The Role of Reason in Religion: A Reading of Tartuffe
What happens when hypocrisy invades religion in the absence of reason? This is the very question that Moliere addresses as he establishes the characters in his work of political and social satire Tartuffe. In satire, characters are usually one-dimensional and unchanging; they are simply there to represent an idea. Therefore, rather than using character development, Moliere uses character establishment to shape his story and theme. This is most notably seen in the last two scenes of act one in Tartuffe as he establishes the characters of Orgon, Cleante and Tartuffe. In the establishment of these three characters Moliere forms a strong point about reason’s role in religion and the rightful way to pursue genuine belief.
In the last scenes of act one in Tartuffe, Orgon’s character is established by his attitude towards his family, his misplaced respect for Tartuffe, and his blindness towards Tartuffe’s hypocrisy. As Orgon makes his entrance into the story, he inquires of his brother-in-law that state of his house. Dorine reveals that the lady of the house has been very sick, even going as far to say that a bleeding “has saved her from the grave.” Orgon takes the information without acknowledging it. His only concern is for Tartuffe, the religious man he has taken in and aspires to be like. This nonchalant attitude toward his family reveals disconnect that is only made up for in his relationship to Tartuffe. This replacement of a practical stranger for one’s family immediately brings Organ’s character into question. In the next scene Orgon cements his character by arguing with Cleante. Orgon tries to justify Tartuffe’s character to Cleante, but falls short with this remark: “This is a man…who…ha!…well, such a man.” This inability to come up with words to describe the man he venerates so highly reveals Orgon’s faith to be empty. The reason for this emptiness is his lack of personal reasoning. He believes in Tartuffe, but doesn’t know why or what he believes, as evidenced by his inability to describe the man. He is allowing someone else to do his thinking for him. All of these factors work together to establish Orgon as an oblivious character that is devoid of reason.
In his argument with Orgon, Cleante establishes his personality and comes out as superior to his brother-in-law’s character. Cleante claims, “Religious passion worn as a façade abuses what’s sacred and mocks God.” He accuses Tartuffe of this very sin by stating, “what I see is loud lip service merely.” He does not believe Tartuffe’s shows of service to God are sincere in the simple fact that he makes a loud show of them. Orgon deems him an atheist for his disbelief in Tartuffe. Orgon is calling for blind belief in a religious man rather than studying the religion and coming to one’s own definition of true religious belief. Cleante reacts by saying this accusation is only rooted in the belief that one cannot find “reason and the sacred intertwined.” In this statement, Cleante establishes his character as both a religious man and the voice of reason in the story while hinting at an underlying philosophy by which to pursue true religious belief. This establishment places Cleante’s character above Orgon’s because of the employment of reason. This makes the audience more receptive to Cleante’s philosophy and assessments.
By the end of act one Tartuffe has yet to appear. However, Orgon and Cleante have already mostly established his character. Orgon paints Tartuffe as a saint and praises his religious piety with little to support his faith in the man. Due to the unreliable nature of his character that has been previously established, Cleante’s view of Tartuffe is taken to be more genuine. Orgon speaks of Tartuffe’s religious nature by stating, “The way he humbly bowed and kissed the floor? And when they tried to turn away their eyes, his fervent prayers to heaven and deep sighs made them witness his deep spiritual pain.” He is a man who makes a show with his worship and intends his own worship to bring praise for himself from others. Cleante condemns this form of worship by saying that true believers “are not the ones who groan and lay prostrate.” He therefore infers true religious devotion is something within and is not something to be outwardly shown or praised. Due to his reliability that has been established, the audience is more open to his interpretation of Tartuffe’s actions. This allows Tartuffe’s character to be cemented as fortune-seeking hypocrite that only gives the appearance of religious devotion. Due to the fact he has constructed this clever plan in order to live lavishly, he can be seen as a man with much reason and devoid of religion. In this sense, he is the opposite of Orgon and as such, he becomes the symbol of religious hypocrisy that should be condemned because of its empty worship that is simply for show and self praise. Cleante condemns this kind of religious belief by telling Orgon, “I believe you praise him quite sincerely, I also think you’ll pay for this quite dearly.” This is both a warning for this kind of belief system and also foreshadows Orgon’s unfortunate belated revelation towards the end of the story.
These characters come together to form the theme of the story. Tartuffe embodies religious hypocrisy and reason without religion. Orgon is the embodiment of religion or belief without reason or self-assessment. In the character of Cleante, a medium or balance between religion and reason is shown. Orgon’s predicament at the end of the story reveals blind belief to be unwise while Tartuffe’s treachery that is revealed at the end shows the evil in religious hypocrisy. Cleante’s philosophy is left as the only good path to true religious worship and belief. The point of the story can be gleaned from these establishments. Moliere’s theme in the story is that true religious belief is found only with genuine worship and the use of reason to discern for one’s self the way by which to achieve the faith outlined in the religion itself while warning of the dangers of religious hypocrisy or religion without substance.
