Literature Study GuidesTartuffeAct 4 Scenes 4 5 Summary

Tartuffe | Study Guide

Molière

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Tartuffe | Act 4, Scenes 4–5 | Summary

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Summary

Act 4, Scene 4

The others have gone, and Elmire tells Orgon to hide under a table. Elmire warns him he "must not be shocked at anything" she does, and she tells him to stop the "charade" as soon as he is satisfied as to Tartuffe's true nature.

Act 4, Scene 5

When he arrives, Tartuffe is somewhat wary. Although Elmire apologizes for supporting Damis's earlier accusations and professes happiness that she and Tartuffe can now be together "continually," Tartuffe reminds her of her own words that morning. She passes them off as womanly modesty, saying, "what our lips deny, our pulse confesses." After all, would she have listened to his long protestations of love if she had not wanted to hear them? Tartuffe still suspects "a trick." He demands she give him "certain kind concessions" to prove her feelings for him. Elmire worries that agreeing to his demands would offend Heaven, but Tartuffe assures her the sin is not in the act but in the scandal. She sees she must agree, but asks him to go out and make sure her husband is not "poking about" nearby. Tartuffe is disdainful. Orgon is so gullible there's nothing to worry about; even "if he saw the worst, he'd doubt his sight." Still, when Elmire continues to insist, Tartuffe goes out to check the hall.

Analysis

After the other family members have left Elmire and Orgon alone and Tartuffe has been called for, it becomes clear to the audience—if it wasn't already—that Orgon is only humoring his wife because he said he would. He considers the whole exercise pointless. For her part, Elmire is worried she might be forced to go too far in her attempt to convince Tartuffe she is actually interested in him. She tells her husband she will stop whenever he says. She may be concerned Orgon will be so shocked he'll be unable to act or simply incapable of believing what he sees. Also, she wants him to realize he has the power to prevent what Tartuffe will try to do. It will be important for Orgon's self-esteem to be the one to put an end to Tartuffe's tyranny over the household. Unfortunately, her fears that Orgon might not leap to her defense prove well-founded.

Tartuffe is certainly no fool, and he is suspicious from the start of Elmire's apparent change of heart. Oddly, although Damis had been eavesdropping that morning, Tartuffe does not look for eavesdroppers now. Perhaps his arrogance, his curiosity, or his lust gets the better of him. Whatever the reason, his failure to check the room allows Orgon to get an earful.

In order to convince Tartuffe to make advances again, Elmire must first convince him her earlier rejection was no more than the socially required "no" that really means "yes." While wary, Tartuffe is careless enough to admit to his desire for her and to demand some physical assurance of her interest. That may be as little as a kiss; what he is demanding isn't clear. However, it's certainly not anything Elmire wants to give him.

To persuade Elmire to give him such a token, Tartuffe insists "there's no evil till the act is known; / It's scandal ... which makes it an offense." These lines might well serve as Tartuffe's justification for all his actions. He keeps his motivations and deeds hidden behind his pious surface, intending everyone to believe in his outward appearance—that of a deeply religious and conservative man. In this scene, the audience again sees the worldly and lust-driven Tartuffe. And when later in this act, his other hidden actions become known, they will prove to be very evil indeed.

When he puts the words "it's no sin to sin in confidence" into Tartuffe's mouth, Molière is commenting not only on the character but also on society. First, he is commenting on the hypocrisy of seemingly religious people who make a show of chastising others' sinful behavior while secretly indulging in similar behavior themselves. It has been suggested that in the first version of Tartuffe, Tartuffe may have been dressed as a Jesuit. At the time, the Jesuits were often accused of hypocrisy. Mathematician, philosopher, and scientist Blaise Pascal (1623–62), for example, made fun of Jesuits for finding ways to sin without sinning. In his Provincial Letters Pascal explains monks need only "temporarily defrock" themselves if they want to spend time with a prostitute. If they aren't visibly monks, they're not breaking their vows.

Molière is also commenting on Parisian high society—the very people who packed his audiences. During the reign of the Sun King, a high value was placed on appearance. When at court, the noblemen wore tights and raised heels, appearing taller than they were. They wore wigs that gave them luxurious long curls even if they were bald. Louis XIV also insisted on politeness, which, of course, was also a veneer. Beneath the fancy clothing and good manners beat the same scheming hearts that had plagued Louis's predecessors. But like lust, there's no treason if the treasonous thoughts are well concealed. The staunchly Catholic Louis also set an example in his many affairs with both single and married women—one that his court was equally happy to emulate.

For the audience, the humor in Act 4, Scene 5 comes from two main sources. One is the reversal of roles. At the beginning of the scene, it is Tartuffe who is merely polite and Elmire who must broach the topic of love and sex. Just as Tartuffe had to make long professions of love to Elmire in Act 3, Scene 3, now Elmire must do the same. The other source of humor is the audience's knowledge that Orgon is present but doing nothing to help his wife. Elmire keeps coughing to indicate Tartuffe has betrayed himself and to prompt Orgon to put a stop to this "charade," but he does nothing. Her coughing employs the rule of three, an ancient rhetorical precept that presenting ideas or events in sets of three builds their impact. This is used in many areas of life, including political speechwriting, building suspense, and comedy. In comedy each time the element comes up, it changes a little, building to a surprise that evokes laughter. Here, the first time Elmire coughs, it goes unremarked. The second time, Tartuffe comments on it and offers her a licorice to calm her throat. At this point, Elmire also agrees with Tartuffe: the situation is aggravating. He means her cough; she means her husband's silence. Soon she coughs a third time. The audience now expects Orgon to come out from under the table and confront Tartuffe. The humor derives from his continued inaction.

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