from the Spanish and Italian theatres of Don Juan's desire. He suspends the lover's intrigues and presents Dom Juan indirectly, through Sganarelle's representation of him. Sganarelle offers an oblique representation of Dom Juan's fictions, his beautiful rhetoric, and his stylistic effects.


Under the comic mask of the harlequin valet, the libertine Seducer first appears as the vanishing point of his beautiful rhetoric. The identity of the courtly intriguer is shifted from sword and mask to the verbal fictional performances of love; these performances are anticipated and seconded by the valet Sganarelle, who must speak for his master. Shortly before Molière invented the valet, Dominique Biancolelli performed his commedia dell'arte version of Don Juan in the theater that he shared with Molière's company. Like Dominique, Molière played the role of the valet rather than the Seducer.

Although there were several models for Dom Juan's harlequin valet, Molière chose to enter the scene in the new voice of one of his own characters. Sganarelle had appeared in his earliest farces; in Dom Juan, however, he resembles the type of Arlecchino-Arlequin, who constantly shifts his positions and allegiances without developing as a character.1 Sganarelle's judgment of his master in the speeches that end the play is identical with the opinion he presents to Gusman in the first scene: “Ah! Monsieur, c'est le Ciel qui vous parle, et c'est un avis qu'il vous donne … Ah! Monsieur, rendezvous à tant de preuves, et jetez-vous vite dans le repentir [Ah! my lord, Heaven speaks to you, and gives you warning … Ah! my lord, surrender before so much evidence, and make haste to repent]” (V, iv; V, V).2 In his role as Dom Juan's valet, Sganarelle emerges as a commedia dell'arte type, invented and signed by Molière.

More than any love object, Sganarelle is Dom Juan's destined partner; despite Sganarelle's ambivalence, he remains faithful to Dom Juan. Molière's transformation of the Italian Harlequin figures brings Sganarelle closer to the rhetorical edge of his master. Leporello will owe his status to him; it is an indirect tribute to Sganarelle's importance that Da Ponte's Don Giovanni pleads with Leporello not to leave him. Leporello warns his master: “non credeste di sedurre i miei pari, Come le donne, a forza di danari [don't think you can seduce men of my type like women, with money].” Leporello's surrender to Don Giovanni's pleading (and bribery) comically underlines the parallel between the dire mastery that Don Giovanni exercises over him and over women: the valet cannot resist the seductions of his master.

This exchange between the disgusted Leporello and his libertine master in Don Giovanni II, i, continues a dialogue that was broken off at Dona Elvira's appearance in I, iv. The dialogue parallels the scene between master and valet in Molière's I, ii: Dom Juan describes his plot for kidnapping the fiancée he saw earlier, and Don Giovanni evokes his new passion for a lady who has promised to meet him that evening (I, iv). Da Ponte echoes Molière's motif of flight. In both works, the valet guesses that the reason for their recent journey (away from Done Elvire, in both cases) is a new conquest.

In these scenes, Don Juan explains to his dismayed valet his notion of loving all women: “je me sens un coeur à aimer toute la terre; et comme Alexandre, je souhaiterais qu'il y eût d'autres mondes, pour y pouvoir étendre mes conquêtes amoureuses [I feel within me a heart for loving the whole earth; and like Alexander, I would desire the existence of other worlds, for the power to extend to them my amorous conquests” (I, ii). In Don Giovanni Act II, scene i, Da Ponte recalls Molière's “comme Alexandre” speech: “Io, che in me sento sí esteso sentimento, Vo'bene a tutte quante [I, who feel in myself so great a feeling, I love them all].” Da Ponte's unrecognized and unacknowledged source is Molière's Dom Juan.


Don Juan: Vite, adoréte, abraséme, tanto que tu amor me anima a que contigo me case. (Tirso de Molina, El Burlador)3

Before the Italian commedia dell'arte, the mediocre French renderings of Villiers and Dorimon, and the vanished text of Giliberto, a monk (and a popular playwright) who wrote under the pseudonym of Tirso de Molina created the first Don Juan in El Burlador de Sevilla y Convidado de Piedra. The popularity of El Burlador and certain textual coincidences with Dom Juan indicate the probability that Molière knew Tirso's text.

In El Burlador, Tirso invented Don Juan as a Baroque Christian “myth,” as a dramatic representation, and as an example of the inconstant lover masquerading under the rhetorical banner of courtly love. During the late 1650's a series of successful and popular Don Juan portrayals derived from Tirso by the French and the Italians were staged in Paris. The extensive transcriptions and take-offs on the popular Spanish comedia set the scene for Molière's inventive use of the tradition: in addition to shifts in tone, genre, and ideology, the interpretive developments that he proposes in his approach to the subject reveal changes in the mode of representation that shapes his text.

The spectator of Tirso's El Burlador is both a voyeur and a witness: he is assailed by the unmediated and brutal visual evidence of Don Juan's seductions and acts of trickery. Tirso's play focuses on a repeated demand for Don Juan's repentance within the Catholic frame of the Spanish Baroque; this exhortation is combined with a morbid insistence on the vicissitudes of human flesh that is characteristic of Trauerspiel. Within a highly emblematic discourse, the topos of repentance and the theme of the flesh alternate with intrigue, seduction, and the Golden Age refinements of courtly love rhetoric.

Compared with Molière's writing, the Baroque “précieux” style of Tirso's play seems antiquarian. In Le Dom Juan de Molière, Jacques Arnavon refers to Tirso in the following terms: “the play gives off a very mixed odor … A dramatic fantasy on ‘sin' … with … copious developments about the aforementioned sin, very complacently explained and detailed … the style, when it is not weakened by preciousness, … remains beautifully elevated. Tisbea, Catalinon, the valet, are not lacking in veracity despite faults of taste” (20-21).4 Although Arnavon's negative reaction to it preceded the revalorization of the Baroque, it is indirectly substantiated by Benjamin's emphasis on the antiquarian element in his concept of Baroque dramatic representation as Trauerspiel.

Tirso's graphic and occasionally lurid vocabulary of sexuality provides a startling contrast to Dom Juan. El Burlador confirms its direct visual mode with a similar violence on the level of language: the simultaneous unfolding of elaborately coded emblematics and an anti-euphemistic literalness about the body challenges the refined idiom of the courtier. This could be described as one of the great paradoxes of Trauerspiel representation and Baroque art. In Tirso's play, an idiom of literal and unmediated eroticism infiltrates the refined conceits of love. Through the intrusions that he effects as skillfully as the best political intriguer, the Spanish forerunner of Molière's Dom Juan prefigures the knots of his rhetoric. In Sganarelle's words, Dom Juan proposed the most conventional knot—marriage: “Il ne se sert point d'autres pièges pour attraper les belles, et c'est un épouseur à toutes mains [He does not use any other traps to catch beautiful women, and he is a bridegroom ready for anything]” (I, i).

Act III of El Burlador condenses Don Juan's strategy in the following conventional terms: “I saw you, I adored you, I burned with so great a flame that my love for you urges me to marry you” (III, 246-48). This speech to the peasant Aminta captures the essence of the Seducer's rhetoric of beautiful lies. The Don Juans of Molière, Mozart, and the earlier commedia dell'arte versions could have made this speech. Its effect and its content mark the origin of Don Juan's poetics of desire presented in the conventional terms of love.

The result is a representation of love as “true” (desire) and “false” (the promise of marriage). It is precisely because Tirso's play uses a conventional idiom of love to tell the scandalous truth of eroticism that the fictional Don Juan became a central figure at the crossroads of Baroque literary tradition. Truth and falsehood are knotted together in the conceits of courtly love discourse, but Tirso's idiom of desire preserves its metaphoric power through the explicit contrast in Don Juan's discourse between the metaphoric and the literal. The oblique Molière uses the comic-dramatic ambivalence and the commedia dell'arte nuances of Sganarelle's portrayal to articulate this contrast and to filter Dom Juan's “beaux mystères” of transgression through the beautiful mysteries of his rhetoric. The rhetorical veil that is essential to Dom Juan's effects in the play is preserved by Sganarelle's discordances and the skillfully projected incoherences of his discourse.

Between Tirso and Molière, a major rhetorical shift has taken place. Its effects on Dom Juan are articulated in the relation between eroticism and poetic language, and in the new importance of aesthetics within the play. A new subversion is at work: “quel diable de style! [what a diabolical style!].” Molière's reshaping of the tradition into a vehicle for an oblique portrayal of desire and an emphasis on rhetoric makes of Dom Juan a stylist. Dom Juan's libertinage becomes an art form: aesthetics unfolds its charms before the horrified gaze of ethics.

Speaking as Sganarelle, Molière articulates Dom Juan's ultimate role, as a literary stylist. The complete passage reads: “Quel diable de style! Ceci est bien pis que le reste, et je vous aimerais bien mieux encore comme vous étiez auparavant [What a diabolical style! This is much worse than the rest, and I would like you so much better the way you were before]” (V, iv). The remark is directed at a Dom Juan who disguises his black intentions in the Tartuffian trappings of piety. The implacable logic of this choice is partly masked by Sganarelle's shocked reaction to the “new” Dom Juan, but the first act already revealed a Dom Juan who claimed God (“le Ciel”) as his alibi for abandoning the dishonored Done Elvire, torn from her convent by his seductive discourse (I, iii).

When Dom Juan returns to this form of argument in Act V, Molière assimilates an eloquent explanation of religious hypocrisy and its negative powers within his portrait of the libertine. At this moment, Dom Juan comes dangerously close to an identification with the author (and the authority) of Tartuffe, who speaks out against the “dévots”: the writer places himself for a few minutes under the banner of libertine rhetoric.

The valet's complaint about a diabolical style that is even worse than the rest can be taken literally; Sganarelle's allusion to Dom Juan's disguise can be read as an unconscious comment on the version of libertine “noirceur” that appears in Dom Juan ou le festin de pierre. More eloquent than the Don Juans of Tirso and the Italians, Molière's character emerges in the diabolical power of his style, in the tropes that bear the blackness of his fictions. The constant displacements of rhetoric drive the libertine Master into an endless “changement” of love objects. Style subsumes the real; Dom Juan's tropes carry out the fictions of the libertine and carry language over into the realm of consummated desire.

Dom Juan's ongoing “diable de style” claims mastery over the Real (Lacan's “Réel”) until the end, when diabolical style leads to his infernal and unredeemable death. The supernatural elements of the play recast the rhetorical displacements of eroticism (the invitation, the offering of the hand, the inner flames of desire), in the allegorical encounter between the monument of the Commandeur and the condemned libertine.

Tirso's Don Juan expresses his desire on two rhetorical levels: the gallant “caballero” evokes the common poetic image of flames aroused by the object, and the great lord of noble blood and “pagñola arrogancia [Spanish arrogance]” (III, 745) demands that his object offer her hand to him in a gesture of solemn juridical and religious value. When Don Juan encounters the statue of the man he has murdered, he utters the first invitation. The Statue echoes Don Juan's motifs of erotic trickery and returns the invitation. He asks for Don Juan's hand, and transforms the lover's rhetorical flames into hellfire:

Don Gonzale: Dame esa mano, no temas, la mano dame.

Don Juan: Eso dices? Yo, temor? Que me abraso! No me abrases con tu fuego!

Don Gonzale: Este es poco para el fuego que buscaste [Give me your hand, do not be afraid, give me your hand. What did you say? I, afraid? I am burning! Don't burn me with your fire! It is nothing compared to the fire you sought]

(III, 944-49)

Molière's play maintains these parallel terms of seduction and punishment. The sacred overtones resonate retroactively when the Commandeur repeats Dom Juan's erotic motifs in the service of Heaven rather than the desires of the libertine. After Dom Juan repeats Sganarelle's invitation (“Le Seigneur Commandeur voudrait-il venir souper avec moi? [Would it please the Lord Commander to come dine with me?]” [III, v]) the Statue lowers his head in a sign of assent. Within the Stone Guest tradition, the impious young man who mocks the dead and the boundary between the living and the dead by uttering an invitation may still alter his fate, but in Molière's version, when the Statue comes at the appointed time to Dom Juan's table, he indicates that Dom Juan's time is up: “Dom Juan, c'est assez. Je vous invite à venir demain souper avec moi. En aurez-vous le courage? [Dom Juan, that is enough. I invite you to come tomorrow and dine with me. Will you have the courage?]” (IV, viii).

While Molière subtly uses his innovations—Done Elvire, Sganarelle, and the veil of rhetoric—to introduce art and the sublime into Tirso's framework of seduction, he preserves the three-fold structure of seduction in “El Burlador”: the invitation or the gift of the word (“‘la promesse que je vous ai donnée [the promise that I made to you]’” [III, iii]), the giving of the hand in return for the promise of marriage (“‘abandonnez-moi seulement votre main [give me only your hand]’” [III, ii]), and the flames of love (“une ardeur sans égale [a passion without equal],” “le ravissement où je suis [the rapture that is mine]”, [I, ii; II, ii]) that Pierrot comically describes when he finds Dom Juan kissing Charlotte's hand: “Tout doucement, Monsieur, tenez-vous, s'il vous plaît. Vous vous échauffez trop [Take it easy, my lord, behave yourself, please. You are getting much too overheated]” (III, iii).

During the brief final scene (V, vi), the Statue speaks: “Arrêtez, Dom Juan: vous m'avez hier donné parole de venir manger avec moi [Stop, Dom Juan: yesterday you gave me your word to come and eat with me],” and Dom Juan agrees: “Oui.” The heavenly “foudre [thunder]” that is aroused by a Luciferian refusal to repent in the preceding scene (V, v) when the feminine Spectre announced that only a minute remained for Dom Juan to save his soul (“S'il ne se repent ici, sa perte est résolue [if he does not repent here, his downfall is certain]”) burns Dom Juan with an intimate fire that consumes him. “Le Ciel” repeats the “ardeur” of Dom Juan's burning passion (“l'impétuosité de mes désirs [the impetuousness of my desires]” [I, ii]); it displaces (seducere) or “translates” the power of metaphor. This sacred “translation” or “seduction” is encoded as the invisible: in the final interiority of the play, the inner fire that assails Dom Juan is no longer identified with his desire. The hand of the Other—“le Ciel”—is supernaturally dramatized in the last scenes through several allegorical forms.


In Molière's text, these allegorical forms progressively lose their object-like character, their materiality and opacity; they become more elusive, ethereal, and evanescent. Spiritual and sublime, they enter the pure present tense. Modernist descendants include the Mallarmean point of a poetic enunciation and the mystical instant of ecstacy invoked by Benjamin's reading of Proust.5 This present occurs in the fleeting moment of Dom Juan's fictions, in the artful instant staged by the Baroque image.

The allegorical progression that leads to the supreme vanishing point, the instant of representation bequeathed to modernity by the Baroque, begins in the beautiful “tombeau” (described by Dom Juan as a “magnifique demeure [magnificent dwelling]”) that contains a “superbe mausolée” and the imposing marble likeness of the Commandeur's Statue. The appearance of this monumental representation is followed by a disembodied apparition of the feminine and suggestively Done Elvire-like Spectre. It appears first “en femme voilée [in the form of a veiled woman],” and then as a completely allegorical “figure” of “le Temps avec sa faux [Time with its scythe],” before it disappears completely (“s'envole”) to return to the realm of sacred signs, “le Ciel.” In the final instants of the play, the Spectre evaporates into the thin air of allegory, and the sacred receives its most minimal figure as the “invisible” of divine retribution, interiorized within the libertine body.

The feminine figure fades away; her ethical message arrives at the last moment, to guarantee the subtle allegorization of the invisible. The materiality of the libertine object implies the libertine doctrine of materialism that fled the spiritual element as Dom Juan eluded Done Elvire; at the end of Molière's play, the material opacity of the object approaches the zero point.

What remains after the sacrifice has been consummated? The process of allegorization that points toward the meaning and end of jouissance is figured in a synesthetic finale on stage, when the libertine body disappears. The terms are reversed: the “invisible fire” inside Dom Juan appears on stage, and suddenly it is Dom Juan who leaves the visible realm. All that remains before the spectator is the tableau of the last Baroque image of the “invisible”: Heaven's “tonnerre [thunder],” the substanceless “éclairs [lightning bolts]” and “grands feux [great fires]” and the empty space of the abyss (“la terre s'ouvre et l'abîme [the earth opens and engulfs him]”). The uncensored edition of 1682, quoted by Couton, reveals Molière's intentions for the final overturning of Dom Juan's desire. This version completes Dom Juan's final sentence and stages the concluding fireworks with a Baroque flourish in the character of Molière's court “impromptus” and “divertissements”:

Dom Juan: O Ciel! que sens-je? Un feu invisible me brûle, je n'en puis plus et tout mon corps devient un brasier ardent. Ah!

(Le tonnerre tombe avec un grand bruit et de grands éclairs sur Dom Juan; la terre s'ouvre et l'abîme; et il sort de grands feux à l'endroit où il est tombé)

Dom Juan: [O Heaven! what do I feel? An invisible fire burns me, I can no longer bear it and my whole body becomes a burning blaze. Ah!

(Thunder falls with a great noise and great strokes of lighting on Dom Juan; the earth opens and engulfs him; and great fires come from the spot where he fell)]

(V, vi).6

Hellfire ends Molière's Night play of libertinage and “noirceur.”


Tirso de Molina's El Burlador de Sevilla begins with the following stage setting: “Room in the palace of the king of Naples. Night. There is no light.” The curtain rises on the concluding moments of a consummated seduction: a typical victory for Don Juan is illustrated in the undisguised satisfaction that is articulated and displayed by Don Juan's love object, the duchess Isabela. In the first lines of the play, Tirso indicates the motives for her surrender. Don Juan says: “Duquesa, de nuevo os juro de cumplir el dulce sí”; Isabela answers with an anticipation of the legality of jouissance: “Mis glorias serán verdades,” and Don Juan assures her: “Sí, mi bien” [“again I swear to give you the sweet consent; my raptures will be true / truly enjoyed; yes my treasure”] (I: 3-8). Isabela's turn of phrase (“mis glorias”) conflates an image of sacred light with an image of theatrical and visible public presence in the resonance of a typical Baroque metaphor. She seems to be saying that the transient delights of jouissance, described as her “glories,” will be made “true” (or permanent) when her lover marries her.

In this first instance of the infamous broken promise, the man to whom the duchess Isabela has given her sexual favors (upon receiving an assurance of the “sweet yes” of marriage) is disguised as the duke Octavio, her fiancé. The evanescence of Don Juan's proposal and the undisguised blackness of his motives are dramatically highlighted by the verbal exchange that follows and its interplay of literal sexual language and emblematically coded metaphoric imagery. Eroticism unfolds through a strategy of artifice and falsehood, compounded by an assumed identity, and the ubiquitous broken promise of marriage. Isabela's happiness leads her to the terrible discovery that sets the plot in motion: she wants to light up the dark room (“Quiero sacar una luz” [9]) and when the alarmed (although masked) Don Juan asks her why she wants light, she answers: “Para que el alma dé fe del bien que llego a gozar [In order that the soul/heart may show the enjoyment (jouissance) that I reach]” (11-12). The figures of speech that Isabela uses in this first scene refer to a sexual enjoyment that is inseparable from the honorable enjoyments of marriage. Don Juan replies: “Mataréte la luz yo” [I will put out the light]” (13). His refusal plunges her in the horrible darkness of sin and dishonor, when his “engaño” is discovered. Her good (“bien”) turns to evil: her praises turn to lament. She begins by invoking heaven (“Ah, cielo!”), and asking the disguised (“embozado”) Don Juan who he is.

Isabela's “glory” and the light she wants to illuminate it secretly resonate within a vocabulary of Baroque aesthetics, where the Glory is a Catholic representation of the halo of light that surrounds the Holy Spirit or its presence in manifestations of the Trinity, the Transfiguration, or the Resurrection. Isabela's “glory” seems to echo the hieratic and aristocratic overtones of Corneille's concept of “gloire,” but the erotic and Christian contexts of her statement (and Tirso's play) locate the text of El Burlador and its descendants in the field of Baroque representation elaborated by Bernini rather than in the texts of French Classicism. Neither Molière nor Tirso can be understood according to Corneille's vocabulary, but the pervasive theme of “glorias” and the melancholic evanescence evoked by the scene between Isabela and the masked Don Juan who claims to be Octavio share a certain rhetorical power with Bernini's vision of the Gloria Petri. Bernini designed and sculpted the Glory in Saint Peter's Cathedral, a work that is considered by art historians to mark definitively the high point of the Baroque, during the time when Molière was writing and staging Dom Juan.

The first lines of Tirso's play set up the opposition between light and dark, good and evil, heaven and hell. Don Juan's discursive technique of “engaño” is presented as a discourse of courtly love; it projects a fantasmatic unity of desire and marriage before the eyes of Don Juan's objects. In Tirso's portrayals of women, it is the feminine fantasy that shimmers on the distant horizon of distinguished ladies as well as peasants and fisher girls. Tirso illustrates it in the figures of Isabela's speech.

The discourse of love in the play is a balancing act or a counterpoint between Don Juan's undecidable mixture of punishment and pleasure and a projected feminine version of courtly love rhetoric. The feminine version surrenders to the evanescence and violence of eroticism Baroque style by dissolving it in the “happy ending” of the Law. Tirso typecasts his Baroque oppositions of love as masculine and feminine, but the black portrait of desire that is under the rhetorical masks of courtly love—Don Juan's sweet nothings and his victims' fantasies of wedding glory—seems to challenge any discourse of sexual unity with the hair-raising vision of the drives.

At the edge of the sculpted folds of Bernini's most hieratic and important tomb monuments, madcap skeletons are poised ready to reach out for the viewer, or hold up an hourglass emblem. The mystery that Freud found in the drives, those odd couples, was registered in the books of the Baroque as the mysterious proximity of death and love. The emblems of Trauerspiel marry them together … Y'a de l'Un. There is one. The Baroque found that union at the end of the line, in the figures of sex and death, or marriage and resurrection. Love is the ultimate conflation; it plays on both sides. Death and love, hearts and bones, are the end-points of Trauerspiel emblematics. Hamlet tells the truth: his father's life-line ultimately ends with the end of weddings. Tisbea also speaks the truth when she lovingly reminds Don Juan that he must think of his own death.

Isabela's thinly veiled rhetoric of erotic satisfaction confirms and counterpoints Don Juan's language: he is distinguished by his success, his sadism, and his sexual punishment of women, rendered inseparable from the ambiguities of jouissance in Tirso's representation. These elements of Tirso's first scene form the background of the tradition. The discourse of love is twofold, in Tirso's play and in the tradition of love stories that he enters, disrupts, and begins again in the name of Don Juan Tenorio. Tirso sets the masculine against the feminine; he portrays love as a battlefield of desire against marriage. On another level, he makes Don Juan into a disruptor of couples on the verge of blissful unity in marriage. In this sense, Don Juan figures the importunity of desire, its refusal to be domesticated in the house of marriage, and its inherent transgression. Tirso inscribes the figure of desire with the name of Lucifer.

Don Juan's negativity maintains a constant separation between his desire and the object: social and spiritual harmony are not on his agenda. The figure of Don Juan originates in the mythical stature of the fantasy of sexual harmony that Lacan designates in the statement “Il n'y a pas de rapport sexuel [there is no sexual relation]”: the Don Juan tradition confirms this separation or disharmony by matching the terms of Don Juan's seductions and the motifs of his punishment. When the sweet talk of sexual harmony reaches its final destination, the “Other” as the ear of the heavenly Father, the Stone Guest—a monumental image of a powerful earthly father—is sent to arrange for the Seducer's disappearance into a fiery abyss.

Don Juan's negativity (his erotic powers of destruction) designates the black realities behind the discourse of courtly love. Catalinón tells his master: “Ya sé que eres castigo de las mujeres [I know that you are the punishment of women]” (I:894). When Don Juan pretends to be Mota in order to trick his friend's beloved cousin Ana, the musicians sing: “Todo este mundo es errar [This world is all illusion]” but the play clearly indicates that he, Don Juan, is the source of illusion. When Dona Ana realizes that the disguised Don Juan is not Mota, she condemns his misuse of a lover's language: “Falso!, [Liar!]” (II:507, 510). The Baroque motifs of illusion and inconstancy are tailor-made for Don Juan. They inform and motivate his erotics of trickery, his destruction of honor, and his violations of sanctity, chastity, and virginity.

Throughout the course of Tirso's play, however, it is the unfaithful and cavalier (!) attitude of women that is emphasized, rather than the dubious practices of the male nobility.7 The social status of women condemns them to the punishments inflicted by Don Juan's irresistible seductions, but the consequences condemn them long after the sadistic Don Juan has been plunged into the fiery abyss, in spite of the happy ending that is provided when a patriarchal figure like a King or a “Commander” smooths things over with a lot of weddings. Molière does not include Tirso's happy ending; later versions, including the Mozart-Da Ponte opera, do not return to Tirso's final solution. After writing Mozart's libretto for Don Giovanni, Da Ponte knew what the implications of libertinage meant for the social continuity of the “non-rapport sexuel [sexual non-relation]”; his tragicomic unveiling of the “truth” of love in Cosí Fan Tutte, a late collaboration with Mozart, resonates with a tone of detached understanding that does not sound any less feminist for being the product of Da Ponte's identification with libertinage. The lighthearted yet melancholy conclusion of the opera shows the realism of the aging Don Alfonso, the “Philosopher” who has played all of the characters like marionettes after his two friends set the plot in motion by making a bet with him on the virtue of their fiancées. Their outrage at his initial insinuations is matched only by their fury when they realize that they have tricked their fiancées into being unfaithful to them. When they ask the “Philosopher” how they can punish the women they still love, he replies: “Marry them!”

Tirso's scene of eroticism is masked in the blackness of Night—the hours sacrificed to criminals, libertines, Specters, visions, and dreams—and the literary blackness of the unlit Spanish stage. Don Juan begins the play by extinguishing the light of Isabela's faith, honor, and “glories”: her lamentation of libertine blackness resonates in the gap between Don Juan's two discourses of love, the courtly idiom of love that he uses to mask his identity and the “other” discourse of undisguised desire and conquest: “yo engañé y gocé a Isabela la duquesa [I tricked the duchess Isabela and enjoyed her flesh]” (I: 67-68). The double darkness of night and literary artifice leads to Molière's representation of libertine desire in Dom Juan: the discrepancy between the figured and the literal idioms of eroticism (elaborate Trauerspiel emblematics and the “man-to-man” dialogue that Tirso moves from the royal palace of Naples to the sleaziest alley of Seville without changing a word) disappears in Molière's play. The new role of Sganarelle is associated with an oblique account of eroticism, the highlighting of seduction rather than trickery, and Molière's aesthetic investment in the rhetoric of desire. It is possible that Molière's subtlety and “délicatesse”—a notion that is a masterpiece of libertine strategy, because it implies that the Seducer has aesthetic principles that never allow him to use language unworthy of the courtier—brought out a possibility for “noirceur” (independently pursued in the eighteenth century) that made his play for more subversive than all the lurid potential of Tirso's several hundred works for the stage. The libertine is neither a pagan nor a hero; he is empowered to tell lies precisely because “la vérité du language est chrétienne [the truth of language is Christian].” Neither Molière nor Marguérite de Navarre made this declaration: several hundred years later, it was written by Georges Bataille,8 another writer preoccupied with Dom Juan and the impossibility of truly domesticating eroticism. Through transgression and obscenity, revelation and the ineffable, the philosopher in the boudoir cannot get rid of language.

In El Burlador, when Don Juan enters the bedroom of a peasant bride, Aminta, she laments: “Ay de mí! yo soy perdida! En mi aposento a estas horas? [Woe is me! I am lost! In my room at such hours?]” (III: 205-06). He speaks for all his donjuanesque descendants when he replies: “Estas son las horas mías [Such are my hours]” (207). Don Juan tells her that he burned with a love that impels him to marry her; she gives herself to him, the self-styled “Burlador de Sevilla” who triumphantly names himself in an aside to the audience. Isabela's laments are heard in the lines that follow this episode; they are addressed to the Night, as if the horror and loss that were caused by Don Juan's gallantries and sealed in the metaphorics of light and darkness at the beginning of the play had expanded beyond the constellations of language to the impersonal and voiceless source of blackness: “Oh, máscara del día! Noche al fin tenebrosa, antípoda del sol, del sueño esposa! [Oh, mask of day! tenebrous shadowed Night, antipode of the sun, bride of sleep!]” (III: 303-305). Molière's emphasis on rhetoric moves in the opposite direction; the blackness of Night and flames of Hell shape Don Juan's libertine turns of phrase.


At the beginning of Molière's play, Sganarelle puffs himself up with comically serious pronouncements about virtue designed to distract his interlocutor's attention from Don Juan. Gusman continues to question him about his master's “heart,” however, and Sganarelle attempts to excuse Don Juan's behavior for reasons of “youth” and “nobility” (“sa qualité”). When Gusman responds to Sganarelle's cautious references to “l'autre” (his Master) and his euphemisms about his own “experience” by invoking “les saints noeuds du mariage [the holy knots of marriage],” Sganarelle trades mystery for mystery: “tu ne sais pas encore … quel homme est Dom Juan [you do not know yet … who Dom Juan is].” Gusman tries another tactic to gain information; he offers an explicit narration of Dom Juan's seduction of his mistress. The rhetorical parity continues; Sganarelle suddenly abandons his euphemisms and tells the “whole story” of his master's libertine practices. The rhetorical display that began with detachment and understatement concludes with hyperbole in an explosion of graphic epithets. Sganarelle provides a final affirmation of his word with his declared intent to deny the truth of what he has just announced.

Sganarelle's speech takes the form of a rhetorical abstract of the play: the valet's commentary conceals Dom Juan behind the blackness of his own masks and illuminates him with an infernal “portrait.” Sganarelle paints his master as a libertine on the edge of eternal damnation: “Suffit qu'il faut que le courroux du Ciel l'accable quelque jour … [It suffices to say that heavenly wrath must descend on him some day]” (I, i).

Molière constructs Sganarelle's conversation in the first scene as the “stage” for an oblique and decisive performance: the absent Don Juan is masked and then revealed. But unlike the beginning of Tirso's play, the “light” shed on Dom Juan by Sganarelle turns into another mask—the rhetorical inflation of Dom Juan's evil powers through a series of titles: “un Diable, un Turc, un Hérétique, qui ne croit ni Ciel, ni loup-garou, qui passe cette vie en véritable bête brute, en pourceau d'Epicure, en vrai Sardanapale … [a Devil, a Turk, a Heretic, who does not believe in Heaven or werewolf, who spends this life as a truly untamed animal, as an Epicurean boar, as a true Sardanapalus].” This description combines the sacred and the comic in mock-heroic epithets of emblematic hyperbole: Sganarelle's version of the truth provides another smokescreen. The scene ends with Sganarelle's denial: “écoute, au moins je t'ai fait cette confidence avec franchise … mais s'il fallait qu'il en vînt quelque chose à ses oreilles, je dirais hautement que tu aurais menti [listen, at least I spoke to you in frank confidence … but if some part of it happened to reach his ear, I would say out loud that you had lied].” Sganarelle's series of negations and denegations conceals and reveals the truth about Dom Juan; after all, Sganarelle gives Gusman anything but a straight answer. Like other skilled illusionists of Baroque art, Sganarelle transfigures his subject and portrays him in a mythical and theatrical framework that stuns the viewer and stops him in his tracks.

Sganarelle gives Gusman an image of the “transported” lover (“tant d'transports enfin et tant d'emportements qu'il a fait paraître” [I, i]) that lingers as a fixed monument to libertine inconstancy. Gusman already knows that Dom Juan is a master of rhetoric: Sganarelle's answer instructs the squire in the pleasures and horrors of libertine desire that are the heart of Dom Juan's rhetoric, and the only heart of the libertine artificer. The “cruel and heartless” Burlador enters Molière's text in Sganarelle's words as the “coeur de tigre [tiger's heart]” (IV, vi) or the seduction-loving “coeur” of the “plus grand coureur du monde [the greatest chaser in the world]”; Dom Juan's heart is enchanted only by the allegorically impersonal otherness of Beauty. He states: “la beauté me ravit partout où je la trouve [beauty ravishes me everywhere I find it],” but allegory fades away for Dom Juan until later, when the sacred intervenes in the forms of statues, a veiled feminine specter, and so on.