Despite the one-dimensionality of these characters, Moliere uses their presence to develop a theme that makes an important point about religion. He establishes the reliability of each character and that causes the reader not only to question the genuine nature of each character’s claim, but in turn encourages the reader to question all things and to employ reason. More specially, he calls for this use of reason in religion in order to eliminate the problem of religious hypocrisy. This call for reason is at the heart of the story. The extremes of reason and religion are both illustrated and a balance between the two is deemed the correct way to true religion. This theme is a strong one and is as applicable today as it was in Moliere’s time due to the fact that religious hypocrisy still exists and the danger of allowing reason to disappear is ever-present.
The Character of Orgon as a Personification of Mannerist Comedy
Comedy of Manners was a theatrical genre that flourished during the time of the British Restoration of the 17th century. These plays sought to deride the upper social classes by exaggerating their manners and customs. Comedy of Manners used stock characters who were representative of their social class in order to satirize their behavior. Many times, the people watching these plays were the same people being satirized (Cash); furthermore, these performances were known for their sophisticated intellectual wit and heavy use of dialogue. One of the most famous of these plays to appear in France, Tartuffe, poked fun at the upper French aristocrats and their willingness to submit themselves to the Roman Catholic Church. The comedy in the play comes from the character Orgon’s complete and total obliviousness to the scheming yet pious-seeming Tartuffe’s plans to steal all of his wealth (Baker). The play Tartuffe is one of the greatest examples of Comedy of Manners in theatrical history, and when the character Orgon’s actions and role in the play are examined, a brilliant and satirical representation of the aristocracy’s religious hypocrisy and blind trust in the Roman Catholic church is revealed.
In Tartuffe, Orgon plays the role of the oblivious yet extremely wealthy patron to the obviously and hilariously corrupt Tartuffe. Orgon’s endless gullibility in the face of shameless corruption is the main comedic point of the play. Orgon foolishly allows the wicked Tartuffe to stay in his family’s home, seduce his wife, and appropriate his fortunes while hopelessly deceiving himself as to the righteousness of his own actions. The characters around Orgon find this behavior to be quite at odds with his past self. The character Dorine describes Orgon as having “Served his king with wise and loyal heart, But he’s quite lost his senses since he fell Beneath Tartuffe’s infatuating spell” (Tartuffe Act 1 Scene II Verse 4). Orgon only falls under Tartuffe’s spell after reaching middle age, in the hope that he can gain some kind of divine favor (Baker).
This need to find redemption at such a late point in his life leads Orgon to become a crazed religious fanatic overnight. He says about his family, “My mother, children, brother, and wife could die, And I’d not feel a single moment’s pain” (Tartuffe Act 1 Scene VI v. 21-22). This irrational behavior causes Orgon to overlook the crimes of Tartuffe in order to gain merit in the afterlife. When Dorine tells Orgon of the sickness of his wife, Orgon Responds, “Ah. And Tartuffe?”. Dorine replies, “Tartuffe? Why, he’s round and red, bursting with health, and excellently fed” (Tartuffe Scene 1 Act V v. 12-15). Orgon responds by saying, “Poor fellow.” This exchange is supposed to shock the audience, as Orgon is so under Tartuffe’s spell that the sickness of his own wife is meaningless to him.
Tartuffe takes advantage of Orgon’s willful blindness by both attempting to seduce his wife and attempting to seize all of his possessions upon his death. Orgon is vaguely aware that Tartuffe lusts after his wife, as he says, “He (Tartuffe) even takes great interest in my wife; He lets me know who ogles her, and seems six times as jealous as I am myself” (Tartuffe Act 1 Scene VI v. 46-48). Even when Orgon catches Tartuffe red handed trying to seduce his wife, and Tartuffe confesses, “Yes Brother, I’m a wicked man, I fear: a wretched sinner, all depraved and twisted, the greatest villain that has ever existed,” (Tartuffe Act III Scene VI v. 97) he still does not believe him. Instead he blames his son Damis for the transgression, not willing to believe his very eyes and Tartuffe’s own confession about what occurred. Instead he says to his son, “Well go quickly then. I disinherit you; an empty purse is all you’ll get from me – except my curse” (Tartuffe Act III Scene VI v. 102). It is not until Orgon sees with his own two eyes Tartuffe violating his wife that he is able to say, “ “That man’s a perfect monster, I must admit! I’m simply stunned. I can’t get over it” (Tartuffe Act IV Scene VI v. 1-2). Yet to the audience this is hardly surprising, as Tartuffe has been corrupt since his introduction.
