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by Jean-Baptiste Moliere

Suggested Essay Questions

  1. What do Moliere's religious views seem to be, based on the play?

    Overall, Moliere seems to preach a type of personal Christianity that eschews outward shows of piety meant to impress others and earn wealth or power. The Roman Catholic clerics of Moliere's day might have thought the playwright was an atheist, or at least a lax Catholic. This is not true, of course; they were merely unable to grasp the message of Moliere's play. Moliere tried to couple the Christian and the pagan together, and to infuse Humanism into his work. He believed that religion and society should not be mixed, in order to keep each sphere pure. He also believed religion to be natural, not simply, as Henry Phillips writes in a scholarly article, "another feature of social existence, in a predominantly lay educational and cultural system." Religion should not hold a privileged position in the world, but should be private and personal. Along those lines, it should not be used to justify the pursuit of personal wealth and power. All of these historical details are implicitly reflected in the danger Orgon causes his family by trying to mix his social status with his faith by inviting Tartuffe in. Moliere was indeed a Christian, and it is through Cleante's words that one might discern what this identity meant to him.

  2. How is Tartuffe able to ingratiate himself so deeply in Orgon’s household?

    This question touches at one the play's truly great mysteries. If we are to believe Orgon was once a rational man, then how has he been so duped by Tartuffe? The answer to this question depends on one's understanding of Orgon. Some critics believe that Orgon was inherently disappointed in his own family's obnoxiousness, and turned to Tartuffe as an alternative. Damis is hotheaded and brash, Mariane is overly quiet and subservient, Cleante is an intellectual opponent, and Dorine is an impertinent subordinate. Orgon may have felt similarly to his mother, that his lavish house was lax on morality. If so, then Tartuffe's show of piety might have suggested he himself could transcend that laxity, and hence was he overly enamored of what Tartuffe's presence promised. However, one can also interpret Tartuffe's success as a comment on the effectiveness of religious flamboyance. Tartuffe is a master manipulator - he is brilliant and savvy, and sows dissension among the family in the most subtle way. He is a consummate actor whose looks, gestures, and words are always carefully calculated to make Orgon think that he is pious. In fact, Tartuffe is so committed to his disguise that he often seems to believe it himself. Whether Moliere meant to comment on the unattractiveness of a lax household or on the power of religious hypocrisy is left to the audience to decide.

  3. Why does Tartuffe not appear until the third act? What is the effect of this delayed entrance?

    Though the play is named after him and his presence looms large in almost every scene, Tartuffe does not actually enter until the third act. This is not a sign of carelessness on Moliere’s part, of course. Tartuffe’s late arrival achieves several effects. First, it heightens the audience/reader’s anticipation of the man, so that his eventual entrance is theatrically exciting. Secondly, by delaying his entrance, Moliere exhibits an instance of how Tartuffe's machinations work. He does not solidify his control through direct interactions with people, but rather through the proliferation of rumor, discussion, debate, worry, and fear. By allowing the family to stew on his influence, he engenders an air of paranoia that makes it hard to convince Orgon to see the truth. Tartuffe does not need to be present in the flesh and blood, for he has taken hold like a virus. When he finally does appear, the drama becomes even more pronounced.

  4. What role does Dorine play in the household? In what ways is she a unique presence there?

    Dorine is an audience and reader favorite. Even though she is a domestic servant, she plays a significant role in the play, both in the way she affects the plot and in her uniquely effective strength. First of all, her lines are some of the most humorous and insightful in the play. She seems to have some understanding of how Tartuffe's manipulation works, and in fact manipulates situations herself to counteract the hypocrite's machinations. Secondly, she is one of the most effective conspirators against Tartuffe. She immediately concocts plans to work against Orgon's intentions for Mariane, and continually counsels others to balance their passions so as to best achieve the desired results. All of this could be understood in light of her inferior social status - because she is less influenced by social behavior, she arguably has better insight into what makes these people tick. Ultimately, even though she does not directly change Orgon’s mind herself, she provides an intellectual foundation of opposition to Tartuffe, which provokes the other family members into better behavior.

