The School for Wives

by Moliere

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Critical Evaluation

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The School for Wives was probably the most popular success of Molière’s controversial career. When the play was first produced, Molière himself played Arnolphe, the middle-aged theorist of marriage, and Armande, his bride of less than a year, portrayed the ingenue, Agnès. Although the motif of the play is an old one and appears in Italian and Spanish tales, it is a fact that the problem of the ardent middle-aged lover and the bride half his age whom he has trained from girlhood was Molière’s own. Perhaps this is why, in the last act, when Arnolphe pleads with the girl for her love, the comedy seems to drop away, exposing an agonized and aging man speaking desperate and moving words. The play is very funny, but it rings with truth and psychological realism beneath the humor and absurdity.

The School for Wives was Molière’s first five-act comedy in verse, and generally its tone is realistic; the farcical action is confined, for the most part, to the servants. Although influenced by the traditional French farce and the Italian commedia dell’arte, the play is essentially a comedy of character, with an overlay of the comedy of manners. The theme is the old one that love conquers all and that the heart will always understand its own desires and will recognize the heart and soul destined to be joined with it. In an age of arranged marriages and subsequent philandering, Molière’s conviction that marriage should be based on love would have been radical if it had not been integrated into the absurdities of the comedy.

The subsidiary themes of the play are that a young woman has a right to decent education commensurate with her intelligence and curiosity and that any attempt to keep her ignorant is in contempt of her privileges as a human being. At the beginning of the play, Arnolphe sympathetically presents his position: He is so exasperated by feminine coquetry that he feels the only safety is in marrying a fool. His greatest mistake is in carrying his attitude to ridiculous and wrongheaded extremes. With the single-mindedness of a pedant, he constructs a complete scheme for rearing the girl in a convent from the age of four so that she will be entirely untrained in the ways of the world. His pride in his scheme warns the audience of his eventual and inevitable downfall.

The play is witty and amusing, but it contains a surprisingly small amount of action. Mostly, it consists of speeches, many of them long and drawn out, the audience hearing about the action more than witnessing it. To Molière’s contemporaries, however, such a comedy was subject to certain rules of decorum; all violent action was banned from the stage, and the audience’s imagination filled in what was necessary. Although the play is often static, it is never dull; The School for Wives is one of Molière’s most delightful comedies.

Agnès is one of the most fascinating characters in any Molière comedy; if she sins, it is through lamblike ignorance and innocence, and her gradual awakening is a marvel of character portrayal. The revelation of her slowly developing temperament, all the stronger for its innocence and naïveté, is as touching as it is charming. At the same time, the pedant’s personality undergoes a transformation, for he discovers, in spite of himself, the true nature of love. He, who has dismissed love and all of the accompanying nonsense as beneath him, finds that he is hopelessly in love with the young woman he has created. He has no choice but to eat his words and to suffer...

(This entire section contains 1207 words.)

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the consequences of his stupidity and blindness. His awkward gropings toward the manners and words of love become both his own punishment and the delight of the audience.

The moral point of the play rests in the fact that Arnolphe has deliberately sought to confine a human being, to limit her development unnaturally. Under the pretense of keeping her “simple,” he has made her into a charming freak. The struggle is between the spontaneous and the rigid, a struggle that lends itself perfectly to comedy. The more Arnolphe treats life mechanically, the more his efforts backfire, for life reacts spontaneously to make the outcome of his elaborate schemes the opposite of his intentions. In Molière’s plays, nature is always held up as a better guide than authority; human nature and human emotions must be allowed to take their own course. It is always the extreme position that causes unhappiness and eventual disaster. If human beings would avoid absurd obsessions, life would be smoother and more joyous for everybody concerned. Of course, it would also be duller, and it is this all-too-human tendency of people to embrace extreme points of view and absurd attitudes that provides Molière with his most brilliant comic creations.

Molière uses several clever devices to enliven his essentially simple plot. One is the fact that Arnolphe has taken the name of de la Souche. This allows Horace to make him the confidant of successive attempts to get Agnès out of old de la Souche’s clutches. The complications of this misunderstanding are both absurd and hilarious. Another delightful and clever contrivance is the grotesque scurry of the denouement. The final scene of act 5 is filled with rapid-fire patter in which Chrysalde and Oronte, Horace’s father, newly arrived on the scene with a person called Enrique, who has spent the last fourteen years in America, explain to all concerned that the rustic Agnès is actually Chrysalde’s niece and the daughter of this Enrique. Enrique is a perfect and totally implausible deus ex machina, standing by, dumb as a fish, until just before the curtain falls to remark in three lines that he has no doubts about the identity of his daughter and consents to her marrying Horace. It is a daring and absurd conclusion to the play, but it provides the necessary happy ending for the young lovers and leaves Arnolphe sadder but wiser.

There is much excellent comedy in The School for Wives: the frenzy of Arnolphe, the leg pulling by Chrysalde, an absurd notary babbling in legal jargon, a saucy maid named Georgette, and the irony of the old man trying to win the love of a young woman he has tried to lock away from all eyes but his own. Chrysalde, in particular, is a satirist with a sense of humor, trying with a long merry tirade to laugh Arnolphe out of his obsession. The contrasts and contradictions of human behavior provide the basic, and often subtle, humor of the play, but Molière is never above farce, as in the opening scene when Alain and Georgette first refuse to let their master through the gate and then quarrel about which of them is to do it. As is often the case in Molière’s comedies, much as in real life, the characters assume different guises, adopting different faces as they need them, then removing their masks and inventing new ones. The cloak of politeness falls, and the chaos beneath is hilariously revealed.