Of course, Comedy of Manners takes common customs and behaviors of a social class and amplify and exaggerate them to the point of ridiculousness. The character of Orgon in the play pokes fun at two common behaviors within the French aristocracy, the miraculous conversion to faith in middle age and the brazen corruption of the Roman Catholic Church (Taibi). During the playwright Moliere’s time it was common (as it is today) for those reaching middle age to finally open their eyes and find religion. After serving the King for many years and retiring to his estate, the character Orgon feels the weight of middle age, which leads him to finding “true faith.” The comedy comes in that he hasn’t truly converted, but merely pretends to in order to get into heaven. The unscrupulous Tartuffe represents the corrupt Catholic Church that is more than willing to prey on the gullible convert’s need to find redemption. Thus, the play can be seen as critical of the French aristocracy and Roman Catholic Church’s religious hypocrisy.
Orgon’s religious hypocrisy in following the obviously corrupt Tartuffe is what makes the play a brilliant Comedy of Manners. No matter how corrupt or evil Tartuffe appears, Orgon is willing to explain everything away in order to assure his access to the afterlife. The play poked fun at the aristocracy for trying to find religion late in life after having lived a completely irreligious life, and also poked fun at the Roman Catholic Church’s readiness to take advantage of such individuals. The people who watched Tartuffe be performed in the 17th century were well aware of the common occurrence of such religious hypocrisy, and this is what made the play both loved by the aristocracy and hated by the clergy.
Baker, Lyman. “Moliere’s TARTUFFE as a Satire on Religious Fanaticism.” Kansas State University. 7 Dec. 1996. Web. 6 Oct. 2014.
Cash, Justin. “Comedy of Manners.” The Drama Teacher. 19 July 2006. Web. 6 Oct. 2014.
Taibi, Julian. “Orgon’s Obsession in Moliere’s Tartuffe: Infatuation versus Reason.” East Stroudsburg University. East Stroudsburg University, 1 Jan. 2010. Web. 6 Oct. 2014.
Molière’s comedies impose social norms with the ferocious help of laughter
Between 1664 and 1670 Molière wrote the three comedies Le Misanthrope, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme and Le Tartuffe, all of which were written and performed in Paris, receiving a varied reception contemporaneously. The latter saw the playwright embroiled in an ongoing debate, due to its apparently egregious treatment of the ecclesiastical orders. Molière would subsequently be required to redact this play meticulously before it could be performed again in 1669. Whilst scholars have generally agreed that to bracket these plays as ‘comedies’ is a reasonable conclusion, the extent to which, and manner wherein they are satirical, and consequently what the implications of this are in Molière’s treatment of social and moral stereotypes is a far more contentious issue.
Ostensibly, there could be said to be some synthetic social and moral types in each play- this essay will focus on Alceste and Célimène in Le Misanthrope, the titular character in Le Tartuffe, and likewise the titular character in Le Bourgois Gentilhomme. All these personalities contain many elements of caricatures which were satirized and mocked regularly in 17th century France- be they a coquette, a hypocrite, a faux dévot, or a social climber. Molière tantalizes us with aspects of social stereotypes, although the characters which Molière has created are in fact nuanced, complex, and it is often rather difficult to condense their essence into a few recognizable traits. Ambiguity resides at the heart of them all, and as such whether or not they are laughed at or with is not a decision which Molière forces his audience to make, due to their multi-faceted characters, and the often morally and socially ambiguous situations they find themselves in. As a result, it is rather difficult to assert that Molière’s comedies help impose social norms through laughter, as the audience often question what and who exactly it is that they are laughing at.
First, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, which on a superficial level tells the story of a hapless social climber, so blinded by his desperation to further his social eminence that he frequently encounters comic domestic complications. Whilst Molière satirizes this man and his desperation, due to his ineffectual and bumbling demeanor, Monsieur Jourdain is not merely a puppet, and although we do laugh at this social stereotype, the audience might well also find themselves pitying him occasionally. The Bergsonian idea that “laughter has no greater foe than emotion” might well be borne in mind whilst ascertaining the extent to which we laugh at Monseiur Jourdain. The denouement of the play, with Monsieur Jourdain’s daughter’s wedding to whom he erroneously believes to be a Turkish prince, in act 5, for instance combines slapstick comedy at the expense of Monsieur Jourdain, juxtaposed with the calculating and evil character of Dorante, which keeps the reader in limbo concerning their feelings towards the title character. Robed in Turkish garments and intoning nonsensically “hou la ba ba la chou…” accompanied by the stage direction “danse et chante,” to which his bewildered wife exclaims “Hélas! Mon Dieu! Mon mari est devenu fou,” one would be hard pressed to miss the comic value of the situation, especially given that Monsieur Jourdain would not allow his daughter to marry for love due to his own self-interested motivations concerning her fiancé’s social status.
