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The play opens with a household in disarray, and the central themes of morality and religion are immediately apparent. The play's initial conflict is based around Madame Pernelle's insistence that her son's household is insufficiently pious, and she is preparing to flamboyantly leave the house. When her daughter-in-law Elmire asks why she is so insistent, Madame Pernelle attacks the family for being immoral.
Madame Pernelle also insists that Elmire dresses herself too finely, and that she has corrupted her children. When Damis mentions Tartuffe, Madame Pernelle sniffs that they ought to pay more attention to him. Damis argues that Tartuffe is only a "trickster" who has banned all fun from the house, and fooled his father Orgon into compliance with his wishes. His grandmother counters that the virtuous Tartuffe is merely modeling for them the path to heaven, while they stupidly accuse him of hypocrisy.
Dorine tries to argue, suggesting that both Tartuffe and his servant Laurent are cads. Madame Pernelle counters that she does not know Laurent, and then claims that neighbors have begun to gossip about the noise and chatter created by the house's many visitors. Cleante suggests that it is natural for neighbors to gossip, and Dorine blames one particular neighbor, a bitter old spinster who judges others to assuage the pain of her faded beauty, for the brunt of the gossip.
Madame Pernelle rebukes Elmire over her uppity servant, and comments that her son Orgon "has done more than wise / In welcoming this man [Tartuffe] who's so devout." After admonishing the family once more, she and Flipote exit the house.