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Discussing Tartuffe

May 3, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Last week, I had the opportunity to discuss Molière’s play Tartuffe in a couple of Quarterly Discussions. First of all, I have to admit that I love this play, so my notes may not be altogether unbiased. Having said that, I think that an interesting place to begin is with ideas of power as represented in the play. It also makes sense to begin with the title character for an investigation into his power.

The audience’s first knowledge of Tartuffe comes right at the beginning of the play in the family dialogue. Madame Pernelle condemns most of the family’s behavior but believes that Tartuffe is a model figure. The rest of the family, however, makes it clear that they distrust Tartuffe’s piety. This brilliant introductory scene gives a lot of background information in a relatively short space. Through conversation, the scene also introduces the character of the master, Orgon, who is also blind to Tartuffe’s tricks. So much so, that when Orgon enters he dismisses the report of his wife’s ill-health. While disregarding this news, he immediately asks about Tartuffe’s health. In other words, he feels the need to address Tartuffe’s needs over that of his own family. It is difficult to state exactly what mysticism tempts Madame Pernelle and Orgon to adore Tartuffe. They unquestioningly believe his piety, his repeated self-flagellation, his self-condemnation, his poor appearance, etc. Ironically, when Damis (Orgon’s son) confronts Tartuffe, Tartuffe replies, “Do you think me the better for what you see of me? No, no, you suffer yourself to be deceived by appearances, and I am neither better nor worse, alas! than these people think me!” (Act III, Scene 6). The hilarious irony is that, for once, Tartuffe has spoken the truth: Tartuffe is not a good man, and Orgon is deceived by appearances. However, Orgon immediately rejects the idea that Tartuffe is less than perfect, just as Tartuffe expected him to do. Tartuffe responds to heated arguments by portraying humility and piety. In the end of the scene, Orgon rejects the advice of his own son, whom he finally disinherits.

As we learn throughout the play, Tartuffe is a masterful con artist. Orgon first encountered him while Tartuffe appeared as a beggar outside of church. He would only take a portion of money given him which impressed Orgon immediately. Tartuffe used Orgon’s charity against him. Furthermore, he plays every scene to his advantage, even using the family’s disapproval to his advantage. He targeted Orgon specifically as is apparent at the play’s conclusion. In a swift turn of events, the king’s messenger dissolves any contracts between Tartuffe and Orgon noting Tartuffe’s extensive criminal record. The king’s messenger says that the list of Tartuffe’s “horrid crimes is long enough to fill volumes of histories” (Act V, Scene 7). Tartuffe’s power, then, is a kind of evil (or at the very least, callousness) which preys upon innocence and charity. He understands motivations and uses them all to his advantage. The title reflects an ever-present tension linked to his predatory behavior.

Acting against Tartuffe’s devious power, we also discussed the power demonstrated by women in the play. The women differ greatly in wisdom and action. Mariane, Orgon’s daughter, remains mostly silenced by her circumstances. She seldom directly opposes her father. However, her maid, Dorine, directly confronts Orgon. When neither female is successful at getting what they want, Dorine orchestrates a ploy to at least delay undesirable events. Dorine exhibits a sharp tongue, a quick mind, and an understanding of Tartuffe’s motivations.

That Orgon doesn’t listen to her is not her own fault since he also fails to believe his own wife, Elmire. Orgon’s disbelief forces Elmire into an awkward play-within-a-play in which she tempts Tartuffe into displaying his love for her. During this scene, Orgon, who is hidden, can hear Tartuffe express his true feelings. In fact, this may be the only time that Tartuffe expresses any true feelings. He tells her: “[T]he harm never consists in anything but the noise one makes; the scandal of the world is what makes the offence, and sinning in private is no sinning at all” (Act IV, Scene 5). A number of people in our discussion noted that Elmire’s power is not a direct power. Unable to convince her husband of Tartuffe’s devious plots with words alone, she resorts to this ridiculous display. In a way, Orgon forces her into this charade. If she had any direct power, she would have been taken at her word.

Both Dorine and Elmire use a kind of indirect power to their benefit. Dorine, who has no real stake in the family and therefore little to lose, creates games which delay unwanted behaviors. Elmire has to put on a play in order to demonstrate the meaning of her point. These women are similar in finding creative solutions to their problems. Furthermore, they both have to cede to the men’s authority.

The idea of power structure in this play led to such interesting comments and this is but a short summary of them. We also discussed topics such as the play’s religious elements, ideas of sin and virtue, and how one might identify a hypocrite (like Tartuffe). After reviewing a few versions of this play, I would have loved to compare a variety of translations as well as add in some of the historical context. Molière is such an interesting character and his plays give us much to wonder about.

I really appreciate the time and energy that everyone spent in reading and discussing this play. I greatly enjoy organizing the Quarterly Discussion series. Next up, we will discuss a selection from Henri Bergson’s The Creative Mind in July. If you are interested in this or any upcoming event, email me at asimon@hmu.edu .

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