Yet this apparently poetic justice, rendered all the more forceful through the farcical behavior of Jourdain, is offset by the dialogue between Dorante, an impecunious nobleman who is attempting to seduce Dorimene shortly afterwards. Dorante proudly introduces Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme gloating that « [il] ne [croit] pas dans tout le monde il soit possible de trouver encore un homme aussi fou que celui-là. » Molière here sets up a dramatic tension- whilst the implicit inferiority of the lower-class title character is displayed through his being duped into thinking that his behavior legitimately befits a Turkish wedding ceremony, a point made through the ferocious laughter and compounded by his wife’s reaction, the nobility in question are such inherently repugnant characters that it would not be reasonable to assert that Molière is using laughter and satire to mock a bourgeois social stereotype. Nor, however, does this reflect the subversion of the established social hierarchy, as Monsieur Jourdain is portrayed in an objectively unflattering light. What the denouement of this play does is encapsulate the tension and ambiguity which prevail- the object of satire is unclear and above all the audience must come to an informed decision themselves, as we feel both pity and a sense of ridicule towards the bourgeois main character.
In a similar vein, Tartuffe is a satirical play and undoubtedly a comic one, yet there are ambiguities and tensions which abound, the implications thereof being that the audience can never fully deride a well-recognised moral or social stereotype. There is, however, an essential distinction that must be made when putting Tartuffe and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme in dialogue with one another. Whereas during Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, the tension arises from the sentiment that one never feels quite certain of the legitimacy of their derision for the title character, in Tartuffe it is clearer that the title character is a villain, yet the manner in which this is the case is not altogether clear. The stereotype of the faux dévot is one which would have been familiar to many a contemporary of Molière’s, and indeed this would be not be an unreasonable characterization of Tartuffe. Yet, the type of religious hypocrite which he is remains translucent at best- he may be a Jesuit priest, but this is by no means a fixed certainty. Much of the terminology used to describe Tartuffe encompasses a Jesuit semantic field. One notes for instance that the term “cabale” is used of him on two instances throughout the play- this being a term which was frequently employed when referring to Jesuit activities. R. Allier’s tract “Cabale des devots” was a polemic mostly focusing on the Company of the Blessed Sacrament- a Catholic secret society containing many Jesuit members, for instance the confessor to Louis XIII. In addition, the bailiff, a close associate of Tartuffe is known as “ Monsieur Loyal,” perhaps a play on words given that St. Ignatius of Loyola was the founding father of the Jesuits, and that “Loyoliste” was a term frequently applied to Jesuits of the era.
Interestingly, in satirizing Tartuffe, Molière above all condemns his disloyalty to the family of Orgon- an accusation frequently leveled against Jesuit priests was one of disloyalty- as it was thought that their preaching had undertones of regicide- contributing to the assassination of Henry IV in 1610. Their ties with Spain were likewise a source of popular misgiving, especially since 1640 when this was in conjunction with the Jansenist’s fiercely anti-Jesuit rhetoric. In 1643 for instance, during a Malthusian crisis in France, the Jesuits were accused of sending grain to Spain. In act 1 scene 5, his religious hypocrisy becomes manifest through the description of Orgon. Orgon, when describing Tartuffe, exclaims that he is “un homme… qui… ha!…. un homme… un homme enfin.” The anacoluthic syntax with frequent use of ellipsis reveals Orgon stumbling to find an epithet, thus at this early stage Tartuffe is already presented somewhat unfavourably, as even a sycophant cannot elucidate his support for him. Moreover, this description fixes Tartuffe as a human being, complete with all the baggage this entails such as being a sinner. In addition, this scene is rife with dramatic irony. One notes for instance that Orgon “lui [faisait] des dons” but that Tartuffe replies that these are “trop” each time, despite later going on to covet his wife. Cléante is scornful, stating “point de cabale en eux,” and at the denouement is proved right. Thus, although in this instance through his heavy deployment of dramatic irony, Molière pours scorn upon the religious hypocrite, a distinct moral type, the exact social type of Tartuffe is left hazy, with the playwright refusing to identify Tartuffe as belonging to any order, although hinting at it, which keeps a certain dramatic ambiguity and tension.
When examining Le Minsanthrope, one is conscious again of social stereotypes, such as an archetypal coquette like Célimène, and a cantankerous and pessimistic character who still yields to her like Alceste. Although satire again abounds in this play, here the ambiguities and tension in terms of who or what are the object of this are twofold. Molière encourages us to level a degree of derision at both of these characters, yet especially in Célimène there exist likable and interesting traits once one examines beyond the synthetic. Act 2 provides an insight into her multi-faceted personality- as she appears in quick succession a tasteless and cruelly flirtatious character, yet equally an intellectual and witty one. Céimène behaves in a deceptive and flirtatious fashion towards the lovestruck Alceste in this act that “c’est vrai, votre ardeur pour moi est sans seconde,” which seems a mocking retort in contrast with his heartfelt and genuine expression of love, when he declares “Ah! Que si de vos mains je rattrape mon cœur/ je bénirai le ciel de ce rare bonheur… Thus, the juxtaposition of her taunting and coquettish response with his leads us to condemn Célimène for he cruelty, yet likewise admire her irony, as she punctures his sense of self-pity. As a result, despite the fact that Célimène appears to be a cold and heartlessly flirtatious character, for whom love is a game, she is in fact a very minor character within this play, speaking roughly 320 lines out of 1800. Moreover, the calamitous ending of the play for her essentially leaves an abiding sense of scorn surrounding her. This leads to the audience being left unsure once again as to what conclusion to draw about a character- as although Molière seems to be pouring scorn upon this flirtatious woman- a recognized social stereotype, he also adorns her with witty and attractive character facets.
