The Misanthrope | Study Guide

Molière

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The Misanthrope | Act 3, Scene 5 | Summary

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Summary

Like several other scenes in the play, this one begins with an avowal of friendship. Friendship's "flame," declares Arsinoé to Célimène, should burn brightest in matters of honor and reputation. Arsinoé then proceeds to recount a recent occasion when, in a gathering of "virtuous folk," Célimène's coquettish ways came in for stringent criticism. Try as she would, Arsinoé could not defend her "friend's" reputation successfully. She feels, in sum, that Célimène must be alerted to the risks to which some of her behavior renders her liable.

Superficially grateful, Célimène replies that it now incumbent on her to respond in kind about Arsinoé's reputation—all in the spirit of supposed friendship, of course. At a recent affair attended by "distinguished people," she says, there was a discussion of Arsinoé's manners and behavior. Célimène regrets to report that views of Arsinoé were not entirely favorable. In particular, Arsinoé's prudery, inflated self-esteem and the way she sermonizes were strongly attacked. Try as she would, Célimène could not dissuade the gossips from their "unfair" critique. In the meantime, says Célimène, Arsinoé must not doubt the pure motives that have led her, Célimène, to inform her friend about these events.

From this point on, the scene spirals down into an ever more edgy series of insults. Célimène slyly suggests that she and Arsinoé should have a regular series of meetings in which they trade information about the status of each other's reputation. Both ladies trade barbs relating to their age, with Arsinoé maintaining that she is not that much older than her. Célimène mocks Arsinoé, telling her that she is welcome to help herself to lovers from Célimène's bountiful supply, whereupon Arsinoé castigates her for shameless boldness. Arsinoé tries to draw the meeting to a close, but she is awkwardly embarrassed by the fact that her coach is late. Célimène, mockingly courteous, bids her not to worry, because she will provide some entertainment in the meantime.

Analysis

This scene, which pits Célimène against Arsinoé, is the heart of Act 3. Both characters are revealed as superficial and hypocritical, but in quite different ways. Pretending friendship, Arsinoé shreds Célimène's reputation; in a reciprocating speech that exploits parallel structure, Célimène relentlessly attacks her rival. Both couch their attack in the form of an unattributed "report" about their opponent's reputation, leading to the impression that in that society, everyone is talking about everyone else. No wonder Alceste has so much fault to find with them.

Arsinoé's attack on Célimène ingeniously combines understatement with exaggeration. She declares, for example, that she was "much surprised" by the vehemence of Célimène's anonymous critics. She came to Célimène's defense "as best as I could." Not that she thinks Célimène has been "unchaste"; she implores the saints to preserve her "from a thought so low." Célimène is "too intelligent," Arsinoé feels sure, to ascribe any impure motives to Arsinoé, who, after all, is merely acting in her friend's best interest, she says.

In her counterattack, Célimène employs many of the same techniques. She goes Arsinoé one better, however, by using a supposed "direct quotation" of four couplets in which she purports to detail how Arsinoé's critics skewered the latter's reputation. Among other things, Arsinoé is reputed, underneath her pious pose, to beat her maids and cheat them of their wages. A critic of naked statues, she would have no quarrel with a naked man. In a masterful way, Célimène adapts Arsinoé's final two couplets to her own speech.

In the increasingly hostile dialogue that follows, Célimène scores the most points—sarcastically suggesting, for example, that the two women hold regular meetings to "trade advice," as well as delicately reminding Arsinoé of the age difference between them. In the battle between the coquette and the prude, the coquette gains the upper hand. What happens next, though, is a real surprise!

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