The School for Wives

by Moliere
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 333

Arnolphe, the protagonist of the play, is a forty-two-year-old bachelor who has convinced himself that intelligent women cannot be trusted. He is certain that if he marries, his wife will humiliate him by cheating on him. To circumvent this inevitability, he decides to "train" the perfect wife.

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He sends his four-year-old ward, Agnes, to a secluded convent, requesting that her education be limited. Arnolphe believes that if women are taught to do just three things (pray, sew, and love their husbands), then they will remain faithful after marriage. Arnolphe's old friend Chrysalde tries to dissuade him from his plan by speaking of the virtues of intelligent women, but Arnolphe does not listen.

When Agnes is grown, Arnolphe moves her into one of his manors without telling her about his diabolical plan to marry her. A young man named Horace, who is also unaware of Arnolphe's plan, shows up at the manor, sees Agnes, and immediately falls in love. Agnes falls in love with Horace as well.

Arnolphe is furious and jealous. He chastises Agnes for allowing Horace to kiss her hands and insists that such wanton behavior is inappropriate outside of marriage. She immediately requests to be married. Arnolphe misunderstands the situation and believes that Agnes wants to marry him, when in reality, she has just asked to be married to Horace.

When Horace returns to the manor, Agnes professes her love to him. Horace, not realizing that Agnes is Arnolphe's ward, asks Arnolphe to help him rescue Agnes from her terrible guardian. Arnolphe lies to Horace and says he will help but then orders the servants to beat him.

Arnolphe continues to scheme and even threatens to send Agnes back to the convent when she refuses to marry him. The situation is resolved when Agnes's real father shows up and states that he has spoken to Horace's father and arranged for Agnes and Horace to marry. Arnolphe ends up betrayed and humiliated despite all of his efforts to train the perfect wife.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1122

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 Horace that Agnès has obeyed orders and thrown a stone at him, but he learns also that the stone had a letter attached, a letter in which she professed her love for Horace. The young man is delighted. Still not knowing that his supposed friend is in reality Agnès’s guardian, Horace asks Arnolphe for help in rescuing her from de la Souche.

Arnolphe decides to marry Agnès at once and sends for the notary. He is doubly miserable, because he feels betrayed and because he really loves the young woman. He becomes enraged when he learns of Horace’s plan to gain admittance to Agnès’s room, and he orders his servants to set upon Horace with clubs as he tries to climb to Agnès’s window. He is horrified, however, when the servants return and tell him that they have beaten Horace too hard and have killed him.

Even though he hates the young man, Arnolphe is soon relieved to see Horace alive and not seriously injured. Horace tells Arnolphe that he pretended to be dead so that his attackers would leave him. Agnès, swearing that she is never going back to her prison cottage, has slipped out during the uproar. Horace, with no place to take her, asks Arnolphe to help him by hiding Agnès until they can be married. Arnolphe hides his face as he meets Agnès, and it is not until after Horace has gone that she recognizes Arnolphe as de la Souche. Still, her innocence makes her unafraid, and she tells Arnolphe that Horace is more to her liking for a husband than is Arnolphe. Swearing that she will have no one but Horace, she refuses to consider marrying Arnolphe in spite of his alternate threats and promises. At last Arnolphe declares angrily that he will send her to a convent, and he has his servants lock her up until a carriage can be secured.

Horace, ignorant of these developments, goes again to his friend Arnolphe, this time in great agitation. His father, Oronte, has arrived for a visit with his friend Enrique, the brother-in-law of Chrysalde. It is Oronte’s purpose to marry Horace to Enrique’s daughter, and Horace asks Arnolphe to persuade Oronte not to force the marriage. Although he promises to help Horace, Arnolphe does exactly the opposite. He tells Oronte that a father should never give in to a son, that a son should be made to bow to a parent’s wishes. He insists that Horace and Enrique’s daughter be married at once. Horace then learns that Arnolphe is in reality de la Souche and realizes that he has been betrayed.

Arnolphe has Agnès brought before the gathering because he wants to witness her grief and Horace’s as they are separated forever. He is disappointed, however; to his astonishment, he learns that Agnès is Enrique’s daughter. Enrique, years before, had secretly married the sister of Chrysalde. After her death, Enrique, forced to flee the country, had left his small daughter with a country woman. Too poor to provide for the child, the woman had in turn given Agnès to Arnolphe. Enrique had only recently learned of her whereabouts. As soon as he learned that she was with Arnolphe, he had arranged her betrothal to the son of his friend Oronte. Thus the lovers are united with the blessing of everyone but Arnolphe, who can only sputter and wring his hands. He has truly been betrayed.

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