Molière as we have seen takes the reader through a kaleidoscopic range of emotions and situations when presenting these different characters to us. In each play examined, the audience have been given various quasi- stereotypical characters, at which we are encouraged and sometimes forced to laugh. Yet Molière very often leaves ambiguity and tension surrounding these characters, and it is this refusal to continually mock a caricature in his plays that Molière does not allow us to deride social stereotypes continually. Concurrently, there are too many episodes of an ostensibly hackneyed character who finds themselves in a ridiculous predicament to conclude that subversion is the result of these comedies. What resounds instead is a series of tensions, both between the characters and within themselves which represent neither a reinforcement of the existing social order through satire, nor a subversion of it through the same means.
Bergson, Henri. Key Writings (Bloomsbury Publishing: 2014), p.465.
 Calder, Andrew. Molière, Le Tartuffe and Anti-Jesuit Propaganda. (Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte, Vol. 28, No. 4 (1976), p.310.
 Whitton, David, Molière : Le Misanthrope. (University of Glasgow French and German Publications: 1993), p.40
Reason and Foolishness in “Tartuffe”
The play Tartuffe has many aspects of reason and foolishness. It was written during the Age of Reason, so Moliere writes this play to teach us about morality and the importance of developing a good character. Throughout the play we see that reason brings order, peace, and forgiveness while foolishness brings chaos, hatred, and suffering. In the play, Tartuffe is a fake holy man. He goes around pretending to be holy and good, but really he is evil and does the opposite of what he preaches. He is a hypocrite. Madame Pernelle and Organ fall for all his lies and act really foolish, causing suffering for everyone including themselves. Dorine and Cleante are however, the opposite. They are reasonable and see through everything Tartuffe does. They try to advise Organ and Madame Pernelle on what to do, but they won’t listen because they are blind to reason. All their foolishness only leads to violence and the breakdown of family, while reason leads to happiness, order, and marriage.
There is much foolishness in the play. Organ and Madame Pernelle are blind to reason. Organ cannot see all the lies that Tartuffe directs his way. He grows to care more for Tartuffe than his own family, leading to distrust and the breakdown of family. An example of this is, “Dorine: ‘My lady… had a fever all day’ Organ: ‘And Tartuffe?’ Dorine: ‘Extremely well, fat, fair, and fresh-coloured’ Organ: ‘Poor man!’ ” Here, through Organ’s conversation with Dorine about his wife, we see that he is more concerned for Tartuffe’s well being than his own wife’s. While she is sick and in bed, Tartuffe is in complete health, yet Organ only cares that Tartuffe is okay. Another example is on page 44 when Damis says, “Let me alone, I’ll slice both his ears off…” Damis is foolish because though he knows Tartuffe is a fake, he wants to go about the wrong way of fixing it. He becomes angry and violent, wanting to chop off Tartuffe’s ears and maybe kill him entirely. This is foolish because it wouldn’t help, it will only bring more problems. A final example is, “I can never believe, son, he could commit so black and action… his soul burns with too pure a flame.” Here, Madame Pernelle is speaking. She thinks Tartuffe is so holy and good. But she is, just like Organ, blind to Tartuffe’s true motivation. She has bad judgement. All these irrational actions do nothing to help, they only create problems. Madame Pernelle, Organ, and Damis all deny reason and act foolishly.
Unity, harmony, and order are achieved with reason. Dorine and Cleante are wise people. They both can see Tartuffe’s true motivation. An example is, “He passes for a saint in your imagination; but, believe me, all he does is nothing but hypocrisy.” Dorine is talking to Madame Pernelle, trying to advise her to not fall for Tartuffe. She knows that Tartuffe does not do what he preaches. Another example is, “Right reason and yours are very different, and you are always throwing yourself out of one extreme into another… distinguish between virtue and the appearance of it… Guard, if possible against doing honor to imposture; but… don’t injure true zeal.” Organ has gone from worshipping Tartuffe to not trusting anyone pious, so Cleante gives Organ some advice. He tells Organ that he needs to find the balance and be able to recognize the difference between lies and the truth. He is sensible and has good judgement. A last example is, “We’ll set them every way to work… employ your friends… excite his brother’s endeavors, and engage the mother-in-law in our party.” Dorine is helping Marianne and Valere. She has a plan to help them get married rather than for Marianne to marry Tartuffe. She stays calm and doesn’t panic. She uses logic and reasoning to sort everything out. The voices of reason in the play help bring order, unity, and marriage.
