The School for Husbands

by Moliere

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 871

Much of the humor in Molière’s comedy derives from the contrasting personalities of the two brothers, Sganarelle and Ariste, which extends to their attitudes toward marriage and relationships with their respective fiancées, Isabella and Léonor. In Molière’s contrived plot, the will of the two sisters’ deceased father has consigned them to be first the brothers’ wards and then their wives. There is a loophole, however, in that the men may refuse to marry them, but if so, they must find them suitable husbands.

Ariste, the older brother, is the more liberal in his attitude toward marriage; Léonor’s love actually matters to him, and he is determined to trust and care for her. Sganarelle, in contrast, is determined to keep the wealthy young woman for himself, even if means shutting her up in the house and making her look as unattractive as possible—all to keep her from cheating on him or meeting any other potential suitors. Sganarelle tells his brother:

You let your ward go about gaily and stylishly; I am content. You let her have footmen and a maid; I agree. You let her gad about, love idleness, be freely courted by dandies; I am quite satisfied. But I intend that mine shall live according to my fancy, and not according to her own; that she shall be dressed in honest serge, and wear only black on holidays; that, shut up in the house, prudent in bearing, she shall apply herself entirely to domestic concerns, mend my linen in her leisure hours, or else knit stockings for amusement; that she shall close her ears to the talk of young sparks, and never go out without someone to watch her.

Ariste in turn gives his differing opinion.

Their sex loves to enjoy a little freedom; they are but ill-checked by so much austerity. Suspicious precautions, bolts and bars, make neither wives nor maids virtuous. It is honour which must hold them to their duty, not the severity which we display towards them. To tell you candidly, a woman who is discreet by compulsion only is not often to be met with. We pretend in vain to govern all her actions; I find that it is the heart we must win.

Despite Sganarelle’s best efforts, another young man, Valère, sees and falls in love with Isabella. He schemes to get her away from her tyrannical guardian-fiancé. Valère manages to meet Sganarelle in the street and suggest that he should drop by and visit him at home. After Sganarelle departs, Valère tells his servant Ergaste that he is “in a rage”:

To see her I love in the power of a savage, a watchful dragon, whose severity will not permit her to enjoy a single moment of liberty.

Although Valère is sure that Isabella does not know he loves her, he has been following her around and she has learned his name, which she tells to Sganarelle. Infuriated, he demands that Valère leave her alone. Sganarelle insists that he stop “ogling” her and go fall in love with someone else. In this way, however, he manages to convey Isabelle’s interest, thus fueling the young man’s desire. Isabella then further tricks Sganarelle into delivering a love letter to Valère by saying it is a letter from him that she wishes to return unopened. Flattered into believing in her purity and concern for her reputation, Sganarelle takes him the letter. Hearing her declaration of love, both Ergaste and Valère are impressed.

ERGASTE. Well, sir, is not this contrivance original? For a young girl she is not so very ignorant. Would one have thought her capable...

(This entire section contains 871 words.)

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of these love stratagems?

VALERE. Ah, I consider her altogether adorable. This evidence of her wit and tenderness doubles my love for her, and strengthens the feelings with which her beauty inspires me . . .

This pattern continues with a number of visits, as Isabella continues to use the unwitting Sganarelle as her emissary. As the deceptions mount and grow more complicated, Isabella convinces him that her sister has fallen in love with Valère and is hiding in their house to have a tryst with him. Sganarelle, furious, orders Léonor out of the house. Isabella, disguised as her sister, goes to Valère’s home. Delighted to prove his brother wrong, Sganarelle tells him of the deception and insists that he follow the father’s will. They arrange for the magistrate to marry the two lovers. Meanwhile, Léonor is at a ball and knows nothing of her sister’s plot. After the marriage is complete, Isabella asks her sister’s pardon and tells Sganarelle that he was right all along, she was deceitful and thus unworthy of him:

As I found I was unworthy of your love, and undeserving of a heart like yours, I vastly preferred to see myself in another's hands.

This only confirms his attitude toward women:

Unhappy he who trusts a woman after this! The best of them are always full of mischief; they were made to damn the whole world. I renounce the treacherous sex forever, and give them to the devil with all my heart!