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.)