The Misanthrope | Study Guide

Molière

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The Misanthrope | Act 4, Scene 3 | Summary

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Summary

In the showdown between Alceste and Célimène, Alceste begins melodramatically by invoking heaven (Ô Ciel!) in an aside. Célimène immediately takes the offensive, demanding to know why Alceste looks so hostile, and then sarcastically commenting on his "sweet and pretty compliments." In a prolonged outburst, Alceste upbraids her bitterly for her treachery. Célimène bluntly accuses him of insanity. Alceste, rueful and angry, pleads that he went insane the day that he fell for her charms. Now she has fulfilled all his direst misgivings.

Alceste now displays an unsigned letter and charges Célimène with having addressed it to Oronte. At first, Célimène admits her authorship of the letter, but then she angrily refuses to justify or explain any of the phrasing. Célimène then poses the possibility that the letter was intended for a woman friend. Alceste accuses her of "incredible evasion" and brazen falsehood. With cutting verbal irony, Célimène now agrees with Alceste that she sent the letter to Oronte. In a despairing passion, Alceste begs Célimène to pretend to be just and true—a proposal that Célimène roundly rejects. As the scene concludes with Alceste's tortured avowals of love, Célimène notes the arrival of Dubois, Alceste's valet.

Analysis

The previous scenes have provided an extensive setup for this one, beginning with Alceste's irritable reproaches of Célimène's fickleness in Act 2, Scene 1. As in their previous confrontations, Célimène gets the better of Alceste, using verbal irony, ambiguity, and various other rhetorical tactics to hamstring her opponent.

Significantly, we never learn the precise text of the document that Alceste produces, nor do we learn the addressee. Molière's lack of specific detail thus allows Célimène to run circles around Alceste in argument. Was the letter originally addressed to Oronte? For the dramatic purposes of the conflict in this scene, it scarcely matters. What matters is the emotional claim that each of the disputing parties makes on the other. From that perspective, Alceste may appear as tyrannical but also pathetic, and Célimène as bullied but also inconstant, as she is.

In a scene full of irony, the most striking example of this literary element occurs when Alceste, who has consistently championed sincerity and candor throughout the play, is reduced to begging Célimène to pretend loyalty to him: "Pretend, pretend, that you are just and true, / And I shall make myself believe in you." Alceste literally begs Célimène to adopt an insincere position.

Célimène's reaction to this bizarre plea is contemptuous. She asks why she should pretend anything. What could impel her to stoop so low? And then, for good measure, she traps Alceste with one of his favorite catchwords, sincerity (sincérité): "And kindly tell me / Why, if I loved another, I shouldn't merely / Inform you of it, simply and sincerely!"

Alceste's rhetoric carries him into even more absurd territory toward the end of the scene when he entertains the fantasy that Célimène is impoverished, obscure, and suffering from extreme distress. Then, says Alceste, he would have the chance to demonstrate his worthiness by rescuing her and raising her up "from the dust." Célimène replies by labeling such salvation a "strange benevolence indeed." She hopes she will never stand in need of it.

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