Beauty is represented by one woman after another, and the “heart” of Dom Juan's calculating hommage to courtly love rhetoric covers up the unsentimental reality of desire: “une beauté me tient au coeur [a beauty occupies my heart]” (I, ii). Dom Juan's “impétuosité” anticipates the focus on the ceaselessness of the drives in Freud's metapsychology; the “heart” of courtly love talk masks the heartlessness of the burning flames of desire. In Don Giovanni (II, xiv), Da Ponte restages the “festin” scene between Done Elvire and Dom Juan, shortly before the arrival of the Statue. Parallel to Sganarelle's exclamation of “coeur de tigre!” (IV, vi), Leporello utters the revealing epithet of “cor di sasso [heart of stone].” In Molière, the reader has been prepared by Sganarelle's account of his master to understand that the nameless “beauty” will be in Dom Juan's “heart” only until her name can be inscribed in the list of his erotic acquisitions. Like the translated form of the murdered Commendatore, the monument of the Stone Guest, Don Juan's heart is made of stone.


  1. A good example of this type is in Goldoni's Il servitore di due padrone, a play that documents commedia dell'arte in written form, according to Goldoni's explanation in his preface.

  2. All translations are my own.

  3. “I saw you, I adored you, I burned with so great a flame that my love for you urges me to marry you” (III: 246-48).

  4. “la pièce dégage une odeur fort mêlée … Une fantaisie dramatique sur le ‘péché’ … avec … de copieux développements sur ledit péché, fort complaisamment expliqué et détaillé … le style, lorsqu'il ne s'affadit pas en préciosité, … y demeure d'une belle élévation. Tisbea, Catalinon, le valet, ne manquent pas de vérité malgré des fautes de goût.

  5. See the discussion of this question in Schlossman, The Orient of Style and “Proust and Benjamin: The Invisible Image.”

  6. See Molière, OC vol. 2, p. 1319. This variant is confirmed by Mahelot's Mémoire about the stage sets ordered by Molière for the play; the props for the “foudroiement” of Act V included resin for the “éclairs” and a trap door (ibid., pp. 1299-1300).

  7. In his introduction to Tirso's play, Pierre Guénoun makes a somewhat surprising attempt to justify—in the name of history—the misogynistic clichés and emblems piously uttered by most of the male characters: “Pour ne pas commettre d'erreur à ce sujet, il faut bien voir que l'Espagne du XVIIe siècle était un corps à tradition patriarcale qui craquait de toutes parts sous une poussée matriarcale particulièrement vive. Les pères avaient, théoriquement, à la romaine, droit de vie et de mort sur les mères et sur les filles qui se montraient légères. En fait, les mères et les filles étaient si délurées que les pères n'avaient aucune autorité” (my underlining). Guénoun presents Tirso's Spain as a threatened masculine body, a patriarch menaced by sexually provocative women. El Burlador, 11.

  8. “Fragment sur le christianisme,” 382.

Works Cited

Arnavon, Jacques. Le Dom Juan de Molière. Copenhagen: Glydendal, 1947.

Benjamin, Walter. Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1982.

Bévotte, Georges Gendarme de. La Légende de Don Juan: son origine dans la littérature. Paris: Hachette et Cie, 1911.

Freud, Sigmund. Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewuβten (1905). Studienausgabe. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1970.

———. Psychologie des Unbewuβten. Studienausgabe. 1975.

Jurgens, Madeleine, and Maxfield-Miller, Elizabeth. Cent ans de recherches sur Molière. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1963.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits. Paris: Seuil, 1968.

———. Séminaire VII: L'Ethique de la psychanalyse. Paris: Seuil, 1986.

———. Séminaire XX: Encore. Paris: Seuil, 1975.

Macchia, Giovanni. Vita, avventure et morte di Don Giovanni. Torino: Laterza Bari, 1976.

Molière. Oeuvres complètes. Ed. Georges Couton. 2 vols. Bibliothèque de la Pléïade. Paris: Gallimard, 1971.

Molina, Tirso de. El Burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra. Ed. Joaquin Casalduero. Letras Hispanicas 58. Madrid: Càtedra, 1978.

———. El Burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra. Ed. Pierre Guenoun. Paris: Aubier-Flammarion, 1968.

Pintard, René. Le Libertinage érudit. Paris: Boivin et Cie, 1943.

———. “Temps et lieux dans le Dom Juan de Molière.” Studi in onore di Italo Siciliano. Florence: Olschki, 1966. II: 997-1006.

Rousset, Jean. L'Intérieur et l'extérieur: Essai sur la poésie et sur le théâtre au XVIIe siècle. Paris: José Corti, 1968.

———. Le Mythe de Don Juan. Paris: Armand Colin, 1978.

Schlossman, Beryl. Joyce's Catholic Comedy of Language. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1985.

———. The Orient of Style: Modernist Allegories of Conversion. Durham: Duke U P, 1991.

———. “(Pas) encore!—Baudelaire, Flaubert, and Don Giovanni.” Romanic Review, forthcoming.

Spitzer, Leo. “The Spanish Baroque.” Representative Essays. Ed. Alban K. Forcione, Herbert Lindenberger, and Madeline Sutherland. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1988. 125-39.

Joy Sylvester (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1828

SOURCE: “Molière's Dom Juan: Charity's Prodigal Son,” in Romance Notes, Vol. XXXII, No.1, Fall, 1991, pp. 23-7.

[In the following essay, Sylvester analyzes“la scène du Pauvre” from Molière's Dom Juan—a scene considered one of the most misunderstood in all of French drama.]

What has been called “la scène du Pauvre” (III, 2) is one of the most important and controversial scenes in all of French drama. It occurs in the exact middle of the play and it is after this scene that the growing pattern of defeats that Dom Juan suffers increase both in pace and in importance (Guicharnaud 252-58). It also marks a change in Dom Juan's dramatic personality, for it is here that, for the first time, he actually takes the initiative and attacks religion in an active attempt to demonstrate that the truth resides within him and that he is in the right. It is, as J. Guicharnaud has pointed out, “la mise en action de l'incroyance de Dom Juan” (255). The danger that Dom Juan represents to society is multifaceted. He combines in himself many temptations, the power of a man accustomed to being a master, the prestige of a grand seigneur and the resources of his riches, but most of all he is dangerous because he represents the principle of disorder set against the order of the universe. His defeat at the hands of the Pauvre is thus highly significant because symbolically it constitutes his first combat with and defeat by le Ciel.

This scene is striking not only for its great audacity, but also because it is the only time in the play before the end when Dom Juan loses a combat. When the beggar asks him for alms, Dom Juan seizes the opportunity to prove at last that God and His goodness do not exist. In order to do this he uses a Socratic technique consisting of a series of cleverly asked questions designed to lead his interlocutor to uncovering the truths he carries within him. Let us examine the logic that Dom Juan uses and what precedes it in order to understand the cleverness of the manipulator and the importance of the defeat which he suffers. Dom Juan is pleased when le Pauvre asks him for alms, and he understands this plea as proceeding from selfish motives because he so scorns mankind that he refuses to believe in the existence of any totally generous gesture. He plays with le Pauvre and tortures him without pity in order to possess him (as he has succeeded in possessing so many others) by corrupting him. Sganarelle tries to stop this attempt at corruption, but he is unsuccessful against the firm will of his master.

Dom Juan wants to convince the Pauvre that God does not exist and his logic proceeds as follows:

a. If God exists, He is good and rewards prayer;

b. However: You pray fervently to God and you are unrewarded.

c. Since there is no reward, there is no Divine Goodness.

d. In the absence of Divine Goodness, there can be no God.

e. Therefore: God does not exist.

The Socratic irony attempted by Dom Juan fails here because the Pauvre does not understand it; it is too intellectual and sophisticated for him. Dom Juan thus must fall back on sheer corruption, a Satanic technique: logic fails, temptation remains, here in the form of gold. The Pauvre, a man of simple and sincere faith, obstinately refuses to blaspheme against God. For the first time Dom Juan loses his sangfroid, insisting with growing fury that the Pauvre must swear; he must triumph here, the stakes are high and he uses every means at his disposal to succeed. Even Sganarelle cajoles: “Va, va, jure un peu, il n'y a pas de mal” (III, 2). Dom Juan gives way to his fury revealing the anguish he himself is suffering. “Prends, le voilà, prends, te dis-je, mais jure donc.” Here Dom Juan becomes a more somber figure, and he suffers a stunning defeat when the Pauvre stubbornly refuses to become a blasphemer and to renounce his belief. The Pauvre's answer is very simple but utterly final: “Non, Monsieur, j'aime mieux mourir de faim.” Dom Juan fails and the failure is important because it marks the triumph of religion over the corrupting atheism of this “grand seigneur méchant homme” (I, 1).

The next lines have stimulated conflicting interpretations and continue to puzzle most readers and spectators, for after this defeat Dom Juan hurls the louis d'or at the Pauvre with these words: “Va, va, je te le donne pour l'amour de l'humanité” (III, 2). Critics and actors alike read this line in many different ways; and each actor plays the scene in a different way, it may be played seriously, or offhandedly, thus making light of the incident. Is this a truly generous gesture on the part of Dom Juan, one acknowledging the superiority of the Pauvre and his own emotion in the face of unshakable goodness and faith? We might imagine that illumination will suddenly come to him and make of him an homme généreux or even his century's ideal, an homme de bien: we might instead take his words, “pour l'amour de l'humanité” literally; and see him as transformed into an enlightened lover of humanity and of mankind. Nothing in the rest of the play supports either of these possibilities. There is neither conversion to belief, nor respect for established order of any kind, nor evidence of a sudden illumination and awakening of generous love for mankind. Rather the placement of this encounter—at the midpoint of the action and at the beginning of Dom Juan's defeats—seems more likely to predict to its observers the protagonist's fate.

In spite of this defeat by the Pauvre, Dom Juan remains obstinately the same, logical in his character of the révolté; he does not accept the reality of such a defeat. The words “pour l'amour de l'humanité” and the haughty gesture of throwing the gold at the Pauvre affirm his scornful pride. He loses this battle, but he will not admit it; throwing the gold away reestablishes his position as the proud aristocrat who thus erases a defeat that he considers unworthy of him. Some critics have argued that he is indifferent to this defeat and that the gesture is one of “désinvolture et indifférence” (Guicharnaud 255). I prefer to see there a scornful gesture, reinforced by the words amour and humanité. From the heights to which he aspires, as a worthy adversary of heaven, Dom Juan can love nothing and no one but himself, and certainly not humanity, for by such a love he would admit that he also is a mere man and, as such, possessed of all the frailties inherent in the human condition. It is with this gesture that Dom Juan also rejects utterly the call to charity that the established society, his nobility, and religion urge upon him.

Caritas is the act of perfect love and the greatest of the theological virtues. Charity and love, however, are the two things of which Dom Juan is incapable. His statements and actions oppose all that charity in its fullest sense implies. The Pauvre, in his simplicity, and by the real charity of his love for God, confounds the false, blackmailing “charity” with which Dom Juan seeks to tempt him. The word “charité” occurs only once in the play and in a context that clearly devalues it. The occasion is in Act II, Scene 3. Dom Juan attempts to seduce the peasant girl, Charlotte, and her fiancé, the bumbling, rustic Pierrot, (who has just saved Dom Juan from drowning) tries to stop him. He is rewarded for his sincerity by Charlotte's indifference, by her obvious attraction to the handsome aristocrat and by immediate evidence of Dom Juan's physical superiority. Dom Juan begins to push and hit him when, in an uncharacteristically generous movement, Sganarelle, after attempting to restrain his master, counsels Pierrot to go away quietly. His advice fails. Pierrot “fièrement” insists: “Je vais lui dire, moi.” Dom Juan gives a resounding slap intended for Pierrot, who ducks, and it is Sganarelle, caught in the middle, who receives the blow. Dom Juan delightedly cries out: “Te voilà payé de ta charité” (II, 3).1 The farce and the comedy serve to underline the seriousness of what is being questioned here, what one may call the usefulness of charity. Of what use is charity and self-sacrifice if all it earns is a slap and a beating? Such is the lesson demonstrated by Dom Juan to Sganarelle and Pierrot.2 Here, as elsewhere in the play, the farce is not gratuitous but rather serves to intensify the drama and one's consciousness of the multiplicity of duels that Dom Juan must fight in this play (Guicharnaud 229-44). There is the duel of the master against the muddled but bourgeois good sense of his valet, that of the ungrateful son against his own father, and so on in a direct progression to the duel of the rich and proud, unbelieving noble against the simple but sincere Pauvre, to the final, most important duel of all, that most basic of duels, the duel between the truly unbelieving libertin against the power of Heaven and thus of God. Here, as represented in that futile battle of the unbelieving libertin who is fundamentally incapable of charity and of love, one may draw the parallel between Dom Juan and the libertins of his century. For Dom Juan represents as did many libertins of his generation a negative force seeking through revolt to become a positive force. As Molière's text so compellingly suggests, Dom Juan is a negative force, incapable of either charity or love. He is chaos masquerading as order, and he must be destroyed to preserve the principle of order in the universe. Therefore, only transcendent power can destroy him. This destruction is prefigured in the scène du Pauvre, and one may be allowed to think with Molière's blessing that it is Dom Juan's contempt for charity as well as his lack of that virtue that lead to his damnation.


  1. This recalls a sentence of the Préface to Tartuffe in which Molière speaks of his battle to save his play from the implacable enmity of the hypocrites who refuse to give up their harassment: “Ils n'en veulent point démordre; et, tous les jours encore, ils font crier en public des zélés indiscrets, qui me disent des injures pieusement et me damnent par charité” (629). [Emphasis mine]

  2. This recalls Montherlant's famous phrase in Le Cardinal d'Espagne: “Les Œuvres charitables par lesquelles il cherche à se débarrasser de la Charité” (I,2).

Works Cited

Guicharnaud, Jacques. Molière, une aventure théâtrale. Paris: Gallimard, 1963. 229-44, 252-58.

Molière. Œuvres complètes. Ed. R. Jouanny. Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1962. Préface à Tartuffe. Vol. 2. 629.

Montherlant, Henry de. Théâtre. Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1972.

Michael Spingler (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7547

SOURCE: “The Actor and the Statue: Space, Time, and Court Performance in Molière's Dom Juan,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 25, No. 4, Winter, 1991-92, pp. 351-68.

[In the following essay, Spingler concentrates on the scenic structure of Molière's Dom Juan and how the space itself questions the codes that govern court society.]

In Dom Juan, Molière inscribes the organized world of seventeenth-century French court life within a dramatic space which reflects the relationship between theatrical and social performance. In what follows, I will focus on how Molière's handling of the play's scenic structure questions the codes which govern life at court. Considered from the point of view of the actor's location and movement on stage, Dom Juan is an interrogation of the court's attempt to adjust the perception of time and space to its own needs, in particular the need to transform history into a repeatable script. The way Molière incorporates the spatial and temporal consciousness of the courtier into Dom Juan is at the heart of his critical representation of the court as a constructed performance which relies excessively on theatrical self-presentation.

By the mid-seventeenth century, court space in France had long been organized into a framed and coherent whole, a cultural and social field which was the ideal setting for the representation of prestige and power. Norbert Elias defines the French court as “an arena of activity” (“un champ d'activité”) which is also “the reflection of a social unity in space.”1 The court was a privileged space, organized around the person of the King and his royal household, within which an aristocratic self-performance could be played out according to a commonly held code of behavior. The framed space of the court authenticated the performed self and gave aristocratic performance both focus and prestige by setting it off from the rest of the world. It was a closed system, a worldly version of such enclosed spaces as monasteries and convents, where time could be controlled, and privileged moments of history replayed, by the repetition of significant gestures which were considered to be endowed with shared and permanent meaning.

At court such theatrical matters as one's location in space and one's mastery of etiquette—that is, scripted social behavior—were of fundamental importance since they performed the political function of expressing and maintaining social prestige. Where one positioned oneself and how well one behaved according to the complex and draconian code of the court defined what one was. Elias observes that the court was a social structure which supported a network of relations which were essential to the maintenance of the common and peculiar identity of its members: “Un ordre hiérarchique plus ou moins rigide, une étiquette minutieuse leur servait de lien. La nécessité de s'imposer et de se maintenir au sein d'une telle formation sociale leur donnait un caractère particulier, celui de l'homme de cour” (“A more or less rigid hierarchical order and a scrupulous etiquette served to link them. The necessity of asserting and maintaining oneself within such a social formation gave them a particular stamp: that of the courtier”).2 The ideal was to be fixed in a mise en scène which emblematized the courtier's continuous participation in royal authority.

Molière challenges this notion of a rehearsed and scripted life through a complex dramaturgical strategy consisting of a set of self-referential theatrical operations which brings up the problem of the actor's position within the playing space of the stage. The playwright focuses on the courtier's reliance on two particular performance conventions, centricity and stillness, as fundamental marks of aristocratic privilege. Centricity reflects the courtier's need to occupy a space whose prestige as place comes from its proximity to power. Stillness is the sign of the desire of the courtier, once having achieved a position near the center, to remain rooted to the spot. In his espousal of stillness and centricity, the courtier emulated two kinds of performers: the statues who populated the gardens and palaces of the aristocracy and the statue-like actors who dominated the stage, especially in tragedy.

The seventeenth century saw statuary as the essence of perfect being frozen in stone or metal. Statues were in effect paradigmatic courtiers, and the nobility strove to possess as much of the unchanging perfection of the statue as possible. Jean-Marie Apostolidès observes that the codes which governed the courtier's appearance at court transformed him into something very much like a statue which would be impervious to the effects of time and history:

The numerous undergarments, like stage drops, emphasize the theatricality of [the courtier's] stance which is further heightened by his brightly colored make-up. For the courtier, façade is everything. He builds himself up like a chateau and he is at his best when seen from a certain distance. Effectively lit by wax candles, halfway between the actor and the statue, the courtier seems to possess a distinct nature. As he ages, he does not become fat or go bald. His appearance does not change. The courtier is an essence which is impervious to the decay brought on by history.3

The immobility of the statue idealized both the absolutely unchanging social position which the courtier aspired to maintain as well as his or her imperviousness to time.

Not only did the statue emblematize the perfected bearing of the aristocrat at court, but it also provided the aesthetic model for the tragic actor. Both the actor and the courtier aspired to the static perfection of the statue as the idealized expression of the mirror relationship between the focused expression of theater and the arranged social space of the court. For both the actor and the courtier, a statue-like stillness accompanied by recitative comprised the ideal form of aristocratic performance.4

By presenting the aristocratic characters of Dom Juan as tragic actors who model their self-performance on the stillness of statues, Molière relocates the apparently supernatural phenomenon of the living statue and redefines it as an essential part of the constructed social reality of life at court. The supernatural premise of Dom Juan's ending—that is, the protagonist's supposed undoing by a statue which has miraculously come to life—then takes on a profoundly ironic significance since all the court characters in the play may be seen and played as animated statues endowed with the gift of speech. In other words, Don Juan both battles and flees from statues throughout the play.5

If we consider Don Juan's artistocratic adversaries both as statues and as tragic actors, we can then identify two fundamental strategies of “blocking” which form the basis of two major dramaturgical patterns in Dom Juan. The first involves the repeated efforts of Don Juan's noble adversaries to fix him and themselves within a framed space by the authority of their declamations which is supported both by theatrical convention and by social etiquette. Opposed to this are Don Juan's swift departures from the playing space, a flight which creates a pattern of dislocation that undermines the aristocratic construction of a stable, unchanging social identity. This second pattern consists of a fragmenting of framed court space into a profusion of discontinuous local settings. The opposing patterns form a complex structure in which certain scenes possess the static, centered unity of tragedy while the play as a whole unfolds according to the decentering energies of farce.6 What makes Molière's treatment of the legend unique is not the changing scenes of the play but rather his manner of opposing to the framed locus of the court a decentered, polymorphous space which suggests both the openness of farce and the ungovernable nature of seventeenth-century French space beyond the confines of the court.7

Dona Elvira's first scene with Don Juan establishes the model for the scenes in which he is pitted against his aristocratic adversaries. Her objectives, as a representative of the court, are to place and keep Don Juan within the primary space of court representation—that is, to fix him in a courtly mise en scène. She uses the behavior codes of the court to compose a self-conscious, theatricalized version of their encounter, including for him an appropriate role and discourse meant to put him at a disadvantage. Thus she plays on his surprise at her unexpected appearance and says, “J'ai pitié de vous voir la confusion que vous avez” (“I feel sorry to see you so embarrassed”) (I.iii.724).8 Don Juan's presumed embarrassment then becomes her justification for demanding an explanation according to form: “Parlez, Dom Juan, je vous prie, et voyons de quel air vous saurez vous justifier” (“Speak, Don Juan, I pray you, and let's see what manner you'll find to justify yourself”) (I.iii.723). Don Juan's crime against Dona Elvira seems less important here than the self-justifying performance that she expects of him. Dona Elvira's use of the expression “voyons de quel air” reveals her attempt to place herself in the position of spectator/judge who will assess the merit of Juan's defense according to the rules of court behavior. The word “air” in particular suggests that, for Dona Elvira, the form of Don Juan's defense, including the quality of his acting technique, will overshadow its content. Consequently, she accuses Don Juan not of betrayal but of not knowing the prescribed role of the perfect courtier: “Ah! que vous savez mal vous défendre pour un homme de cour, et qui doit être accoutumé à ces sortes de choses!” (“Ah! how badly you defend yourself for a courtier who should be used to this sort of thing!”) (I.iii.724).

Considered closely, Dona Elvira's line contains an astonishingly revealing slip: she takes for granted that, as a courtier, Don Juan should be used to “ces sortes de choses.” So, it is not his behavior as such that constitutes his crime but rather his refusal to explain his behavior according to the etiquette and language of the court. She even prompts him in this language and in its corresponding theatrical stance—that is, she instructs him in the art of court theatrical declamation:

Que ne vous armez-vous le front d'une noble effronterie? Que ne me jurez-vous que vous êtes dans les mêmes sentiments pour moi, et que rien n'est capable de vous détacher de moi que la mort? Que ne me dîtes-vous que les affaires de la dernière conséquence vous ont obligé à partir sans m'en donner avis; qu'il faut que, malgré vous, vous demeuriez ici quelque temps, et que je n'ai qu'à m'en retourner d'où je viens, assurée que vous suivrez mes pas le plus tôt qu'il vous sera possible; qu'il est certain que vous brûlez de me rejoindre, et qu'éloigné de moi, vous souffrez ce que souffre un corps qui est séparé de son âme? Voilà comme il faut vous défendre, et non pas être interdit comme vous êtes. (I.iii.724-25)

(Why don't you brazenly assume a noble stance? Why don't you swear that you still have the same feelings towards me and that only death could take you from me? Why don't you say that urgent business forced you to leave without letting me know, that you must stay here against your will, that all I have to do is go back with the assurance you will follow me as soon as possible, that you long to join me, and that, separated from me, you suffer the torment of a body which has been separated from its soul? That's how you should defend yourself instead of being tongue-tied like you are.)

Dona Elvira gives a lesson in court performance which betrays her deep desire to have Don Juan legitimize her aristocratic identity through the appropriateness of his own playing. We may indeed take her at her word when she says, “Voilà comme il faut vous défendre.” As a representative of the court she seeks self-confirmation in her fellow actor's performance. As Apostolidès observes, “At court one acknowledges the other to the degree that the other is recognized as a likeness which reflects one's own image.”9 To be is to see oneself duplicated ceaselessly through a complex code of speech, gesture, manner (air), mask, and costume which Dona Elvira's society, in an unconscious stroke of irony, called honnêteté.

It is thus principally etiquette rather than morality which drives the characters of Dom Juan. The system of co-performers who enact mirroring identities within the centered and privileged space of court and stage provides a place for actors to play a repeatable fable of aristocratic identity. This fable consists of the narration of events in the past and, in the process, the evocation of the self who participated in them. What Dona Elvira asks of Don Juan, then, is not explanation or repentance but participation in a scene which can represent their love either in a present or past form. Indeed, what is important is not the continued existence of the love itself but its continued representation.

Consequently, Dona Elvira narrates a tableau from the past, the familiar tragic one of the blinding of reason by passion, which she presents as the originating source of the present scene she is playing with Don Juan:

J'ai été assez bonne, je le confesse, ou plutôt assez sotte pour me vouloir tromper moi-même, et travailler à démentir mes yeux et mon jugement. J'ai cherché des raisons pour excuser à ma tendresse le relâchement d'amitié qu'elle voyait en vous; et je me suis forgé cent sujets légitimes d'un départ si précipité, pour vous justifier d'un crime dont ma raison vous accusoit. … et j'écoutois avec plaisir milles chimères ridicules qui vous peignoit innocent à mon coeur. (I.iii.723)

(I was soft-hearted, or rather, I admit it, simple enough to lie to myself, and to deny what my eyes and judgment told me. I looked for reasons that would explain your cooling towards me. I made up a hundred convincing explanations for your sudden departure in order to defend you against the crime that my reason accused you of … and I took pleasure in entertaining a thousand ridiculous fantasies which convinced my heart of your innocence.)

It is clear that Dona Elvira wants the vividness of this evocative account to influence Don Juan's playing in the scene, for as we have seen it is precisely those raisons, those sujets légitimes, those chimères ridicules which she prompts him to recite when she accuses him later of not knowing his lines—i.e., of not knowing the language of the court. Thus the evocation of a powerful scene from the past is designed to be the justifying premise, the emotive origin, of a scripted present behavior which is fundamentally theatrical and based on image and representation rather than the real.

Dona Elvira's tale of her struggle with herself is more appropriate to tragic declamation than it is to comic speech. Moreover, the way she draws upon the past to move Don Juan seems to anticipate the triumph at court of the erotic rather than heroic tragedy which will be dominated by Racine.10 Such tragedy was increasingly preoccupied with the question of seduction, in particular with the seductive power of the tragic protagonist to transfix and immobilize the other, and its structure was built around a series of encounters within framed settings. These encounters take the form of a scene which Roland Barthes claims functions as a véritable fantasme, a dream image subject to a “protocol of repetition” by which the protagonist can relive a significant instant.11 Within such a tableau, the character's tirade, delivered in recitative, assumes an hypnotic function, and serves, as Barthes observes, “to restore the stillness of the power relationship.”12

Nowhere is the erotic basis of Dona Elvira's “tragic” performance more evident than in her second appearance on stage in Act IV. Although she has returned ostensibly to urge Don Juan to repent, she soon makes indirectly, in yet another narration, a declaration of love whose erotic character she barely conceals: “Je vous ai aimé avec une tendresse extrème, rien au monde ne m'a été si cher que vous; J'ai oublié mon devoir pour vous, j'ai fait toutes choses pour vous …” (“I loved you deeply; nothing in the world was as dear to me as you; I forgot my duty for you, I gave everything to you”) ( A repetitive structure of verbs in the passé composé has a hypnotic effect both on the speaker and the listener. Indeed, it is to the erotic subtext which is present throughout the scene and which is expressed theatrically through Dona Elvira's costume (habit négligé) and performance manner (air) that Don Juan responds when he invites her to stay the night. As he explains to Sganarelle: “Sais-tu que … j'ai trouvé de l'agrément dans cette nouveauté bizarre, et que son habit négligé, son air languissant et ses larmes ont réveillé en moi quelques petits restes d'un feu éteint?” (“Do you realize that … I found something pleasing in that strange new style and that her disordered dress, pining manner, and tears reignited the last cinders of my passion?”) (IV.vii.766) As Don Juan suggests, Elvira's attempt to convert him is thwarted by the seductive ambiguity of her theatrical performance. Dona Elvira reveals this in her final appeal to Don Juan when she says, “Je vous en conjure par tout ce qui est capable de vous toucher” (“I beg you in the name of everything which is capable of touching you”) (

However, if we can attribute a subtext of seduction to Dona Elvira, we must see it in terms of the play's particular view that erotic power is inseparable from the social power to control a subject's placement in culture. Seduction is pandemic in Dom Juan because Molière sees that its fundamental model is embodied in court performance. Molière has in fact significantly altered the Don Juan legend in which Juan alone is seen as seducer. In Molière's play, all the characters are engaged in some form of seduction.

Don Louis' visit to his son in Act IV thus bears some curious resemblance to the encouters between Dona Elvira and Don Juan. This scene also is a duet in which a representative of the court tries to subject Don Juan to the authority of his discourse. Like Dona Elvira, Don Louis tries to re-center Don Juan within the courtly mise en scène by using tragic recitative to conjure a scene from the past. Although Don Louis relies on the power of a biblical tale told with patriarchal eloquence rather than an evocation of past love to make of Don Juan a passive and receptive listener, his address to his son is nevertheless filled with a passionate vocabulary which bears a striking resemblance to Dona Elvira's: “J'ai souhaité un fils avec des ardeurs non pareilles; je l'ai demandé sans relâche avec des transports incroyables …” (“I longed for a son with unequalled ardor; I repeatedly asked for one in a state of indescribable ecstasy …”) (IV.iv.762; italics mine). In this case, however, as the conclusion of his apostrophe to his son makes clear, Don Louis explicitly addresses an anxiety to which Dona Elvira only indirectly alludes. There is a catastrophic break in the causal continuity of events; the son which Don Louis gets is revealed to be not the one he had prayed for: “et ce fils que j'obtiens en fatiguant le ciel de voeux, est le chagrin et le supplice de cette vie dont je croyois qu'il devoit être la joie et la consolation” (“and this son which I get by wearying heaven with my entreaties turns out to be the sorrow and the burden of that very life to which I hoped he would bring joy and consolation”) (IV.iv.762). The unbearable possibility for the courtier that the past, present, and future may not be linked intensifies the father's insistence that his son follow the example of his ancestors, that he affirm his present worth by imitating an idealized, narratable past which may be as much mythical as historical.

The key is to repeat its image: Don Louis says, “Aussi nous n'avons part à la gloire de nos ancêtres qu'autant que nous nous efforçons de leur ressembler” (“Therefore, we only partake of the glory of our ancestors to the extent that we strive to resemble them”) (IV.iv.763). Don Juan's refusal to imitate a model which has been inscribed into the social fabric is the source of Don Louis' reproaches to his son. Significantly, Don Louis refers to “cet amas d'actions indignes” (“this accumulation of unspeakable deeds”) as possessing a “mauvais visage” (“an evil mien”) as if it is the face that his son presents to the world which is at the core of his crimes. The outraged father's reproach to Don Juan resembles the reproach of the outraged wife in the following respect: Juan does not resemble the perfect courtier who is the model of court identity either as scripted role or as idealized ancestor. His refusal to enter into the court system of imitation and mirroring identities thus jeopardizes the aristocratic performance of idealized space and time.

Dona Elvira and Don Louis rely on the mesmerizing power of staged tableaux designed to transform the characters into entranced spectators of the frozen image of their own place within court culture. In her account of recent studies of “theater states” by Gertz and others, Aletta Biersack speaks of “actors [who] are instances of a type, members of societal segments, structurally positioned.” Elsewhere in her essay she observes that members of such closed cultural structures act as “cultural types rather than as individuals. Their practices are thus structurally situated, relationally positioned.”13 The same could be said of Dona Elvira and Don Louis. That is, what they do and say is determined by their position and status as members of the court, defined as a theatricalized social field which controls the representation of space and time by substituting the effigy, the mask, and the costume for the person. It is for this reason that these characters, like actors on the tragic stage, behave as statues. Their stillness is the principal theatrical and social expression of an unchanging identity which is impervious to time. As depicted in Dom Juan, court society consists of an ensemble of statue-actors who have the ability to arrange themselves in hypnotic tableaux of power which they can repeat indefinitely as they play the double role of character and spectator, viewed object and viewing subject. As Lévi-Strauss observes, “A universe constructed as a closed system results in each of its members offering his own image as example while reflecting those of the others.”14

Dona Elvira and Don Louis both call upon the court's authority to legitimize aristocratic identity in their attempt to control Don Juan. Don Louis in particular tries to threaten Don Juan with banishment from his class. Thus, threatening his son with his own ancestors, he claims that the light shed by their illustrious deeds will expose and dishonor the miscreant before the entire world: “tout ce qu'ils ont fait d'illustre ne vous donne aucun avantage; au contraire, l'éclat n'en rejaillit sur vous qu'à votre déshonneur, et leur gloire est un flambeau qui éclaire aux yeux d'un chacun la honte de vos actions” (“you will derive no advantage from their illustrious deeds; on the contrary, their lustre only redounds to your dishonor, and their glory is a torch which illuminates for everyone your shameful behavior”) (IV.iv.763). We may find an explanation for Don Louis' threats in Elias' analysis of the court's policing of its members: “Lorsqu'une bonne société de ce genre refusait à un de ses membres le titre de ‘membre,’ il perdait son ‘honneur’ et avec lui un élément intégrant de son identité personnel” (“When an exclusive society such as this refused to give to one of its members the title of ‘member,’ he lost his ‘honor’ and, along with it, an integral part of his personal identity”).15 Don Louis and Dona Elvira draw their power from their ability to cast the other out of the group—that is, out of the mirror, off the stage. For them to exist is to be perceived, and to be perceived they must remain within the performance space. At court, one can never stop playing. William Levitan has observed that “Once within the formally self-contained world of Racinian drama, we cannot easily get out. Its motivation appears self-evident and closed to question, its sufficiency hardly in doubt.”16 The space outside of the place of performance is, as Barthes has argued, a negative space, a sort of anti-scene of danger, even death. Implicit in this ideal of performance is the idea that there is no existence worth considering outside of the framed space of baroque court representation.17 The courtier-performer might well share in Hamm's warning to Clov: “Outside of here it's death.”