The play revolves around reason and foolishness. They both compete. Will logic and sense win? Or will the silly and ridiculous side win? Reason will bring order, happiness, and peace. Foolishness will bring chaos, hatred, and violence. So Dorine and Cleante, the two wise people, try to advise the foolish people and help them see that they are being tricked. With logic and reasoning, the foolish people can see they are wrong. So though there is anger, resentment, and chaos in the family while there is foolishness, reason brings happiness, order, and marriage in the end. With this play we learn the importance of morality and values and having a good character.
Theatre of Dissent: Analyzing Similarities in the WorksOf Ibsen, Chekhov, and Moliere
The works of Anton Chekov, Henrik Ibsen, and Moliere are quite distinct from one another, each author being primarily concerned with critiquing the specific society of his own country at the time in which he lived. Their plays, however, share many similarities. All attack the ideology of those who hold power, and they do so by showing how the ideals and virtues upheld by each society are, in fact, oppressive and not virtuous at all. In this endeavor, however, the plays differ significantly according to what ideology is being attacked and to what degree. They also differ in so far as what the endings offer by way of solution.
For example, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard attacks the declining Russian aristocracy, while at the same time calling into question the bourgeoisie class with which it is being replaced. Ranevskaya returns home from Paris at the beginning, having bankrupted her family, and the majority of the play is spent in discussion of how to avoid selling the family estate. Though there are many viable options, not a single person seems to be able to act. Gaev, Ranevskaya’s brother, insists to her adopted daughter, Varya, that “If plenty of remedies are prescribed for some sort of disease, it means the disease can’t possibly be cured” (Orchard 177). Varya’s only response to the many suggestions offered her is as consciously helpless as Gaev’s: “Varya. [weeps] If only God would help” (Orchard 178). The only man willing to do what is necessary to save the estate is not an aristocrat but rather a merchant, the son of a serf. Lopakhin argues that what is needed is to cut down the cherry orchard and build vacation houses. The family contemptually rejects this idea. They cannot believe that anything so base could be needed, that something so pragmatic as money should triumph over the beauty for which they stand. Yet theirs is clearly an empty idealism, a beautiful, extravagant way of life, but one that is only possible through a system of oppression that keeps the rich wealthy at the cost of others’ suffering.
This emptiness can be seen in the way that the family treats Firs, the ancient freed serf who continues to serve them and defend the old system. Though they indulgently dote on him on various occasions, when the time comes to leave they forget him completely, leaving him to die alone in the empty house. He is more like a discarded play-thing to them than a dearly loved family member. Despite this critique of the old order, Chekov does not leave the audience with a sense that the new order is perfect either, leaving the solution just beyond the viewers’ reach. Lopakhin is obsessed, not with ushering in a new brand of social structure so much as setting himself up as the aristocracy of the old one. Though he comes from humble beginnings, he uses his money to buy Ranevskaya’s estate and does his best to work his way into her good graces enough to live among her family if he is one of them. The salient difference between the two mindsets appears to be simply that Lopakhin is willing to cut down the cherry orchard. He is willing to sacrifice beauty for pragmatism, and the audience is not left entirely sure whether to consider him better or worse than Ranevskaya for doing so.
The Three Sisters, one Chekhov’s equally famous plays, is concerned with similar societal critiques. Just as the cherry orchard was symbolic of the idealism of the dying order, in this play Moscow is heavily symbolic, representing for the three sisters the perfect life of the old order to which they desire to return. Instead, however, they are marooned in a provincial, working-class town. Olga says to her sister, Irina, “The past four years I’ve worked at the high school, day after day I’ve felt my strength and my youth drain away, drop by drop. And just one dream keeps growing stronger and stronger, one dream…” (Sisters 104). Irina quickly cuts in, “To leave for Moscow. To sell the house, put an end to everything here, and off to Moscow” (Sisters 104). Yet they never reach Moscow, the dream drifting further and further from sight. It is not simply an inability to make the journey, but the sense that even if they were to reach Moscow they would be sorely disappointed with what they would find. The old order is fading, and now they must fend for themselves, searching for meaning and financial stability in the lives they have been given. One way in which some characters do this is to set themselves up as martyrs, nostalgic over the beauty of what has been lost as society moves to the working-class. For example, though Irina explains that Maria has “already forgotten” how to play the piano, not having played for “three years…or four,” Baron Tuzenbakh insists on her playing, saying, “There’s absolutely no one here in this town who understands music, not one soul, but I, I understand. And I assure you, word of honour, that Maria Sergeevna plays splendidly, she’s almost gifted” (Sisters 137).
