(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

As Arnolphe tells his friend Chrysalde, if a man is not to be made to look like a fool by his wife, he must choose a wife who is ignorant of the ways of the world and in no danger of being admired by other men. Arnolphe, famous for his bitter ridicule of other men who are put to shame by the unfaithfulness of their wives, is determined that he will not find himself in a like position. For that reason, he proposes to marry Agnès, his young ward, whom he has protected from society. He thinks her such an ignorant girl and such a fool that she will make a perfect wife.

Agnès was placed in Arnolphe’s care by her widowed foster mother. The girl had her early training in a convent to which Arnolphe sent her, and since then she has lived in a small cottage on his estate. Her life has been secluded in order that she might be kept safe from learning and from outside influences until she has reached an age for marriage. On a whim, Arnolphe has changed his name to Monsieur de la Souche, but Agnès is not aware of this fact, nor is she aware of Arnolphe’s plan to marry her.

Before Arnolphe can inform Agnès of his wishes, Horace, the son of Arnolphe’s friend Oronte, tells Arnolphe that he is in love with Agnès. Horace, knowing only that Agnès is the ward of one de la Souche, does not realize that Arnolphe and de la Souche are the same man. Horace asks Arnolphe not to tell anyone of the love affair because it must be kept a secret from both de la Souche and Horace’s father. Arnolphe can only smother his rage in silence as he listens to the tale of Agnès’s duplicity. Even though she is not aware that Arnolphe plans to make her his wife, he already feels that she has been faithless to him and has shamed him. He decides that he must accuse her of sinning against him and must also tell her his plans immediately.

Agnès does not react to Arnolphe’s accusations as he had anticipated. In her innocence, she tells him of the pleasure she finds in Horace’s company. Arnolphe is relieved to learn that she has given her lover only kisses, for she is so innocent that she once asked if babies come from the ear. He orders her not to see Horace again, even telling her to slam the door in his face or throw stones at him if he attempts to see her. In addition, he lectures her on the role of women, wives in particular, and gives her a book of maxims to study so that she might be better prepared for marriage. The maxims express exactly Arnolphe’s view of wives as the complete possessions of their husbands. Arnolphe tells Agnès that he intends to marry her, but she misunderstands and thinks that he means to give her in marriage. She is happy because she thinks she will be married to Horace.

Arnolphe learns from...

(The entire section is 1122 words.)

The School for Wives Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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

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

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

In their first conversation, Chrysalde warned Arnolphe that merely keeping Agnès ignorant would not keep her virtuous; in fact, he argued that a well-educated, rational woman would be better able to deal with her world than one who was too innocent to suspect wrongdoing. Certainly, the conversations that Agnès has with her guardian support Chrysalde’s position. It is fortunate that Horace is honorable, for Agnès easily concludes that anything that brings her such pleasure as Horace’s embrace could not possibly be wrong. Yet even if Agnès is too innocent to be skeptical about such delights, she is not stupid. It does not take her long to...

(The entire section is 948 words.)