Literature Study GuidesTartuffeAct 1 Scenes 3 5 Summary

Tartuffe | Study Guide


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Tartuffe | Act 1, Scenes 3–5 | Summary



Act 1, Scene 3

Elmire returns from seeing Madame Pernelle out. She tells the others her husband is coming and she is going upstairs to rest. Cléante says he just has "time to say hello" to Orgon and must then leave. Damis asks Cléante to speak to Orgon about Mariane's wedding to Valère. He wants the wedding to go ahead since he wants to marry Valère's sister, but he's worried Tartuffe opposes Mariane's wedding.

Act 1, Scene 4

When Orgon arrives, Cléante asks about his brother-in-law's visit to the country. However, Orgon snubs Cléante to query Dorine about "what's been going on" in his absence. She tells him his wife was quite ill with a fever, but he interrupts to ask after Tartuffe. Dorine reports Tartuffe is "bursting with health, and excellently fed." Orgon comments, "Poor fellow!" Dorine returns to the topic of Elmire's illness, but every time she offers another tidbit of information about it, Orgon again asks after Tartuffe, each time hearing how well he has eaten or slept, and commenting, "Poor fellow!" Finally, Dorine says with sarcasm she'll tell Elmire of his "keen sympathy and anxious interest."

Act 1, Scene 5

After Dorine exits, Cléante takes his brother-in-law to task. Dorine was "laughing in [Orgon's] face," he says, and with reason. He wants to know how Orgon can be "so dazed by this man's hocus-pocus" that everything else "is out of focus." Orgon replies, in effect, that to know Tartuffe is to love him. Tartuffe has "freed" Orgon's soul from "earthly loves, and every human tie." If only Cléante had seen Tartuffe in the church, he would feel the same. When Tartuffe knelt to pray, every eye turned to watch him "sigh and weep, and ... with a sound / Of rapture ... bend and kiss the ground."

From Laurent Orgon learned Tartuffe was poor, so he often gave Tartuffe money. However, Tartuffe would respond that Orgon was too generous and would immediately give half his bounty to the poor. Orgon is amazed Tartuffe "can detect / A mortal sin where you would least suspect." Cléante is flabbergasted that Orgon has been taken in by all this and goes on a rant "Against affected zeal and pious knavery." Orgon's response is sarcastic as he calls Cléante "profoundly wise" and the age's "only sage." Cléante denies any such aspirations, but still tries to convince Orgon of Tartuffe's duplicity. He mentions examples of virtuous men who never boast about their virtue. He points out good Christians do not think evil of others; they condemn the sin, not the sinner. Cléante acknowledges Orgon's sincerity, but believes he's "dreadfully deluded."

Orgon is offended and is about to walk away when Cléante brings up the question of Mariane and Valère's wedding. Orgon admits he agreed to it, but it's clear he's reconsidered. He now intends "to be guided / By Heaven's will." Cléante decides to warn Valère.


Act 1, Scene 3 is very short, but makes a strong impression on the audience. Orgon has been away in the country, yet neither his wife nor his son wants to stay to greet him when he returns. Both leave poor, brave Cléante and dutiful Dorine to deal with him.

In Act 1, Scene 4 the reason for his family's avoidance is apparent: Orgon has hurt them through his complete lack of interest in or concern for them. As soon as he walks through the door, Orgon snubs Cléante and asks Dorine for the household news. Once she starts talking, it's clear he is interested only in learning everything about what Tartuffe has been up to. He listens avidly to what Dorine says about the con man and shows sympathy for him even though he is healthy, well-fed, and completely without complaint. From Dorine's description, the audience recognizes Tartuffe is a glutton and perhaps a drunk, but these flaws remain invisible to Orgon. Instead, he dotes on them. In contrast, when Dorine tells Orgon his wife has been extremely ill and goes on to explain the situation, he shows no interest at all and continually changes the topic back to Tartuffe.

The conversation between Orgon and Dorine is like a song. She speaks the verses, and Orgon speaks the repeated choruses of "Ah. And Tartuffe?" and "Poor fellow!" This pattern is echoed, though less sweetly, at the end of Act 1, Scene 5, when Orgon will answer Cléante only in short phrases. In Scene 5, however, Orgon's speeches lack rhythm and are both cold and vicious, whereas in Scene 4 his responses to Dorine are melodious, wistful, and affectionate.

The audience learns the backstory of the relationship between Orgon and Tartuffe in the next scene. When Orgon describes Tartuffe's actions in the church, the audience cannot help but think of the Bible passage Matthew 6:5–6:6:

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites [are]: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

It is certain this is in Cléante's mind, but somehow Orgon has been taken in despite all his church going.

Cléante is the voice of moderation and reason in Tartuffe. He is calm and logical in his arguments, making sure he takes the time to add examples and draw on authoritative sources. This is what he does in Scene 5 when he tries to convince Orgon of Tartuffe's insincerity. He gives examples of "charlatans" and also of truly virtuous people. In doing so, he draws on Classical Greece, mentioning, among others, the ancient Greek ruler Periander (627–587 BCE), who was known as the Tyrant of Corinth because of his harsh treatment of the city-state's nobility. Periander promoted Corinth's political and economic wellbeing and is remembered as one of the seven sages of Greece. It may well be that Molière saw a parallel to the king, Louis XIV, in Periander. Louis also kept a tight rein on the nobility and tried to raise France's political standing. However, few in the audience would have caught the reference. Cléante also mentions Alcidamas (c. 432 BCE), an ancient Greek Sophist. The Sophists emphasized the means of arriving at truth through effective argument. Thus, Cléante's mention of Alcidamas in this context actually says more about the value he places on reasoned argument than it does about virtue.

At the end of Scene 5, the audience learns Damis was right to worry about Orgon having a change of heart about Mariane's wedding. Although he doesn't say it in so many words, his refusal to answer and his apparent anger over being pushed to do so indicate he no longer favors the wedding. But why won't he simply say so? Since he has already given his permission, society will frown on his retracting it. Even though he is under Tartuffe's sway, Orgon still feels pressure to adhere to social expectations.

Molière wrote the role of Orgon knowing he would play the character. He was among the foremost comic actors in France and generally took the leading comedic role in his plays. He would then play the character with a greater naturalness than was typical of the theatrical conventions of the time. He also set his character in the middle of a spectrum from the normal to the grotesque. In Tartuffe Cléante, Dorine, and Orgon's wife and children are at the former end of this spectrum, while Madame Pernelle and Tartuffe are at the latter end. Thus, appearing with Cléante, Elmire, Mariane, Damis, or Dorine highlights Orgon's aberrations, often making him appear comical. But when interacting with his mother or Tartuffe, he seems relatively normal.

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