The Misanthrope | Study Guide

Molière

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The Misanthrope | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

In the play's opening scene, Alceste and Philinte discuss friendship and sincerity. Alceste is uncompromising in his insistence on authenticity and truth, and accuses Philinte of hypocrisy. Philinte replies that certain situations require tact, politeness, and deference to social custom. Philinte poses two examples of people they know to Alceste: would he tell the aging Emilia that she is a ridiculous coquette and the pompous Dorilas that he is a bore? Alceste unhesitatingly replies that he would. When Philinte remarks that Alceste's "philosophic rage" is "a bit extreme," Alceste does nothing to mitigate or change his view. In fact, he says that sometimes he is tempted to withdraw from the world and live in a "desert land unfouled by humankind."

Philinte urges moderation, advising that good sense avoids all extremes. Wise men cultivate a certain amount of acceptance, and it is folly to try to reform society. Philinte then mentions a lawsuit in which Alceste is involved—a proceeding that Alceste refuses to discuss. Saying that the justice of his cause is self-evident, Alceste insists that his honor will triumph over his opponent's guile. In fact, if he should lose the lawsuit, the "beauty" of such an outcome would be its conclusive proof of the world's corruption.

Taking another tack, Philinte asks Alceste why he has chosen to pursue the "flimsy" Célimène in love, when there are several other ladies who are fond of him. Here, too, Alceste is unmoved, replying that Célimène's good traits outweigh her faults, and that love, in any case, is not subject to reason.

Analysis

The first scene plunges the audience into the drama's principal conflict: the clash between hypocrisy and authenticity. In Alceste's eyes, friendship demands unvarnished truth and is degraded by even the slightest trace of insincerity. On the other hand, for Philinte, whose name implies a love of mankind, social courtesy requires a certain amount of tact, which may, in turn, involve dissembling or discreet shading of the truth. One of the scene's key words is "extreme"; another is "reason." The two come together in Philinte's dictum: "Good sense views all extremes with detestation, / And bids us to be noble in moderation."

Philinte's couplet also furnishes a good illustration of Molière's predominant verse form: the 12-syllable line called the "alexandrine." Each couplet, or pair of lines, rhymes. Each line in the couplet has 12 syllables divided into two half-lines of six syllables each by a pause called a "caesura." Rhyming alexandrine couplets such as these were the basis of most 17th-century neoclassical French theater. In addition to Molière, two of the greatest dramatists of the age, Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine, used this verse form.

Note that at moments of poetic intensity, the alexandrine line may be split between speakers. Such is the case in the very first line of The Misanthrope, where Alceste brusquely attempts to brush off Philinte's calming words. The division of the line serves to signal to the audience that the two characters are at an especially heated stage of their disagreement.

From the very beginning of the play in these couplets, Alceste puts forward views that can fairly be described as extreme. The forward movement of the plot implies a comic challenge: can Alceste actually become more extreme than he already is in his embattled stance? The remarkable answer that Molière delivers is "yes," and we begin to see the dynamics of this answer in the first scene.

Philinte presents three test cases to Alceste: the incompatible Emilia and Dorilas and their personalities, Alceste's lawsuit, and his courtship of Célimène, a young widow known for her flirty, "coquettish ways." Alceste's response to the first case is predictable: he would reprove Emilia and Dorilas straightaway for their faults. His comments on his own lawsuit, however, are more convoluted and, indeed, more comic. Justice, right, and honor are on his side, he boasts, thus making any strategy and preparation unnecessary. The vileness and villainy of his opponent are self-evident. In fact, says Alceste, it would be just as well if he did lose his lawsuit. That way, people would finally recognize the corruption of the world at large: "Oh. I could wish, whatever the cost, / Just for the beauty of it, that my trial were lost."

Alceste's "principles" are so rigid that he has argued himself into an impossible position. His lawsuit has become, in effect, a masochistic exercise in martyrdom to lay bare to the world the injustice and corruption of society.

Alceste's reaction to the case of his courtship of Célimène is even more bizarre. When Philinte asks him if he is not aware of Célimène's faults, Alceste replies that of course he recognizes her "falsity," but he still remains enraptured. Quite possibly, he declares, his "love's pure flame" will have the effect of "cleansing" the young lady's spirit. But Philinte persists, asking Alceste if she truly loves him. "Heavens, yes!" says Alceste, adding the non sequitur—or illogical statement—that he wouldn't love her if she didn't love him.

Philinte goes on to point out that several rivals for Célimène's affections disturb and annoy Alceste. Wouldn't it be more reasonable for him to court the honest Éliante, Célimène's cousin, instead? Alceste admits that it would, but "reason doesn't rule in love." By his own admission, he is both egotistical and irrational, and the audience may begin to suspect he is not only eccentric but also obsessive. At the end of the scene, Philinte predicts a bitterly sorrowful outcome for Alceste's romantic quest.

A minor self-referential stroke in the scene provides a moment of delicious humor: Philinte tells Alceste that the two of them resemble the quarreling brothers in Molière's earlier comedy, The School for Husbands (L'École des maris), first performed in 1661. As critic Andrew Calder remarks, there is a similar reference by Molière to his own comedies in Act 3, Scene 3 of The Imaginary Invalid (1673), where Molière refers to his own comedy as therapeutic.

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