Don Louis' threats, however, have no effect on his son, for it is precisely the outside that Don Juan seeks. It is Don Juan's refusal to remain within the mise en scène of his adversaries, his continual movement outside the frame which constitutes his most significant violation of the rules of the game. For Don Juan, remaining within a scene for too long is to be trapped. Throughout the play, he alludes repeatedly to his search for borders, margins, settings on the periphery. His ideal is constant movement and change. A key to his actions is his affirmation that no one will keep him bound for very long: “Quoi? tu veux qu'on se lie à demeurer au premier objet qui nous prend, qu'on renonce au monde pour lui, et qu'on n'ait plus d'yeux pour personne?” (“What! Do you want us to tie ourselves down to the first thing that captures our attention, that we retire from the world and never look at anyone else?”) On the contrary, for him, “tout le plaisir de l'amour est dans le changement” (“all the joys of love are to be found in change”) (I.ii.719). Change, for Don Juan, is primarily a matter of place as he makes clear when he compares his seductions to the conquests of Alexander: “J'ai sur ce sujet l'ambition des conquérants, qui volent perpetuellement de victoire en victoire, et ne peuvent se résoudre à borner leur souhaits. Il n'est rien qui puisse arrêter l'impétuosité de mes désirs: je me sens un coeur à aimer toute la terre; et comme Alexandre, je souhaitrois qu'il y eût d'autres mondes, pour y étendre mes conquêtes amoureuses” (“My ambitions in this matter rival those of the conquerors who dash from victory to victory and who cannot bear to limit their wants. Nothing can brake the impetuosity of my desires: I have a heart which is capable of loving the entire earth, and, like Alexander, I wish there were other worlds to which I could extend my amorous conquests”) (I.ii.719-20). Before dismissing this as solely the rodomontade of a scoundrel, we would do well to be attentive to the spatial terms in which it is cast. Against an established ideal of being bound within a unified space (demeurer, arrêter, borner) Don Juan opposes a counter model which privileges swift movement from place to place (volent, étendre, autres mondes). His libertinage is a reflection of the mentality of the colonists, explorers, traders, and adventurers of the times. Sganarelle defines what might indeed be called wanderlust when he describes Don Juan's heart as “le plus grand coureur du monde; il se plaît à se promener de liens en liens, et n'aime guère demeurer en place” (“the greatest wanderer in the world; it loves to go from place to place and hates to stay in one spot”) (I.i.718). Don Juan's desire emphasizes flight, change, and openness. In Act III he explains his waywardness to Sganarelle in specifically spatial terms: “je ne saurois me résoudre à renfermer mon coeur entre quatre murailles” (“I could never shut my heart up within four walls”) (III.v.753). It is precisely this need for movement and flight that Dona Elvira recognizes in her curious use of “crime,” “trahaison,” and “départ si précipité” (I.iii.723) as synonyms.

It is this “départ si précipité” that defines the second major spatial pattern in the play which is organized around the Don's frequent and often unexpected exits. These exits are the occasion for a set of subversive theatrical operations organized around spatial and temporal displacement. The signifying link between Juan's departures and the play's multiple sets is inscribed in a pattern created by the endings of the first three acts and the beginnings of each subsequent act. In each of the acts' endings, there is an exchange between Don Juan and Sganarelle in which Don Juan begins his line with an “allons”—suggesting a rapid exit—and Sganarelle makes a reply that contains a reference to his master which would not be said if Don Juan were still on stage.

Dom Juan: Allons songer à l'exécution de notre entreprise amoureuse.

Sganarelle: Ah! quel abominable maître me vois-je obligé de servir. (I.iii.726)

(Don Juan: Come on, let's start thinking about our amorous expedition.

Sganarelle: Ah! What a vile master I have got to serve.)

Dom Juan: Allons vite, c'est trop d'honneur que je vous fais, et bien heureux est le valet qui peut avoir la gloire de mourir pour son maître.

Sganarelle: Je vous remercie d'un tel honneur. O Ciel, puisqu'il s'agit de mort, fais-moi la grâce de n'être point pris pour un autre. (II.v.742.)

(Don Juan: Come along! Quickly now! You should appreciate the honor I am bestowing on you. Not every valet gets to die gloriously for his master.

Sganarelle: Thanks so much for the favor. Oh, God, if I must die let it not be because I was mistaken for someone else.)

Dom Juan: Allons, sortons d'ici.

Sganarelle: Voilà de mes esprits forts qui ne veulent rien croire. (III.v.756.)

(Don Juan: Come along! Let's get out of this place.

Sganarelle: So much for the smart ones who never believe in anything.)

In each of the acts the concluding image is that of a stage empty except for Sganarelle who, once he realizes he is alone, scurries comically to catch up with his master. The swift exit of Don Juan which leaves Sganarelle behind suggests that Don Juan is indeed faster than the play itself. It is as if the play and everyone in it must hurry between acts to catch up with the protagonist.

In contrast to the characters of classical tragedy who submit to the seductive fixity of the proscenium frame, Don Juan retains the freedom to disappear and to reappear in an entirely new and different space. The play's structure then as it moves from act to act is one of disjuncture and dislocation. Once Don Juan exits from a particular location, that setting is lost and there can be no return to it. His exits at the end of the act are the occasion of a radical change of world which is represented by the completely unrelated setting that begins the next act. The change of scenes between Acts I and II is the most striking and may serve as a model for the movement of the play from act to act. We shift from the courtyard of a palace to a sea coast, a space which is the antithesis of court space since it is the incarnation of a breaking point, the border between zones of radical difference, land and sea. Moreover the references to the sea suggest that immediately offstage begins a realm that is other, a realm that is a denial of the microcosm represented by the system of etiquette and positioning at court. For the sea is the setting of Pierrot's récit in which he tells Charlotte the story of Don Juan's shipwreck. This récit is a rustic parody of—and antithesis to—the elevated recitative of Dona Elvira, and Pierrot's patois indicates from the very start of Act II that the high ground that Elvira sought to occupy in the first act is gone. The codes and conventions of performance have changed, as the rustic comedy of Don Juan's attempted seduction of the two peasant girls, Charlotte and Mathurine, demonstrates. Moreover, even when it returns with Don Carlos, Don Alonso, and Don Louis, the refined language of the court is not the only discourse which will prevail in the play.

If we follow the pattern of displacement and dislocation in the play, we may view Don Juan's references to movement as something more than the use of a familiar metaphor to defend his desire and justify his seductions. Rather, his seductions now appear as an essential component of his subversive practice of breaking out of the borders of court self-representation while forcing others to follow him into uncharted space. Don Juan's practice of seduction is opposite to that embodied by court society in which the object of the seduction is immobilized within the frame of cultural performance. Juan's form of seduction, on the contrary, involves a displacement, suggested by the word enlèvement, a carrying of the person out of privileged space. Seduction for Don Juan means forcing the other, woman or man, to move, lifting her or him out of a setting. Dona Elvira is taken from the walls of a convent while Mathurine and Charlotte are tempted to move out of their rustic milieu, out of their culture, just as Monsieur Dimanche is taken out of his setting as “merchant collecting a bill” and recast in the setting of “friend invited to dinner.” Thus the opposing terms of seduction in the play, immobilizing the other within the frame of cultural identity, or dislocating and resituating the other in unfamiliar space, are part of the opposing patterns of fixed tableaux versus movement, change, and spatial dislocation that organize the play.

The characters' dislocation is also reflected throughout by the play's remarkably complex and problematic geography. All through Dom Juan there is a preoccupation with paths, destinations, and their opposite, new and unfamiliar places in which characters can lose their way. In this sense, Act III is the unmappable center of the play, where all the characters, including Juan himself, are lost:

Dom Juan: Mais tout en raisonnant, je crois que nous sommes égarés. (III.i.746)

(Don Juan: Well, while we were arguing I think we got lost.)

Dom Carlos: Je m'étois par hasard égaré d'un frère et de tous ceux de notre suite. (III.iii.748)

(Don Carlos: I had, by accident, lost track of my brother and of our entire entourage.)

In Act III, the dislocated, lost characters of Dom Juan find themselves in an unchartable space where established social codes and the examples of the past no longer function as a map of self-definition. It is a space which Phillipe Perrot has identified as being the opposite of the unified, homogenous space of the court and which he calls “the tumultuous wandering world of the great feudal lords.”18 It is a dangerous and ungovernable world where rocky coasts upon which ships can wreck and men drown abut dark forests within which bewildered travelers are prey to bandits. As Le Pauvre warns, “Mais je vous donne avis que vous devez vous tenir sur vos gardes, et que depuis quelque temps il y a des voleurs ici autour” (“But let me warn you that you had better be on your guard because for some time there have been bandits around here”) (III.ii.746). Here any lingering notions we may have about explaining the multiple settings of the play solely in terms of Molière's dutiful following of a pastoral or tragicomic tradition should be dispelled. For we are not dealing with the tamed, attenuated, garden-like countryside of the Pastoral but with true wilderness, a realm which is threatening because it is both unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Spatial dislocation leads to breaks in time in which neither traditional codes nor past events indicate the course of future behavior. This is the dilemma of Don Carlos and Don Alonso, Dona Elvira's two brothers, who were united in the common family quest of righting the wrong done to their sister, a quest which should mark out clearly the path of their future behavior. Now, because of his chance encounter with Don Juan while lost in the forest which results in his owing his life to his enemy, Don Carlos is cast in the improbable and unexpected role of Don Juan's defender and is forced to be his brother's adversary. Don Carlos thus embodies the temporal dilemma of the dislocated character in Dom Juan, for he now has two pasts upon which to draw—the one in which Don Juan has wronged his sister and the one in which he has saved his life. Instead of a continuous temporal duration in which past, present, and future are linked in a unity of dramatic action, Dom Juan presents us with a series of flukes, chance events, in which the future is unpredictable because the past has lost its unity. Don Alonso recognizes this dilemma when he says to his brother, “c'est hasarder notre vengeance de la reculer et l'occasion de la prendre peut ne plus revenir” (“we risk jeopardizing our revenge if we put it off and the chance may not come our way again”) (III.iv.751). Straying from the path, losing one's bearings, is a spatial form of the dilemma of losing one's identity and thus falling into unconstructed history—history the individual subject is incapable of determining.

The third act of Dom Juan thus reinserts the courtier into a world of ungovernable space and time that court performance seeks to mask, and it is this anti-court space and time which the play's ambivalent and problematical ending affirms. The play's conclusion resumes the two dramaturgical patterns I have traced, and its artificiality and excessive theatricality provide an ultimately ironic and subversive resonance to the drama's final events. To begin with, it is particularly significant, given Dona Elvira's and Don Louis' efforts to control Don Juan throughout the play, that it is the Statue of the Commander who succeeds where they fail. For the Commander is the perfected model of what the other aristocratic characters aspire to be, the animated statue, the subject perfectly transformed into signifying effigy, a monument to his own, now narrativized past. Everything in the play thus ironically points to him as the perfect character to play with Don Juan the quintessentially theatricalized and morally conventional tableau of the damnation of the libertine.

The Statue thus appears on one level to be the avenger who puts an end to the series of escapes we have seen throughout the play. He appears for the final scene just as Don Juan orders Sganarelle to follow him:

Dom Juan: Allons, suis-moi.

La Statue: Arrêtez, Dom Juan. (V.v-vi.776.)

(Don Juan: Come on, follow me.

The Statue: Stop! Don Juan.)

The exchange is a reprise of the fundamental opposition between flight and stillness which organizes the play. Here, the Statue's “arrêtez” seems to break the pattern of exits established by Juan's frequently repeated “allons.” Don Juan is stopped at the very moment of his exit; this time he will remain forever in the Statue's grasp, imprisoned within the frame of a moral and ideologically acceptable dramatic resolution.

Yet, it is the very pattern of exits established earlier in the play which suggests that Don Juan's exit is not prevented, only momentarily deferred. In theatrical terms it takes place an instant later in the form of Juan's disappearance through the stage trap. If we view Don Juan's damnation as an exit, then his established tendency to break out of the frame of court representation is once again affirmed. Theater is turned against itself as the artifice of stage machinery becomes the means of escaping from the enclosed space of performance. What on one level is perceived as a conventionally moral ending functions on the level of self-referential theater as a quintessentially spectacular exit, the last of a triumphantly ironic series, by which Don Juan leaves behind, once and for all, the confining world of the court's social theater. Moreover, it is significant that this final exit follows exactly the pattern established in the first three acts according to which Sganarelle is left behind on an empty stage.

The concluding picture of Sganarelle left alone on stage as he was at the end of the first three acts inscribes the concluding scene's subversive ambiguity. His cry for his wages (“mes gages”) points clearly not only to Don Juan's absence but also to the irrevocable emptiness of the stage. It is little wonder that Molière's audience found that the servant's farcical lament, with its emphasis on wages unpaid and obligations unmet, was scandalously inappropriate to the moral “solemnity” of the moment. Instead of the reassuring stage picture of statue-like tragic actors declaiming in a fixed tableau, Dom Juan's ending leaves us with a final image of a clown running about an empty stage looking vainly for a master and a vanished world. With Sganarelle alone and crying for his wages there is nothing left for the courtier to imitate or repeat.

Dom Juan thus challenges court society as a corps of players who perform within a framed mise en scène where imitation and repetition transform aristocratic history into a chronicle of permanence. History perceived spatially as fixed tableau denies an alternative view which acknowledges the power of time to disrupt and dislocate constructions of culture and class. It is this second historical sense which Dom Juan, with its structure of flight and escape from enclosed stages, its sense of France as open, and finally empty wilderness, reflects. In Dom Juan, a clown is left to point to an empty stage which reveals the abyss of time hidden behind the masquerade of court performance. For Molière, the complex dramaturgical practice of at the same time creating and exposing the illusions of theater remains the most potent weapon against a world of illusion.


  1. Norbert Elias, La Société de cour, trans. Pierre Kamnintzer (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1974), pp. 18-19. All translations of quotations from French are mine.

  2. Ibid., p. 9.

  3. Jean-Marie Apostolidès, Le Roi-Machine: Spectacle et politique au temps de Louis XIV (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1981), p. 53.

  4. I use both ‘recitative’ and tirade to emphasize that in the seventeenth century the tragic declamation of long passages was closer to chant than it was to speech. Jacques Scherer comments on the remarkable number of tirades in Dom Juan: “There certainly are a great many long speeches for such an animated play” (Sur le Dom Juan de Molière [Paris: SEDES, 1967], p. 66). Scherer contrasts the long speeches with the rapid, staccato dialogue which also abounds in the play. This is the verbal equivalent of the tensional relation between stillness and movement which I trace.

  5. Jacques Guicharnaud notes that the Bray-Scherer edition of Dom Juan alludes to the program of a company touring the provinces around 1670 which describes the set for the fifth act as “a theater with statues for as far as the eye can see” (Molière: une aventure théâtrale [Paris: Gallimard, 1963], p. 294n).

  6. Shoshana Felman has a similar view when she points out that traditional criticism which sees the multiple settings as disconnected and, therefore, evidence of a lack of structure “fails to see that in this play, breaks constitute, paradoxically, the connecting principle itself” (The Literary Speech Act: Don Juan, or Seduction in Two Languages [Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1983], pp. 45-46).

  7. Fernand Braudel describes “la France ancienne” (which he traces well into the nineteenth century) as follows: “To our way of seeing, old France is a space which is difficult to master because it is too vast, difficult to cross, difficult to watch over” (L'Identité de la France: Espace et Histoire [Paris: Arthaud-Flammarion, 1986], p. 97; italics mine).

  8. References to Dom Juan in this paper are to Molière, Oeuvres complètes, ed. Robert Jouanny (Paris: Garnier, 1962), Vol. I.

  9. Apostolidès, Le Roi-Machine, p. 54.

  10. Robert Jouanny observes in his introduction to the play that Dona Elvira resembles “une amante racinienne” (Oeuvres complètes, I, 710).

  11. Roland Barthes, Sur Racine (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1963), p. 29.

  12. Ibid., p. 43.

  13. Aletta Biersack, “Local Knowledge, Local History: Gertz and Beyond,” in The New Cultural History, ed. Lynn Hunt (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1989), pp. 87, 90.

  14. Claude Lévi-Strauss, La Portière jalouse (Paris: Plon, 1985), p. 152.

  15. Elias, La Société de cour, p. 86. On this point, I agree with Lionel Gossman who finds it hard to conceive of anyone finding anything “revolutionary” in the “banalities” of Don Louis (Men and Masks: A Study of Molière [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1963], p. 17).

  16. William Levitan, “Seneca in Racine,” Yale French Studies, 76 (1989), 193.

  17. Barthes, Sur Racine, pp. 17-20.

  18. Phillipe Perrot, Le Travail des apparences ou les transformations du corps féminin XVIIIe-XIXe siècle (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1984), p. 35.

I am very grateful to Michèle L. Farrell for her comments on earlier versions of this essay.

Dorothy F. Jones (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2055

SOURCE: “Love and Friendship in Le Misanthrope,” in Romance Notes, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, Winter, 1982, pp. 164-69.

[In the following essay, Jones explores the polarities of the characters in Molière's Le Misanthrope.]

Two fundamental contrasts strike the audience of Le Misanthrope: the contrast between Alceste and Célimène, and the contrast between Alceste and Philinte. Critics have been sensitive to the psychological, philosophical, and theatrical value of these polarities. “Alceste est l'exacte antithèse de Célimène,”1 declares Jean Mesnard, while Jacques Guicharnaud defines the hero and his love as “deux univers soumis à quelque attraction réciproque, mais dont les éléments imcompatibles ne parviennent à aucun moment à fusionner.”2 Guicharnaud suggests that Célimène's dramatic function is to “s'opposer point par point à Alceste sur le plan de l'amour, comme Philinte … sur le plan de l'amitié …” (p. 396).

Philinte, indeed, has been viewed almost exclusively as a foil to Alceste. “Rien ne fait paraître davantage une chose que celle qui lui est opposée,”3 declared Donneau de Visé of the hero and his friend, in our earliest analysis of the play. Few critics since then have been able to resist taking sides is such a meeting of opposites. Gustave Michaut, in a lengthy ironic footnote, lists the crowd, from Rousseau on, who have opted either for intransigant Alceste or for accommodating Philinte.4 Modern scholars, more sensitive since René Bray and W. G. Moore5 to the purely theatrical value of this opposition, have remained equally impressed by it. “Le centre du drame, c'est le ‘non’ qu'Alceste oppose à Philinte” (pp. 380-381), says Guicharnaud, in discussing Act I, scene 2.

Less attention has been paid, however, not to what separates Alceste and Philinte but to the friendship that unites them. Some critics would claim that Philinte, “ce lymphatique et tiède personnage,”6 is incapable of friendship, that his philosophical detachment cuts him off from human contact as effectively as Alceste's misanthropy. “Alceste hait les hommes, Célimène les méprise, Philinte s'en désintéresse” (p. 75), says Marcel Gutwirth. For the most part, however, spectators have been less severe. We simply tend to take the relationship between the pair for granted. Typically, Jean Mesnard, who discusses perceptively the extent to which friendship within the play is limited by self-interest and the desire to please, concludes: “Sans doute l'amitié de Philinte pour Alceste n'est-elle pas suspecte; mais Molière ne l'analyse pas: c'est une simple donnée de la pièce” (p. 871).

I suggest, on the contrary, that a proper acknowledgment of the relationship between Philinte and Alceste is crucial to our understanding of Le Misanthrope. Three critics in particular have taken steps in this direction. René Jasinski is impressed by Philinte's friendship for Alceste which he sees as one of those virtues that make him Molière's ideal. “On ne saurait trouver plus parfait ami,” he declares, arguing that “il faut que nous ayons été déviés par une longue tradition d'outrances déclamatoires pour que l'on sente en général si peu la qualité d'un tel dévouement.”7

Merlin Thomas is concerned not with Philinte's ideological rôle but with his effectiveness as a character on stage. He sees in Philinte's allusion to L'École des maris (v. 100) evidence that these “deux frères” are childhood friends, and argues from his experience as a director that “the first thing for the actor playing Philinte to establish is his relationship with Alceste. They are friends—in so far as Alceste is capable of friendship. From start to finish of the play Philinte does his best for Alceste. … And Alceste cannot do without Philinte.”8

The relationship between Philinte and Alceste is brought into sharpest focus in a statement by Louis Jouvet. Advising his students on the interpretation of Act I, scene I, Jouvet insists:

Dis-toi que, Alceste et Philinte, ce sont deux amis (chose qu'on ne montre jamais dans aucune représentation de la pièce d'ailleurs), mais toute la pièce repose sur cette amitié. L'étonnant, c'est l'histoire de ces deux amis, Pylade et Oreste, qui sont tombés dans le salon de Célimène. De ces deux amis, l'un est plus intelligent que l'autre dans la connaissance du monde et de la vie sociale et aperçoit très nettement les dangers que court l'autre, Alceste, tandis que celui-ci se dit: ce sont des dangers, entendu, mais j'aime suffisamment cette femme pour la ramener à des sentiments différents. Le Misanthrope, c'est d'abord ce drame-là.9

The particular merit of Jouvert's statement is to remind us that Alceste is after all involved in two relationships, not only eros but philia. The contrast between love and friendship is a common theme in 17th-century literature. One thinks, for example, of La Bruyère's tireless efforts to distinguish between amour and amitié in “Du Cœur.” This distinction is implicit in Le Misanthrope and constitutes, I believe, a third contrast useful to our understanding of the play. The relation between Philinte and Alceste is in ironic opposition to the relation between Alceste and Célimène.

It is easy to see the quality of Alceste's love for Célimène as Racinian, as Jacques Guicharnaud for example has also already noted (p. 448). Egocentric, irrational, demanding, the force which pushes Alceste towards Célimène is as destructive as the passion that hounds Oreste. Erotic love leads Alceste to betray his truest self: “Efforcezvous ici de paraître fidèle,” begs this champion of sincerity. “Et je m'efforcerai, moi, de vous croire telle” (v. 1389-1390). Even fulfilled, this love would not lead Alceste to authentic contact with others, only to a kind of idolatrous solitude à deux. “Que doit vous importer tout le reste du monde?” he aks Célimène (v. 1772), insisting that love means she be ready to “trouver tout en moi, comme moi tout en vous” (v. 1782). Alceste will not be saved from his misanthropy by his love for Célimène, and the most casual observer can see that the couple would be miserable together. The comic perspective of Molière's play should not blind us to the fact that erotic love, in the case of his hero, is presented as an essentially negative force.

The relationship with Philinte, on the other hand, offers Alceste the possibility for a truly redemptive contact with another human being. The friendship of this second couple is characterized by many of the qualities Alceste demands in human relations, most notably sincerity and authenticity. With Philinte, Alceste can be himself, as his constant explosions of ill humour testify, and with Alceste, Philinte abandons those “dehors civils” (v. 66) he claims are necessary for dealing with other people. Alceste's dream that “en toute rencontre / Le fond de notre cœur dans nos discours se montre” (v. 69-70) is in fact fulfilled when he and Philinte are together.

Philinte shows in his dealings with Alceste none of that flegmatic detachment which so irritated Rousseau10 and which Philinte's own theories of social behaviour might lead us to expect. He intervenes constantly and bluntly to criticize in Alceste those faults he sees as harmful to his friend, and his physical pursuit of Alceste—“Je ne vous quitte pas” (v. 446)—from beginning to end of the play is the sign of his loving involvement.

Furthermore, friendship with Philinte opens the way to friendship with others. Alceste's love for Célimène merely drives him further into isolation as he seeks to retreat with her behind the wall of his misanthropy. His relationship with Philinte, on the contrary, moves him towards other people, not away from them. Philinte tries constantly to help his friend keep his place in the society that represents, whatever else, the sole opportunity for contact with fellow humans. His “faisons un peu grâce à la nature humaine” (v. 146) is not a mere lecture on social conformity; it is part of a loving campaign to keep his friend in touch with other people. His offer to sacrifice his own love for Eliante is his attempt, on the deepest level of generosity, to bring Alceste out of solitude into a relationship with another human being.

In theory Alceste himself is well aware of the distinction between erotic love and friendship. He sees his feelings for Célimène as irrational—“la raison n'est pas ce qui règle l'amour” (v. 248)—even as an “indigne tendresse” (v. 1751). Friendship on the other hand is a freely chosen relationship between equals: “Avec lumière et choix cette union veut naître” (v. 281), he tells Oronte. In fact, however, he is unable to recognize the difference. He brings to his own friendship with Philinte the same jealousy and desire for exclusiveness that mark his relationship with Célimène; and he is, saddest of all, unable to appreciate the special quality of the love that Philinte offers him.

It is fruitful to examine the dénouement of Le Misanthrope with these thoughts in mind. Alceste, like his Racinian counterpart, fails to capture and possess the one he loves, despite the help of his friend. Oreste, in the face of this failure, withdraws into madness and Alceste also prepares to reject reality—the world of social intercourse—to flee to the private désert of his dreams. This is a serious retreat, albeit foreshadowed from the play's beginning. Alceste abandons the possibility of erotic love—“Non, mon cœur à présent vous déteste” (v. 1779)—not only the amour-passion of his relationship with Célimène, but a potential amour-estime with Eliante. He breaks the network of ties, however superficial and frivolous, that bind him to the society of Célimène's salon, a charmed circle in which with all his brusqueness he had a place.

The true importance of this break is his rejection of Philinte's friendship. One by one the characters leave the stage—“C'est la fuite devant le dénouement qui en manifeste la tristesse,” says Jacques Scherer (cited in Bray, p. 271), but the hero is not left alone: Eliante and Philinte do not join the general exodus. It is Alceste who, blind to the love they offer him, announces that he is “trahi de toutes parts” (v. 1803), turns his back on his friends and exits. It matters little whether, as Lionel Gossman argues, Alceste actually desires to be pursued.11 The retreat dramatizes his basic inability to respond fully to friendship, to enter freely into authentic relationship with another human being.

The initiative remains with Philinte. Like Pylade, he rushes to the rescue of the disappointed lover, continuing the same affectionate pursuit of his friend with which he opened the play, and this at a moment when the fulfillment of his own desires with Eliante might well have led him into the more closed and exclusive world of eros. The love he shares with Eliante takes its place, however, within the generous framework of their mutual friendship for Alceste. The relationship of this third couple thus leaves to friendship the privileged position, in relation to erotic love, it holds throughout the play. Philia, in accordance with a long tradition, remains in Le Misanthrope the highest form of human love; and it is Alceste's rejection of this love which is the truest measure of his misanthropy. For charity, the love that enables humans to love each other as God loves them, there is no room in the secular universe of Molière's play.


  1. Le Misanthrope: mise en question de l'art de plaire,” Revue d'histoire littéraire (Sept.-Déc. 1972), p. 873.

  2. Molière: une aventure théâtrale (Paris: Gallimard, 1963), p. 453.

  3. Lettre écrite sur la comédie duMisanthrope.

  4. Les Luttes de Molière (Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1968. Rpt. edit. Paris 1922-25), pp. 208-209.

  5. Molière: homme de théâtre (Paris: Mercure de France, 1954) and Molière, a new criticism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962, lst edit. 1949).

  6. Marcel Gutwirth, Molière ou l'invention comique (Paris: Minard, 1966), p. 164.

  7. LeMisanthropede Molière (Paris: A. Colin, 1951), p. 196 and p. 198.

  8. “Philinte and Eliante,” in W. D. Howarth and M. Thomas, Molière: Stage and Study (Oxford: Clarendon, 1973), p. 74. Thomas also makes a convincing case for the love between Philinte and Eliante.

  9. Molière et la comédie classique. Coll. Pratique du théâtre (Paris: Gallimard, 1965), p. 13.

  10. Lettre à M. d'Alembert sur les spectacles.

  11. Men and Masks: A Study of Molière (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1963), p. 83.

Patricia Francis Cholakian (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4865

SOURCE: “The ‘Women Question’ in Molière's Misanthrope,” in The French Review, Vol. LVIII, No. 4, March, 1985, pp. 524-32.

[In the following essay, Cholakian contends that Molière's Le Misanthrope's underlying presumption is that women camouflage their true selves in order to become what men desire.]

Molière's theater is generally seen as profeminist because it champions the cause of ingénues, like Agnès in L'Ecole des femmes, against the tyrannical power of an older male who seeks to prevent them from exercising their “natural” right in the choice of a mate.1

On the other hand Les Précieuses ridicules and Les Femmes savantes have often been considered anti-feminist because they ridicule women who seek to break away from the role assigned to them within marriage and the family and to invade the male world of words and ideas (speaking and knowing).2 According to Bénichou, Molière thus confines women to the feminine domain of feeling, which he calls “l'accomplissement dans l'amour” or self-realization through love. Molière may be said, therefore, to favor woman's desire to follow the dictates of her emotions, so long as she does not challenge the superiority of men in the domain of the “word.”3

This analysis does not seem to apply, however, to Molière's most elusive masterpiece, Le Misanthrope, for in it he portrays neither a harassed ingénue nor a pretentious blue-stocking. When, however, one asks how this play treats the “woman question,” one realizes that its entire argument is based on the presupposition that women define their worth as individuals in terms of masculine admiration, whereas men possess an innate sense of their own superiority. This presupposition in turn determines the same sex and male/female relationships within the play. In other words, one finds here a substantiation of the Lacanian theory that women mask themselves in order to become what men desire: “C'est pour ce qu'elle [la femme] n'est pas qu'elle entend être désirée en même temps qu'aimée.”4 Furthermore, a study of how women use language in Le Misanthrope reveals the “word” as the main tool whereby they practice the art of deception.

There are three female characters in Le Misanthrope, Célimène, Arsinoé, and Eliante, all of whom are rivals for the affections of the misanthrope Alceste. The first, Célimène, is surrounded by flattering admirers who frequent her salon in the hope of persuading her to designate one of them as her favorite. This young widow of twenty is in no hurry, however, to declare herself or to marry.

In order to maintain this situation, she must secretly convince each man that he is the favorite, while committing herself to none of them. In this way she remains in control of the men whom she reduces to amorous servitude. Since as males they require exclusive rights over the woman of their choice, they find this situation intolerable. The play thus contains a power struggle arising from the men's need to know and Célimène's determination to keep them guessing.

Célimène is rebelling against the established social order by her refusal to designate a partner and to commit herself to a marriage in which she would be subject to the absolute authority of her husband (i.e., Alceste who would force her to live with him in the “desert”). But she cannot effectively liberate herself from male domination because of her emotional dependence on her suitors, who reassure her that she is desirable as a woman. Without their presence, Célimène would be nothing.5

Unlike Philaminte in Les Femmes savantes, therefore, Célimène never questions the basic assumption that men are superior to women. Rather than striving to liberate herself, Célimène is preoccupied with keeping all of her suitors constantly in her presence, ordering Alceste not to leave (II, 3) and nervously inquiring whether the two marquis have another appointment when she sees them moving in the direction of the door (II, 4). What is more, in her letters she is even willing to perjure herself to make sure that they do not desert her. When she speaks of Arsinoé's prudishness as a mask for her “affreuse solitude” (v. 862), she is revealing her own fear of being abandoned by the masculine sex.

The prude, Arsinoé, arrives as a messenger from the world outside the salon to warn the coquette that her flirtatiousness is endangering her reputation among “des gens de vertu singulière,” who make sure that women do not break the moral code on which the male hierarchy is based. (In other words, Célimène's behavior carries with it the threat of polygamy and matriarchy).6 In veiled terms, she delivers to the coquette what amounts to a threat; that is, if she does not give up “cette foule de gens dont vous souffrez visite,/Votre galanterie et les bruits qu'elle excite—” (vv. 889-90), it will be assumed by the virtuous people with whom Arsinoé identifies herself that Célimène is a woman of ill-repute: “Aux ombres du crime on prête aisément foi—” (v. 907). Unsuccessful herself in attracting male admiration, Arsinoé insinuates that Célimène is offering her admirers more than conversation: “Pensez-vous faire croire, à voir comme tout roule, / Que votre seul mérite attire cette foule?” (vv. 1005-06).

