Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2068
Orgon: The patriarch, who has fallen under the spell of an impostor posing as a holy man.
Madame Pernelle: Orgon’s mother, who voices dissatisfaction with the members of her son’s family.
Elmire: Orgon’s loyal wife.
Dorine: The lady’s maid, who speaks her mind and stands up for Mariane.
Damis: Orgon’s son, who is fed up with the false piousness of Tartuffe.
Mariane: Orgon’s daughter, who will be pressured into an arranged marriage.
Cléante: Elmire’s brother, who acts as the voice of reason throughout the play.
As the play opens, Madame Pernelle prepares to depart Orgon’s household with her maid, Flipote. Dissatisfied by what she has seen in her son’s residence, she berates the family members, pointing out deficiencies of one. According to Madame Pernelle, Elmire, her son’s wife, dresses too lavishly and sets a bad example for her children. The children and other members of the household do not fare much better. Dorine, the lady’s maid, has a saucy tongue and does not know her place. Mariane, the daughter, is too secretive. Cléante, Elmire’s brother, is too worldly and speaks of real life rather than religion.
At the heart of Madame Pernelle’s unhappiness is her appraisal that the family is not pious enough. In fact, they would all do well to heed the advice of the pious beggar whom Orgon has befriended and brought into the household, Tartuffe. Madame Pernelle thinks that Tartuffe is truly religious. However, Damis, her grandson, considers him a hypocrite and imposter who is faking religious sentiment. Damis’ opinion of Tartuffe is backed up by Dorine, who is never at a loss for words.
Madame Pernelle is scandalized by what the neighbors think and say about the family. Although only the maid, Dorine is the most vocal member of those accused by Madame Pernelle. She answers her arguments and points out that the gossiping neighbor, Orante, is old and bitter. Orante is too old to have a good time and, thus, is adapting a mode of piousness so that others might not have the fun that befits their age.
Madame Pernelle is horrified that the maid would not only have a strong opinion but also voice it. Much dismayed, she leaves in a huff, announcing that she will not be back anytime soon.
Cléante and Dorine commiserate with each other after Madame Pernelle has departed. According to them, Tartuffe has duped her, just as he has duped her son Orgon. Dorine gives a short monologue that details the seriousness of the problem: “But he’s quite lost his senses since he fell / Beneath Tartuffe’s infatuating spell.” In fact, not only has Orgon placed Tartuffe in his household, but he also regards this fraud above his own family. Tartuffe plays right along, stuffing his belly and making pious proclamations. He has found an easy mark. According to Dorine, Orgon is “mad.” Even Tartuffe’s lackey, Laurent, has the audacity to order around members of Orgon’s family. In short, the family is in a very uncomfortable situation. The patriarch or head-of-household is deluded and under the influence of a fraud.
Elmire returns after accompanying Madame Pernelle out. She is exasperated, having had to endure the same complaints yet again in the doorway. Elmire announces that she has just seen her husband, who is returning after a short trip. Cléante waits to greet Orgon, and Damis asks him to find out more about Mariane’s wedding: Mariane was to wed Valère, thereby making it possible for Damis to wed Valère’s sister. However, Tartuffe is against the first wedding. And, if it is off, Damis’ wedding is too.
Scene Four confirms everything that Dorine, Cléante, and Damis have already said. Upon his return, Orgon asks for news of his family. However, he is really only concerned with Tartuffe. Orgon is completely unruffled by news that his wife has been sick. Instead, he brushes aside the account and asks about Tartuffe. As Dorine continues to relate details of his wife’s illness, Orgon continues to ignore them, and, instead, keeps asking if Tartuffe is well. Dorine’s account of the terribly ill Elmire lying feverish in bed contrasts with the image of the glutton, Tartuffe, stuffing his face at the dinner table. Yet, Orgon keeps exclaiming, “Poor fellow,” as if it were Tartuffe who is suffering. Orgon is deluded.
Cléante confronts Orgon regarding his foolish behavior in the previous scene with Dorine. He cannot believe that Orgon could be so foolish and that Orgon did not realize Dorine was mocking him. Cléante accuses Orgon of being deluded: “Are you so dazed by this man’s hocus-pocus / That all the world, save him, is out of focus?”
Orgon denies that he is mad; rather, he is a man who has been aided by Tartuffe and who is now on his way to a religious revelation. Tartuffe has helped him see the truth: the material world is nothing but a “dunghill,” and human bonds are weaknesses. By following the example of Tartuffe, he will free his soul. In his delusion, Orgon exclaims that he would not feel any pain if his family were to die. Cléante responds with appropriate irony: “That’s a fine sentiment, Brother; most humane.” Indeed, Orgon’s attitude is not humane at all.
Failing to appreciate the irony, Orgon goes on to recount exactly how he first met Tartuffe. Tartuffe was a mere pauper praying piously in church. Orgon was impressed. When he gave him alms, Orgon became more impressed because Tartuffe turned them down (or better, objected to the alms, but still accepted them). Orgon completely fell for the act. In Orgon’s own words:
At length, Heaven prompted me to take him in
To dwell with us, and free our souls from sin.