Despite this nostalgia, the sisters are far more resilient than Ranevskaya. Unlike her, they are willing to work to survive, thereby becoming the rising class in many ways rather than simply allowing it to push them aside. In the final few moments of the play, Irina says, “The time will come when everyone shall know the reason for all this, the reason why people must suffer…but for the time being we must live…we must work, we must only work!” (Sisters 157). It is perhaps this willingness to assimilate that provokes such a sympathetic ending. Though several marriages have been broken and they have never reached Moscow, the final tone is one of determined optimism, as Olga cries, “Oh, my dear sisters, our life is not over yet. We shall live, we shall! The band plays so joyfully, so happily, and it seems that in a little while we shall know the reason we live, the reason we suffer” (Sisters 157).Yet while Chekhov is able to end with a pragmatic and realistic solution, that of assimilation with the new order, this is perhaps only possible because he lived in a time when the feudal tides were already changing, and the movement was clear for all to see. For Moliere, however, writing several centuries before Chekhov and over one hundred years before the French revolution, there was no such solution available. The feudal ways were still very much intact throughout Europe, and without any other forms of society to draw upon, Moliere is left with no viable alternatives. Therefore, though in The Misanthrope he attacks the idealism of the French aristocracy, the play is left conspicuously unresolved.
The Misanthrope opens with a conversation between Alceste and his friend, Philinte, in which they argue over the proper response to the courtly habit of flattery. Throughout the play the idealistic virtues attributed to the aristocrats by others who flatter them are shown to be false, the compliments only paid in order to further the aims of those who speak them. Alceste critiques this mind-set violently, telling Philinte,I can’t bear these despicable mannerisms that so many of your men of fashion affect. There’s nothing I hate more than the contortions of your protestation-mongers, the affable exchangers of fatuous greetings, polite mouthers of meaningless words, who bandy civilities with all comers and treat everyone, blockhead and man of sense, alike. (Misanthrope 96) He explains, “I want us to be men and say what we really mean in all circumstances. Let what we have in our hearts be apparent in our words; let it be our hearts that speak, and let us not allow our feelings to be concealed under a mask of empty compliments” (Misanthrope 96). In this however, Philinte is the voice of reason. Though he is not a vacuous and dishonest person, he is not so blunt and hostile as Alceste, and he argues, “But surely there are many circumstances in which complete frankness would be ridiculous or intolerable. With all due respect to these austere standards of yours, there are times when it’s as well to hide what we really feel” (Misanthrope 96). It is Philinte who convinces Alceste not to “give up the world,” as he claims he desires to do. Yet again, in the end, Alceste is as resolved as he was in the beginning to quit the world, just as Philinte is similarly resolved to convince him to give up the idea.
Similarly, one senses that, though Alceste declares he is finally done with Celimene, he is still in love with her and has not completely given up hope of winning her over.Therefore, almost no headway had been made in the plot at the end of the play, and the viewers are left with a severe critique of the empty virtues of the aristocracy but no real solution, no change in society. Instead, all that Moliere can offer from the limited viewpoint of the 17th century are the examples of Philinte and Eliante. Both simply advocate a middle ground between constant lies and brutal truth, and they are the only characters happy in the end, having discovered their love for one another. Therefore, the solution is that neither extreme, the refusal to tell the truth nor the unwillingness to soften it, is correct. So, while Alceste’s viewpoint is understandable and necessary to point out the dominant ideology’s hypocrisy, the solution for Moliere lies not in giving up the world, nor in a new social order beyond contemporary imagination, but in individual moderation.Indeed, such an open ending is perhaps preferable to the impossibly neat conclusion of another of Moliere’s plays, Tartuffe.