Arsinoé's real motive in coming to Célimène with this message is not, however, any genuine, if misguided, concern for either her virtue or her reputation. Arsinoé represents the forces of oppression that appear in Molière's other plays in the guise of such characters as Arnolphe, Tartuffe, and Harpagon, but the fact that these repressive forces here take the form of a woman is one more indication of the wide divergence between this play and those which follow the more traditional comic pattern outlined by Knutson.7 The mask of the prude endows Arsinoé with a form of power. It allows her to exert a threat which will intimidate the woman whose glamorous and exciting existence she envies. Moreover, by its use she hopes to frighten Célimène into changing her ways. Should this happen, Arsinoé would have a better chance of winning for herself the man she covets: Alceste. Thus like Célimène, Arsinoé's real concern is with authenticating her existence through masculine admiration. Her conquest of Alceste will prove that she too, is an object of male desire and will enable her to recover her own sense of self-worth.

Arsinoé may be viewed as an archetypal figure: the older woman who, having passed the age of coquetry, has allied herself with the social order, which imposes monogamy, in order to thwart and frustrate her younger rival. As Céliméne herself realizes, the two are really different aspects of a woman's life cycle. The coquette eventually becomes a prude when she loses the power to control men with her sexual charms. Because Célimène and Arsinoé can see behind the masks which they wear to mystify the men whom they seek to attract, they are able to identify and define each other.8

The third woman in the play is Eliante, Célimène's cousin and companion. In the typical comedy, she should also be Célimène's confidante, but the play offers no glimpses of any private relationship between the two women. Instead, they appear to be strangely aloof from each other, and aside from Célimène's unsuccessful attempt to enlist Eliante's aid in fending off the combined attack of Orante and Alceste (V, 2), they never exchange any words at all. The reason for this is that both are completely absorbed in the men around them. It is with Philinte that Eliante shares her thoughts and feelings, not Célimène.

Eliante is also avowedly in love with Alceste and waiting patiently for him to tire of Célimène or for Célimène to tire of him. Philinte knows this, but offers to marry Eliante on the rebound, should her hope of winning Alceste fail; and Eliante agrees readily. For a poor relation like Eliante, marriage offers the only means by which she can establish an identity of her own. Whom she marries is secondary. Thus Eliante, the “wise” foil to Célimène, philosophically resigns herself to a loveless match rather than continue her existence as a single woman, without status. Like both Arsinoé and Célimène, she, too, is unable to envision a form of identity which is not validated by a relationship with a man.

In contrast, all the men in the play demonstrate a sense of themselves as superior individuals, well integrated into the social structure. Whereas Célimène and Eliante never converse, and she and Arsinoé can only communicate through insults, there are many instances in the play in which the male characters demonstrate their ability to cooperate with each other. In the case of the two pairs of male rivals, for example, disputes are settled according to pre-established gentlemanly codes of behavior. Oronte has recourse to the arbitration of marshalls to settle his quarrel with Alceste. Acaste and Clitandre contract a gentlemen's agreement to withdraw from seeking Célimène's favors should the other produce proof positive of her preference. When the two letters come to light, they keep their word and abandon her, while their friendship for each other remains intact. Even Oronte and Alceste promise to abide by Célimène's decision if she will choose between them (V, 2). Philinte likewise defers respectfully to Eliante's preference for his friend, thus complying with the code of the “honnête homme.” This contrasts markedly with the way in which Arsinoé attempts to win Alceste away from Célimène. All the men in the play are thus bound by codes which honor fair play and respect the territorial rights of other men.

No such codes exist between the women in the play. Célimène takes great care to flatter all her friends in their presence, but she makes no effort to hide her true feelings from Arsinoé.9 She parodies Arsinoé's hypocritical warning and counterattacks at her most vulnerable point, her age, thus establishing her sexual superiority and reducing Arsinoé's accusations to pathetic attempts to mask her own impotence. Since one of the main problems dealt with in the Misanthrope is the disparity between what people say about each other and what they say to each other, it is especially significant that only Célimène and Arsinoé drop the pretense of good manners to express their hostility openly. These jealous women do not bother to be polite to each other for long. Each recognizes in the other a member of an inferior caste—the female sex. Célimène flatters and manipulates her male friends because in her eyes they are of value. The female, who possesses no value in her eyes, is not worth flattering. Arsinoé likewise attacks her “friend” in the hope of winning a male prize. The entire exchange reinforces the stereotype of women as their own worst enemies.

Even Eliante, who is supposedly Célimène's closest friend demonstrates the inability of women to cooperate with each other. She does not back up Célimène when she begs her to save her from having to choose publicly between Alceste or Oronte, brushing her off with “je suis pour les gens qui disent leur pensée” (v. 1662).

What is more, none of the women in the play seems to possess an active sense of self-esteem. While Alceste demands to impose his will on the way others react to him—“Je veux qu'on me distingue” (v. 64)—Célimène sees herself as passive, powerless to change the way in which others think about her: “Puis-je empêcher les gens de me trouver aimable?” (V. 462). Likewise Arsinoé, lacking the courage of her convictions, must seek the backing of the anonymous group of virtuous folk, and Eliante in her long speech in II, 4 (vv. 711-30) never mentions her own feelings on the subject of love, casting her entire tirade in the masculine third person, speaking of “les amants” and “leur passion.” The speaker remains carefully descriptive and passive. She offers no judgment of her own. It is the masculine “amants” who react to the object of their affections. How women regard the men they love is not her concern. Eliante's detached tone is in marked contrast with Alceste's next line, “Et moi, je soutiens, moi …” (v. 731).

In III, 1 we see that even the most foppish and silly of men do not base their identities on the opinions of women, as women base theirs on the opinions of men. When Acaste catalogues his reasons for self-satisfaction, the fact that he is “fort aimé du beau sexe” is far down on his list, well after even “les dents belles surtout.” Wealth, birth, physical courage, intelligence, and literary acumen all precede (vv. 781-804). It goes without saying that when Oronte wants a valid opinion of his sonnet, he does not address himself to a woman but to a man. His ego is so strong, however, that when he fails to elicit the favorable critique he seeks from Alceste, he does not rewrite his sonnet; he demands an apology.

The most telling proof of women's need to mask themselves in compensation for their inferior status comes, however, at the level of their language, which they use in devious if not deceptive ways. In his seminal study, Molière: une aventure théâtrale, Jacques Guicharnaud gallantly attempts to prove that Célimène never actually lies to her suitors, because she is really speaking the language of preciosity, which they do not know how to interpret. She does not mean to deceive the suitors, she merely uses signs they are incapable of decoding. And so, the fact that Célimène has taken care to tell Alceste that she loves him does not necessarily imply that she will give up her other admirers for him: “Pour être différente de la logique masculine exclusive, cette logique féminine n'est pas obligatoirement signe de mauvaise foi.”10 Célimène's duplicity is thus excused in Guicharnaud's eyes because it is not premeditated. We have already seen that Célimène's pleasure is based on the admiration of a considerable number of males because she needs to prove her worth in the eyes of men, who alone have the power to validate a woman's existence. Guicharnaud shows that he is half aware of this fact when he speaks of a feminine logic different from masculine logic: i.e., the logic which requires that a woman shall cleave to one man and forsake all others. Nevertheless, it is difficult to accept Guicharnaud's conclusion that Célimène is ignorant and therefore innocent of the effect that her misleading words have on the men in her little group. Does she not notice that all her suitors take her words literally and believe her when she implies privately to each one that he is in fact her favorite? Were that the case, she would be remarkably insensitive to what is happening around her. Guicharnaud is right in perceiving that Célimène speaks a different language from the men in the play, a language which they cannot understand. But is that not because she does not want them to understand her?

Jouvet's pithy summary of the play: “C'est la comédie d'un homme qui veut avoir un entretien décisif avec une femme qu'il aime”11 could be rephrased, “It is a comedy about a woman who avoids having a decisive discussion with anyone.” A close reading of her skirmishes with Alceste reveals how adroitly she manages not to declare herself while continually holding out to him the hope that she has in fact already given him her heart. In II, 1 when Alceste demands to know what advantage he has over his rivals, she replies, “Le bonheur de savoir que vous êtes aimé.” The response is already ambiguous, lacking as it does the qualifier which would confirm that he is the only one she loves; but when he presses for yet more assurance, Célimène huffily takes back her guarded avowal: “Hé bien! pour vous ôter d'un semblable souci, / De tout ce que j'ai dit, je me dédis ici” (vv. 511-12). In act IV, when Alceste confronts Célimène with the supposed letter to Oronte, she uses exactly the same tactic, first suggesting that the letter was written to a woman and then withdrawing her plausible explanation: “Non, il est pour Oronte” (V. 1365). Eventually, she bursts out in righteous indignation, “Allez, vous êtes fou dans vos transports jaloux, / Et ne méritez pas l'amour qu'on a pour vous” (vv. 1391-92), thus simultaneously tantalizing him with the admission that she loves him and withdrawing it as punishment for his doubts. She has maneuvered him into thinking he has received an encouraging message: since I do not find your love genuine, mine must be sincere. But in fact the message which he receives is not really the message which was sent; nor is the mystery of the real message ever revealed.

In Guicharnaud's view, Célimène is genuinely hurt by Alceste's refusal to believe in her love for him. According to him, the coquette has founded her happiness on a conception of the Pays du Tendre “dont chaque ville est habitée par un soupirant choisi; Alceste occupe la capitale.”12 Alceste, however, is unable to conceive of Célimène's hierarchy of suitors. According to Guicharnaud, Célimène is exactly what she appears to be and therefore has every right to be indignant when Alceste doubts her word.

This argument would be convincing did it not exclude the obvious fact that none of the suitors has any intention of taking his place within the “hierarchy” established by Célimène. Thus, Acaste is sure that he is not wasting his time in Célimène's salon (vv. 807-22) and Clitandre believes he possesses some “marque certaine / D'avoir meilleure part au cœur de Célimène” (vv. 801-02). Nor will Oronte accept second place: “Il me faut de votre âme une pleine assurance: / Un amant là-dessus n'aime point qu'on balance” (vv. 1589-90). In truth the only one who believes in the hierarchy of lovers is Célimène herself. Célimène's feminine language is a language which she alone understands. If her discourse is sincere, it must then be recognized as a monologue, for dialogue is not possible between people who do not speak the same language.

When Clitandre and Acaste arrive, each bearing a letter written by her to the other, the contradictory evidence can be compared and acted upon. It is clear that the purpose of these letters was to dissuade the addressees from abandoning Célimène. In order to accomplish this, she had to persuade each marquis of her affection for him. If, in fact she is really saying that she has a place for each in her hierarchy, she is nevertheless quite careful to word both letters in such a way that the recipient will assume that he is at the top.

It is difficult not to see in these repeated misunderstandings between her and her suitors the intent to gain her own ends—that is to keep them all near her, through the conscious manipulation of language. The salient quality of language for Célimène is ambiguity. It does not serve the function of communication, since its intent is not to purvey meaning, but to mystify.13

The grimacing mask of the prude precedes Arsinoé, as does her “faux voile.” Célimène who sees through Arsinoé's pose indicts her rival for using language duplicitously to mislabel sexual attractiveness, naming it a “crime,” in order to cover up the fact that she possesses no appeal of her own. Arsinoé wishes to make Célimène's conquest of Alceste into a “theft.” She hides her jealous spite. In short, according to Célimène, Arsinoé is constantly sending false messages (vv. 854-72).

When Arsinoé enters the room, it becomes immediately apparent that what she says is not what she means. Instead, she offers to Célimène the option of interpreting her words in multiple ways which may signify either what they seem to mean or the exact opposite. Like Célimène, Arsinoé has learned the trick of placing the burden of interpretation on the listener: “Vous pouvez bien penser quel parti je sus prendre” (v. 893).14

Arsinoé's stated reason for her second appearance is equally at variance with its real intent. Entering with Acaste and Clitandre, who have come to confront Célimène with the two incriminating letters, she again makes a pretense of not believing what she has heard about Célimène:

J'ai du fond de votre âme une trop haute estime Pour vous croire jamais coupable d'un tel crime; Mes yeux ont démenti leurs témoins les plus forts, Et, l'amitié passant sur les petits discords, J'ai bien voulu chez vous leur faire compagnie Pour vous voir vous laver de cette calomnie. (vv. 1675-82)

Her use of the word “fond” is particularly clever, since it introduces the possibility of a double interpretation and protects her from the accusation of judging her “friend” uncharitably. All the key words in this speech, foi, estime, démenti, amitié, laver, and calomnie also signify the opposite of their literal sense.

In these two scenes Arsinoé's hypocritical use of language distorts its meaning, but her use of the “word” to deceive goes even farther. She purposely misleads Alceste into believing that a letter addressed to her was in fact written to Oronte. (It is true that this point is never definitely resolved in the play, but since there is no evidence of any alliance between her and Oronte, it is difficult to see how she could have come into possession of a letter addressed to him. It is much more probable that Célimène's characteristically ambiguous question “Mais, si c'est une femme à qui va ce billet … ?” [v. 1344] does in fact signify the truth). Arsinoé knows that Célimène is leading all her suitors on with flattery and half-promises, but in order to communicate this truth, she must resort to a falsehood, thus causing further confusion to Alceste. Like Célimène, she sends a message which he cannot decode.

It should be noted, however, that Arsinoé's attempt to unmask the coquette actually fails. A false letter from one woman is given a false address by another. In this situation, Lacan's celebrated dictum that a letter always reaches its destination does not seem to apply, the reason being that women and not men are manipulating the “word.”15 It is two men, the little marquis, who, despite their effeminacy, manage to bring to light the truth about Célimène's mystifying use of language—thanks to their gentlemen's agreement. Even emasculated men have an edge over women.

The key to feminine discourse is produced by Eliante in her monologue (II, 4), the theme of which is the disparity between what women are and what they seem to the men who love them: “Jamais leur passion n'y voit rien de blâmable” (v. 713). The signifying characteristics of the woman who is loved are reinterpreted by her lover and given new signifiers: thinness becomes a good figure; plumpness becomes majesty; messiness becomes casualness; dishonesty intelligence; and stupidity becomes goodness. This explains the gap between lover and beloved, mystified and mystifier, signifier and signified, male and female. It is this communication gap that is at the heart of the play.

What Eliante, who speaks her mind, reveals in this passage, both Arsinoé and Célimène demonstrate: women and men do not use words in the same way. Unlike men, for whom a spade is a spade and a rose a rose, women assign ambiguous meanings to words. The result is that their listeners, or readers, hear what they want to hear, while remaining in doubt as to what is truly intended. Women thus deprive language of denotative meaning and so overload it with connotative meanings that the interlocutor cannot understand them. The result is the total confusion which permits women to authenticate their existence through their hold over men.

It is not my intention to speculate here as to Molière's own attitude toward his female protagonists. Whether he, too, felt privately that women should stay in their place and play out the roles assigned to them by tradition; or whether he realized that the social institutions that placed men in a superior position had forced women into devious and duplicitous behavior, is quite beside the point. What I have tried to demonstrate here is that Le Misanthrope draws a true and disturbing picture of the way women function toward members of both sexes in an androcentric society. If one is determined to wrest a commentary on this situation from the author himself, the empty stage on which the curtains falls at the end of the play may be a silent clue.

In any case, it is clear that no one wins in the world of Le Misanthrope: not Alceste, who fails to dominate a creature who insists on her own pathetic version of freedom; not Célimène who loses the little world of mystery and illusion which she has created; not Arsinoé who, despite her attempt to ally herself with the forces of sexual repression, remains alone. Critics have sometimes pointed to the “second-best” marriage between Eliante and Philinte as a substitute “happy ending,” but it is difficult to see how this sad match, founded from its inception on the devaluation of both spouses, can ever be anything but a dreary compromise.

In Le Misanthrope Molière portrays the inauthenticity of human relationships. Insofar as these relationships are male/female, this inauthenticity arises from women's lack of autonomous identity. Since male admiration is the only touchstone by which women verify their existence, they view themselves, and are viewed by others, as sexual objects. Thus they constantly manipulate those around them in order to arouse their desire. This in turn leads to “feminine” language, a perversion of the “word,” and a total breakdown in communication between the sexes.


  1. This view is shared by such disparate critics as Simone de Beauvoir, Le Deuxiéme Sexe (Paris: Gallimard, 1949) I, p. 180, and Paul Bénichou, Morales du grand siècle (Paris: Gallimard, 1948), pp. 311-13. Knutson explains Molière's attacks on male authoritarianism in terms of a comic mythos which suspends the principle of authority ruling the “highly ritualized and hierarchical society of 17th century France. …” Harold C. Knutson, Molière: An Archetypal Approach (Toronto and Buffalo: Toronto University Press, 1976), p. 19.

  2. Lapeyre sees the pretentious language spoken by the savantes as an attempt to “dire autrement,” which Molière chastises severely because “ce désir qui s'attaque à l'ordre ne peut créer que du désordre.” Elizabeth Lapeyre, “Les Femmes savantes: une lecture aliénée,” French Forum 6, No. 2 (May 1981), pp. 137-38.

  3. In this regard, Domna Stanton argues that the “precious” language ridiculed by Molière never really existed. The satires of preciosity grew out of masculine fears that women were gaining control over language as a result of their preeminence in literary salons. “Préciosité and the Fear of Women,” Yale French Studies 62 (1981), 107-34.

  4. Jacques Lacan, “La Signification du phallus,” Ecrits (Paris: Seuil, 1966), p. 694.

  5. See Lionel Gossman, Men and Masks (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1965), p. 91: “Apart from her masks Célimène is nothing, a pure seeing, transparent and opaque at the same time.” What Gossman does not make explicit is that Célimène is nothing because she functions only as a sex object.

  6. In his recent reexamination of Le Misanthrope, Gossman writes, “Arsinoé … has chosen the matronly role of active collaboration with the oppressor, identification with the male order, as the only effective means available to her of manipulating it.” “The Art of Melancholy in the MisanthropeTheatre Journal 34 (1982), p. 331.

  7. See Knutson, Molière, p. 25.

  8. The loathing self-recognition experienced by the two women in this scene coincides with Gilbert and Gubar's interpretation of the mirror symbol in Snow White. See “The Queen's Looking Glass” especially pp. 37-44 in The Madwoman in the Attic: A Study of Women and the Literary Image in the Nineteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).

  9. Brody noticed this in “Don Juan and Le Misanthrope, or the Esthetics of Individualism in Molière” PMLA 84 (1969) p. 572: “brutal personal truths are exchanged by the two most dishonest participants in the action.”

  10. Jacques Guicharnaud, Molière: une aventure théâtrale (Paris: Gallimard, 1963) p. 400.

  11. Cited by A. Dudley, “Comment interpréter Molière,” L'Ere Nouvelle, 20 juin 1938.

  12. Guicharnaud, p. 400.

  13. “L'amour se heurte en elle à une divinité plus ancienne, plus puissante que lui: l'illusion.” Marcel Gutwirth, Molière ou l'invention comique (Paris: Minard, 1966) p. 88.

  14. “Arsinoé of course aims at investing a fiction with both a semblance of truth and the serenity of art.” Brody, p. 573.

  15. See Lacan, “Séminaire sur la lettre volée,” Ecrits, p. 41.

Larry W. Riggs (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5608

SOURCE: “Another Purloined Letter: Text, Transparency, and Transcendence in Le Misanthrope,” in The French Review, Vol. 66, No. 1, October, 1992, pp. 26-37.

[In the following essay, Riggs, focuses on the character of Alceste and his attempts to discern text from reality in Le Misanthrope.]

Alceste, the Misanthrope, is a man trying to escape from the jungle of social semiotics. His constant threats to retire to a désert are symptomatic of his desire to avoid the agony of watchfulness and waiting imposed on him by performative interaction with others. At the same time, he longs to be present in a potent and central way. He aspires to control the allocation of attention in his social circle, guaranteeing both admiration for himself and others' guilt-ridden submission to him. Like any person aspiring to dominate, Alceste must try to define the Other in order to delineate his own identity clearly and to found the desired hierarchy. This is where Célimène's letter comes in. The essence of the sexual encounter between Alceste and Célimène emerges through the confrontation occasioned by this “text within the text.” Alceste's refusal of difference, his attempts to obliterate the Other, are exemplary of the solipsist's absorption of everything into the self. Alceste tries to absorb into himself the status of texts as privileged signifiers. The play challenges this status and shows that Alceste's denial of the difference between text and life reduces him to an object adequately defined by the word misanthrope. In creating the character of Alceste, Molière has anticipated our recent rediscovery of textuality and its relation to psychology and culture.

As is true in Poe's story, a letter here is central in what is in fact a problem of interpretation. We can say of Célimène's letter, which becomes a vital instrument in Alceste's effort to dominate and control Célimène, what Jacques Lacan has said of the other one: according to Lacan, in addition to having a particular content which may be evidence of something or other, the purloined letter has a structural place in a drama defining a relationship and repeating an archetype or paradigm (“La Lettre”). It ritualizes a structure and, therefore, a difference and a hierarchy. In Molière's play, Alceste would like to have the degree of mastery possessed by Poe's detective. The latter's superior lucidity and control are confirmed by his seeing the “hidden” letter. Alceste pretends that possessing Célimène's letter gives him a similarly penetrating gaze.

Being written documents, both letters fall within the modern valuation of documentary evidence over spoken communication as disclosure of truth. Alceste certainly finds it convenient to believe that Célimène has revealed her true essence, has inadvertently disclosed her inmost truth, in the letter. One suspects that writing, because of its seeming detachment from a performing body, is easier to take as “transparent” discourse. Once words have been conceived as objects, then persons can be defined as containers of truths that can be confessed, or extracted.

This suspicion is reinforced by the terms in which the letter is spoken about in the play. Arsinoé, in offering to show the letter to Alceste, says that it will provide a “pleine lumière” (l. 1126) on Célimène's character, a “preuve fidèle / De l'infidélité du cœur de votre belle” (ll. 1129-30). This promise complements Alceste's desire to position himself as the definitive moral consciousness for the play. Célimène, whom Alceste makes the representative of all that he abhors about humanity, will be fully disclosed, opened to the annihilating flame of Alceste's condemnation, by the letter. This revealing text, produced by Célimène's own hand, promises to complete and legitimate Alceste's paradigmatic conception of his relations with her and with society. I shall argue that this paradigm and, indeed, the identity Alceste is trying to constitute for himself, are themselves composed of texts. He wants to construct for himself an Archemedean point, an independent, lucid perspective which will enable him to manipulate without becoming entangled.

Alceste's hopes for this letter are clear in his statement to Arsinoé that only incontrovertible evidence can interest him: “Les doutes sont fâcheux plus que toute autre chose; / Et je voudrais, pour moi, qu'on ne me fît savoir / Que ce qu'avec clarté l'on peut me faire voir” (ll. 1122-24). He would like to condemn Célimène and then re-create her. The auto da fé he envisions, with Célimène condemned by his justice and redeemed by his grace, would illuminate him with the fire of her purification. He wants to wield an authority guaranteed and justified by the defectiveness of human nature as represented by Célimène. His attitude, particularly in his use of the terms doute and lumière, is quite Cartesian. Célimène corresponds to the nature to be penetrated and controlled by knowledge. Moreover, Alceste's ambition is clearly therapeutic.

These lines also show the emphasis on the visual in Alceste's attitude. He wants to gain permanent control by mapping his relations with Célimène, by reducing them to a fixed, visual structure. This visual analogue suggests that Alceste's misanthropy itself, as a definitive perspective on morally immobilized human objects, is a technique for escaping time and drama. It is also, as I shall demonstrate, a text.

At the same time, misanthropy appears as a virtually inevitable cost of elevating the idea of a sovereign self over obligations and relationships. Alceste reflects the aggressiveness and fear of Cartesian epistemology and absolutist politics.

Arsinoé's offer is irresistible to Alceste. The relationship with Célimène that such evidence permits him to envision constitutes him as just what he wants to be: a transcendent subject whose judgmental consciousness dominates and manipulates without becoming entangled. He sees the chance to escape, thanks to this written evidence, from doubt, from the problematics and drama of sign production and interpretation in society. The assumption that textual evidence is a transparent illumination of incontrovertible truth is dependent on conceiving visible language products as both a means to and a paradigm of control.

In fact, of course, this transaction between Alceste and Arsinoé highlights the contradictions and hypocrisies in Alceste's performance and permits us to begin appreciating his curious relationship to texts in general. The issue of Célimène's letter focuses attention on the question of interpretation. Thinking, or wanting to think, that he has certain proof of Célimène's perfidy—“de sûrs témoins” (l. 1128)—Alceste completely ignores the key issue of motive. He has begun by failing to consider Arsinoé's probable motives. She is, after all, Célimène's rival. The interesting result is that Arsinoé is able to use Alceste's desire for control to manipulate him. His need to solve the problem of doubt by processing Arsinoé's “information” through his pre-established conceptual matrix—the paradigmatic text actually encoding his motives—makes him both a victim and an example of the very same self-seeking insincerity he pretends to abhor.

Alceste's systematic attitude, or ideology—“Je cherchais le malheur qu'ont rencontré mes yeux” (l. 1292)—does not really solve the problem of interpreting signs. Like any such system, it merely creates pretexts for ignoring the problem by imposing pre-fabricated, absolute definitions. The combination of credulity and outrage with which Alceste first accepts and then uses the letter enables him to play, in the remainder of the action, the role assigned him by his ambition.

Having read the letter between Acts III and IV, Alceste fulminates without restraint throughout Act IV. Finding himself in possession of the pretext he has wanted pushes him on to a paroxysm of what amount to hackneyed, pseudo-tragic thunderings and lamentations. He will be shown to be at his most derivative and textual when trying to perform with greatest power and intensity.

In Act IV, ii, Eliante and Philinte raise the issue of interpretation, asking whether Alceste has not drawn conclusions about the letter's significance too quickly: “Avez-vous pour le croire un juste fondement?” (l. 1231); “Une lettre peut bien tromper par l'apparence” (l. 1241). He insists on ignoring this issue, however. He does not wonder why Célimène wrote what she did, even after, in Act IV, iii, she freely admits to having written it. Not wanting to face his interpretive responsibility, Alceste pretends that the letter's meaning is self-evident, and thus that his own reaction is not a motivated interpretation. He is sinking deeper and deeper into a morass of signs—into a pluralistic field of mimetic, manipulative, performative speeches and gestures. He would like to cut through this jungle, or rise above it. In his fulminations, he is railing against his ontological insecurity and the metaphysical emptiness of signs. He tries to impose a closure enthroning him as privileged signifier. In the process, his performance becomes an anthology of quotations and paraphrases from other texts.

Alceste seizes on written words because they appear to be separate from the context of erotic, pluralistic speech whose temptations and dangers are represented by Célimène, and which constantly reminds him that he is a speaking, interpreting body among other motivated bodies. In confronting written language, he can pretend that he and the words exist in a metaphysical “space” where he can play the judge/inquisitor. Alceste is trying to become the proprietor of a world converted into a “textual preserve” (Natoli 12). The apparent objectivity of the written words makes them seem transparent and, at the same time, makes Alceste's pretensions seem plausible. The myth of objectivity, however, constitutes both the “objective” world and its “objective” analyst. Much of what Alceste says in Act IV is quoted directly from the earlier “heroic comedy,” Dom Garcie de Navarre. His textual evidence serves as pretext for his performance of what amounts to the script of offended God and wronged lover in Act IV, iii. That performance is virtually plagiarized from the earlier, more serious play. There is a supplementary irony in the fact that, as many in Molière's audience would have been aware, the earlier play had been a failure.

The desire to dominate leads directly to the implicit or explicit citing of authorities. The letter would most appropriately be chalked up to the kind of formulized effusiveness Alceste has criticized from the opening scene of the play. However, Alceste is trapped within the paradigm he has set up and which the letter seems to him to justify. His textual quotations from the role of Dom Garcie underline Molière's awareness that one is always the creature of the rhetorical techniques one takes up. Alceste is the prisoner of his text.

Alceste's grandiloquence cannot hide the fact that his point of departure is an interpretation motivated by the wish to say the things supposedly justified by the pretext. His response is a short-circuit. He believes he has achieved his ideal: a situation wherein “Le fond de notre cœur dans nos discourse se montre” (l. 70). Alceste is the perfect example of looking only for what one wants to find, or what one's method of search can find. He is the creature of his program for imitating God, of his “masterful” technique.

This is why he must ignore what Célimène says about the letter. For him, the letter is functioning scripturally: it seems to have “called” him and Célimène into the roles he has wanted for them. He takes the letter as a release from the ontological uncertainty of interacting with her. It seems definitive and does not argue. Alceste reflects here the tendency, growing in Western Europe since the late Middle Ages, not only to prefer written over oral evidence, but to use documents for stifling non-documentary claims. This reminds us of Orgon's love of binding texts in Le Tartuffe: Orgon sees the drawing up of a marriage contract and donation as a means of making his will supreme in his household.

Socrates distrusted writing because it cannot converse (Greene 23). This is precisely why Alceste, like modern, text-based culture, prefers it. The rise of modern rule by written law permitted many a dispossession and many a forgery. It is true, but not obvious, that writing is communicative behavior, and as such is motivated by desires and fears.

Thus, Alceste tries to constitute himself definitively by treating the letter as constitutive of the “Célimène” to whom his prefabricated role will be an appropriate response. His speeches are, in addition to being plagiarized from another script, full of metaphors whose subtext is the discourse of Inquisition. They constantly repeat the structure of difference, the hierarchical relationship with Célimène, which the letter seems to him to have established. He is God and Judge, and she is the Sinner. Of course, the metaphors are no more transparent than the letter. They do not disclose or allude to any definitive truth. They merely repeat a claim whose basis is the documentary constitution of a mythic object to which he responds as if it were Célimène.

The textualized Alceste and Célimène need not and cannot communicate—or change—because they are entirely objectified by the language that has “called” them into existence. Having wished to escape from his own evanescence through time by escaping from the evanescence and drama of speech, Alceste does become objectified, but as a ridiculous type, not as a transcendent subject. As Walter Ong has said, sound is the most evanescent of perceptions, while vision favors immobility (Psychodynamics 29). Alceste wants to escape from the evanescent, agonistic realm of speech into the abstract world of texts. He projects the familiar, the predictable, onto the object of his anxious desire.

Alceste's attempted “scriptural” trickery is strikingly like the process whereby any religion's or ideology's rituals repeat a structure of difference. The appropriateness and indispensability of the ideology depend on textual sources and on the “monstrousness” of human nature when it has not been submitted to the operation of the ideology. Hobbes, whose denunciation of human nature was critical to the credibility of absolutism, and Bossuet, who spent fifteen years writing his Politique tirée des propres paroles de l'Ecriture Sainte to legitimate the French monarchy, come to mind in this connection. Alceste's “Jealous God” performance draws all of its textual precedents, from Dom Garcie to, perhaps, Scripture itself, into the comic anthology of scripts for self-interested, obscurantist, tyrannical performance.

All the elements of the script according to which Alceste likes to play come together in the intertextuality of his performance in Act IV. He wants an indissoluble partnership between a transcendent Alceste and a shameful, adoring Célimène. What he produces is grandiloquent comic chatter aimed at a “Célimène” he has in effect hallucinated. This chatter reduces him to a collection of intertexts hopelessly out of contact with Célimène and with life. Writing has here radically separated the “knower” from the “known.” Alceste is merely a role. He is, in fact, literature. He is not even a dramatic character.

Instead of escaping semiosis by transcending contingent communication, Alceste has sunk below the level of relative individuality required for any communication at all. He is neither the exalted Object of others' admiration nor the Subject of their subjectivity. He is the simple emptiness of a conventionalized role, the futile fixity of a text. His uncritical absorption of the letter has activated a machinery of quasi-scriptural precedents. The relation with Célimène he desires would just institutionalize the repetition of a misreading. Shoshana Felman has said that the ego is an agency created to misread, to interpret experience as a confirmation, rather than a subversion, of the ego's seeming unity and solidity (61). I believe Molière would agree: Alceste's misreading of the letter, and of social relations in general, is necessary to the unity of his performance. In the end, his performance is nothing more than that rigid, monotonous, and unrewarding consistency.

