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Tartuffe | Symbols


Two characters in Tartuffe symbolize the two sides of an ideological struggle between the Church's domination—Tartuffe—and the secular rule of Enlightenment values—Cléante.


Tartuffe represents the hypocrisy rife among some groups in the conservative Roman Catholic Church. Although not truly religious, he takes on the outward trappings of ultraconservative Roman Catholic fanaticism, notably the dévots. The dévots were a movement in France that arose in the early 1600s to oppose the growth of Protestantism and the supremacy of the king over the Church. One group involved with the movement was the Society of the Holy Sacrament, which was instrumental in getting Tartuffe banned after its first presentation in 1664. The dévots were "ultra-Catholics," and Molière invoked an association with them by attributing to Tartuffe such trappings of supposedly Catholic religiosity as ostentatious prayer, almsgiving, wearing a hair shirt, and scourging himself while praying.


Cléante embodies Enlightenment principles, such as rational thought, truth, the dominance of law, and natural religion reflecting natural human emotions. In Act 1, Scene 1 Cléante counsels Madame Pernelle, "Let's strive to live by conscience' clear decrees." When, in Act 1, Scene 5, Orgon boasts that thanks to Tartuffe, his "soul's been freed / From earthly loves and every human tie," Cléante points out—through sarcasm—that such ideals are not "humane." He goes on to declare "those whose hearts are truly pure and lowly / Don't need to make a flashy show of being holy" and "transgressing Reason's laws, / Perverts a lofty aim or noble cause." Molière likely is referring to such conservative groups as the 17th century Society of the Holy Sacrament when Cléante singles out "charlatans ... / Who preach the monkish life, but haunt the courts." Instead, he admires men whose "religion's moderate and humane." Later, he also praises the rule of law to Damis when he speaks of "this just kingdom, this enlightened age" in which "one does not settle things by violence" (Act 5, Scene 2).

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