Unlike the works which have so far been discussed, the ideology here being attacked is that of the Roman Catholic Church rather than the aristocracy. The Church held great power and wealth in France at the time as well, and Moliere critiques them for being equally hypocritical. In the play, Tartuffe claims to be a man of God, and Orgon, taken in by his false piety, wills him his entire estate, entrusts him with a friend’s treasonous documents for safe-keeping, and plans to marry him to his daughter. Distraught by Orgon’s actions, his family members conspire to convince him that Tartuffe is a fake and manage to do so by hiding Orgon under a table so he can witness Tartuffe’s attempts to seduce his wife.Enraged, Orgon leaps out from under the table and rails at Tartuffe, insensible of the fact that has put his entire fortune in his hands. He says, “I’ll have no more to do with men of God. From now on, I shall regard them with the most utter loathing and behave as if no treatment is too good for them!” (Tartuffe 78). In this scene can be seen a clear declaration of Moliere’s philosophy of moderation. In response to Orgon’s rashness, his brother-in-law, Cleante, exclaims,Ah! there you go, flying off the handle again. You’re incapable of being moderate and sensible. You have no conception of plain common-sense. You always rush from one extreme to another. You can see your error now; you’ve discovered how you were taken in by a pretence of piety. But where’s the sense in trying to correct one mistake by committing an even bigger one and failing to make any distinction between a deceitful rogue and people who are genuinely good? (Tartuffe 78)
In the end, all is well. Directly flouting the law, the prince refuses to honour the contract Orgon drew up to bestow his livelihood upon Tartuffe. Therefore, through the monarch’s “ability to read the hearts of men” and not be “taken in by the wiles of hypocrites,” Orgon’s estate is restored, and Tartuffe is turned out on the street (Tartuffe 87).While this improbably happy ending is appropriate in a comedy, one can see that The Misanthrope is Moliere’s most sophisticated work, while Tartuffe lags behind in some ways. There is no real solution given to the problem presented in this play. It simply illuminates the way in which the virtues of the Church are often appropriated for individual gain and does not propose a way of changing the status quo. Perhaps the play itself is meant to work toward a solution by drawing society’s attention to the Church’s hypocrisies, though one would expect the discomfort to dissipate somewhat with such an idealistic ending. Perhaps it was necessary to save Moliere from being arrested. In any event, the solution the audience is left with is simply to hope that the monarch of reality is as discerning and honest as Tartuffe’s prince. Considering Moliere’s opinion of the aristocracy, however, such a hope seems quite farfetched.While the works of Chekhov and Moliere take place in societies in which the impact of the aristocratic orders are still being felt, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is distinct from them in that it takes place at a time when the aristocracy has long been overthrown. Rather than the aristocracy, it attacks the patriarchal views of the bourgeoisie. A Doll’s House centers on Nora, a devoted wife and mother who finds herself in a difficult situation. Having borrowed money for a trip to Italy to cure her husband’s illness without his knowledge and forged her dead father’s signature, she is terrified when the man she has borrowed it from threatens to blackmail her husband. She tells her friend, Mrs. Linde, “Torvald is a man with a good deal of pride – it would be terribly embarrassing and humiliating for him if he thought he owed anything to me. It would spoil everything between us; this happy home of ours would never be the same again” (Ibsen 15).
Over the course of the play, Nora comes to realize that the ideals of family, husbandry, and motherhood which she has always believed in and sought to emulate are hollow. As revealed in the above quote, the system rests upon the subjugation of her autonomy to first her father and then her husband. She is hardly a person, expected to keep her husband happy with jokes and tricks and submit to his every whim in exchange for financial stability. However, when Nora realizes that Torvald is more willing to sacrifice her than his own honor when he believes he is about to be blackmailed, she realizes that she must leave. Helmer exclaims, “This is outrageous! You are betraying your most sacred duty…Isn’t it your duty to your husband and children?” (Ibsen 82). When she replies that she has a more sacred duty to herself, he responds simply, “First and foremost, you are a wife and mother” (Ibsen 82).Her very identity is expected to be subsumed by her submissive societal role. However, she replies, “That I don’t believe any more. I believe that first and foremost I am an individual, just as much as you are – or at least I’m going to try to be” (Ibsen 82). The play ends, like The Three Sisters, with a weak hope struggling through the oppression. Nora explains that she must find herself before she can be a proper mother, and that both she and Torvald would have to change so much that only a miracle could bring them back together. She says, however, that she doesn’t believe in miracles anymore. Yet Torvald’s last lines read, “Nora! Nora! [He rises and looks round.] Empty! She’s gone! [With sudden hope.] The miracle of miracles…?” (Ibsen 86).Though the ideals of the dominant society have been shown to be empty and the family has been ripped apart, the audience is left with the meagre hope that change, however difficult, is in fact possible, and a new order of fully-fleshed individuals may someday come to fruition. Therefore, though these five plays attack the ideologies of different societies and offer differing degrees of hope, they are similar in that they all expose as hypocritical and oppressive what are taken as the virtues and ideals of their contemporary societies. Through such critiques, these authors pave the way for future generations to break free from the ruling class bonds of “goodness” and move toward a better society.
Chekhov, Anton. The Cherry Orchard. Anton Chekhov’s Plays. Trans. Eugene K.Bristow. London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1977. 97-158. Print.
Chekhov, Anton. The Three Sisters. Anton Chekhov’s Plays. Trans. Eugene K.Bristow. London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1977. 159-214. Print.
Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. Four Major Plays. Trans. James McFarlane and JensArup. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. 1-88. Print.
Moliere. The Misanthrope. The Misanthrope and Other Plays. Trans. John Wood andDavid Coward. London: Penguin Books, 2000. 89-142. Print.
Moliere. Tartuffe. The Misanthrope and Other Plays. Trans. John Wood and DavidCoward. London: Penguin Books, 2000. 29-88. Print.