Themes

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571

Illustration of PDF document

Download The Would-Be Gentleman Study Guide

Subscribe Now

A chief aim of Moliere's 1670 drama is to satirize or make fun of social pretensions. The plot pivots on the desire of the foolish bourgeois (middle-class) Monsieur Jourdain to rise in social status. In that period, the aristocracy reigned as the upper class in society, with royalty at its pinnacle. This class derived its wealth from inherited land passed down from generation to generation. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, land was the chief basis of European wealth, with aristocrats collecting rents in return for allowing others use of parts of their often vast estates.

By the end of the seventeenth century, however, land-based wealth was being challenged by the rise of the mercantile middle class. While such "tradesmen" were scoffed at as beneath the dignity of aristocrats, they also generated anxiety with the wealth they were accumulating. American readers in particular need to keep in mind that a European could be "middle-class" but also very wealthy: the term denoted how one derived one's money rather than the level of one's wealth. 

Although middle class, the wealthy Jourdain tries to ape the mannerisms of the aristocracy with costly clothing, as well as through studying dance, fencing, music, and philosophy. He fails miserably and comically at these endeavors, showing that talent, grace, and intelligence can't be bought. The play thus ends up satirizing both the pretensions of the bourgeois "gentleman" (and, of course, the term is an oxymoron: a middle-class man can't be a gentleman) trying to be what he is not. It also satirizes the pretensions of aristocrats who similarly proclaimed superiority on the basis of dress and superficial accomplishments.

Social pretension ties to a second theme: appearance versus reality. All through the play, M. Jourdain has forbidden his daughter, Lucile, to marry her true love, Cléonte, because Cléonte is middle class. Instead, her father wants her to marry an aristocrat. At the end of the play, Cléonte disguises himself as the Sultan of Turkey and asks for Lucile's hand. The foolish M. Jourdain is now very enthusiastic about the marriage because he believes his daughter is marrying up. He lacks the discernment to see through the outer packaging to the true worth or identity of the person underneath. Once again, Moliere, himself middle class, emphasizes that it is internal merit that defines the worth of a person.

The play also asserts the theme of the right of a woman to choose her own mate. Lucile and her mother both assert this right strongly. When asked if it would be permissible for Lucile to forget Cléonte in favor of a better match, her mother says:

I would strangle her with my own hands if she did something like that. 

Lucile herself says:

No, my father, I told you, there is no power on earth that can make me take any husband other than Cléonte. And I will go to extreme measures rather than. . . . 

However, when she recognizes, as her father cannot, that the "Turk" is Cléonte, she quickly changes her tune:

It is true that you are my father; I owe you complete obedience; and it is for you to dispose of me according to your wishes.  

The notion of companionate marriage is tied to the rise of the middle class: Moliere supports this bourgeois freedom but shows as well how a wise woman will use whatever weapons are at hand to get her way.  

Previous

Characters

Next

Critical Essays