Summary

(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.)