Alceste is tempted to ignore motive—his own, Célimène's, and Arsinoé's—by the same aspect of texts emphasized by contemporary reader-response theory: the mutual absence of writer and reader that seems to confer on writing or print an “objective” existence it does not really have. Alceste does not consider the entire context of the letter as social communication. We are encouraged to do so. For example, Célimène was no doubt motivated to write what she did by something Alceste ought to see as the simple social imperative to be “insincere.” She may well have felt it was necessary to flatter the letter's recipient. Paradoxically, he has to believe the letter is perfectly sincere in order to make use of it for his ultimate purpose. This is a clear indication of the false distinction he makes between oral and written communication. Here, Molière destroys the myth of text as somehow separate from struggle and power. The production and interpretation of writing are as agonistic as is oral communication.

Alceste tries to evade his responsibility for creating the “Célimène” to whom he is responding by repeating the myth of textual transparency: “Quoi! vous bravez ainsi ce témoin convaincant …” (l. 1336). He deals only with the Célimène he hallucinates, but he pretends to be impressed only by the most objective evidence. He is in a hurry to exercise the power he believes is inherent in his “knowledge.” His behavior is a ritualized set of gestures. It is now clear, in fact, that his misanthropy amounts to a technique, a method, and that it is designed to ritualize and hierarchize a subject/object relation. However, like all techniques, it takes possession of him as he takes it up to apply it. As contemporary theory would have it—and as Molière evidently understood, though perhaps in different terms—the “I” which reads Célimène's letter is composed of previous readings.

All knowledge is interpretation or inference, and every inference is the captive of its motives. We are always shaped by the rhetoric in which we state our claims, and Alceste's particular version of the “objectivist myth” (Lakoff and Johnson 210) merely objectifies him. The use of the word convaincant indelibly inscribes Alceste's responsibility, but he fails to acknowledge that he has chosen to be convinced. What Alceste is seeking throughout the play is the power to name Célimène. All he can achieve is his own reduction to le misanthrope.

The ritual repetition designed to hide the subjectivity—the desire—at the origin of Alceste's misanthropy destroys his ability to communicate with and respond to the somewhat fluid outer world without making him independent of that world. This is emphasized by the constant conflict between Alceste's ambition and the succession of scenes, each of which—and, more particularly, the relentless succession of which—undermines his pose. The desire that causes him to see Célimène as reducible to a text reduces him to that degree of simplicity.

If the letter is evidence of anything, it is that social life is a continuing, inescapable interpretive problem. The letter's position in the exchange between Alceste and Arsinoé shows that “disclosures” are always motivated and therefore cannot be clear. It is Alceste's aggressive, even desperate will-to-understand the letter that is actually insincere and perfidious, because it motivates his partnership in Arsinoé's treacherous “disclosure” of a Célimène deserving condemnation. The structure to which the letter is really the key is that of Alceste's relation to Arsinoé, and in that he is merely a dupe.

Having seen the central importance of the letter, and of the fact that it is, precisely, a text, it is appropriate to look at the whole play with the issue of textuality explicitly in mind. The fact is that the derivative, or intertextual, aspect of Alceste's performance is pointed out in the play's first scene. This theme is established when Philinte says: “Je ris des noirs accès où je vous envisage, / Et je crois voir en nous deux, sous mêmes soins nourris, / Ces deux frères que peint l'Ecole des maris” (ll. 98-100). This alerts us to Alceste's unoriginality and to the fact that those who interact with him are pressured toward unoriginality, too. Benjamin Bennett makes the point that this passage creates in us a double consciousness as regards the comparability of literary word and theater: the reference to an earlier play is, of necessity, a reference to literature; at the same time, theater is resistance to the systematizing, accumulating tendency of the literary word (2). Philinte's remark awakens our awareness of precisely this paradox in our spectatorship. More importantly, however, it prepares us to perceive that Alceste is inhabited by, or constituted from, an anthology of textual and rhetorical precedents. Like Alceste, the audience of drama must live an irremediable tension between continuity and contingency.

The second scene, the famous “sonnet scene,” establishes another element in Alceste's relation to textuality. This scene is central to the play in a way that has nothing to do with the issue on which critics have most often focused: the quality of the poem Oronte asks Alceste to judge. The sonnet's real significance lies in the fact that, although he calls it “sottises” (l. 326), its rhetoric is a rehearsal of what will be Alceste's speeches to and about Célimène. His seemingly fierce anti-conformism and severe moralism turn out to be convergent with the hackneyed rhetoric of a conventional lover's lament. The sonnet's persona expresses impatience with waiting for a clear commitment from his mistress:

L'espoir, il est vrai, nous soulage

Et nous berce un temps notre ennui;

Mais, Philis, le triste avantage Lorsque rien ne marche après lui! (ll. 315-18)

He expresses his fear that this situation will become permanent, and he threatens to die if it does:

S'il faut qu'une attente éternelle

Pousse à bout l'ardeur de mon zèle,

Le trépas sera mon recours. (ll. 327-29)

Alceste has already expressed himself in analogous terms (ll. 240-42, 257). His quest for autonomy through definitive possession of Célimène corresponds to the sonnet's demand for a commitment, as his threat to withdraw to a desert of silence and isolation echoes its threat of suicide or death from despair. Alceste's entire performance converges with a poetic cliché. Oronte, then, is not merely Alceste's rival for Célimène; he is his double.

So, Alceste's efforts to “call” Célimène into a role complementary to the one he wants to play, his desire to “recruit” her into a partnership guaranteeing his autonomy, makes him the puppet of previous versions of the quest for ontological security. He is the creature, the prisoner, of an entire tradition. The succession of scenes in the play both emphasizes the repetitiveness of his behavior and reduces his would-be transcendence to the fragmented state of contingent Being.

Virtually every scene in which Alceste and Célimène appear together repeats the theme of the sonnet. Alceste is in a textual trap, and he tries to entangle Célimène in the textual toils. His wish to be what Felman calls a “self-possessed proprietor of knowledge” (84)—to become a transcendent subject by acquiring proof that the Other deserves to be a vilified object—is delusive. Moreover, Alceste's desire, like that of all the ridicules, reflects his need to dominate, but it also establishes lack at the center of his reality. He lusts for overwhelming presence, but absence defines him.

Jane Gallop speaks of the ego as a kind of “armor” (86). Alceste's predilection for expressions like “rompre en visière” (l. 96) to describe his relations with others suggests that Molière would have agreed. Not only is Alceste much like the ego constructed for essentially defensive reasons from texts, and given to reducing others to a textual fixity in order to misread them, but his literalistic reading of Célimène's letter recalls that consolidation of priestly power has often been based on literalistic misreadings of texts. The religious subtext of Alceste's inquisitorial metaphors emphasizes this connection. In all of his major plays, Molière is concerned to denounce the consolidation of power around ideological “readings” of reality (Riggs).

Like all objectivists, Alceste assigns fixed, inherent qualities to his object. Moreover, his choice of an abstraction like sincérité as supreme value already links him with modern, increasingly textual culture's propensity for legalistic abstractions over existential contexts or relationships as foci of loyalty (Williams 184). This also links him to a number of the other ridicules.

With this in mind, it is clear why Alceste constantly threatens to become absent from the scene or context of speech, why so much of his discourse emphasizes light and perspective, and why he feels threatened by words dissociated from textuality. Absence tempts him because he associates it with both powerful, definitive discourse—he imagines himself as both a deus absconditus and an ever-present judge—and safety from oral exchange. He tries to defeat or escape from time as experienced in the struggles and evanescence of spoken communication by founding a secure, definitive knowledge and control on the structural fixity of texts.

Alceste would like, of course, to escape his own contingency, his own inexorable evanescence or movement toward death. He can do this only by “leaping” into a premature “death”: he becomes the equivalent of a text. The désert which he associates with a glorious, vertical absence from context, with a privileged view, invades and destroys his presence in social life. Written discourse lacks full, existential context, and Alceste's performance is clearly an attempt to transcend context. The landscape of his desire is a desert. Molière shows us, again, why a would-be tyrant always becomes an object of the techniques that constitute the tyranny.

Misanthropy appears, now, as a consequence of elevating idea over relationship. It is the essence of what we may term a “positional consciousness,” or definitive perspective: Alceste wants to map the moral universe into a permanently fixed structure reflecting an equally permanent hierarchization of his relations with others. He believes he has found the means of placing himself at the Archimedean point. He wants to occupy a fixed, and glorious, position in a synchronic paradigm, with no risk of “falling” back into the relativity of diachronic, oral drama. Spoken words, and their interpretations, are always modifications of existential situations (Ong, Orality 67). Such agonistic communication always engages the body as it engages motive and desire. Misanthropy is a blanket-condemnation of the contingent, pluralistic, and erotic in life. With structural fixity in a timeless visual “space” as the ideal, actual communicative behavior can only appear dangerous, corrosive, and degraded.

Alceste is not comfortable being a desiring body among other desiring bodies. Yet, his performance is occasionally interrupted by avowals of his desire. For example, in the play's first scene, Philinte points out that Célimène's character does not correspond with Alceste's stated principles. Alceste says: “En dépit qu'on ait, elle se fait aimer” (l. 232). There is a triple admission in this line. First of all, he concedes that his principles do not control even his own behavior. He also suggests that erotic attractiveness is an aspect of the temporal, dramatic experience he is, on the level of principle, trying to escape. Furthermore, he seems to admit that what he desires in Célimène is her desirability, or the prospect of triumphing over the others who desire her. This latter point is related, of course, to the fact that Alceste wants to monopolize Célimène's own capacity for desire and admiration, to capture her as Arnolphe believed he could capture Agnès.

In addition, and perhaps most fundamentally, there is the fact on which I have focused here: desire for Célimène promises a high probability that Alceste will wind up being justified in reciting his misanthropic script. It is well to keep in mind that another Moliéresque character, the Jupiter of Amphitryon, owns the kind of transcendence Alceste is seeking and apparently finds it boring. Jupiter voluntarily descends into the erotic, contingent context of drama. Drama constantly replaces the raggedness of being within the space of literature, it struggles against the myth that uniformity is possible and desirable. Molière's main characters enact this tension. They are the textual temptation.

If Alceste is constructing the landscape of his desire, then, as far as his consciousness is concerned, the desert of textualized abstraction carries the day over the burgeoning jungle of oral communication. The play's final Act merely confirms Alceste's commitment to his role. When Célimène is abandoned by her coterie—after they have discovered textual evidence of her contempt for them—Alceste continues to demand not only her love, but her promise to join him in his désert of non-communication. In fact, he merely continues to adumbrate the few possible variations on his script. The landscape of his desire is, precisely, the désert of anti-erotic, anti-corporal structure, a structure he identifies with triumph over contingency. It is the “desert” of open vistas structured by a fixed, dominant perspective. Alceste is an early would-be inhabitant of a world defined by visual analogues and energized by the prospect of dominating and manipulating the dense, echoing jungle of acoustic space.

Molière himself was sensitive on the issue of textuality: Abby Zanger has recently argued persuasively that Molière did not like the idea of publishing necessarily definitive scripts of his plays. What Alceste does is just what Molière did not want to do. As a man of the theater and a writer, Molière was both closely acquainted with and somewhat separate from the gathering forces of literary language and practice. He lived the tension between literature as progressive closure and drama as constant critique and subversion of codes. His major plays all deal with issues of textuality, and Le Misanthrope shows the evolution of a character into complete impasse under the influence of a scripturally sustained quest for permanence. Otto Mayr's book on the relations between machinery and cultural evolution in early modern Europe is a fascinating account of the growing importance of abstraction, reduction of natural processes to visual analogues, and the idea of conquering time and behavior. Alceste, as a character, involves us in considering the implications of this cultural trend. He is as much a Cartesian as a misanthropist. In fact, misanthropy, hostility to nature in the human, is inherent in the Cartesian identification of knowledge with control. Alceste's desire to remove doubts is motivated by the same wish for control and the same heroic conception of the self that permeates the Discours de la méthode.

Lacan's brief passage on Alceste in “Propos sur la causalité psychique” sees the character as confused between the language of the Subject and the language of Being. I have suggested that Molière was very much aware of issues like those Lacan was trying to articulate. As elsewhere in Molière's major comedies, the raggedness or discontinuity of Being constantly undermines the unitary pretensions of what we would now call would-be “transcendent subjects.” Alceste's performance is inescapably oral: it takes place in the complex, interactive, erotic space of speech.

Alceste exemplifies the effects of what I will call “hegemonic metaphors”: his discourse and his performance are dominated by a fund of metaphors based on Judeo-Christian theology. The Judeo-Christian elements are implicit in Alceste's hegemonic ambition. He plays God in his quasi-scriptural speeches in Act IV.

A metaphor, of course, always obscures the aspect of things on which it does not focus. Alceste never really perceives the actual Célimène or the actual nature of his relations with her. Such perception would require attentiveness not dominated by desire and the ambition to control. It would thus require that he accept his own contingency.

Alceste is mesmerized by the language that constitutes his role as surely as Orgon is mesmerized by Tartuffe, or the femmes savantes by Trissotin, and for similar reasons. He believes the text of the letter can justify the text of his performance, whose resemblance to a fixed text is precisely what makes it ridiculous. In this case, a letter cannot be the key to any definitive perspective because the letter itself is a problem in interpretation, not a revelation. Alceste cannot succeed as a supreme moral authority; he can only fail as one member of a semiotic community.

Works Cited

Bennett, Benjamin. Theater as Problem: Modern Drama and Its Place in Literature. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.

Felman, Shoshana. Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.

Gallop, Jane. Reading Lacan. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Greene, William Chase. “The Spoken and the Written Word.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 60 (1951): 23-59.

Kintgen, Eugene, Barry M. Kroll, and Mike Rose, eds. Perspectives on Literacy. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1988.

Lacan, Jacques. “Propos sur la causalité psychique.” L'Evolution Psychiatrique 1 (1947): 123-65.

———. “Le Seminaire sur ‘La Lettre volée.’” La Psychanalyse 2 (1956): 1-44.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.

Mayr, Otto. Authority, Liberty, and Automatic Machinery in Early Modern Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986.

Natoli, Joseph. “Introduction.” Tracing Literary Theory. Ed. J. Natoli. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987.

Ong, Walter J., S. J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen, 1982.

———. “Some Psychodynamics of Orality.” Kintgen et al. 28-43.

Riggs, Larry W. “La Raison de la plus folle est toujours la meilleure: Synthetic Language and the Hallucinations of Reason in Les Femmes savantes.Symposium 41.3 (Fall 1987): 214-26.

Williams, Raymond. Towards 2000. London: Chatto and Windus, 1983.

Zanger, Abby. “Paralyzing Performance: Sacrificing Theater on the Altar of Publication.” Stanford French Review 12.2-3 (Fall-Winter 1988): 169-86.

Noel Peacock (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5762

SOURCE: “Lessons Unheeded: The Denouement of Le Misanthrope,” in Nottingham French Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 10-20.

[In the following essay, Peacock examines the ending of Molière's Le Misanthrope, contending that its paradoxical nature is representative of the comic, and not the tragic, dramatic genre.]

‘Le dénouement, quel qu'il soit, ne peut être que tragique’.1 Horville's dark interpretation of the ending of Le Misanthrope is representative of a tradition in Molière criticism which is still widely accepted despite persuasive attempts to correct it.2 Evidence, however meagre, from Molière's contemporaries indicates a comic ending. Montausier, who was thought at the time to have been a prototype of Alceste, claimed that he had become the butt of everyone's laughter. The first performance of the play provoked what Donneau de Visé termed ‘rire dans l'âme’. The tragic lighting seems to have been introduced in productions after Molière's death featuring Baron in the title role. Baron's interpretation gained critical support in the eighteenth century from German classicists, particularly from Goethe, who viewed the play as a societal tragedy in which the noble Alceste is defeated in his struggle against the world.3 The Romantics turned Alceste's separation from Célimène into a moment of supreme pathos. This interpretation was maintained in influential criticism in the early part of the twentieth century.4 Over the last thirty years the ending has often been regarded as generically different from the rest of the play.5 It has sometimes been considered to be unequivocally tragic and comparable with Racine's dénouements.6

The aim of this [essay] is to reaffirm the comic status of the dénouement. To do so, I shall attempt to define the ‘action’ of the play, and within the framework of that definition, examine those aspects of the ending which have given rise to a tragic interpretation—the main theme, the construction and the extent to which the characters experience ‘enlightenment’.

The word ‘action’ has been the subject of much terminological confusion. It tends to be treated as a synonym of ‘plot’. It does sometimes take on this meaning in seventeenth-century dramatic theory, for example, ‘unity of action’ signifies ‘unification of plot’.7 The restricted sense in which I am using the term is found, however, in some of the prefatory material and discussions on tragedy by Corneille and Racine. Here ‘action’, which is sometimes synonymous with ‘subject’, may be understood as the general concept in the mind of the dramatist; ‘plot’ is the external means at his disposal to convey this general concept to the audience.

In his first Discours, Corneille argued that the distinctions between tragedy and comedy were found in the different types of ‘action’:

La comédie diffère donc en cela de la tragédie, que celle-ci veut pour son sujet une action illustre, extraordinaire, sérieuse: celle-là s'arrête à une action commune et enjouée (italics mine).8

In his preface to Bérénice, Racine stressed the magnitude of the ‘action’ in tragedy:

Ce n'est point une nécessité qu'il y ait du sang et des morts dans une tragédie: il suffit que l'action en soit grande, que les acteurs en soient héroïques, que les passions y soient excitées, et que tout s'y ressente de cette tristesse majestueuse qui fait tout le plaisir de la tragédie (italics mine).9

The types of action chosen by Corneille were generally ones which would provoke admiration on the part of the audience; those chosen by Racine were of a kind which would arouse the emotions of pity and fear. For both dramatists, the ‘action’ of the play raised important moral issues: for example, in Horace, the ‘action’ concerns the dangers of excessive patriotism; in Cinna, the nature of power, the consequences of responsibility, the question of moral salvation. In Andromaque and Phèdre, matters of international significance provide the backcloth against which the private struggles of the characters are set. In both Corneille and Racine, the principal characters face ‘grands périls’ whereas in Le Misanthrope, Alceste and Célimène experience ‘inquiétude’ and ‘déplaisirs’.10

The ‘action’ of Le Misanthrope is of two kinds: for most of the characters, it concerns the ‘discovery’ of Célimène's duplicity and their ultimate discomfiture; for the spectator, the ‘action’ is perceived through the characters' enactment, but issues in his or her perception of Alceste's and Célimène's inability to accept the lessons of experience. This ‘action’ is purely domestic: the public dimension, the prerequisite for tragic effect in Corneille and Racine, is missing. Alceste believes it is present. He elevates his lawsuit to a phenomenon of universal interest:

Je verrai, dans cette plaiderie,

Si les hommes auront assez d'effronterie,

Seront assez méchants, scélérats et pervers,

Pour me faire injustice aux yeux de l'univers (…)

Et je veux qu'il demeure à la postérité,

Comme une marque insigne, un fameux témoignage

De la méchanceté des hommes de notre âge.

(197-200, 1544-46)11

Alceste's love for Célimène is deemed by him to be a fatal attraction: ‘(…) ce fatal amour né de vos traîtres yeux! (…) il faut suivre ma destinée’ (1384, 1417). The consequences of Alceste's legal setback and of his separation from Célimène do not, however, go beyond the confines of his own inner circle. The destiny of nations will not be affected by his decision to leave for his ‘désert’! Critics have sometimes taken Alceste's self-assessment literally. The character behaves and talks as if he is in an ‘action illustre’. Alceste thinks that his situation is tragic. But, as we shall see, it is the character, and not the author, who has misunderstood the genre.

The high social rank of the characters has also led critics to distinguish Le Misanthrope from most of Molière's plays. Some seventeenth-century dramatists and theoreticians suggested that the comic hero was of a lower status than his tragic counterpart:

(…) la comédie ne parle que des [personnes] mediocres (…)12

Dans la comédie, il [le poète] imite les actions des personnes de petite condition, ou tout au plus de médiocre (…)13

(…) dans la Comédie, dont les Personnages sont pris du menu peuple, tous jeunes Débauchez, Esclaves fort empressez, Femmes étourdies, ou Vieillars fort affairez (…)14

Corneille, however, did not think high rank in itself indicative of a tragic ‘action’:

Lorsqu'on met sur la scène un simple intrigue d'amour entre des rois, et qu'ils ne courent aucun péril, ni de leur vie, ni de leur État, je ne crois pas que, bien que les personnes soient illustres, l'action le soit assez pour s'élever jusqu'à la tragédie. Sa dignité demande quelque grand intérêt d'État, ou quelque passion plus noble et plus mâle que l'amour (…) et veut donner à craindre des malheurs plus grands que la perte d'une maîtresse (…) s'il ne s'y rencontre point de péril de vie, de pertes d'États, ou de bannissement, je ne pense pas que [le poème] ait droit de prendre un nom plus relevé que celui de comédie.15

For Molière and Corneille, the ‘action’ was more important than the social status of the characters in determining the genre. We shall see that in Le Misanthrope the characters' elevated social status does not prevent them from behaving like some of the self-deluded heroes in Molière's bourgeois comedies or even like the naïve protagonists of the farce tradition.

The dominant theme emerging from the ‘action’ is that of incompatibility. The ending of Le Misanthrope reveals a break with the convention of literary comedy. Normally a five-act literary comedy ended in the celebration of marriages:

Le dénouement traditionnel de la comédie est un mariage, et même, de préférence, plusieurs mariages (…) Il semble que le double mariage soit le minimum acceptable pour un dénouement heureux et qu'on doive y arriver à tout prix.16

In the comédie d'intrigue, obstacles to the union of the main characters are removed and there is an atmosphere of reconciliation and of reunion. Molière had scope for such an ending to Le Misanthrope: three potential couples are announced in the opening scenes. The only marriage to take place (between Philinte and Éliante) has been regarded as highly unsatisfactory:

(…) le mariage plus ou moins ‘bâclé’ de Philinte et d'Éliante ne peut faire oublier la rupture survenue entre Alceste et Célimène.17

But such criticism ignores the comic ‘action’ of the play: Philinte and Éliante provide a yardstick against which we can evaluate the inability of others (particularly of Alceste and Célimène) to learn the lessons of experience.

The theme of incompatibility, which has been thought to contain tragic overtones in this play, may be viewed however as a subtle variation on one of the central themes of Old French Farce—that of the mal-marié. The theme is also prominent in a number of Molière's plays from La Jalousie du Barbouillé to Amphitryon.18 The badin's defeat in the conjugal struggle was a traditional comic closure in Native French Farce. Farcical echoes in the ending of Le Misanthrope have not been explored by critics. Admittedly, Alceste's marital status is different from that of the mari confondu. The role of Alceste is also much more complex than that of the naïve husband. Yet Alceste's oft-frustrated attempts to come to an understanding with Célimène evoke the cuckolded husband's futile quest to prove his shrewish wife's infidelity. Alceste is spared the beating usually meted out to the lourdaud. The physical expressiveness of the farce endings is reproduced (appropriately enough for the more sophisticated play) in the verbal fisticuffs of the final scene.

The topsy-turvy world of farce is also recalled in the numerous proposals of marriage. The fact that the initiative is taken by women further reverses the literary convention. The first two overtures are met with brusque refusals. Arsinoé's proposal, thinly veiled as a means of allowing Alceste revenge on Célimène, is brutally anticipated by the titular hero:

Ce n'est pas à vous que je pourrai songer,

Si par un autre choix je cherche à me venger.


Célimène's offer, in response to Alceste's request to accompany him to his ‘désert’ (‘Si le don de ma main peut contenter vos voeux, / Je pourrai me résoudre à serrer de tels noeuds; / Et l'hymen …’ (1777-79)) provokes an even more categorical rejection: ‘Non, mon coeur, à présent, vous déteste’ (1779).

The final overture contrasts with the previous female demonstrations on the art of proposal. Éliante's subtle hypothesis feeds Philinte his cue:

Et voilà votre ami, sans trop m'inquiéter,

Qui, si je l'en priais, la pourrait accepter.

(1797-98 italics mine)

Philinte's very positive acceptance couplet provides retrospectively an ironic focus on Alceste's failure. Their union is a counterpoint to the incompatibility of the Alceste/Arsinoé and Alceste/Célimène relationships.

The comic ‘action’ is also conveyed by the repetitive structure of the play. The fact that the dénouement derives closely from the preceding episodes has increased speculation as to the play's tragic qualities. In many of his five-act comedies, Molière has recourse to an outside agency to untie the complications of the plot: (see, for example, the patres, rex and deus ex machina endings of L'École des femmes, L'Avare, Tartuffe and Dom Juan). In such plays, the seemingly fortuitous introduction of characters unfamiliar to the audience creates discontinuity and an atmosphere of fantasy. The structure of Le Misanthrope is, on the other hand, quite coherent. Even the two episodes which have been thought to be digressive provide an ironic anticipation of the dénouement. In Act I, scene 2, Molière suggests two potentially tragic endings to the play: the persona of Oronte's sonnet, tired of waiting in hope, contemplates suicide: ‘S'il faut qu'une attente éternelle/Pousse à bout l'ardeur de mon zèle,/Le trépas sera mon recours’ (327-29). This is a far cry from Oronte's verbal bravura at the end of the play: ‘J'y profite d'un coeur qu'ainsi vous me rendez,/Et trouve ma vengeance en ce que vous perdez’ (1705-06). The heroic ending envisaged by the persona of Alceste's chanson contrasts with the latter's flight to his ‘désert’, unaccompanied by ‘ma mie’ but pursued by the happy couple, Philinte and Éliante. Similarly, the mutual self-congratulation of the marquis, in Act III, scene 1 is based on false premises. The pact they make to keep each other informed, which lessens the fortuitous nature of the letter-reading ceremony,19 will ironically burst the bubble of their illusions.

The tight construction of Le Misanthrope has been equated with the linear progression of the tragic plot. The structure of Molière's play is nearer, however, to the symmetrical rhythm of farce. Comparison with the circular structure of George Dandin, which itself derives from Native French Farce,20 would seem more appropriate. The ending of Le Misanthrope brings us full circle, back to the point of departure. Alceste's entrance in a state of high dudgeon parallels his exit; on both occasions he is pursued by the unrelenting Philinte. Alceste's final exit is merely the fifth of a series of departures which occur at the end of each act: at the end of Act I he storms off with Philinte in pursuit; at the end of Act III he leaves with Arsinoé in search of proof of Célimène's infidelity; at the end of Acts II and IV he is summoned to appear before the maréchaux. In addition, Alceste's repeated threats to leave (95-96; 143-44; 1486; 1521-24; 1573; 1762) give to his final gesture a certain theatricality which distances the audience from the interpretation Alceste places on his departure.

The repetitive, circular pattern conveys in the central character the rigidity and inelasticity which, for Bergson, was the hallmark of the comic hero.21 Apart from the change in the relationship between Philinte and Éliante, any sixth Act could well be a repetition of the first Act. The fact that there have been a number of sequels to Le Misanthrope indicates how far we are from the closed world of Racine in which heroes and heroines are irrevocably separated, usually by death.

The comic ‘action’ of Le Misanthrope also implies a lack of ‘recognition’ on the part of the main characters. The extent to which the characters are ‘enlightened’ has been a contentious issue. Critics have tended to find the ‘discovery’ of Célimène's duplicity pathetic. In most Racinian plays, the principal source of pathos is the character's apprehension of a tragic destiny:22 in Bérénice, the titular heroine is brought to a realization that she has misunderstood the situation Titus was in, and ultimately perceives the futility of her projected suicide; in Phèdre, Thésée is forced to recognize the folly of his hasty judgement (sending Hippolyte to his death on false circumstantial evidence); in Mithridate, the eponymous hero's discoveries are equally poignant: that Monime is in love with his son, Xipharès, that the latter has been disloyal to him in the avowal of his love for Monime and that the invasion of Italy has had disastrous consequences. However, both the device used to bring about ‘recognition’ in Le Misanthrope and the primarily intellectual nature of the ‘discovery’ made by most of the characters preserve the comic register.

The means used to bring about ‘discovery’, the exchange of letters, is found more frequently in comedy than in tragedy. The establishment of true identity by means of material objects was used by tragic dramatists like Quinault and Boyer. Corneille and Racine, however, rejected this kind of ‘material discovery’.23 Molière explored the comic possibilities afforded by the reading of letters on stage (there are fifteen instances in nine of his plays24). Six years after the creation of Le Misanthrope, he was to parody the device of ‘material discovery’ in Ariste's ‘false letters’ which serve to bring about a satisfying comic closure in Les Femmes savantes.

The ‘discovery’ made by most of the characters in Le Misanthrope is primarily intellectual. The moral and psychological self-appraisal conducted by many Racinian heroes and heroines is absent. Some of the sequels to the play have tried to fill this lacuna. In Fabre d'Eglantine's Le Philinte de Molière ou la suite du Misanthrope, Alceste benefits from his solitude and becomes a virtuous provincial landowner, filled with a love of humanity. In his conte, Le Misanthrope corrigé, Marmontel draws a moral lesson from Alceste's discomfiture. Courteline's La Conversion d'Alceste focuses on the reformed misanthrope's return from self-exile. In Molière's text, there is no indication of any conversion. On the contrary, Molière emphasises the characters' self-delusion. This is rendered comic by the incongruity between the language they use and the situation in which the author has placed them. The mental blindness of Acaste, Clitandre, Oronte and Arsinoé anticipates in varying degrees that of Alceste and Célimène.

There is a disparity between Acaste's uncritical self-portrait in Act III, scene 1 and the disparaging sketch of him by Célimène: ‘je trouve qu'il n'y a rien de si mince que toute sa personne; et ce sont de ces mérites qui n'ont que la cape et l'épée’ (Act V, scene 4). Acaste's use of familiar expressions (‘A vous le dé, Monsieur’ and ‘Voici votre paquet’ are, as Rudler has pointed out,25 not recorded in the Dictionnaire de l'Académie) and of mercenary language (‘des coeurs du plus haut prix’) contradicts his earlier claim to good taste, which had already been called into question by his extended mercantile imagery in Act III, scene 1. His minatory tone and use of the word ‘se consoler’ belie his contention that he is not piqued by his ‘discovery’: ‘Mais je ne vous tiens pas digne de ma colère’ (1696). Clitandre shows no self-awareness in his juvenile threats of revenge on the portrait artist: ‘Il suffit, nous allons, l'un, et l'autre, en tous lieux, / Montrer de votre coeur le portrait glorieux’ (1693-94). The petits marquis's complete about-turn (cf. their adulation of Célimène in the scène des portraits) shows their distorted optic.

Oronte, imitating the tragic hero, bemoans his lack of foresight and professes to have learned from his experience:

Allez, j'étais trop dupe, et je vais ne plus l'être.

Vous me faites un bien, me faisant vous connaître:

J'y profite d'un coeur qu'ainsi vous me rendez (…)


Oronte's closing remarks reveal, however, the obliquity of his vision. He does not take cognizance of the corrections made of his style by both Alceste and Célimène: note his exaggeratedly precious: ‘votre coeur, paré de beaux semblants d'amour, / A tout le genre humain se promet tour à tour!’ his mercenary imagery: ‘un bien’, ‘profite’, ‘conclure affaire’; the inadequate formulation ‘je vous ai vu écrire’ (Oronte has not actually seen Célimène writing the letters).26 Moreover, Oronte's confession of his error of judgement is itself hybristic: note his conviction that Célimène will be the loser; that he himself has regained his freedom; and that he is the obstacle to the relationship between Alceste and Célimène.

Arsinoé, who seeks to ‘enlighten’ others regarding Célimène's duplicity, is paradoxically the least ‘enlightened’ from a moral or psychological standpoint. Her response to the disclosure of Célimène's double-dealing is pharisaical: note the comic irony of her quasi-exclamatory statement and rhetorical question: ‘Certes, voilà le trait du monde le plus noir (…) Voit-on des procédés qui soient pareils aux vôtres?’ Fired by jealousy, Arsinoé fails to perceive how Alceste has behaved towards Célimène: ‘Un homme comme lui, de mérite et d'honneur, / Et qui vous chérissait avec idolâtrie (…)’; ‘idolâtrie’ (‘adoration des faux Dieux’ (Richelet)) can hardly be applied to Alceste's method of wooing! Alceste's brusque contradiction of Arsinoé's thumbnail sketch of him produces a volte-face. Arsinoé's eulogy gives way to vituperation (1725); elevated abstractions are replaced by vulgar expressions: ‘avoir’, ‘rebut’, ‘marchandise’ (1724, 1727). Her exhortation to Alceste to undeceive himself and to recognize his pride (1729) gives further comic irony to her lack of self-awareness (note the unconscious irony of ‘émouvoir’ (1710) and the double irony of: ‘Et je brûle de voir une union si belle’ (1732)).

