The Misanthrope | Study Guide

Molière

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The Misanthrope | Act 5, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Alceste tells Philinte that Alceste has lost his lawsuit. He is now so outraged, he has decided to withdraw from mankind completely. To add insult to injury, Alceste's vicious opponent is now spreading slanderous stories, and he has been joined by Alceste's rival, Oronte—a man with whom Alceste, in his own words, has been "entirely fair and frank." Honesty and candor are rewarded with lies and betrayal.

Philinte, as usual, tries to calm Alceste, urging him not to rush into exile prematurely. Alceste's scandal-mongering opponent may cause more harm for himself than for Alceste. The lawsuit, moreover, may be appealed.

Alceste brushes aside all these attempts, saying that the verdict in the lawsuit should stand as a symbol of the injustice of the times. Philinte agrees that human beings are "beastly creatures," yet he argues that the purpose of virtue is to endure evils and injustice with philosophic calm. Alceste dismisses this anti-idealistic reasoning. He will await Célimène's return to learn whether her love is pretended or genuine.

Analysis

Just when it seems that Alceste's rhetoric cannot possibly become more extreme, Molière manages to have his protagonist top himself. Outraged at the loss of his lawsuit, he now vows to cut off any further connection with humanity. In Alceste's opening tirade, we also learn that his successful opponent in the lawsuit—the details of which are never provided—is pursuing villainy still further by falsely accusing Alceste of authoring a seditious book. Even more galling, Oronte, Alceste's rival for Célimène's affections, is supporting this false allegation. Alceste's outlandish rhetoric is not the only comic element in this speech. Also humorous is the self-serving, distorted perspective with which he recalls his previous quarrel with Oronte, which arose from the evaluation of Oronte's sonnet in Act 1, Scene 2. As Célimène had warned earlier, offending powerful court gossips can be hazardous. Oronte has not only caused trouble with the marshals but he now threatens to undermine Alceste even further. Humorously, however, Alceste's own recollection of his relationship with Oronte is entirely one-sided.

Beginning with Act 1, Scene 1, the relationship between Alceste and Philinte exemplifies the contrast displayed by foils—a pair of characters whose traits typically highlight features of each other's personality. Alceste, for example, is touchy and emotional, while Philinte is even-tempered. Alceste is prepared, on occasion, to forsake reason, while Philinte is rational and philosophical. Alceste prizes sincerity above all other virtues; Philinte, by contrast, is prepared to sacrifice sincerity to sociality.

At the end of this scene, Alceste requests Philinte to "leave me with my gloom / Here in the darkened corner of this room." Once again, the protagonist seems to indulge in rhetorical extremes, but in the next scene the audience discovers there is a practical dimension to Alceste's request—a dimension related to the play's staging.

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