He guides our lives, and to protect my honor
Stays by my wife, and keeps an eye upon her.
Cléante cannot believe what he is hearing. Throughout the play, he is the voice of reason. His response to Orgon is quite eloquent, and succinctly outlines a philosophy that separates the fraudulent from the genuine. In Cléante’s opinion, Tartuffe is too flashy and not pious at all:
There’s true and false in piety, as in bravery,
And just as those whose courage shines the most
In battle, are the least inclined to boast,
So those whose hearts are truly pure and lowly
Don’t make a flashy show of being holy.
Although Orgon objects, Cléante continues:
And just as there is nothing I more revere
Than a soul whose faith is steadfast and sincere,
Nothing that I more cherish and admire
Than honest zeal and true religious fire,
There is nothing that I find more base
Than specious piety’s dishonest face.
Despite Cléante’s eloquence and logic, Organ remains unmoved; he believes in Tartuffe’s sincerity. Although they disagree, Cléante changes the subject to a pressing matter: Mariane’s impending marriage. Orgon admits that he has postponed the wedding, and that he is to be guided by “Heaven’s will,” a sure sign that Tartuffe has influence in the matter.
Weaknesses of Translation
Molière wrote Tartuffe in his native French. The play’s dialogue consists of rhyming lines, which add a giddy feel to the work. A good performance of Tartuffe in a language other than French must preserve the rhyme scheme in order to retain the original flavor of the work. This is not an easy task for a translator; translations that require rhymes are among the most difficult. Often, translators have to choose between preserving literal meaning to convey the original intent or preserving the original rhyme scheme and allusions. This choice leads to difficult decisions in every line of the play; one is usually sacrificed at the expense of the other.
In the case of Tartuffe, English readers have been blessed with a phenomenal translation by the poet Richard Wilbur. First appearing in the 1963, the “Wilbur Translation” has become the standard for theater companies. The version is also readily available in a bilingual edition, which helps the reader see just how Wilbur uses artistic license and his poetic talent to maintain the feel and sound of the original (the translation by Donald Frame is also highly regarded). However, no matter how good the translation, the reader should constantly be aware that, in retaining the rhymes, the translator often has not made a literal translation. The reader should be especially aware, when doing a close reading or analyzing specific words, that the words the translator chose may differ from the words Molière first used. A good example is the French word, imposteur, which appears in the title and literally refers to an impostor. However, many English translators, including Wilbur, vary in the translation of the word, depending where it appears in the play; in English, the word is often translated as “hypocrite.”
The Genre of Comedy
Although the play deals with a very serious theme—the usurpation of a family’s estate by a conman—Tartuffe is a comedy. First and foremost, the action is meant to be funny and elicit laughter. Molière uses exaggeration to great effect, creating scenes that give the actors and actresses a chance to play for laughs. Act I, Scene Four is a perfect example. The dialogue is over-the-top; Orgon’s behavior borders on the absurd and is not realistic. Molière is using comedy as a tool for illustrating Orgon’s inability to keep his priorities straight; he has been duped to the point of folly, which is good for laughs.
Theater was considered a low art form in 17th-century France. Moreover, at the bottom of the bottom was the genre of comedy. Church authorities were not likely to look leniently at a base comedy that pokes fun at religion—and indeed they did not. Tartuffe had to be revised numerous times in order to get a seal of approval. Religion was not considered a suitable topic for comedy, and Church authorities who initially wanted the work banned certainly were never ecstatic about the play. Tartuffe is an impostor, as the title suggests, and not an actual member of the church; nevertheless, Molière used a “low” art form to create a character that parodies false piety. Molière was bound to step on a few toes, and he had to be very diplomatic in the final version of Tartuffe for it to be performed in public.
Power and Authority
Although the play is named after the conman, hypocrite impostor, Tartuffe, the majority of the action, particularly in the earlier acts, revolves around Orgon.
In the 17th century, Orgon’s power and authority were taken for granted. However, a modern audience may ask questions and see allusions that would have never occurred to an audience from an earlier era. The Ancien Régime (Old Guard) was, first and foremost, a monarchy—and, furthermore, a patriarchy. France was ruled by a male, the king; the queen held no power, and the throne could be transferred to only a male heir. This gender preference was taken for granted in the 17th century.
Within his household, Orgon holds all the power and authority. He is, after all, the male head-of-household. In this respect, one could consider Orgon’s family to be a microcosm of the patriarchal society of the time. The family has one ruler, the father. His authority is not to be disputed or questioned; it is absolute, much like the Divine Right of Kings, which asserts that the King rules over the earth much the way God rules heaven.
However, in the case of Tartuffe, a dilemma immediately presents itself, making the blind obedience to patriarchy problematic: Orgon has fallen for a phony and is not seeing events clearly. As Act I, Scene Four illustrates, his priorities (and reason) are severely compromised. Nevertheless, his family does not wield any influence or authority. They are powerless in the face of his illogic; Dorine resorts to sarcasm and irony, methods that are adopted by those lacking in power. Can the family ever convince Orgon that Tartuffe is an impostor, or must Orgon discover it on his own?