Alceste comes nearest to the tragic hero's confession of human limitation. On three occasions he lays claim to ‘enlightenment’. On the first occasion he declares his ‘faiblesse’ and his humanity:

Et je vous fais, tous deux, témoins de ma faiblesse. Mais, à vous dire vrai, ce n'est pas encor tout,

Et vous allez me voir la pousser jusqu'au bout,

Montrer que c'est à tort que sages on nous nomme,

Et que, dans tous les coeurs, il est toujours de l'homme.


His confession, however, does not have any humbling effect or lead to any reevaluation of his conduct. His humanity is illustrated ironically in his detailed elaboration: he apportions all the blame to Célimène and offers the paradoxical solution of ‘fuir tous les humains’ (1762). Alceste's ‘discovery’ of his weakness emerges from his imitation of the tragic hero's classical dilemma:

Hé! le puis-je, traîtresse?

Puis-je ainsi triompher de toute ma tendresse?

Et quoique avec ardeur je veuille vous haïr,

Trouvé-je un coeur en moi tout prêt à m'obéir?


Alceste's dilemma is, however, a false one based on a misapprehension of his ‘tendresse’ and on a rationalisation of his temperamental peculiarity (as the subtitle suggests Alceste is an atrabilaire). His offer of clemency (‘oublier vos forfaits (…) excuser tous les traits’) is in no way magnanimous. It is undermined by the intransigence of his terms (‘Pourvu que (…) c'est par là seulement’) and by the brutal language in which he formulates his final rejection of Célimène: ‘Non, mon coeur, à présent, vous déteste (…)’ (1779). Such categorical expression jars with the idealised portrayal of his love for her:

Puisque vous n'êtes point, en des liens si doux,

Pour trouver tout en moi, comme moi tout en vous (…)


Alceste's casting of himself in the role of a seventeenth-century Tristan or Lancelot gives further emphasis to his blindness.

Alceste's second claim to ‘enlightenment’ is again expressed in the diction of the tragic hero:

Je m'en sens trop indigne, et commence à connaître Que le Ciel, pour ce noeud, ne m'avait point fait naître.


The context makes this ‘discovery’ heavily ironic. Alceste's self-deprecatory tone is both a rationalisation of his failure with Célimène and a means of extricating himself from the extravagant proposal he had made to Éliante in Act IV, scene 2. His tragic diction is unnecessary as Éliante no longer wanted to marry him. (Alceste's lengthy justification of his rejection of Éliante is punctured by her laconic interruption: ‘Vous pouvez suivre cette pensée’ (1795).) A further irony arises from the timing of Alceste's diplomacy: if he had used such expression to Célimène the situation might well have been different.

Alceste's third ‘discovery’—of the restorative properties of the ‘désert’—is equally ironic. His moment of ‘recognition’ has been compared to a conversion to Jansenism.27 His ‘désert’ would become a kind of religious retreat where he can find serenity. But Alceste has not suddenly seen the light: the structure of the play suggests that the ‘désert’ is for Alceste a kind of idée fixe. Moreover, Alceste's contemptus mundi lacks the self-abasement of the solitaires. The religious language, ‘le désert ou j'ai fait voeu de vivre’, is for Alceste merely a vehicle for self-martyrdom. Mortification and penitence would have been inflicted on Célimène and not on himself: ‘C'est par là seulement que (…) Vous pouvez réparer le mal de vos écrits,’ (1765-66). Alceste's vision of the ‘désert’ has also been situated within the pastoral tradition.28 Alceste's retreat from Paris is not however in pursuit of the rustic simplicity and purity of an earlier age. Alceste is no pastoralist: he retires to his country house, not to kill venison for his beloved or to cultivate gallantry. Alceste has not the humour of the countryman; in addition, Célimène will be left behind. A third interpretation turns Alceste's final speech into a quasi-phenomenological, quasi-Sartrian discovery of the ‘liberté de la conscience de l'identité’.29 This anachronistic reading fails to take account of the context of Alceste's declaration of triumph.

Alceste's parting lines confirm that, like other monomaniacs, he has not evolved emotionally or morally, despite all his protestations of lucidity. His benediction of the marriage of Philinte and Éliante (1801-02) contains negative undertones: the emphasis on ‘vrais contentements’ and on ‘garder’ shows that he sees their marriage through the prism of his own disappointment. Heralded by the empty hyperbole to which we have become accustomed (1803-06), Alceste's exit is mock-tragic. His self-delusion is reflected in the final paradox: his search for freedom in separation from the rest of humanity. The root causes of Alceste's failure lie not in the ‘gouffre où triomphent les vices’ but primarily in himself: his extremism (both in language and in behaviour) in the polite society founded on principles of moderation and of tolerance; his self-righteousness, in his clearsightedness with regard to the sins of others, but cecity with regard to his own; his self-absorption in, as Guicharnaud has suggested,30 Alceste's wish to make Célimène a female version of himself.

Molière dispels any doubt concerning the comic status of Alceste's final ‘discovery’ with Philinte's curtain line. Producers who have given a dark interpretation of the hero have generally omitted Philinte's couplet in order to give to Alceste the isolation appropriate to a tragic hero. But as Hope has observed, it is essential that Philinte should have the last word to remind us of the circularity of the play.31

Modern interpretations of Le Misanthrope have sometimes found ‘tragic discovery’ in Célimène. Her exit in Dux's influential production ‘left not a dry eye in the house’.32 Guicharnaud's magisterial study has given weight to the notion of a tragic Célimène:

le personnage ‘tragique’ dans Le Misanthrope, ce n'est peut-être pas Alceste, c'est Célimène, car c'est vraiment elle qui tombe de haut (…) Au centre de la pièce, la compréhension dans la haine annonçait ce morceau de la fin où s'exprime la compréhension dans l'amour. Il n'empêche qu'une illumination de ce genre est unique dans le théâtre de Molière, elle se situe bien au-delà de la comédie dont le finale a été escamoté.33

Célimène does acknowledge her mistakes: ‘Vous en êtes en droit (…) J'ai tort, je le confesse (…) je tombe d'accord de mon crime envers vous (…) vous avez sujet de me haïr’ (1737-1746). But her expression of guilt is attenuated by the use of modal verbs: ‘je dois vous paraître coupable (…) j'ai pu vous trahir’. Nowhere does she give unequivocal expression to the fact of her deception. Célimène chooses a form of words which she thinks will be acceptable to Alceste. Her muted confession can therefore be seen as an attempt to pacify him. In believing that a marriage with Alceste can be contracted with merely the mildest expression of contrition on her part she betrays a naïvety rarely perceived in the role by critics.

Any ‘enlightenment’ on the stage is experienced by Philinte and Éliante, who, we have seen, demonstrate a willingness to learn from the experience of others. Yet even they are not possessed of all knowledge. Philinte's final couplet shows a degree of ingenuousness in his determination to bring back to Paris Éliante's ‘first love’ and in his belief that he will be able to achieve this feat—a more probable scenario is that Alceste will return of his own accord to give full vent to his misanthropy.

I have tried to show that the dénouement completes the comic ‘action’. Lessons go unheeded by all but Philinte and Éliante, and even they are not free from error. Apart from their wedding, nothing is resolved. The problems of character remain: the misanthropication of Alceste is more extreme; Célimène's duplicity has been temporarily checked but uncorrected; the marquis set off to air their grievances elsewhere; Oronte will seek a ‘superior’ audience to listen to his inept poetry. The characters are locked in circularity, not unlike the protagonists of the farce tradition. In one sense, the ending of Le Misanthrope is more pessimistic than that of any Racinian tragedy.34 The underlying pessimism, however, does not call into question the comic status of the play: it merely illustrates the central paradox of the comic genre.


  1. R. Horville, Le Misanthrope de Molière (Paris: Hatier: Profil d'une oeuvre, 1981), p. 70.

  2. Notably by J. D. Hubert, Molière and the Comedy of Intellect (California: University of California Press, 1962); F. L. Lawrence, ‘Our Alceste or Nature's? A Problem of Interpretation’, Revue des langues vivantes, 38 (1972); A. Eustis, Molière as Ironic Contemplator (The Hague: Mouton, 1973); R. McBride, The Sceptical Vision of Molière (London: Macmillan, 1977); W. D. Howarth, Molière: A Playwright and his Audience (C.U.P., 1982). These interpretations have not gone unchallenged: see, for example, M. Gutwirth's refutation of Hubert's view that Alceste is a ‘héros burlesque’ (‘Visages d'Alceste’, Oeuvres et critiques, 6, i (1981), p. 80).

  3. Goethe asks: ‘Ob jemals ein Dichter sein Inneres vollkommener und liebenswürdiger dargestellt habe’ (see H. R. Jauss, ‘The Paradox of the Misanthrope’, Comparative Literature, 35 (1983), p. 318).

  4. For A. Thibaudet (‘Le Rire de Molière’, Revue de Paris, 29 (1922), 99-125), once the marquis have left ‘on ne rit ni d'Alceste ni de Célimène, et la scène n'a plus rien de comique, elle est simplement humaine’; for J. Arnavon (Le Misanthrope de Molière (Paris: 1930), especially pp. 272-73) Alceste's exit is profoundly moving.

  5. E.g. A. Adam, Histoire de la littérature française (Paris: Éditions mondiales, 1962), III, p. 343: ‘la comédie tend vers le drame’; P. J. Yarrow, ‘A Reconsideration of Alceste’, French Studies, 13 (1959), 314-331, p. 328: ‘Molière appears to have begun by intending Alceste to be a comic figure, but, in the heat of the composition, his original conception developed and broke through the bounds of comedy; the creature took hold of the creator, and Molière came to sympathize more and more with Alceste, to make him more complex and human, possibly to put more and more of himself into him’; J. Guicharnaud, Molière: une aventure théâtrale (Paris: Gallimard, 1963), p. 483: ‘En guise de finale, théâtralement satisfaisante, la pièce nous offre le spectacle tout humain d'une véritable agonie’; Simone Dosmond, ‘Le Dénouement du Misanthrope: Une “source” méconnue?’, La Licorne, VII (1983), 25-40, p. 25: ‘L'exil de “l'homme aux rubans verts”, l'humiliation publique infligée à la coquette qui demeure seule au milieu de son salon (presque) désert sont loin, en effet, d'engendrer l'euphorie qui caractérise, en principe, les dénouements de comédies. Ne pourrait-on pas, dès lors, considérer Molière comme le créateur d'un genre hybride: la comédie à fin malheureuse?’

  6. E.g. J. Morel compares the ending of Le Misanthrope with that of Bérénice (see J. Dubu, ‘Molière et le tragique’, XVIIeSiècle, 98-99 (1973), p. 53); J. Cairncross, Molière bourgeois et libertin (Paris: Nizet, 1963), p. 84: ‘Au cinquième acte, le doute ne subsiste ni sur la situation elle-même, ni sur l'angle sous lequel Molière présente l'amour d'Alceste. Nous voilà dans le monde fermé et sombre de Racine, de la tragédie la plus émouvante’; A. Szogyi, Molière abstrait (Paris: Nizet, 1985), p. 108: ‘Nulle part ailleurs la planète moliéresque n'est aussi tragiquement dénudée, livrée sans espoir au désaccord, au gaspillage tragique (…) Le Misanthrope est un duel à mort, un combat sans merci avant l'halali de sa coquette proie’.

  7. See H. T. Barnwell, The Tragic Drama of Corneille and Racine: An Old Parallel Revisited (O.U.P., 1982), p. 168. For an illuminating analysis of the significance of ‘action’ in Corneille and Racine see in particular pp. 1-31.

  8. P. Corneille, Writings on the Theatre, ed. H. T. Barnwell (Oxford: Blackwell, 1965), p. 9.

  9. J. Racine, Preface to Bérénice in Oeuvres, ed. P. Mesnard (Paris: Hachette, 1865), II, p. 366.

  10. See Corneille, op. cit., p. 10.

  11. All quotations from Le Misanthrope are taken from G. Rudler's edition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1972). References are to line numbers.

  12. J. Mairet, Préface de La Silvanire ou La Morte—vive, Oeuvres (Paris: Rocolet, 1631), vol. II.

  13. J. Chapelain, Opuscules critiques, ed. A. C. Hunter (Paris: Droz, 1936), p. 130.

  14. F. H. abbé d'Aubignac, La Pratique du théâtre, ed. P. Martino (Paris: Champion, 1927), p. 276.

  15. Corneille, op. cit., pp. 8-9.

  16. J. Scherer, La Dramaturgie classique en France (Paris: Nizet, 1950), pp. 139-40.

  17. Dosmond, op. cit., p. 25.

  18. See also for example: Les Précieuses ridicules, Le Mariage forcé, Dom Juan, George Dandin.

  19. See J. L. Shepherd, III, ‘Arsinoé as Puppeteer’, French Review, 42 (1968-69), 262-71.

  20. See my edition: La Jalousie du Barbouillé et George Dandin (Exeter: Textes littéraires, LV), 1984.

  21. H. Bergson, Le Rire (Paris: Alcan, 1900).

  22. See Barnwell, op. cit., pp. 159-78. I am using ‘recognition’, ‘discovery’, ‘enlightenment’ as synonymous and as an equivalent of Aristotle's anagorisis.

  23. Ibid., pp. 164-66.

  24. See R. Duchêne, ‘Molière et la lettre’, Travaux de linguistique et de littérature, XIII, 2 (1975), pp. 261-73.

  25. See Rudler, ed. cit., p. 139.

  26. Ibid.

  27. Cf. Robinet, Lettres en vers, 12 juin 1666:

    Et ce Misanthrope est si sage,
    En frondant les moeurs de notre âge,
    Que l'on dirait, benoît lecteur,
    Qu'on entend un prédicateur.
    Aucune morale chrétienne
    N'est plus louable que la sienne (…)

    See G. Mongrédien, Recueil des textes et des documents du XVIIcsièle relatifs à Molière (Paris: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1965), I, p. 266. Modern criticism has revived this notion: see in particular M. Deutsch, ‘Le vertige Alceste’, in J. P. Vincent et al., Alceste et l'Absolutisme: essais de dramaturgie sur Le Misanthrope (Paris: Galilée, 1977), pp. 85-103; Dosmond (op. cit), who pictures Alceste as ‘le nouveau compagnon de Nicole et de Lancelot’.

  28. For further discussion of Christian and pastoral interpretations see L. Lerner, The Literary Imagination (Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1982), pp. 24-38.

  29. G. A. Goldschmidt, Molière ou la liberté mise à nu (Paris: Julliard, 1973), p. 93.

  30. Op. cit., p. 485.

  31. Q. Hope, ‘Molière's Curtain Lines’, French Studies, 26 (1972), p. 148.

  32. For a review of the production see R. W. Herzel, ‘Much Depends on the Acting: the Original Cast of Le Misanthrope’, PMLA, 95 (1980), 348-66 (especially 348-51).

  33. Op. cit., pp. 473, 485.

  34. See Barnwell's application of the paradox to tragedy (op. cit., particularly, pp. 249-50): ‘Tragedy disturbs the order of the moral universe, but it also restores it’.

Dorothy F. Jones (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4079

SOURCE: “The Treasure in the Garden: Biblical Imagery in L' Avare,” in Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature, Vol. XV, No. 29, 1988, pp. 517-28.

[In the following essay, Jones emphasizes the importance of the symbolic garden treasure—representing both death and life—presented in Molière's L'Avare.]

Harpagon's treasure—his “chère cassette”—has received considerable attention as a central symbol in L'Avare. “Cette petite cassette grise … est le personnage principal,” declares Couton in his Pléiade edition of the play.1 In their staging, directors such as Jacques Mauclair and Charles Dullin have emphasized the tie between the miser and his treasure. A famous photo of Dullin in the title role shows him cheek to cheek with his cassette, in a terrible parody of lovers united. More recently, in Roger Planchon's 1986 production, Harpagon falls sobbing across the cassette in a tearful embrace as the curtain drops. But an equally important symbol has gone largely unnoticed: the garden where Harpagon's treasure is buried throughout most of the play.

No garden appears in Molière's principal source, the Aulularia of Plautus. Euclion's pot of gold is hid not in his garden but in the hearth of his house, and he twice moves it in the course of the play. Far from being linked to a particular place, the treasure is in almost constant movement. Nor has the garden received much attention from directors and scene designers. No trace of it remains in Jean Vilar's abstract platform setting (TNP, 1952), or in Jacques Mauclair's claustrophobic interior (Comédie française, 1962), nor do the files of the Arsenal, with one exception, show its appearance in earlier productions. Even Planchon, who expands his set beyond the confines of Harpagon's house, makes no attempt to show the garden itself.2

Yet there are clear indications that the garden appeared in Molière's own mise en scène. “[Le] théâtre est une salle, et sur le derrière, un jardin,” wrote Laurent Mahelot, describing the original set for L'Avare.3 Roger Herzel, basing his case on an analysis of Brissart's 1682 illustrations, argues convincingly that the garden was visible through an arch at the back of the stage throughout most of the play.4 With this precedent in mind, both Jacques Arnavon and Charles Dullin gave the garden a central place in their own décor.5 “En réalité,” writes Arnavon, “le centre du décor, c'est ce jardin dont on parle incessamment et qu'on voit à peine parce que c'est la qu'est la cassette. Comme on n'y peut passer la scène, il est indispensable de le rappeler d'une manière ou d'une autre à chaque acte” (pp. 241-242). Arnavon's proposed sets show large bay windows at the back of the stage opening onto the greenery and light of a garden behind (pp. 242, 315). And in his inventive production of the play in 1940, Dullin places the wall of the garden, “épais et hérissé de défenses” and backed by large trees, downstage right in view of the audience. Justifying his staging, he writes: “Reprenant l'indication de Mahelot … j'ai donné dans la mise en scène plus de présence au jardin … En effet, ce jardin est un pole d'attraction. C'est là qu'Harpagon a enfoui son trésor. Il y va continuellement. Il en écoute tous les bruits. C'est du jardin que partiront ses cris de désespoir: ‘Au voleur! au voleur!’ C'est le lieu dramatique par excellence” (p. 16).

An analysis of the text of the play confirms this sense of the garden's importance. Seen or unseen, the garden is evoked in every act of L'Avare in text, didascalie, or gesture, as follows:

Act I: The word is mentioned once by Harpagon and once in stage directions. “… Je ne sais si j'aurai bien fait d'avoir enterré dans mon jardin dix mille écus …” (I,4). “Il regarde vers le jardin” (I,5). Harpagon makes one exit to the garden and returns.

Act II: Harpagon makes a second trip to the garden and returns. This time the word itself has been replaced by “mon argent”: “Il est à propos que je fasse un petit tour à mon argent” (II,3).

Act III: Harpagon makes no reference to the garden and no trips to it. But the garden is mentioned by Cléante, who exits to it with the lovers: “Je vais … conduire Madame dans le jardin, où je ferai porter la collation” (III,9).

Act IV: Movement from the garden intensifies. We see three entrances: the lovers return from the garden (sc.1), followed later by La Flèche with the cassette (sc.6) and by Harpagon himself (sc.7). Two references in stage directions emphasize these last two entrances.

Act V: There are no exits or entrances from the garden. The word itself reappears twice in the interrogation of Maître Jacques by Harpagon, who also refers to it as the “lieu où j'avais mis mon argent.”

A number of observations occur here. The garden is never described. With one exception, every reference to it, verbal or gestural, associates it with money. It is for most of the play primarily “le lieu où j'avais mis mon argent” and Harpagon's obsessive exits—Dullin increases their number—show the strength of this “pole d'attraction.” Physical movement to or from the garden appears in every act but one. It ceases abruptly at the end of Act IV when the cassette has been stolen. The appearance of La Flèche, “sortant du jardin, avec une cassette” (IV,6), is the visual climax of this link between treasure and garden. It is also the moment when the link between the two is broken, as the treasure passes into Cléante's hands. When the money is removed from the garden, Harpagon follows it onstage immediately, and his loss, significantly, is expressed largely in terms of spatial disorientation. Even the boundary of the ramp breaks down as he addresses the audience directly. His “au voleur” tirade contains no fewer than thirteen spatial references, beginning with the frantic succession of five `où?” which culminates in his “j'ignore où je suis, qui je suis … je suis enterré,” as he becomes the lost treasure he himself had buried. No one enters or leaves the garden after this point in the play.

But in Act II, when the treasure is still safely underground, Harpagon does not enter the garden at all. In fact if one may accept Herzel's convincing reconstruction, the garden was not even visible to Molière's audience during that act, when a ferme would have been drawn across to conceal it temporarily from view (p. 947). This is the act when Mariane first appears (III,4), and Harpagon's attention is turned towards the young girl he plans to marry. This interruption of his exits to the garden suggests the strength of his involvement with her. But what is more important is that his place is taken by Cléante. In a moment which Gaston Hall describes as a “mime of death,”6 Harpagon is knocked down by his servant. He recovers to hear his son announce, “Je vais faire pour vous, mon père, les honneurs de votre logis, et conduire Madame dans le jardin, où je ferai porter la collation” (III,9). For the first time the garden is associated not with Harpagon's sterile treasure, but with youth, love, and nurture.

This contrast seems to me the key to the rôle of the garden in the play. Cléante's garden is the archetypal garden of love and delight, associated throughout western literature with the body of woman, with fertility and nourishment.7 It is the antithesis of Harpagon's dusty hiding place, that “terre lourde, sans soleil” which Robert Jouanny imagines.8 When Cléante exits to the garden, he gathers about him all the company of lovers, and even Frosine, in a move towards fellowship and celebration. Harpagon's own exits to the garden are always solitary; each time he withdraws he turns his back on society, leaving behind onstage his son and daughter in Act I, his guest, Frosine, in Act II. Cléante's own sortie in Act III is short-lived—the lovers return at the beginning of Act IV with “Rentrons ici, nous serons beaucoup mieux” (IV,1)—but his brief possession of the garden is long enough to remind us of its true nature and the extent to which Harpagon has disfigured it. This reminder comes at the midpoint of the play, and only with Mariane's entrance. She is as naturally associated with the garden for her lover as is that other feminine symbol, the cassette, Harpagon's own grotesque mistress.

For Cléante, moreover, the garden is also the place of the “collation” he offers Mariane. This love feast of fruits, the “bassins d'oranges,” “citrons doux,” “confitures” is itself another archetypal image, the banquet—specifically, that nuptial feast which so often, in comedy, celebrates the union of lovers at the end of the play. Northrop Frye points out how such “festive ritual” is normally associated with the emergence of the new society which “crystallizes” around the hero (Anatomy, p. 163). Cléante's collation is set in ironic juxtaposition to the two other “nuptial banquets” which precede it in Act III: the empty meal which exists only in Maître Jacque's frustrated imagination (“il faudra quatre grands potages et cinq assiettes. Potages … Entrées … Entremets …”), and the inverted banquet which Harpagon plans for his fiancée, where the guests will be encouraged to eat as little as possible (“Il faudra de ces choses dont on ne mange guère …”). The parodic nature of these other meals is brought into focus by their contrast with the generous table Cléante spreads for his beloved in the garden.

The recurrent descriptions of Harpagon's sécheresse take on their full power if seen in the context of the garden. “Il n'est rien de plus sec et de plus aride que ses bonnes graces,” says La Flèche of his master (II,4). Cléante speaks at the very beginning of the play of “cette sécheresse étrange où l'on nous fait languir” (I,2). Critics seem irresistibly drawn to images of dryness in describing Harpagon. “Harpagon flétrit tout ce qu'il touche,” writes Jacques Copeau, “desséche tout ce qui l'entoure … les deux traits qui le caractérisent sont la sécheresse et la dureté.” “Everything that comes into contact with him shrivels,” says Quentin Hope. Harpagon is the parody of the true gardener. The seed he plants is lifeless, and his very burial of the gold, as Marcel Gutwirth points out, symbolizes his relationship to his wealth. “Cet or, il se charge de l'enterrer, d'immobiliser la somme de vie, d'activités, d'échanges, de bonheur possible qu'il contient.”9

In contrast, the image most associated with the lovers is water. Almost all the lovers are rescued from the water, as is the “good father,” Anselme, who arrives at the end of the play. There has been much discussion of this romanesque dénouement, in which the survivors of “that classical shipwreck”10 are reunited. But few critics have commented on the fact that Harpagon's daughter Elise has also been saved from the waves, and that her rescue is the basis of her love for Valère. Only Cléante has for some reason been spared this experience. In Roger Planchon's production, exploitation of water as a symbol is carried beyond the text. The Act I tête-à-tête between Elise and Valère begins with an erotic tumble amid the flapping sheets in the household laundry, after which Elise clambers into a large wooden bathtub onstage to bathe. And at the end of the play, when the lovers triumph, the very wall of Harpagon's house crumbles, to reveal in a blaze of light the tossing waves of the shipwreck and rescue.

The garden is therefore the focus for a whole cluster of archetypal images in L'Avare, images which enrich a play that Molière's contemporaries complained was only written in prose. But the full power of these images emerges if we now replace them in the context of the religious tradition within which Molière wrote.

L'Avare is the only one of Molière's plays in which the protagonist's mania is one of the seven deadly sins. Avarice is treated with particular seriousness in the Bible, where love of money is presented as the antithesis of the love of God. “No one can serve two masters,” we are told flatly in the New Testament, “You cannot serve God and money” (Matt. 6:24). The same polarity appears in the admonition not to “lay up … treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal” but to “lay up treasures in heaven,” because “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:19-21). Love of money is seen as idolatry, the worship of a false god (Col. 3:5, Eph. 5:5). In contrast, the biblical image most often used to express a right relationship with God is marriage. Israel is the beloved of Yahweh in the Old Testament, as the Church is the Bride of Christ in the New. The banquet is the celebration of this relationship, the symbol of communion in God's love. “He who has no money, come, buy and eat!” urges Isaiah (55:1), while in the New Testament the hungry are told they will be filled and the faithful are invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb (Matt. 22,25; Rev. 19:9). Spiritual death is often expressed in terms of dryness, the “dry and weary land where no water is” of the Psalms (63:1), or the desert wilderness where the Israelites turn from God to worship the golden calf in Exodus. Water has a dual role, as Northrop Frye points out (Code, p. 145). Symbol of death and chaos—there will be no more sea in the redeemed world of Revelation (21:1)—it is also the source of life, the “living water” which Christ offers the Samaritan woman and all those who thirst (John 4). The sacrament of baptism, within the Christian tradition, combines these two aspects: after an immersion which symbolizes the death of the old self, one rises from the water into new life and communion, symbolized in a new name. And what of the garden? From the garden of Eden to that of Gethsemane, from the “enclosed garden” which is the bride's body in the Song of Songs to the place where the risen Christ appears as a gardener to Mary Magdalene, this image is one of the most powerful recurrent symbols in the Bible, symbol of fruitfulness and new life, of God's concern for creation. “The city, the garden, and the sheepfold,” says Northrop Frye, “are the organizing metaphors of the Bible and of most Christian symbolism” (Anatomy, p. 141).

Viewed against this biblical background, the dominant images of L'Avare take on new life. Critics have frequently commented on the basic polarity underlying the play. Judd Hubert speaks of “the incompatible worlds of love and avarice,” of the “strong opposition between generosity and happiness on the one hand, avarice on the other,” and concludes that “the entire comedy consists in artificially forcing together two series of mutually exclusive concepts and attitudes, only to have them break apart with increasing violence …” (pp. 32, 33). In contrast to this critical view, however, audiences themselves frequently have an initial sense of moral uneasiness. The play seems very black indeed: honest Maître Jacques is taught to lie, Valère pursues his love by hypocrisy and flattery, Cléante robs and blackmails his father. But the imagery, rooted in the Bible, counters this ambiguity and rights the balance, suggesting that the battle in the play is a more clearcut contest between good and evil than at first appears. Harpagon is not merely the rapacious Parisian bourgeois, but the worshiper of the golden calf, the idolater who will sacrifice all to a false god. When he sends his son to “boire un grand verre d'eau claire” (I,4), his gesture is not merely niggardly but a terrible parody of the love of God which Christ urges us to express by giving “even a cup of cold water” to “one of these little ones” (Matt. 10:42). The miserly meal Harpagon will serve his unwilling fiancée recalls in irony its biblical opposite, the banquet to which a generous God invites creation. Harpagon's sécheresse goes beyond the psychological to symbolize his spiritual death. The Bible reminds us that the cassette he has buried contains not only 10,000 écus but also his heart.

Thanks to this imagery, Cléante, Elise, Mariane and Valère—those who in contrast serve “le dieu qui porte les excuses de tout ce qu'il fait faire, l'Amour” (V,3)—can hardly help being on the side of the angels. Cléante's candied fruit becomes a true love feast, reflecting those nuptial banquets which celebrate God's love, spread in a garden which evokes the Creator of all life. Through her association with the garden, Mariane, unscathed by those dubious years of slavery on the high seas, remains the virginal bride of the Song of Songs, like that other Lady of the Garden whom her name recalls. Even La Flèche's theft of the cassette reminds us that Christ too, after all, will “come as a thief in the night” (1 Thess.5:2) to ensure the triumph of love. At the end of the play these lovers rise from the waters of death into new life, newly baptized as Neapolitan aristocrats, to enter marriages that symbolize in biblical terms not only their own union but that between God and creation.

The biblical imagery of the play thus reinforces the binary structure which gives L'Avare it unity. The comic conflict takes on a deeper resonance. This is particularly true of the play's central image, the treasure in the garden. In the Bible, treasure is, not surprisingly, a symbol of one's ultimate commitment. For Harpagon clearly the cassette is this treasure, and he endows his sterile gold with all the power of a god: “Mon cher ami … mon support, ma consolation, ma joie … sans toi il m'est impossible de vivre” (IV,7). The garden where the cassette is buried is for him primarily “le lieu où j'avais mis mon argent,” an inviolate (so he hopes) space to which he withdraws from our sight like a priest entering the holy of holies. The cassette's sudden first appearance onstage in Act IV in the hands of La Flèche has all the power of an epiphany. But as the garden is transformed into its opposite, in a kind of baroque metamorphosis, by the arrival of Mariane and the true lovers in Act III, the cassette, unearthed, also changes its nature. Buried, it is a symbol of wasted life, of idolatrous and fearful commitment to the perishable. “Raised” up, ironically by La Flèche, it takes on a new “imperishable” identity, to use the terms in which Paul describes the Resurrection (I. Cor.15:42). In the hands of those who love, the cassette, described for the first time in Act IV not as money but as “le trésor de votre père,” becomes a treasure of an opposite sort.

There are two major steps in this transformation. The first is the famous quiproquo of V,3, in which Harpagon accuses Valère of stealing the cassette, while Valère believes he is being accused of seducing Elise. Thanks to this comic misunderstanding, Harpagon's money is transformed into Elise, through the words of her lover: “C'est un trésor, il est vrai, et le plus précieux que vous ayez sans doute … Je vous le demande à genoux …”. The second step occurs in the final scene of the play, when Cléante reappears. He offers to surrender the cassette in return for permission to marry Mariane. This transaction turns Harpagon's money almost literally into Cléante's bride to be, in an exchange which clearly contrasts commitment to the God who is Love with commitment to the god who is money. Both examples are thus symbolic expressions of the opposition inherent in the Bible's view of avarice as idolatry: one's treasure can be either God or money, not both.

No one enters the garden after the cassette has been removed. With their own treasure unearthed, the lovers are free to move elsewhere. They carry within themselves the promise of fruitfulness and new life. Led by their true father Anselme, they leave Harpagon's barren ground behind to be united offstage with an unseen and loving mother.

The treasure in the garden is thus the center of the group of biblical images which embody the themes and undergird the structure of L'Avare. The dual nature of this central image—symbol of death and symbol of life—is reinforced, finally, by its association with two parables well known to Molière's audience. In each, the image of buried money is a focus. The first is the parable of the talents. A master, we are told in Matthew 25:14-30, entrusts his property to his servants in the form of talents. Some use their gifts fruitfully, but one servant “was afraid” and “went and dug in the ground and hid his master's money.” When the master returns, this “worthless servant” is condemned and his buried talent given to the faithful servants, “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he [sic] will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” The buried talent is a symbol of rejection of the abundant life offered by God in favor of a life immobilized, literally dead and buried, like the treasure which Harpagon, that other fearful servant, also hides in the ground. And at the end of the play, Harpagon, like the worthless servant, has also lost even what he had. His cassette has been returned to him, but his household is empty. Even Maître Jacques is no longer an ally. His children have transferred their allegiance to a true father and mother, and are ready, like the faithful servants of the parable, to “enter into the joy” of new and loving parents.

