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The Misanthrope | Themes

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Sincerity versus Hypocrisy

The audience or reader encounters this theme in the very first scene of The Misanthrope, in which Alceste berates Philinte for insincerity. Alceste believes that not only authentic friendships but all human relationships require totally genuine expressions of opinion and emotion. Anything less is to be despised as hypocrisy. Thus, Alceste cannot abide the flattery, deception, and artificial manners so typical of court behavior. He regards all such behavior as contemptible. The implications of his conviction—both humorous and poignant—are explored in the play as a whole.

The first concrete test of the viability of Alceste's philosophy occurs in Act One, Scene 2, when Oronte earnestly requests Alceste's judgment of the sonnet he had written. Whereas Philinte is dutifully polite to the pompous courtier, Alceste insists on stating his true verdict—which is that the sonnet is childish and clumsy. Oronte, predictably, flies into a rage.

In Act Two, Scene 1, Alceste applies his philosophy to Célimène's flighty and coquettish treatment of her suitors. He has difficulty in persuading Célimène to behave differently, however, and she reminds him that a certain amount of flattery and insincerity may be necessary if people mean to avoid the injuries that court gossip and envy may cause them.

Rationality versus Extremism

In the opening scene, Molière introduces the audience to one of the play's most important juxtapositions: the contrast between rationality and extremism. At the beginning of the play, Alceste (extremism) and Philinte (rationality) are juxtaposed. As the plot unfolds, however, most of the major characters, including Oronte, Célimène, and Arsinoé, contribute extremist elements in one way or another. Only Éliante joins Philinte in the rationalist camp. It is altogether fitting that at the end of the play, these are the two characters who will be united in marriage.

Love

At the end of Act 1, Scene 1, Alceste remarks to Philinte that "reason doesn't rule in love." The irrationality of courtship and romantic devotion looms large in the play as a whole. Perhaps the most intricate variations on this theme surround the figure of Célimène, whose coquettish manipulation of her male admirers (Alceste, Oronte, Acaste, and Clitandre) provides a major source of humor in the play.

As some commentators have noted, Célimène's expert manipulation of her admirers cannot prevent her from ending up being isolated. At the end of the play, she rejects a solitary future with Alceste, saying that a life beyond the bounds of society has no appeal for her. Nevertheless, where will she go, now that her pretenses have been seen through? The play offers no resolution to this question.

Gossip and Social Pretension

Along with insincerity, Alceste detests the social pretensions of the court. This theme is readily apparent in the confrontation between Alceste and Oronte in Act 1, Scene 2, where Oronte seeks to gain social status by winning Alceste's approval for his sonnet. In Act 2, Scene 3, however, Célimène warns Alceste that the "chartered gossips of the court" are capable of causing substantial injury to those who offend them—a warning that is amply fulfilled in the course of the play. Social pretension is the topic of scathing satire in Act Three, Scene 1, where Acaste is shown to be egocentric, smug, and detestable. Molière's satire of Arsinoé is also withering, as he shows her to be a prudish hypocrite who schemes for social advancement and romantic triumphs, mainly through gossip as her weapon.

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