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Tartuffe | Plot Summary

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Summary

Tartuffe takes place in Orgon's Paris home on a pivotal day in his life—a day on which he learns he's made a grave error of judgment that could end in his complete ruin.

Act 1

Orgon is away in the country, and his mother, Madame Pernelle, has come to visit the family. She finds fault with each of them but will hear nothing against Orgon's houseguest, the pious Tartuffe. The family considers Tartuffe bigoted, hypocritical, and overbearing and complains that Tartuffe lords over all of them as if he owned the place. Dorine, a maid, says he doesn't like visitors because he is jealous of Orgon's wife, Elmire. Madame Pernelle says they entertain too much, anyway, which has given them a bad reputation in the neighborhood. After the old woman leaves, the family decides they must do something to make Orgon see what a hypocrite and con man Tartuffe really is.

When Orgon returns home, he quizzes Dorine on what Tartuffe has been doing in his absence, ignoring her attempts to tell him about his wife's illness. Orgon's brother-in-law, Cléante, confronts him, and Tartuffe takes the opportunity to tell Cléante how Orgon first spotted him praying ostentatiously in church and was impressed by his piety. When he learned Tartuffe was impoverished, Orgon gave him money and eventually offered him a place to live. Cléante tries to convince Orgon of Tartuffe's true nature, but fails. He also realizes Orgon is about to change his mind about allowing his daughter Mariane to marry to her true love Valère and goes to warn the young man.

Act 2

Orgon tells Mariane he wants to her marry Tartuffe. She clearly doesn't want to. Dorine enters and defends her mistress, trying a variety of arguments to dissuade Orgon. She fails, and Orgon leaves, determined this marriage will take place. Dorine gets angry at Mariane for not standing up for herself. Mariane begs Dorine to help her. They are interrupted by Valère's arrival. Valère and Mariane are both upset and find it difficult to be straightforward with one another; each is afraid of appearing vulnerable. In the end, Dorine forces them to join hands, tells them they love each other, and lays out her plan. Mariane will agree to marry Tartuffe, but will manage a continual delay of the wedding with various excuses; Valère will plead their case to Orgon's friends; and Dorine will enlist Elmire's help.

Act 3

Elmire, Orgon's wife, has asked Dorine to have Tartuffe come talk with her. Damis, Orgon's son, hides in the closet to eavesdrop. When Tartuffe arrives, he makes a show of telling his servant to put away his hair shirt and scourge, which he was using while praying. A hair shirt is a garment made from coarse animal hair meant to cause discomfort and to promote pious behavior. A scourge is a type of whip used by religious zealots to whip themselves in order to suffer as Christ suffered. Upon Tartuffe's, arrival only Dorine is there to greet him. He asks her to cover her bosom so that he—being only flesh and blood—will not be tempted. Dorine tells him Elmire wants to see him, which brightens his mood. When Elmire arrives, she tells Tartuffe she wants to talk with him about a private matter. He misunderstands and makes a passionate declaration of love—and lust. She wonders what her husband would think of his declaration and says that if Tartuffe will convince Orgon to let Mariane and Valère marry, she will not tell Orgon Tartuffe has made a pass at her. Before Tartuffe can agree, Damis bursts out of his hiding place and confronts Tartuffe for making advances to Elmire.

Orgon walks in and is horrified that his son should make such accusations. Tartuffe says it is only right for him to be accused; he is, after all, a sinner. Tartuffe's apparent humility convinces Orgon of his innocence. He throws his son out of the house, promises Tartuffe he can marry Mariane that very night, and decides to make Tartuffe his heir, deeding the house to him

Act 4

News travels fast, and the whole neighborhood knows Orgon has disinherited Damis. Cléante asks Tartuffe to forgive Damis; Tartuffe says he has done so but cannot live in the same house with someone who has libeled him. Cléante asks him to refuse Orgon's legacy, but Tartuffe says he must ensure the wealth is spent for pious purposes and not sinful ones. When Tartuffe realizes he cannot fool Cléante, he leaves.

Dorine and the family join forces in a final attempt to convince Orgon to let Mariane marry Valère; however, he stands firm. Finally, Elmire gets him to humor her and hide under a table while she talks with Tartuffe. From their conversation it is clear that Tartuffe did declare his feelings for her that morning, and now, when she claims to reciprocate those feelings, he pushes for a demonstration of her affections. Orgon's eyes are finally opened, and he confronts Tartuffe, ordering the man out of his house. Unfortunately, the deed has already been signed, and Tartuffe claims the house as his own—it is Orgon and his family who must leave. Alone with Elmire, Orgon says they must go look for a strongbox in Tartuffe's room.

Act 5

Orgon explains to Cléante that the strongbox contains papers belonging to a friend of his who has had to flee Paris. Having them in his possession could look bad for Orgon. Damis joins the two men and offers to do away with Tartuffe. Cléante warns Orgon that violence is not the way to settle problems. Madame Pernelle arrives and joins a family discussion. She is convinced that Orgon has misinterpreted Tartuffe's words and actions—he is a pious man and would never do the things Orgon claims. It is not until a bailiff appears with an eviction notice that she accepts the truth.

The family, Dorine, and Cléante consider their few options. Valère arrives with more bad news: Tartuffe has shown the contents of the strongbox to the king, and Orgon is to be arrested. Valère will help Orgon flee, but before the two men can leave, Tartuffe arrives, followed by a police officer. Tartuffe says he is there to arrest Orgon, but the police officer arrests Tartuffe instead, under orders from the king, who recognized Tartuffe as a wanted criminal. Orgon has been pardoned, and his property restored to him.

Cléante proposes that Orgon go to thank the king, and he agrees. Afterward, Orgon says, they will hold a wedding—Mariane will marry Valère.

Tartuffe Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Orgon decides Mariane will marry Tartuffe, who is not her fiancé.

Rising Action

2 Tartuffe tries to seduce Elmire, but Orgon doubts the claim.

3 Orgon disinherits Damis and names Tartuffe his heir.

4 Orgon insists Mariane will marry Tartuffe tonight.

5 Orgon eavesdrops as Tartuffe makes advances on Elmire.

6 Orgon tells Tartuffe to leave, but Tartuffe throws him out.

Climax

7 Tartuffe comes to arrest Orgon, but is arrested himself.

Falling Action

8 Orgon is pardoned by the king, and his property is restored.

Resolution

9 Orgon decides Valère and Mariane will marry that night.

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