In the second parable, buried money has a positive value. “The kingdom of heaven,” we are told, “is like treasure hidden in a field which a man [sic] found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matt.13:44). For the lovers, those who “have abundance,” Harpagon's wasted talent becomes this second treasure. Prepared, like Cléante, to give all they have to possess it, they serve a god Harpagon does not know, “le dieu qui porte les excuses de tout ce qu'il fait faire, l'Amour.” At the end of L'Avare, through the power of love, Harpagon's sterile treasure in the garden becomes for these seekers of the kingdom the sign of new life, and the false god he worships yields to the true.


  1. Molière, Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1971), II, 513. Citations to L'Avare are to this edition. For a useful état-présent of studies of the play, see Barbara Alsip, “L'Avare: A History of Scholarship,” Oeuvres et critiques VI, 1(été 1981), 99-110.

  2. Photos of the Mauclair set may be found in many school editions: Bordas, Hatier, Larousse. For a brief description of the Vilar set, see M. Descotes, Les grands rôles du théâtre de Molière (Paris: PUF, 1960), 149.

  3. Le Mémoire de Mahelot, ed. H. C. Lancaster (Paris: E. Champion, 1920), 118.

  4. “The Décor of Molière's Stage: The Testimony of Brissart and Chauveau,” PMLA 93 (Oct. 1978), 946-948.

  5. Notes sur l'interprétation de Molière (Paris: Plon, 1923); Molière, L'Avare: Mise en scène de Charles Dullin (Paris: Seuil, 1946).

  6. “Molière's Comic Images,” Molière: Stage and Study, ed. W. G. Howarth and M. Thomas (Oxford: Clarendon, 1973), 54.

  7. See Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957) and his The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (Toronto: Academic Press Canada, 1983).

  8. Notice, Molière, Théâtre complet (Paris: Garnier, 1960), II, 236.

  9. Molière, Oeuvres, éd. J. Copeau (Paris: A la cité des livres, 1928), VII, 102. Q. Hope, “Animals in Molière,” PMLA 79 (Sept. 1964), 420. M. Gutwirth, Molière ou l'invention comique (Paris: Lettres modernes, 1966), 129. See also Ralph Albanese, “Argent et réification dans L'Avare,Esprit créateur 21 (Fall 1981), 42: “… portrait fondé sur des images de stérilité et de sécheresse.” J. Hubert, “Theme and Structure in L'Avare,PMLA 75 (March 1960), 32: “Harpagon is frequently characterized by his dureté or sécheresse.” L …, “La Morale de Molière,” Le Molièriste (mai 1883), 44: “l'avarice … dessèche et flétrit une âme humaine …”.

  10. M. Gutwirth, “The Unity of Molière's L'Avare,PMLA 76 (1961), 363.

John McCann (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6822

SOURCE: “Harpagon: The Paradox of Miserliness,” in Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature, Vol. XXII, No. 43, 1995, pp. 555-69.

[In the following essay, McCann maintains that the character of Harpagon, of Molière's L'Avare, rises above pure meanness.]

Being mean is not funny. We despise those whom we consider to be tight-fisted. People such as Harpagon, therefore, are unpromising subjects for comedy. Yet, as Pierre Gaxotte has pointed out:

Par bonheur, Molière a éclairé son homme de tant de façons, lui a prêté tant de postures que non seulement il fait rire de ce qui aurait pu paraître odieux, mais qu'Harpagon se trouve être de tous les temps, du nôtre comme du sien.1

Few would dispute this. The status of L'Avare, unlike Le Misanthrope, is in no doubt: it is a comedy. There is, as Gaxotte says, a density of characterization that raises Harpagon above mere meanness.

Robert McBride finds density of another kind. For him it is:

the simultaneous perception of two self-contained but rationally incompatible ideas [that] characterizes through and through the purely intellectual form of Molière's comedy.2

The word “incompatible” is crucial here. Molière's other plays demonstrate McBride's definition. The titles often contain two ideas, one of which undermines the other. Le Bourgeois gentilhomme designates two incompatible social statuses. Le Médecin malgré lui boldly announces the disparity between appearance and reality as does Le Malade imaginaire. Yet L'Avare would appear to be an exception if we accept the definition of miserliness given by Sylvie and Jacques Dauvin:

Le mot latin avaritia nous renseigne micux: il désigne un vif désir de conserver, mais surtout d'acquérir toujours plus.3

The acquisition and keeping of riches are on the face of it compatible. Harpagon's happiness depends on holding on to his riches and if possible increasing them. But happiness is not assured as can be gauged from his first monologue in I,iv:

Certes ce n'est pas une petite peine que de garder chez soi une grande somme d'argent; et bienheureux qui a tout son fait bien placé, et ne conserve seulement que ce qu'il faut pour sa dépense. On n'est pas peu embarrassé à inventer dans toute une maison une cache fidèle; car pour moi, les coffres-forts me sont suspects, et je ne veux jamais m'y fier: je les tiens justement une franche amorce à voleurs, et c'est toujours la première chose que l'on va attaquer. Cependant je ne sais si j'aurai bien fait d'avoir enterré dans mon jardin dix mille écus qu'on me rendit hier. Dix mille ecus en or chez soi est une somme …

Ici le frere et le sœur paraissent s'entretenant bas.

O Ciel! je me serai trahi moi-meme: la chaleur m'aura emporté, et je crois avoir parlé haut en raisonnant tout seul.4

As the above demonstrates, the possession of money induces not pleasure but anxiety. The reason is that possession also brings with it a fear of loss. The whole environment becomes threatening and Harpagon even feels that he cannot trust himself to keep his money safe.

Herein lies the paradox of miserliness: Harpagon was much happier when he had given someone else his money. Furthermore, he acquired more riches since interest had to be paid on the loan. Consequently Harpagon spends much of the play trying to give his gold to someone else. This is why we find him funny. He is doing the opposite of what we expect a miser to do. For him it is indeed more blessed to give than to receive—but not quite in the way Christ intended.

Thus it is that this devil can quote scriptural precepts for his own ends:

La charité, maître Simon, nous oblige à faire plaisir aux personnes, lorsque nous le pouvons. (II,ii)

It is not hard to imagine Harpagon bathing in a righteous glow. But his motivation is not charity or the desire to do good but his fear of losing his money and his desire to increase it. Harpagon is being hypocritical. Similarly, the contract with Cléante makes great play of fairness and willingness to oblige but it is only as the reading of the document proceeds that we have cause to realize what that generosity means. The contract concludes:

Le tout, ci-dessus mentionné, valant loyalement plus de quatre mille cinq cents livres, et rabaissé à la valeur de mille écus, par la discrétion du prêteur. (II,i)

Harpagon is defining himself as a generous man while in reality being miserly. He tries to present what he believes is an attractive image of himself while satisfying a deep-seated need to protect his wealth. An obligation to repay—and Harpagon's questioning of Maître Simon shows that he makes sure of his potential debtor—is a stronger protection for his miser's hoard than his back garden can provide.

Moreover, as the Dauvins have pointed out, avarice also means increasing what riches you have and an interest-bearing loan satisfies this desire as well. Harpagon's version of generosity is, like his concept of charity, quite different from that of the rest of us. His vision is not shared by us. Yet it is coherent and logical in its own terms. As McBride has pointed out above, rationality is self-contained. The ideas are developed in accordance with logic but without reference to our shared reality. It is the incongruities arising from Molière's exploitation of this that enables us to see the humour in Harpagon. Miserliness is dressed in surprising and, to us, inappropriate forms of behaviour—just as Harpagon wears clothing that is not appropriate for the times in which he is living. This tension constitutes the unifying dynamic of the play.

An additional comic piquancy is added when miserliness is caught in its own stratagem and forced to comply with its outward show of generosity. This happens when Cléante admires his father's ring and gives it to Mariane so that she too may admire it. He then announces that his father wishes her to have it:

N'est-il pas vrai, mon père, que vous voulez que Madame le garde pour l'amour de vous? (III,vii)

Unlike the encounter just discussed, Cléante wins this particular struggle between himself and his father by forcing upon the latter a pattern of behaviour similar to those which Harpagon uses to clothe his miserliness. The difference is that this takes Harpagon further than he would have gone of his own accord. He who normally says, according to La Flèche: “Je vous prête le bonjour” (II,v), would merely have lent the ring.

Yet the notion that giving is only a temporary lending eventually triumphs for Mariane ends the scene by saying:

Pour ne vous point mettre en colère, je la garde maintenant; et je prendrai un autre temps pour vous la rendre. (III,vii)

Of her own accord, Marianne accepts the principle so dear to Harpagon whereby what is given must be returned. He is not alone in his values. In Harpagon's moral code ownership is inviolate and injustice occurs when the owner is deprived of what is rightfully his. This principle turns out to be the foundation of the play's moral universe.

Loss is the major threat to this moral order. Giving is a means by which Harpagon can control loss. He retains power over what he has given and can recover it. However, there are other forms of loss which he cannot control. Indeed, a sense of loss is at the heart of his personality as is attested by his daughter:

Il est bien vrai que, tous les jours, il nous donne de plus en plus sujet de regretter la mort de notre mere, et que … (I,ii)

There is a suggestion here that Harpagon's wife was a restraining influence on his avarice or that she shielded her children from its effects. One could perhaps go further and suggest that it was the loss of his wife that triggered off his current behaviour in that it may have caused him to transfer his affections to something he believes more durable. In itself, her death is not perhaps a noteworthy fact given the mortality rates of the seventeenth century and the large number of widowers in Molière's plays. What is perhaps more significant is the patterning—the way death is woven into the lives of the major female characters.

If we take Harpagon's wife as our point of departure, we can discern a progression based on the closeness of the main female characters (excluding Frosine) to death. Thus the next in order is Mariane's mother. It is from Cléante that we first learn about her when he tells Elise about the young girl with whom he has fallen in love:

Elle se nomme Mariane, et vit sous la conduite d'une bonne femme de mère qui est presque toujours malade, et pour qui cette aimable fille a des sentiments d'amitié qui ne sont pas imaginables. Elle la sert, la plaint, et la console avec une tendresse qui vous toucherait l'âme. (I,ii)

The impression that we have is of a woman in failing health—one who is not dead but whose life is in danger. Like Harpagon's wife she is not to be seen but unlike her, she is still alive.

The progression continues with the next generation. Mariane is presented on stage but not until halfway through the play. She is in some distress and when asked why by Frosine, she replies:

Hélas! me le demandez-vous? et ne vous figurez-vous point les alarmes d'une personne toute prête à voir le supplice où l'on veut l'attacher? (III,iv)

Mariane, too, is under the shadow of death, albeit metaphorically. She strikes us as being a fragile creature, more passive than Elise:

Mon Dieu! Frosine, c'est une étrange affaire, lorsque pour être heureuse, il faut souhaiter ou attendre le trépas de quelqu'un, et la mort ne suit pas tous les projets que nous faisons. (III,iv)

Mariane is a creature who is at the mercy of events and who has no control over them. It is ironic that she who sees marriage as a form of death in the first of the two quotations above, should, in the second, see death as her only means of liberation. In this respect she is the opposite of Harpagon, who seeks to preserve and acquire. She sees her future happiness depending on the loss of her husband.

Against this, Elise stands out as a much stronger character. She is present from the beginning of the play and although in many ways the helpless victim of Harpagon (her statement about the effect that her mother's death had on her father suggest that she has no power to reform him), she seems to be made of sterner stuff. We find out early on that she was in fact saved from drowning by Valère. Her escape suggests someone whose link to life is stronger. But even here, she is in a position of dependence, saved by Valère, her future husband, in a way that Harpagon could not do for his own wife. So, in this respect, Elise is like Mariane in that she cannot herself have any control over death.

The position of these women on a scale of encroaching mortality reinforces the notion that loss cannot be confined to money. If Harpagon is obsessed by the need to keep what he has within his control and indeed increase that which he has, this must be seen against the background of impermanency in the play. In his struggles, he is representative of a humanity living in a world where no-one can be sure that anything will last. Even the younger generation are not immune. The fragility of the younger women has already been mentioned but it goes further than that. Valère's very first words state the fear clearly:

Hé quoi? charmante Elise, vous devenez mélancolique, après les obligeantes assurances que vous avez eu la bonté de me donner de votre foi? Je vous soupirer, hélas! au milieu de ma joie! Est-ce du regret, dites-moi, de m'avoir fait heureux, et vous repentez-vous de cet engagement où mes feux ont pu vous contraindre? (I,i)

Human affections, like human beings, are transient. Valère fears that he will lose Elise. Thus, like Harpagon, he does what he does in order to preserve that which he values. Just as Harpagon dons the deformed habits of generosity, so Valère dons the livery of the miser. This means not just that he wears a servant's clothes but rather that his actions, willingly or unwillingly, are made to conform to those we would expect of Harpagon at his meanest. Thus he upbraids the cook with: “il faut manger pour vivre, et non pas vivre pour manger” (III,i). He is acting as a miser would. Harpagon's deformation of this, his inability to get it right, is another example of the ambiguous behaviour trapped between meanness and generosity that is the wellspring of comedy in this play. Indeed, here Harpagon and Valère are mirror images of each other, one acting the generous man and the other the miser, and it is curious that the name that the young man has adopted is almost an anagram of “l'avare”. Even if this is pure coincidence, the bond between the two men is very strong. Valère's independence is circumscribed by Harpagon and, as we see in I,v, he does not allow himself any thought that might contradict Harpagon.

Given this the quiproquo of V,iii acquires new resonances:

VALERE: Non, Monsieur, ce ne sont point vos richesses qui m'ont tenté; ce n'est pas cela qui m'a ébloui, et je proteste de ne prétendre rien à tous vos biens, pourvu que vous me laissiez celui que j'ai.

HARPAGON: Non ferai, de par tous les diables! je ne te le laisserai pas. Mais voyez quelle insolence de vouloir retenir le vol qu'il m'a fait!

VALERE: Appelez vous cela un vol?

HARPAGON: Si je l'appelle un vol? Un trésor comme celui-la!

VALERE: C'est un trésor, il est vrai, et le plus précieux que vous ayez sans doute; mais ce ne sera pas le perdre que de me le laisser. Je vous le demande à genoux, ce trésor plein de charmes; et pour bien faire, il faut que vous me l'accordiez.

The comedy in this scene, as can be seen from the extract quoted above, derives from the fact that Valère's language of love is a series of metaphors taken from the world of finance. Normally, such expressions are treated as mere clichés but in this case the humour makes us look at them in a new light. Because Harpagon takes words like “trésor” literally and does not realize that in moving from the plural “biens” to the singular form “celui,” Valère is moving on to a metaphorical plane, the audience is made aware of the two different levels of meaning and the metaphorical one is thrown into relief, thereby bringing to life the clichés: they have an intensity of meaning that they would not otherwise have. The result of this is that we are able to view Valère's passion in a new light. The metaphorical linking of love and miserliness cuts both ways. It is not just that Harpagon loves money the way a normal man loves a woman but also that Valère loves Elise the way a miser loves money. Harpagon and Valère love in the same way.

The similarities are pointed up from the start of the play. Elise has been restored to her father just as the loan has been repaid. Indeed she too is like a piece of property and his immediate preoccupation is to dispose of her to someone else on advantageous terms—just as he is trying to arrange for someone else to take his money. His method of safeguarding his gold until such time as he gives it away is to bury it and similarly, when he becomes aware that Valère seeks to possess his other treasure, he threatens to confine her: “Quatre bonnes murailles me répondront de ta conduite” (V,iv). This is the equivalent of burying the gold in the garden where no one can get it. For Valère, Elise is to be got from her father by stealth and stratagem. His courtship depends not on consent but on using trickery to persuade her father to give her up. His devious, round-about conduct to acquire Elise is forced upon him just as Cléante is forced into borrowing against his expectations, without his father being aware of it.

But if Harpagon and Valère can be seen as trying to conserve, Cléante is someone who dissipates. Harpagon accuses his son of spending his money on fripperies:

Je vous l'ai dit vingt fois, mon fils, toutes vos manières me déplaisent fort: vous donnez furieusement dans le marquis; et pour aller ainsi vêtu, il faut bien que vous me dérobiez. (I,iv)

Furthermore, his own servant, La Flèche, warns him about his extravagant lifestyle:

Je vous vois, Monsieur, ne vous en déplaise, dans le grand chemin justement que tenait Panurge pour se ruiner, prenant argent d'avance, achetant cher, vendant à bon marché, et mangeant son blé en herbe. (II,i)

Cléante is presented here as the opposite of his father. Where the latter seeks to conserve wealth and increase it, he spends it and reduces it. The two most telling jibes are that he is like the marquesses, those useless parasites, and that he is eating the seed corn. He has no useful function in the present and his squandering jeopardizes the future.

But in seeking to conserve, Harpagon also places the future in doubt for while change may bring undesirable consequences, on the whole it is natural and an inevitable part of living. So, ironically, Harpagon's actions caused by his reaction to his wife's death are anti-life. He is inimical to the process of living. Significantly, the method of preserving the gold from harm is to bury it—just as we mark the deaths of family and friends by burying them.

Thus Harpagon is someone who seeks to arrest life. Mariane on entering his house feels the shadow of the gallows upon her. By retaining Elise's dowry, Harpagon is seeking to impede this natural flow of wealth from one generation to the next. Indeed, the pattern of marriages that he has arranged—himself to the young Mariane, Elise to Anselme and Cléante to a widow—is a mixing up of generations, a binding of young to old, so that there is no smooth transition of one to the other.

In such a context, Cléante's response to La Flèche is significant:

Que veux tu que j'y fasse? Voila où les jeunes gens sont réduits par la maudite avarice des pères; et on s'étonne après cela que les fils soubaitent qu'ils meurent. (II,i)

As we have seen, Cléante is in his own way an enemy of the future, squandering its possibilities by his commitments. However, he is forced to do so by Harpagon's avarice. Furthermore, the father becomes the target of the son's hostility and in a final twist Cléante's subterfuge leads his father to join in his wish that the latter may soon die:

MAITRE SIMON: Tout ce que je saurais vous dire, c'est que sa famille est fort riche, qu'il n'a plus de mère déjà, et qu'il s'obligera, si vous voulez, que son pere mourra avant qu'il soit huit mois.

HARPAGON: C'est quelque chose que cela. (II,ii)

Like some character in a Greek tragedy, Harpagon is made to utter the words that unknown to him are a curse upon himself. But this is comedy and the outcome is quite different. Nonetheless these words are not just a throw-away joke. They have a point. Harpagon's reaction to the theft of his money is more than just hyperbole:

Au voleur! au voleur! à l'assassin! au meurtrier! Justice, juste Ciel! je suis perdu, je suis assassiné, on m'a coupé la gorge, on m'a dérobé mon argent. (IV,vii)

The theft is seen not just in terms of loss but in terms of murder. Thus the money that Harpagon seeks to conserve and increase is not just symbolically representative of his daughter, it also stands for himself. To steal his money is to take Harpagon's life. What Harpagon really fears is his own death.

That is why he takes such delight when Frosine tells him that he will outlive his children. That is why he seeks to marry again and parades as he does in front of Mariane. He is refusing to accept the reality of a death that is part of life and is instead seeking to create a little world that will be within his control, a world where everyone will be like a debtor beholden to him. Without him, others are as nothing. They need him as a debtor needs a creditor, as Cléante needs his father, as Valère needs Harpagon. Need becomes the instrument by which Harpagon exercises control and ensures that his own existence is essential.

Yet this is a lie. Despite what he pretends, he is not attractive to Mariane and, as we have seen earlier, she is one of those wishing for his death. There is an air of unreality about the Harpagon household. Harpagon is a domestic tyrant unwilling to listen to the truth from Maître Jacques. Valère is not a real servant. He is in disguise in order to worm his way into Harpagon's good books and gain Elise:

Vous voyez comme je m'y prends, et les adroites complaisances qu'il m'a fallu mettre en usage pour m'introduire à son service; sous quel masque de sympathie et de rapports de sentiments je me déguise pour lui plaire, et quel personnage je joue tous les jours avec lui, afin d'acquérir sa tendresse. J'y fais des progrès admirables; et j'èprouve que pour gagner les hommes, il n'est point de meilleure voie que de se parer à leurs yeux de leurs inclinations, que de donner dans leurs maximes, encenser leurs défauts, et applaudit à ce qu'ils font. (I,i)

Here we see Valère openly admitting that he is adopting the viewpoint of the miser. He seems to believe that he can do so and maintain his own integrity. He is only wearing a mask. But it is rather like Hamlet's antic disposition: the mannerism becomes indistinguishable from the reality. Valère is not just adopting the same point of view as Harpagon. His attitudes influence his actions. He runs the household in the miserly fashion that Harpagon wants and like his master he beats Maître Jacques. In short Valère is sucked into the world of Harpagon not against his will but because his stratagem has made him susceptible. Despite what he thinks Valère is not his own man. For all his cleverness he dances to Harpagon's tune.

Cléante is also drawn into this world of scheming and subterfuge. He attempts by devious means to borrow money. He fails not because he is unable to carry out the pretense but because he runs up against the deviousness of his father who similarly hides his true identity in order to lend money. Similarly, in IV,iii, Harpagon outwits his son, who is concealing his true feelings beneath a variety of subterfuges, by appearing to offer him Mariane's hand in marriage. What this scene shows is that creating false images of the self, acting out a role that is untrue to one's own nature is not a way of controlling the situation—there is always the risk of meeting a better actor. Indeed, in the two scenes that follow, the factitious reconciliation and its breakdown demonstrate that pretense is not a viable means of conducting affairs. The truth will out.

With this in mind, we may now consider the character of Frosine, who lives by intrigue. What Valère says of himself could apply to her. Flattery is liberally applied to Harpagon's ego. She boasts to La Flèche:

Mon Dieu! je sais l'art de traire les hommes, j'ai le secret de m'ouvrir leur tendresse, de chatouiller leurs cœurs, de trouver les endroits par où ils sont sensibles. (II,iv)

However, Frosine's wiles are to no avail against Harpagon. She creates a picture of his own personal attractiveness and of Mariane's infatuation for him—but to no avail. Harpagon accepts what she has to offer but feels under no obligation to help her out of her financial difficulties. It is not just that Harpagon's love of money is greater than his love of flattery, but also that Frosine's stratagems depend on insincere flattery being paid for in sincere thanks, that is, real money. In this instance, she meets someone who, when the subject of money is mentioned, retreats further into his own world, where it is he who is in charge. At the end of the scene, the audience has the impression of two people moving in separate worlds, with Frosine excluded from Harpagon's:

HARPAGON: Adieu Je vais achever mes dépêches.

FROSINE: Je vous assure, Monsieur, que vous ne sauriez jamais me soulager d'un plus grand besoin.

HARPAGON: Je mettrai ordre que mon carrosse soit tout prêt pour vous mener à la foire (II,v)

No matter how skillful Frosine is, Harpagon manages to escape her ploys. Her description of Mariane's imaginary dowry is a tour-de-force but it does not take in Harpagon:

FROSINE: […] De plus elle a une aversion horrible pour le jeu, ce qui n'est pas commun aux femmes d'aujourd'hui; et j'en sais une de nos quartiers qui a perdu, à trente et-quarante, vingt mille francs cette année. Mais n'en prenons que le quart. Cinq mille francs au jeu par an, et quatre mille francs en habits et bijoux, cela fait neuf mille livres; et mille écus que nous mettons pour la nourriture, ne voila-t-il pas par année vos douze mille francs bien comptés?

HARPAGON: Oui, cela n'est pas mal; mais ce compte-là n'est rien du réel. (II,v)

What is particularly comic about this is that Frosine's accounting methods bear more than a passing resemblance to Harpagon's. As we saw in II,i, he attributes arbitrary values to junk and then just as arbitrarily reduces them so as to appear not to be taking advantage of the second party. Frosine is doing something similar. Mariane's economies are no more likely to produce money than selling the junk will. Frosine, however, has met her master, for Harpagon sees through the obfuscation.

Yet this interchange has resonances beyond the present context. It suggests that money saved is not real. Harpagon is a miser and one of the characteristics of the miser is not spending money. The quotation above makes us ponder the extent to which money saved by Harpagon and money saved by Mariane are different since neither will ever be spent. It is as though money only exists when it is put to use: either in spending or in usury. Money is unreal in itself. This is perhaps easier to accept in the late twentieth century when money is reduced to a promise on a piece of paper or information shifted from one area to another. It is only when translated into goods and services that we can have some appreciation of its value. So the money buried in Harpagon's garden is as much use to him as none at all. If he does not use it, he might as well not have it. The irony of the theft by La Flèche is that Harpagon is really no worse off than he was before. He has lost only that which he did not use.

This is the important difference between Harpagon and Cléante. At the time the play begins, the latter is prepared to use money for some purpose. Where previously, he had been content to buy fine clothes for himself, now he wants to help Mariane and her mother. The money will be used beneficially instead of lying uselessly in the ground, buried like a corpse, or merely serving to beget more money if put out to usury.

So, keeping money is just as pointless as Frosine's flatteries. Both are equally valueless. Frosine, far from being a master intriguer who is able to manipulate the world around her, is merely a creator of illusions that are insubstantial and have no impact on reality. Her plot to help the young people by impersonating a lady from Brittany, is just another such and stands just as much chance of succeeding. Deceptions in general cannot succeed in the moral universe created by this play. There is always reality breaking in or someone who is not taken in or who finds out. Until the end of the fourth act, it is Harpagon who manages to outwit the others. Yet even he cannot win all the time. He has attempted to build up a picture of himself as a poor man but no-one, least of all his children, is taken in. Finally, La Flèche spies on Harpagon and the latter's anxiety about his money betrays him so that he gives away the truth—the location of the treasure.

Manipulation is not a viable means of controlling one's destiny, of ensuring against loss. However, this is a comedy and despite the darker aspects of the play, the mood is humorous. Even when Harpagon is most cast down, that is when he loses his money, we still laugh. This is because we feel that the emotion and reaction are in excess of what the situation requires. We do not know but we strongly suspect that the strong box will be returned. We know that the object of Cléante's passion is not the money but Mariane and so we see the theft not as an end but as a means to an end.

What is most striking is that it is chance which permits La Flèche to steal the money. Indeed, by concentrating on the role of manipulation and control, there is a danger that we will overlook the role of chance in the play. Manipulation is an attempt to exploit cause and effect. For example, Frosine flatters Harpagon in the hope that it will cause him to give her money. Similarly, Cléante is able to give Mariane his father's ring because he knows how his words will produce certain effect in the old man. However, Harpagon does not lose the ring, as we have seen. Mariane promises to return it, an unexpected and indeed unprovoked gesture on her part. There is no reason for her to make the offer she does. The unexpected also plays an important part in preventing Cléante taking out a ruinous loan—though he does not see it in that light at the time. More importantly, it is chance that saves Elise's life when she is saved from drowning by a fortuitously present Valère. But this is an amoral force—if force it is—for it is by chance that Harpagon spies his son kissing Mariane's hand, thereby arousing his suspicions. Nevertheless, though change and the transience of human life bring about loss, they also give conjunctions of circumstances, opportunities that we must seize.

In a sense we are back with the second sense of miserliness as proposed by the Dauvins. It is possible to increase what we have but it implies that our own efforts are not enough. There has to be a favourable conjunction of circumstances, a moment when we are offered something we could not have expected. To live by manipulation is to live by exploitation, to become a Frosine. The latter gives nothing and has nothing to give. She is a complete parasite. This is why she is not involved in the working out of the dénouement. For her to have succeeded in her plan would have involved the younger generation in her intrigues and the foundations of their lives would have been based on manipulation. Similarly, it would have been inappropriate for Valère to have succeeded in worming his way into Harpagon's favours. Had he succeeded it would have been either because he was sufficiently like the old man to win his approval or sufficiently deceitful to outwit him. Neither situation promises well for the future.

The dénouement when it comes resolves the problems satisfactorily and unexpectedly. Anselme is an unlikely source of help. Indeed, the fact that he is the husband Harpagon had chosen for Elise, predisposes us against him. We imagine that if he is a friend of Harpagon, then he must be like him and have similar motivations. Indeed, the way Harpagon behaves when first introduced to Mariane, is subliminally used to build up a picture of Anselme. The truth is quite different. Yet though Ansleme is a key factor in the resolution of the play, his role is more of a catalyst than anything else. His presence causes the situation to be changed. Truth can at last be revealed, creating a number of opportunities to be taken advantage of:

ANSELME: Le Ciel, mes enfants, ne me redonne point à vous pour être contraire à vos vœux. Seigneur Harpagon, vous jugez bien que le choix d'une jeune personne tombera sur le fils plutôt que sur le père. Allons, ne vous faites point dire ce qu'il n'est pas nécessaire d'entendre, et consentez ainsi que moi à ce double hyménée. (V,vi)

It is evident from this that Anselme accepts unquestioningly the forward movement of time. For there is nothing more natural than that life should move on from one generation to the next. His reaction is one of generosity. He gives his consent. As was pointed out earlier, it is one of the paradoxes of miserliness that in order for Harpagon to keep his money safe and indeed increase it, it was necessary for him to give it away. Similarly here, in order that life may be secured and humanity increase, it is necessary for Anselme to give up his claims on Elise and give his own daughter and son in marriage to the children of Harpagon. More importantly, it is necessary for the miser to give away his children.

Giving is the keynote of the finale of the play and Molière dresses it up in many different guises. To begin with there is the open-handed generosity of Anselme who consents to the younger generation giving themselves in marriage and paying the wedding expenses, Harpagon's suit and the officer. There is also Cléante, giving back that which was taken. More interesting is Harpagon. He too is part of the process of giving. Indeed he is an essential part both artistically and thematically. In the first instance his demands prevent the play degenerating into the mawkishly sentimental. A reformed Harpagon, brimming with the milk of human kindness, would not be credible. A Harpagon exploiting the situation is. But is he doing anything different from the other characters? He like them is simply taking advantage of the situation. It benefits him but, and this must not be overlooked, it benefits them. They are better off at the end of the play than at the beginning. In the case of Maître Jacques the situation is more ambiguous. Harpagon's “Pour votre paiement, voilà un homme que je vous donne a pendre” (V,vi) is a parody of the theme of giving but just as much a part of it all the same. Indeed, Harpagon's consent, his giving away of his family is crucial to the dénouement. Without it, no new family would be created. Thus, Harpagon's actions do not place him beyond the pale.

This is not, however, the opinion of critics such as Harold Knutson:

Harpagon, however, is spared the humiliating retreat of Arnolphe. Instead, the lost cassette severs him from human reality. Society's place will be somewhere off-stage; the world in front of us is now cold, lifeless, and metallic. The reunited family is imbued with the vision of the soon-to-be-found mother; what glows in Harpagon's mind is the image of more gold to be extorted from Anselme, and of the only form that woman can ever take in his vision of the world as objects to be amassed, “ma chère cassette.”

Like Argan and Monsieur Jourdain, Harpagon is protected from the sense of defeat by his very mania. But while the other two join the triumphant family, imparting joy to it in their own happiness, however illusory, Harpagon stands alone. Society has not expelled him, it has left him behind.5

“Extort” is a strong word not justified by the exchange between Harpagon and Anselme:

HARPAGON: Je n'ai point d'argent à donner en mariage à mes enfants.

ANSELME: Hé bien! j'en ai pour eux; que cela ne vous inquiète point.

HARPAGON: Vous obligerez-vous à faire tous les frais de ces deux mariages?

ANSELME: Oui, je m'y oblige; êtes-vous satisfait?

HARPAGON: Oui, pourvu que pour les noces vous me fassiez faire un habit.

ANSELME: D'accord. Allons jouir de l'allégresse que cet heureux jour nous présente.

LE COMMISSAIRE: Holà! Messieurs, holà! tout doucement, s'il vous plaît: qui me payera mes écritures? (V,vi)

There is no indication in the original that Harpagon extorts any gold from Anselme. The money that he receives is his own, returned to him by Cléante. His first speech is merely an attempt to avoid spending money. His claim obviously is untrue but it is not a demand. Anselme offers to take upon himself Harpagon's responsibilities. The second speech is a question—which puts more pressure on Anselme but the sum involved must be less than for the marriage settlements. In neither case does Harpagon receive any money for himself. In the third speech, Harpagon does indeed state a condition but it is for a suit not money. Knutson's claim that Harpagon is thinking about all the gold he can extort from Anselme is not borne out by the text.

