Molière wrote Tartuffe not to condemn organized religion or religious people but rather to condemn hypocrisy and to instruct audiences, through the use of humor, on the importance of moderation, common sense, and clear thinking in all areas of life. Although the play was originally condemned as an outright attack on religion and devout people, a proper reading suggests just the opposite. Religion is not the problem; rather, the misuse of religion for personal gain at the expense of innocent, unsuspecting people is Molière’s concern. Works such as Tartuffe in fact help to protect and promote religion by exposing impostors for who they really are and demonstrating the real danger they pose to society when they go unchallenged.
The play’s major emphasis is on the silly yet serious results of failing to act with common sense. The reactions of the various characters of the play to the hypocrite, Tartuffe, serve to remind the audience of the importance of clear thinking in a world where some people will take advantage of simple thinking and blind trust. The play reinforces the golden virtue of “moderation in all things.” Excess, even in service of the most sacred faith, leads to ridiculous conclusions and potentially catastrophic actions.
The comic way in which the story unfolds, from seemingly harmless simple belief about religious doctrine to eventual trust in the absurd notion that Tartuffe should be in control of the family’s finances and estate, is a warning to all people to avoid letting others take advantage of them through their own lack of careful observation and scrutiny of human behavior. Orgon is unable to see the absurdity of the restrictions that Tartuffe places on his family. Ordinarily a reasonable and capable man, Orgon becomes so enamored of Tartuffe’s manner and so dazzled by his rhetoric that he jeopardizes family, wealth, societal position, and eventually his own faith in the value of religion for the sake of appeasing the manipulative hypocrite. Molière clearly understood the dangers of false piety.
The play sets forth the theme of the importance of a well-ordered soul living in a well-ordered society under the virtue of reason. The comical yet serious unraveling of Orgon’s professional and personal life at the hands of Tartuffe is the vehicle for the author’s implicit appeal for reason and order in personal interactions and societal institutions. As Molière shows, when individuals such as Orgon ignore common sense and become infatuated with charismatic figures, the results can be tragic. Orgon’s relationship with Tartuffe leads directly to the breakdown of his relationship with his son, the growth of mistrust between Orgon and his wife, personal embarrassment, and financial problems. These troubles have adverse effects on everyone in Orgon’s life and, by extension, on society as a whole. The dishonest intentions of one man wreak havoc on many lives. Through the comic manner in which he tells the story, the playwright reinforces the idea that Orgon’s difficulties could have been avoided. Tartuffe and his kind have power only when ordinary citizens willfully give up their ability to think for themselves.
In the end, the audience sees Orgon as remorseful for foolishly placing his trust in Tartuffe; he is also angry. In his anger, he inappropriately asserts that religion has been the cause of all the calamity that he and his family have undergone. Cléante, however, reminds Orgon that the real problem is not religion but the misuse of religion by impostors. Through Cléante’s final speech, Molière reinforces the validity of appropriate religious expression by the truly devout.