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Tartuffe | Themes

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Hypocrisy

The main theme of Tartuffe is hypocrisy—pretending to be something one is not or claiming to believe something one does not. Some characters in the play are knowingly hypocrites—Tartuffe, the invisible Laurent, and Monsieur Loyal. Other characters—such as Orgon and his mother—do not recognize their own hypocrisy.

Tartuffe and his servant, Laurent, are thieves and con artists; they exploit their victims by running scams. In Tartuffe their scheme is presenting Tartuffe as a pious man who has lost his lands and wealth. He prays loudly and emotionally in public, makes a show of giving any money he receives to the poor, and loudly broadcasts that he wears a hair shirt and whips himself while praying. He uses this outward show of piety to dupe Orgon out of his own property and wealth. He also convinces Orgon to confide his secrets in him, which almost gets Orgon thrown in prison as an enemy of the state. Meanwhile, below stairs Laurent is running the same scam on the servants. As Dorine reports in Act 1, Scene 2, Laurent confiscates the servants' personal property—books, perfumes, and decorations—in the name of piety. At the end of the play, when a bailiff comes to evict Orgon and his family, Laurent pretends to have news that will make Orgon "most content" (Act 5, Scene 4) and claims to have long served Orgon's father. However, this is simply a way to cajole his way past Dorine and serve the eviction notice. Later he covers up other disagreeable actions, such as moving the family and their possessions out first thing in the morning, by calling these actions "lenient" and "pleasant and convenient." Molière's verbal irony underlines the bailiff's hypocrisy, as he names the character Monsieur Loyal.

As the play opens, Orgon has fallen under Tartuffe's spell. In the past, according to Dorine, Orgon was "wise and loyal" (Act 1, Scene 2) and, since he met Tartuffe at church, it's clear Orgon is a religious man. But having fallen under the sway of a hypocrite, Orgon's own Christianity has become perverted. Instead of a stern but loving father, he becomes a cruel tyrant to his children. Instead of a devoted husband, he ceases to care at all about his wife's well-being. Orgon believes he is doing what's expected of him by God because this is what Tartuffe has manipulated him into thinking. Such unwitting hypocrisy may be more dangerous because it can become a social movement with self-aware leaders and an army of duped followers carrying out their wishes. This is the sort of political message that certain clergy objected to in Tartuffe.

Molière doesn't just point out religious hypocrisy. Orgon's mother believes in Tartuffe and claims to revere piety. Yet she hits her maid and calls her a slut at the end of Act 1, Scene 1. Madame Pernelle's hypocrisy goes even deeper, as is apparent in most of what she says in the first scene. She sees others' flaws but none of her own. For instance, she complains Dorine talks too much while she herself continually talks over the others. Similar hypocrisy is also discussed in that scene, such as the neighbor Orante's condemnation of Orgon's family's lifestyle only because she has grown too old to continue leading that lifestyle herself. It is likely Madame Pernelle and Orante are unaware of their own hypocrisy.

Gullibility

To be gullible is to be easily deceived or taken advantage of. Too often gullible people are ready to believe things that are presented at least somewhat convincingly but aren't actually true. Sadly, that is an apt description of poor Orgon. From the moment Tartuffe met Orgon he knew he'd found the perfect target for his scam. Tartuffe puts in a lot of effort to con—or "gull"—Orgon. After all, the payoff will be huge: all Orgon's wealth and property. Strangely, even after Orgon has learned the truth about Tartuffe, he still believes Tartuffe was "a hungry beggar" when they first met (Act 5, Scene 1), but it is likely that was as much a deception as anything else.

Tartuffe is not the only person to trick Orgon—it is not very difficult to do. Monsieur Loyal only has to state he has news that will make Orgon "most content" (Act 5, Scene 4) to get Orgon to invite him in—and to then be surprised by the eviction notice. Orgon had previously placed himself and his family in danger by agreeing to keep his friend Argas's incriminating documents. Granted, Argas was a friend, but doubtless he did not want to carry around proof of his own guilt. Instead, he took advantage of Orgon and left the papers with him. Trusting Orgon then passes the documents to Tartuffe for safekeeping, giving the schemer evidence to get Orgon thrown in prison.

Orgon's opinionated mother is also gullible. She not only falls victim to Tartuffe's and Laurent's displays of piety, but also believes all the neighbors' false claims. For instance, when "Daphne and her little husband" (Act 1, Scene 1) spread rumors about Elmire's entertaining, Dorine is quick to point out they are only "seek[ing] to camouflage their own transgressions." Madame Pernelle says that's "quite irrelevant" and goes on to cite the hypocritical Orante's condemnation of the family's lifestyle.

Moderation and Reason

The third important theme in Tartuffe is that of moderation and reason—prized qualities during the Enlightenment, which by the 1660s was in full swing.

Moderation and reason are recommended throughout Tartuffe by three characters in particular: Cléante, Dorine, and Elmire. In Act 5, Scene 1, for example, when Orgon says he's "through with pious men," Cléante takes him to task and recommends moderation and reason: "Ah, there you go—extravagant as ever! / Why can you not be rational?" He urges Orgon to "take the middle course" rather than jumping "between absurd extremes." Similarly, in Act 3, Scene 1 Dorine warns Damis against rash behavior: "Don't give way to violent emotion" and urges him to "calm down and be practical." In Act 4, Scene 3 Elmire is amazed at her husband's refusal to accept solid evidence of Tartuffe's hypocrisy. Both she and Damis had given him eyewitness accounts of Tartuffe's advances to her. "Your blindness simply takes my breath away," she tells Orgon. When he proclaims she should have been more upset, Elmire reveals herself to be moderate, as someone who prefers "good-natured rectitude" and dislikes "the savage sort of prude."

True Piety and Humility

It is Cléante in Act 1, Scene 5 who lists the characteristics of those who are truly pious:

  • "They're never ostentatious."
  • "Their religion's moderate and humane."
  • "They show, by deeds, how Christians should behave."
  • "To lead a good life is their one desire."
  • "It is [not the sinner but] the sin alone which they condemn."

These are traits Elmire demonstrates—most notably in her encounters with Tartuffe.

The scenes that bring Tartuffe and Elmire face to face juxtapose his hypocrisy with her true piety and humility. In Act 3, Scene 3 Elmire's only goal is to help her daughter-in-law. She puts aside her distaste for Tartuffe, whose hypocrisy she easily recognized, in order to beg him to support Mariane's marriage to Valère. Then when Tartuffe tries to seduce her and Damis tells Orgon about it (Act 3, Scene 5), Elmire tells the young man she would rather her "husband's peace of mind / Should not be spoilt by tattle of this kind." Unlike Tartuffe, she doesn't make a big show of her virtue. It's more important to Elmire that nothing upset Orgon. When Elmire asks to see Tartuffe again in Act 4, she must also put on a mask. Unlike Tartuffe, who wears a false mask of piety to further selfish and cruel goals, Elmire puts on a mask of interest in Tartuffe for selfless reasons—to show her husband the truth about Tartuffe. Again, she puts her distaste for Tartuffe aside to help someone else. She also has to ignore her own aversion to lying. Later on (Act 4, Scene 7) Elmire feels so uncomfortable about having been duplicitous that she apologizes to Tartuffe: "I'm sorry to have treated you so slyly, / But circumstances forced me to be wily."

Elmire is the embodiment of true piety and humility despite being accused, in the first scene of the play, by Madame Pernelle of "extremely bad" behavior and "promiscuous entertaining" that has scandalized the whole neighborhood.

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