Nor is his claim that Harpagon is isolated. Anselme's “Allons jouir de l'allégresse” surely does not exclude the person he has just addressed. Rather, the first person plural includes Harpagon and extends the invitation beyond the pair of interlocutors to the other members of the two families. Such an interpretation fits the facts of the text much better—as can be seen from the reaction of the officer to what is going on. His “Messieurs” is obviously addressed to those whom he takes to be in charge, Anselme and Harpagon, and it is highly unlikely that he would call out to them to stop (“tout doucement”) if what he was hearing or seeing did not lead him to believe that both of them were leaving or about to leave the scene. Thus, there can be no doubt that Harpagon is leaving not just to see his “chère cassette” but to join in the celebrations. He is anything but isolated. In fact, his condition that Anselme buy him a new suit is highly significant. Harpagon's clothes are old and out of date. They have served to mark him out from the rest of his family and are a statement of his being out of step with society. The new clothes will remedy that. They are a mark of his reintegration.

Yet he remains true to himself. He is coaxed into giving away his family but in a kinder, gentler way than was the case when he gave up his ring to Mariane. No-one loses. He is taking advantage of the situation as everyone else is. Like Anselme, he is giving consent but on his own terms. The paradox of miserliness is vindicated: in order to preserve and increase what one has, one must be prepared to give. The way a miser gives—while remaining what he is—is comic and adds to the humour of the piece. Harpagon gets what he wants, his “chère cassette” and for the first time in the play he is truly content. The play has a happy ending, as befits a comedy.


  1. Pierre Gaxotte, Molière (Paris, 1977), p. 290.

  2. Robert McBride, The Sceptical Vision of Molière: A Study in Paradox (London and Basingstoke, 1977), p. 14.

  3. Sylvie and Jacques Dauvin, Molière: L'Avare (Frankfurt am Main and Paris, 1984), p. 51.

  4. Molière, Œuvres complètes, edited by Georges Couton, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 2 vols (Paris, 1971), II, p. 524. All references are to this edition.

  5. Harold C Knutson, Molière: An Archetypal Approach (Toronto and Buffalo, 1976), p. 102.

Michael S. Koppisch (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7704

SOURCE: “'Til Death Do Them Part: Love, Greed, and Rivalry in Molière's L'Avare,” in L'Esprit Createur, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 32-49.

[In the following essay, Koppisch discusses the role of greed and rivalry in Molière's L'Avare.]

Avarice has a dual function in L'Avare: it is both the dominant character trait of Harpagon and the sign of a contagion that touches every aspect of his family's existence. From the moment he steps on stage, Harpagon is obsessed with money. His first words are to demand that La Flèche, his son's valet, leave immediately, lest the servant spy on him in the privacy of his own home and discover the whereabouts of his hidden treasure. The play ends with Harpagon eagerly awaiting the moment when he can see once again “ma chère cassette” (5.6).1 By this time, his treasure has become the old man's only friend, “mon support, ma consolation, ma joie,” he calls it (4.7). Harpagon's conviction that, deprived of his money, he can no longer carry on anchors the play's comic vision in a darker realm. Indeed the miser is, arguably, as unhappy before the theft of his ten thousand écus as he is after it. He frets constantly about how dangerous it is to have so much money around the house (1.4). Burying his money in the garden puts it out of sight, but not out of mind, for Harpagon is terrified that others may have guessed his secret. Were the true extent of his wealth to become known, he would fear for his life: “un de ces jours,” he tells Cléante, “on me viendra chez moi couper la gorge, dans la pensée que je suis tout cousu de pistoles” (1.4). Harpagon's greed has turned his life into a nightmare.

It has also contaminated the social and moral order of his entire household. Ironically, Harpagon comes to a point when he tells the Commissaire investigating the theft of his box that “s'il [ce crime] demeure impuni, les choses les plus sacrées ne sont plus en sûreté” (5.1). If he fails to grasp that punishing the culprit will make no difference, he is, nonetheless, absolutely right about “les choses les plus sacrées.” They have been tainted. As Louis Lacour, the editor of the reprinting of the play's original 1669 edition, says, “il nous semble assister à la décadence d'une famille.”2 Harpagon no longer fulfills the most elementary obligations of a father, preferring his money even to the life of his own daughter. Elise's revelation that she had been saved from drowning by Valère, whom Harpagon believes to be guilty of the theft, elicits from her father his nastiest line: “Tout cela n'est rien; et il valait bien mieux pour moi qu'il te laissât noyer que de faire ce qu'il a fait” (5.4). Paternal love has been banished from the repertoire of Harpagon's feelings. Paternal authority fares no better. Harpagon's children refuse to obey him, plot against their father's tyranny, lie to him. Harpagon mistreats his servants, who, in turn, wish their master no good. To defend themselves against Harpagon, members of his household adopt certain of his own worst flaws. This, finally, leaves the family on the brink of turmoil.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau centers his brief critique of L'Avare on precisely this tendency toward the disintegration of a family order:

C'est un grand vice d'être avare et de prêter à usure; mais n'en est-ce pas un plus grand encore à un fils de voler son père, de lui manquer de respect, de lui faire mille insultants reproches, et, quand ce père irrité lui donne sa malédiction, de répondre d'un air goguenard, qu'il n'a que faire de ses dons?3

Although he makes no attempt to justify the rapacious Harpagon, the more dangerous transgression, in Rousseau's eyes, is the abrogation of filial duty. The threat represented by the machinations of a miser is limited. He might, at worst, make his children miserable until he mends his ways or dies. However, when the child treats his father just as the father treats him, the very order on which family relations are founded is called into question. The contours of the relationship between father and son become hazy in L'Avare, as Harpagon discredits himself and Cléante increasingly takes liberties with the role of father. Rousseau focuses on the dissolution of the special bond between father and son because this is a crisis both fundamental to the play's action and indicative of the chaos that threatens Harpagon's family.

Desire for riches invades every quarter of life in this household, bringing with it confusion and disorder. The discourse of love itself, usually free from such concerns, has been contaminated—directly and indirectly—by money. The first impediment to her love for Valère that Elise mentions is, of course, “l'emportement d'un père,” but her real reservation is that Valère will have a change of heart, a “froideur criminelle dont ceux de votre sexe payent le plus souvent les témoignages trop ardents d'une innocente amour” (1.1; my emphasis). To his assurance that he, Valère, is different, Elise replies that all men sing the same tune: “Tous les hommes sont semblables par les paroles; et ce n'est que les actions qui les découvrent différents” (1.1). Distinguishing one man from another may not be as simple as it would seem. Similarities have, perhaps, more force—and are more troubling—than difference. And as for Valère's behavior, his own description of it makes one understand the young woman's hesitation. In order to be close to his beloved, Valère has insinuated himself into Harpagon's household by pretending to be a servant. Such a ploy may be justified in the name of love, but Valère has gone further than is prudent, hoping to seduce the father along with his daughter. His tactic is at best hypocritical, even though his adversary is a despicable old miser. Valère draws Elise's attention to the fact that he is merely playing a role, pretending to be something that he is not: “Vous voyez comme je m'y prends … sous quel masque de sympathie et de rapports de sentiments je me déguise pour lui plaire, et quel personnage je joue tous les jours avec lui …” (1.1). The goal is couched in terms of acquisition: “acquérir sa [Harpagon's] tendresse.”

Valère, moreover, is pleased with himself for having succeeded famously in deceiving his future father-in-law: “J'y fais des progrès admirables,” he gloats. Valère's self-satisfaction derives in part from his sense that he is acting on a principle in which he believes, but this principle reveals a singular cynicism: “et j'éprouve que pour gagner les hommes, il n'est point de meilleure voie que de se parer à leurs yeux de leurs inclinations, que de donner dans leurs maximes, encenser leurs défauts, et applaudir à ce qu'ils font” (1.1). Whether or not this role is played well matters little, he goes on. All men are taken in by flattery. It cannot be helped that “la sincérité souffre un peu au métier que je fais.” “Un peu”? What might constitute “beaucoup”? In any event, Valère now enunciates a maxim not unrelated to Elise's initial concern that all men are alike: “mais quand on a besoin des hommes, il faut bien s'ajuster à eux; et puisqu'on ne saurait les gagner que par-là, ce n'est pas la faute de ceux qui flattent, mais de ceux qui veulent être flattés” (1.1). Refusing all responsibility for his dishonest behavior, Valère sweeps away a major difference between flatterer and flattered. Real guilt lies with the victim of flattery, rather than with its perpetrator. On at least one level—that of culpability—the difference between trickster and dupe has been reversed. The two may not be identical, but a barrier separating them has broken down. As differences crumble, the distinction between the noble, magnanimous Valère who saves Elise's life by risking his own and the wily pretender may also be called into doubt. At the very least, Valère has demonstrated that he is neither honesty and goodness incarnate nor an absolute scoundrel. Verbs often associated with financial dealings—“gagner,” “acquérir”—signal the impact of money and greed on human relations in Harpagon's family, as Elise, at the end of this scene, implores Valère to do his best to “gagner l'appui de mon frère” (1.1).

Money impinges more directly on Cléante's love for Mariane. The young girl lives with her sick mother in a state of near penury. By discreetly providing for the family's financial needs, Cléante would like to lighten Mariane's burden: “Figurez-vous, ma sœur, quelle joie ce peut être que de relever la fortune d'une personne que l'on aime” (1.2). Only Harpagon's stinginess prevents his son from fulfilling this desire. Curiously, the sole way of expressing his love that occurs to Cléante is a gift of money: his father's tight-fistedness, he says, leaves him “dans l'impuissance de goûter cette joie, et de faire éclater à cette belle aucun témoignage de mon amour” (1.2). The juxtaposition of the words “impuissance” and “joie” suggests the strength of Cléante's feelings toward a father “[qui] s'oppose à nos désirs” (1.2). Cléante's choice of a gift in kind is not unique in Molière's theater. Dom Garcie de Navarre would have liked to bestow upon Done Elvire just such a present; Alceste harbors the same dream; and Orgon was so generous to Tartuffe that the impostor was able to return half of what he received without, apparently, noticing the loss. Could it be that Cléante, like those others and, indeed, his own father, might use money as a means of acquiring power? The suspicion cannot be proven. Nor, however, is Cléante so high-minded as to remove it from the realm of possibility. Money and love are, for better or for worse, inextricably linked in Cléante's mind.

The power of wealth on the imagination of Harpagon is, of course, overwhelming. Knowing full well that Mariane is not rich, he allows, somewhat vaguely, that “si l'on n'y trouve pas tout le bien qu'on souhaite, on peut tâcher de regagner cela sur autre chose” (1.4). Harpagon nevertheless hopes to extract a dowry from the mother of his intended. The contradiction is a glaring one but gives no pause to the miser, who insistently questions Frosine about whether she had explained that “il fallait … qu'elle [Mariane's mother] se saignât pour une occasion comme celle-ci” (2.5). That he would pursue a woman without visible wealth in itself shows the depth of his feelings for her. Still, he cannot conceive of a marriage that will not make him a richer man. For his children's marriages, money determines who the spouse will be. Elise is to wed Anselme, “dont on vante les grands biens” (1.4) and “[qui] s'engage à la prendre sans dot” (1.5). Cléante will become the husband of a widow, presumably rich. No value, no institution—love, marriage, family—is sacred where financial gain seems possible. The very institutions and beliefs on which Harpagon's existence is built are undermined by his overwhelming desire for wealth.

The breakdown of order is here vividly represented, as elsewhere in Molière's theater, by characters' resort to physical violence as a replacement for rational discourse. No sooner has he appeared on stage than Harpagon threatens La Flèche with a sound thrashing because the valet asks perfectly logical questions: “Tu fais le raisonneur. Je te baillerai de ce raisonnement-ci par les oreilles” (1.3). Jacques receives a beating for telling his master the truth (3.1) and, at the play's conclusion, is momentarily in danger of being hanged for having lied about the theft of the money box. Truth and falsehood incite the same reaction—violence. Poor Jacques also comes in for a beating by Valère, who, in his treatment of the servant, behaves exactly like Harpagon. When Cléante refuses to bow to parental authority by giving up Mariane, Harpagon's attempt to impose himself is violent: “Je te ferai bien me connaître, avec de bons coups de bâton” (4.3). All that guarantees his power over his son is the rod. Harpagon is regularly reduced to violence as he tries to shore up a crumbling order. After losing his treasure, he will go so far as to prescribe violent acts against himself as a means of uncovering the truth about the theft. Truth itself, apparently, cannot exist without the exercise of violence. The dilemma confronting Harpagon is simply that violence engenders greater violence and, ultimately, chaos, not an order that he can dominate from his position as head of the family. As the action of the play unfolds, turmoil overtakes Harpagon's household.

The old miser Euclio in Plautus' Aulularia, which is the primary source of Molière's play, shares Harpagon's obsession with a large fortune. Both have found for their daughters a suitor who does not insist on a dowry, both are unnecessarily suspicious of anyone who might conceivably rob them, both treat others, especially servants, rudely. Molière found in Plautus the idea for some of the best comic bits of his play. Harpagon's first encounter with La Flèche (1.3), the miser's famous monologue (4.7), and the extended misunderstanding between Harpagon and Valère over the theft (5.3) all have specific counterparts in the Latin play.4 Molière has turned to Plautus with great profit. However, having found the givens of his plot in the Roman tradition, Molière proceeds to create a work that is in every way more radical than his model. Although the protagonists of the two plays suffer from the same malady, Euclio realizes that money is the cause of his woes and would almost prefer to be done with his riches rather than continue to be burdened by them. Nor does he allow money to destroy the good order of his household. Plautus' conception of the comic hero clearly leaves open the possibility of redemption from his madness. Euclio's obsession is less destructive than Harpagon's because it does not overwhelm every other value in his life. The single-mindedness of Harpagon, by contrast, is absolute.

This mania, whose intensity makes it so typical of Molière's theater, must be viewed in the context of another, more crucial addition to the plot of Plautus' play. Harpagon, unlike Euclio, is in love, and he loves the same woman as his son. The rivalry between father and son has a powerful impact upon affairs of the purse, as well as affairs of the heart. What Molière has done by changing Plautus in just this way is to shift the entire focus of his play away from the emphasis on a predetermined character trait that alone explains a character's dilemma. If only Euclio can be less greedy, master a flaw in his personality, all will once again be well. Lyconides will marry Phaedria, and Euclio will be freed from the suffering caused by his wealth. Although the text of the Aulularia is not complete, it is clear from the second argument that this is precisely what happens:

Auro formidat Euclio, abstrudit foris.
Re omni inspecta comressoris servolus.
Id surpit; illio Euclioni sem refert.
Ab eo donatur auro, uxore et filio.(5)

Such a resolution in L'Avare—or in any other Molière play, for that matter—would be virtually unthinkable. Good Moliéresque maniac that he is, Harpagon leaves the stage as he had stepped onto it, obsessed with his chest full of money. His final act is to have Anselme pay the Commissaire, which frees Harpagon to “voir ma chère cassette” (5.6). The miser remains unaltered, but turmoil does not ensue. In fact, a measure of order is restored to the household.

For, in L'Avare, the knot to be undone by the comic dénouement is not, as in Plautus' play, simply greed. Greed is, rather, the sign of a deeper malaise. Harpagon is already a wealthy man and has no ostensible reason to worry about his money. That he is incapable of putting aside, even for a moment, thoughts of it indicates how thoroughly Harpagon identifies himself with his money. Through his accumulated wealth and through it alone, is he able to relate to the world in which he lives. Harpagon's every human sentiment is filtered through his miserliness: “En un mot, il aime l'argent, plus que réputation, qu'honneur et que vertu” (2.4). This explains why he is, again in the words of La Flèche, “de tous les humains l'humain le moins humain” (2.4). The servant does not exaggerate. Harpagon's conception of himself depends upon his wealth. He is attached to his “chère cassette” in the same way as Monsieur Jourdain to social status or Argan to illness. His money itself is both real and unreal: real because it does indeed exist and unreal because it cannot, in and of itself, change his life. Not surprisingly, the money box remains buried in the garden throughout the play. To dig it up would change nothing. What money does allow Harpagon, however, is a way of asserting his control over others.

As the father of Cléante and Elise, Harpagon has by right a large role to play in deciding whom they will marry. Money solidifies his paternal authority by eliminating any uncertainty about an otherwise difficult decision. Valère prevaricates in his response to Harpagon's famous “sans dot”: “Vous avez raison: voilà qui décide tout, cela s'entend … Ah! il n'y a pas de réplique à cela … Il est vrai: cela ferme la bouche à tout. Sans dot” (1.5). Harpagon believes every word of it. Rather than complicating the issue, financial considerations make good sense of it. Both power and right are on Harpagon's side. Cléante experiences his father as a tyrant and swears to his sister that unless things change, “nous le quitterons là tous deux et nous affranchirons de cette tyrannie où nous tient si longtemps son avarice insupportable” (1.2). At the heart of Harpagon's imperious control over the lives of his children is greed, “son avarice.” Stinginess also sets him apart from everyone else in the play. Being a miser makes Harpagon different, and he must defend himself against attack on every side: “Je ne veux point avoir sans cesse devant moi un espion de mes affaires, un traître, dont les yeux maudits assiègent toutes mes actions …” (1.3). The military image of a siege translates perfectly the configuration of Harpagon's relations with others: they against me, a fortress of strength. As he himself puts it, even his children have joined the ranks of the enemy: “Cela est ètrange, que mes propres enfants me trahissent et deviennent mes ennemis” (1.4). By cunning or by force, the enemy must be defeated, brought under control, made subservient to a more powerful master.

Harpagon's strategy is a simple one, easily recognizable to readers of Molière. He will marry off his children to well-heeled mates from whom the family will, hopefully, benefit and keep Mariane for himself, pinching his pennies all the while. Needless to say, Cléante and his sister have ideas of their own about the future. In a curious way, Harpagon is right to see his children as his enemies, for they become rivals with him in a struggle over their own destiny. Elise takes badly the news of her father's intention that she marry Anselme. Going so far as to threaten suicide if forced to marry, she flatly rejects Harpagon's proposal. The dialogue between father and daughter is a model of imitative belligerence. Elise and Harpagon speak the same language, use the same words. All that distinguishes the words of one from the words of the other is an occasional direct negation of what has just preceded or will shortly follow. Harpagon's obstinacy is met by the obstinacy of his daughter, her tartness by his irony:

Elise—Je vous demande pardon, mon père.

Harpagon—Je vous demande pardon, ma fille.

Elise—Je suis très humble servante au seigneur Anselme; mais, avec votre permission, je ne l'épouserai point.

Harpagon—Je suis votre très humble valet; mais, avec votre permission, vous l'épouserez dès ce soir.

Elise—Dès ce soir?

Harpagon—Dès ce soir.

Elise—Cela ne sera pas, mon père.

Harpagon—Cela sera, ma fille.



Elise—Non, vous dis-je.

Harpagon—Si, vous dis-je.

Elise—C'est une chose où vous ne me réduirez point.

Harpagon—C'est une chose où je te réduirai.

Elise—Je me tuerai plutôt que d'épouser un tel mari.

Harpagon—Tu ne te tueras point, et tu l'épouseras.


A standard comic technique—having two interlocutors contradict each other with much the same words—is more than a clever way of eliciting laughter. That both parties to the disagreement use the same language suggests a real identity between them. Each contradicts the other in the hope of having his—or her—own way. In this particular instance, Elise seems to be right and her father wrong, although the daughter should treat her father with more respect. Harpagon's behavior and Elise's response to it endanger the good order of the household by suggesting that there is a similar basis for parental authority and a child's disobedience. The duel ends in a draw, the father's authority challenged and no resolution of the quarrel in sight. Assuming opposite stances, Elise and Harpagon behave similarly. Their only recourse seems to be to a third party.

Valère's position as trusted servant of Harpagon and secret lover of Elise makes him at once an “ideal” choice as judge—father and daughter agree on his probity!—and the person least likely to be able to resolve the dispute. Without even knowing the subject of the quarrel, Valère declares Harpagon in the right: “vous ne sauriez avoir tort, et vous êtes toute raison” (1.5). As soon as the old man leaves the room, Valère explains to Elise that favoring Harpagon had merely been a ploy. Valère is really on Elise's side. Despite his double talk, he knows very well where his sympathy lies. So does the audience. At this early point in the play, it is neither necessary nor desirable that the conflict be resolved. Valère's duplicity, however, merely hides the fact that there is no rational resolution possible to the dilemma created by Harpagon's rivalry with his children. This unhappy truth will be apparent as Harpagon takes on his son.

Cléante explicitly—and cynically—recognizes his father's authority over him at the beginning of his first conversation with his sister: “je sais que je dépends d'un père, et que le nom de fils me soumet à ses volontés.” But let there be no mistake about it: Cléante says this only “afin que vous ne vous donniez pas la peine de me le dire” (1.2). What he really wants is to check Harpagon's power. The son sees his father as an obstacle to success and will shortly learn that Harpagon is also his rival for the affection of Mariane. The two distinguishing comic features of Harpagon—his inappropriate love for Mariane and his preoccupation with money—both place him in rivalry with his son. It is this rivalry and its ramifications that motivate much of the action in Molière's play. Rivalry also leads directly to the disintegration of a family order founded on differences among members of the household.

The scene in which Cléante realizes that Maître Simon has arranged for him to borrow money at usurious rates from none other than his own father is reminiscent of the debate between Harpagon and Elise. Using the same comic device, Molière puts similar words into the mouths of his characters. This time, however, the similarity of the two characters is emphasized as each accuses the other of criminal behavior. Rather than contradicting each other, father and son see each other as mirror images of themselves. The dialogue blurs the distinction between usury and profligate borrowing:

Harpagon—Comment, pendard? c'est toi qui t'abandonnes à ces coupables extrémités?

Cléante—Comment, mon père? c'est vous qui vous portez à ces honteuses actions?

Harpagon—C'est toi qui te veux ruiner par des emprunts si condamnables?

Cléante—C'est vous qui cherchez à vous enrichir par des usures si criminelles?

Harpagon—Oses-tu bien, après cela, paraître devant moi?

Cléante—Osez-vous bien, après cela, vous présenter aux yeux du monde? (2.2)

The difference between borrower and lender, like that between flatterer and flattered, disappears as Harpagon and Cléante are reduced to the same level. When Cléante asks which of them is more guilty, Harpagon responds by ordering his son to leave. For there seems to be no clear-cut answer to that query.

At the moment he invites Mariane to his house and introduces her to his family, Harpagon is unaware that she and Cléante are in love and takes as mere impertinence his son's open opposition to Mariane's becoming “ma belle-mère” (3.7). Since she understands perfectly well what he really means, Mariane praises Cléante's honesty in expressing his feelings. His candor takes a curious turn as Cléante goes on to declare his love: “souffrez, Madame, que je me mette ici à la place de mon père, et que je vous avoue que je n'ai rien vu dans le monde de si charmant que vous” (3.7). To Harpagon's objection, Cléante retorts that “c'est un compliment que je fais pour vous à Madame” (3.7). What Cléante does in order to vie with his father is simply to replace him. Their struggle for the hand of Mariane results in the son's speaking for, standing in for the father. Harpagon recognizes this and resents it: “Mon Dieu! j'ai une langue pour m'expliquer moi-même, et je n'ai pas besoin d'un procureur comme vous” (3.7). His self-assertion is necessary if he is not to be eliminated altogether. The barrier between father and son, which should protect the role of each, is momentarily lowered in this scene—momentarily and dangerously. For Cléante does not stop at speaking for his father. Having taken the first step, he continues by presenting to Mariane a diamond ring taken from Harpagon's finger. The miser is beside himself at the thought of the expense of this gift but can do nothing to get it back without compromising his love. Rivalry, which could be expected to separate the factions, here does the opposite. In a sense, Cléante and Harpagon become one. Cléante wants Mariane to have the ring and forces it on her. Harpagon wants the opposite but dares not contravene his son's “generosity.” On the surface, at least, the two act as one. The comic effect of the scene derives in part from Harpagon's impotence when faced with a rivalry that levels differences. In their dispute over money, Cléante and Harpagon behaved similarly. Where love is involved, Cléante slips into the role assumed by his father.

This unexpected effect of the rivalry between Cléante and Harpagon is what Rousseau found so disturbing. When it finally occurs to him that his son might also love Mariane, Harpagon tricks Cléante into admitting his passion and then orders him to give up his love. Cléante must also marry the woman his father has picked for him. In other words, Harpagon wants both to defeat his son and make him obedient to his father's will. Nowhere is Harpagon's desire for power more straightforwardly articulated. Cléante's will, however, is no less strong. He refuses to acquiesce. On the contrary, the young man embraces rivalry with his father and the terrible struggle it implies: “je vous déclare, moi, que je ne quitterai point la passion que j'ai pour Mariane, qu'il n'y a point d'extrémité où je ne m'abandonne pour vous disputer sa conquête” (4.3). Recognizing the deadlock at which he has arrived with Cléante, Harpagon resorts to the order of difference upon which his whole existence has been founded: “Ne suis-je pas ton père? et ne me dois-tu pas respect!” (4.3). Cléante's response is devastating in its confirmation that rivalry has erased even this difference: “Ce ne sont point ici des choses où les enfants soient obligés de déférer aux pères, et l'amour ne connaît personne” (4.3). Love does not distinguish between father and son. Harpagon's threat to beat his son, his readiness to give in to violence, represents the irrational, chaotic state to which rivalry has reduced his family.

Once again, a third person is called upon to adjudicate the dispute. This time, Maître Jacques will be the judge. The role of justice in L'Avare is to prevent the onslaught of chaos by maintaining an order based on difference. By deciding that one party or the other is right, justice marks a distinction between the two. Harpagon's repeated choice of servants as mediators indicates how badly he wants to control events. It also undermines the potential efficacy of the system of justice, for it is unlikely that Harpagon would accept a judgment against himself rendered by a servant. The structure of the scene in which Harpagon and Cléante appear before Maître Jacques reveals why the power of justice to maintain differences is sapped by rivalry. Harpagon and Cléante present virtually identical cases. Both love a woman whom they want to marry, each is prevented from doing so by the importunities of the other. Harpagon thinks it wrong that Cléante will not obey him. Cléante accuses his father of a love inappropriate for a person of his advanced age. As if to underline their identity, Maître Jacques answers both Harpagon and Cléante in the same manner. To Harpagon's complaints about his son, he says: “Ah! il a tort.” And to Cléante of his father, Maître Jacques declares: “Il a tort assurément” (4.4). For Maître Jacques, Harpagon and Cléante are identical in their stubbornness, and he treats them similarly. His would-be “resolution” to the dilemma is no less artificial or more satisfactory than had been the miser's peremptory dismissal of his son after their quarrel about money or Valère's hesitation to side with Elise against Harpagon come what may. Just as he had told each man that the other was wrong, Jacques also assures each that the other has capitulated. Harpagon is overjoyed to learn that his son will obey him, and Cléante believes that his father will let him marry Mariane. When, in the course of their reconciliation, they discover the truth, Harpagon curses his son, who answers with the phrase that incurred Rousseau's wrath:

Harpagon—Et je te donne ma malédiction.

Cléante—Je n'ai que faire de vos dons. (4.5)

The face of justice in this scene is altogether farcical. Maître Jacques is hardly a worthy judge of any cause, let alone one that concerns his master. On the other hand, the task of the real representative of justice, when he appears later in the play, will be no easier nor meet with any greater success.

As the difference between those who are right and those who are wrong becomes increasingly problematic, justice loses its capacity to function decisively. Harpagon thinks of nothing but hoarding money and is rightly accused of avarice by his family and servants. He, in turn, condemns them for going to the opposite extreme with their spendthrift ways. Money, in L'Avare, is a preoccupation shared by characters of every stripe. Their attitudes toward it divide them into two groups: Harpagon and the others. In the final analysis, however, it is impossible to say that right is on the side of one or the other. Rivalry between Harpagon and members of his family makes them all behave similarly, albeit in the name of opposing principles. The Commissaire, called by Harpagon to unravel the mystery of the theft of the strong box, makes no headway because Harpagon can give him no clues. Harpagon believes that everyone is guilty. To the reasonable question “Qui soupçonnezvous de ce vol?” his response is categorical: “Tout le monde” (5.1). Justice itself is ensnared in the net that Harpagon casts out, losing its special—and necessary—quality of disengagement and impartiality. Should the culprit not be found, Harpagon will lump justice together with all the other guilty parties: “si l'on ne me fait retrouver mon argent, je demanderai justice de la justice” (5.1). It is in the context of this leveling of all differences that Harpagon's famous monologue must be read.

Beside himself at the loss of his precious money box, Harpagon laments his fate. The tone and substance of his monologue, based on a similar speech of Euclio, reveal the depth of the crisis triggered by the theft. Without realizing it, Harpagon lays bare the truth of his situation. Money has meant far more to him than the financial security that comes with wealth. It has been his “cher ami … mon support, ma consolation, ma joie” (4.7). Life is worth living only if Harpagon can recover his money. Along with it, the miser has lost a firm grasp on himself. No longer can this most egotistical of creatures be certain who he is: “Mon esprit est troublé, et j'ignore où je suis, qui je suis, et ce que je fais” (4.7). The most telling manifestation of Harpagon's alienation is his absolute inability to make fundamental distinctions between various groups of people. Friends and enemies, servants and family members, all are dissolved into one single category: thief. Since all are identical, all are to be treated in the same way. Indeed, Harpagon does not even spare himself: “Je veux aller quérir la justice, et faire donner la question à toute la maison: à servantes, à valets, à fils, à fille, et à moi aussi” (4.7). The miser's own identity is lost in the undifferentiated mass of humanity subsumed under the name “voleur.” Even the audience is included in his suspicions. His tirade pushes to the limit a tendency to suspect everyone, to deny distinctions that make it possible for society to function. Harpagon has always been distinguished by his wealth and the sense of power it has brought him. Now, however, his enemies mock him. Crazed, he stares at the audience and realizes that everyone is laughing at him: “Ils me regardent tous, et se mettent à rire” (4.7). His madness consists in his being swallowed up by their laughter. Harpagon becomes one of them, a thief. When he reaches out for the arm of a suspected culprit, it turns out to be his own arm that he has seized. This scene is not, as some have claimed, exaggerated.6 It is, rather, the powerful comic representation of a crisis that is the natural outcome of imitative rivalry. He who would be superior to others is reduced to the same level as those he intended to dominate and, in the process, loses his own identity.

This is a kind of death, and Harpagon links the theft of his money to his own demise. The opening words of his monologue—“Au voleur! au voleur!”—are counterbalanced by “à l'assassin! au meurtrier!” (4.7). In the next lines, he equates being robbed with being “perdu,” being “assassiné,” and having his throat slit. More references to death than to the robbery occur in the first lines of Harpagon's speech, and the miser's last words are a threat of multiple executions followed by his suicide: “Je veux faire pendre tout le monde; et si je ne retrouve mon argent, je me pendrai moi-même après” (4.7). In other words, the monologue begins and concludes on the theme of death. Addressing his lost money, Harpagon gives vent to his despair: “sans toi, il m'est impossible de vivre. C'en est fait; je n'en puis plus; je me meurs, je suis mort, je suis enterré” (4.7). He looks for a savior to bring him back to life: “N'y a-t-il personne qui veuille me ressusciter, en me rendant mon cher argent, ou en m'apprenant qui l'a pris?” (4.7). Although the comic impact of Harpagon's obsession with death is undeniable, the presence of the spectre of death throughout the play makes it a powerful image.7

Harpagon is terrified of being killed, and his monologue in Act IV, with its repetition and intensification of much that he says elsewhere, is the culminating point of his fear. One of the reasons for which he resents Cléante's extravagant spending is that it might encourage people to think of Harpagon as a rich man, thereby endangering his life: “les dépenses que vous faites seront cause qu'un de ces jours on me viendra chez moi couper la gorge, dans la pensée que je suis tout cousu de pistoles” (1.4). Now precisely that has happened: “On m'a coupé la gorge” (4.7). Earlier, Harpagon would have liked to have the inventor of “ces grands hauts-de-chausses” hanged for an invention that can serve to hide stolen goods (1.3). Now the once-powerful master will hang himself after having others hanged for the crime. He shares their fate with those whom he would dominate. Like his chest, which he had “enterré dans mon jardin” (1.4), Harpagon in his unhappiness is now himself buried: “je suis enterré” (4.7).

Avarice is a fortification that Harpagon has erected to protect himself against the unknown and, ultimately, death. As La Flèche explains to Frosine, the very sight of a borrower, who might ask him to part with money, strikes Harpagon “par son endroit mortel” (2.4). Money is the miser's only defense against death. Therefore, he cannot take lightly the threat of losing it. What money does is give substance to an existence without other solid, visible underpinnings. Harpagon needs money for the same reason that Pascal's hunter needs the hare. Piling it up diverts his attention from his own emptiness. Riches serve him well as a basis for creating an identity diff