Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 982
Religious Hypocrisy versus True Christian Virtue
The central theme of Tartuffe is the exploration of religious hypocrisy in contrast to true Christian virtue. Tartuffe is a hypocrite because he creates an outward appearance of extreme piety and religious devotion, while secretly leading a life of crime and immoral behavior. Throughout the play, various characters refer to Tartuffe as a hypocrite and can see clearly that he does not practice what he preaches. For example, Tartuffe instructs his servant to tell anyone who asks that he is busy giving out charity to the poor and downtrodden—whereas, in fact, he is busy trying to seduce the wife of his friend. Tartuffe also displays an outward show of religious devotion by assuming a stance of moral authority and telling everyone else in the household how to behave.
In contrast to Tartuffe's hypocritical behavior in regard to religious devotion, Molière offers a view of true Christian virtue in the character of Cléante. Throughout the play, Cléante expresses ideas about true Christian virtue as opposed to religious hypocrisy. Cléante points out to Orgon that there are many people leading truly virtuous lives who do not feel the need to prove to everyone else how devout they are. Furthermore, Cléante points out that "The truly pious people...are not the ones who make the biggest show.'' Cléante adds that, ‘‘True piety's not hard to recognize’’; he describes those genuinely moral people who, rather than showing off their religious devotion,"practice what they preach,’’ in the sense that they ‘‘judge with charity and wish men well'' and "mainly seek to lead a virtuous life.’’ Cléante comments that he feels no need to show off his religious devotion for others to see because, ‘‘Heaven sees my heart.’’ In the final moments of the play, Cléante again demonstrates his deeply felt devotion to Christian morality, particularly the value of forgiveness. When Orgon learns that Tartuffe has been arrested for a long list of crimes, he begins to voice his desire to see Tartuffe suffer for his betrayal. However, Cléante cuts Orgon off in mid-sentence in order to point out that he should not desire revenge against Tartuffe, but should hope that Tartuffe will repent for his sins, and even that he will be granted a lighter sentence by the King. Cléante thus voices the play's message regarding the difference between living a truly virtuous life and being a religious hypocrite who does not practice what he preaches.
Obsession and Excess versus Reason and Moderation
The value of moderation and reason in all things, as opposed to excess and obsession, is an important theme running throughout Tartuffe. Tartuffe himself is a figure representing the dangers of excess; he is depicted as a glutton—a man who eats and drinks immoderately at the expense of another man. Orgon is also a man of excess, although his excess takes the form of obsession. Orgon becomes so obsessed with Tartuffe that he loses all sense of reason and, as a result, nearly destroys his own family. Even after Orgon learns of Tartuffe's true nature as a fake and a hypocrite, his first response is extreme; he determines that he will never trust another man again and will curse all those who claim to be virtuous. Cléante, however, represents the voice of reason in pointing out to Orgon that moderation in all things is better than extremes; he tells Orgon, ‘‘You never are content with moderation...you fly back and forth between extremes.'' Cléante advises Orgon that the lesson to be learned from his experience with Tartuffe is not to curse all men who appear to be good, but rather to carefully avoid all extremes of behavior and judgment and to act less impulsively. As with the matter of religious hypocrisy, Cléante voices a central message of the play, that moderation and reason in all things is better than extremes or obsessions of any sort.
Loyalty and Devotion versus Disloyalty and Betrayal
Loyalty and devotion versus disloyalty and betrayal is another theme in Tartuffe. Tartuffe betrays Orgon's trust and friendship in every way. Whereas Orgon offers Tartuffe his friendship, his home, his food, his confidence, his fortune, and his daughter, Tartuffe uses Orgon for the purposes of his own material and social gain. Tartuffe takes advantage of Orgon's generosity and devotion by trying to seduce his wife, seize his property, and have him arrested. Under the influence of Tartuffe, Orgon himself temporarily betrays his own family. Orgon betrays both Mariane and Valère when he breaks off their engagement—to which he had previously consented—in order to make Mariane marry Tartuffe. Valère, by contrast, represents the virtues of loyalty, devotion, and friendship. Valère demonstrates his deep devotion and loyalty to Orgon when he takes a great personal risk in order to save Orgon from being arrested. Valère arrives at Orgon's house with a carriage and advises him to flee immediately in order to evade arrest. Valère also gives Orgon a large sum of cash to facilitate his escape and promises to accompany him on his journey. Valère thus risks being himself arrested for aiding Orgon's flight from the law. In the final lines of the play, Orgon states that he will reward Valère's ‘‘deep devotion'' by planning his wedding to Mariane. The theme of loyalty is also addressed in Tartuffe in terms of Orgon's regard for the King. In the end of the play, Orgon is pardoned by the King for concealing the strongbox of documents, because he had fought courageously on the side of the King during the civil wars in France (known as the Fronde). Thus, while Tartuffe in the end is punished for his betrayal of Orgon, Orgon and Valère are rewarded for their acts of loyalty and devotion.
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