  5. Describe the play's setting, tone, and style.

    Moliere wrote his play in rhyming verse, specifically in rhyming couplets of twelve syllable lines. This style often lends itself to a silly, simple and rather nursery-rhyme tone, but it also means the words flow lucidly with a sparkling, vibrant quality. His tone is generally witty and light. He appreciates the fun of Tartuffe’s chicanery, as well as subtly mocks the various shortcomings of his other characters. He is never harsh or biting, however, and seems to delight in his story even though there are many vices to judge. The setting is in a large bourgeois house in Paris; none of the action takes place outside of it. Even though some characters leave and return – Orgon, Madame Pernelle, Tartuffe, Monsieur Loyal – the setting is very circumscribed, which heightens the effect Tartuffe has on the characters. The house becomes a central symbol, for the family and for the reputation they must protect.

  6. Conduct a character analysis of Madame Pernelle. Why does she behave the way she does?

    Madame Pernelle is one of the most obnoxious characters in the play. She is bossy, rude and judgmental towards her daughter-in-law and grandchildren. She takes a perverse delight in her disappointment over the family's shortcomings, while refusing to acknowledge her own sins of stubbornness, pride, and sanctimony. All in all, she is a rather exaggerated depiction of an upper-class woman who defends her own superiority by denigrating others.

    Dorine and Cleante offer some insight into her behavior when they discuss a neighborhood gossip who amasses power through her sharp tongue: “These pious dames, in their austerity, / Must carp at everything, and pardon nothing. / They loudly blame their neighbours' way of living, / Not for religion's sake, but out of envy, / Because they can't endure to see another / Enjoy the pleasures age has weaned them from.” In other words, Madame Pernelle is perhaps inspired to judgment not by religious fervor, but by a deep-seeded unhappiness. As such, we can take delight when she is forced to recognize Tartuffe's true villainy for herself.

  7. Discuss the theme of foolishness in the play. Which characters behave most foolishly?

    It might be tempting to assert that Tartuffe is the greatest fool of the play. After all, he tries to mislead, beguile, manipulate, and charm Orgon’s household, but suffers great punishment when he foolishly oversteps his bounds. However, one of the play's charms is that almost every character (save perhaps Elmire, Cleante and Dorine) are models of foolish extremity. Damis is immature and brash, unwisely interfering in situations and unable to control his youthful rage. Mariane and Valere foolishly provoke one other despite their obvious affections; they are too foolish to simply admit their feelings. Madame Pernelle is a stubborn old woman who foolishly ignores the truth about Tartuffe until facts make that impossible. Finally, Orgon is the most massive fool of all. He is so blinded by Tartuffe’s feigned piety that he ignores his family and sows the seeds of his near-demise. Even after he learns the truth, he makes an extreme pronouncement about religious men that Cleante must convince him to balance. Overall, Moliere constructs a world in which everyone is capable of great foolishness, thereby accusing all of us and yet offering each of us a defense for our inherently foolish natures.

  8. What are the hallmarks of neoclassical theater, and how does Tartuffe exemplify them?

    The neoclassical dramatists in France included Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine, and Moliere. Neoclassical drama flourished during the 17th century reign of King Louis XIV, the Sun King. These playwrights utilized the major components of classical Greek and Roman drama, which focused on controlling human passions and seeking order in all areas of life. Wit, moral rectitude, and reason were also key components. The interest in Greek and Roman drama was part of the larger social hearkening back to the “ancients” in art, architecture, literature, and poetry. Moliere was very much a participant in this movement, and Tartuffe’s lessons are excellent examples of the neoclassical concerns. Cleante is the voice of reason, trying to correct Orgon’s irrationality. Dorine and Cleante display a heightened level of wit as they combat the forces of ignorance. Religious hypocrisy is denigrated, while pure, ordered spirituality is lauded. A household in disarray seeks to purge the noxious creature within it, and return to a state of harmony. Moliere’s play is thus a perfect example of neoclassical drama.

  9. Discuss Moliere's depiction of women in the play?

    In this play, Moliere uses several female characters – Madame Pernelle, Elmire, Mariane, and Dorine. Several of them typify traditional gender stereotypes, though Dorine and Elmire somewhat transcend them. Madame Pernelle reflects the classic elderly woman type, who lambasts perceived immorality in others while stubbornly persisting in her own ignorance. Elmire is mostly presented as an object of desire, but she does show some agency in her machinations against Tartuffe. Further, in her controlled reaction to his lechery, she reveals a maturity and sophisticated understanding of the world. Mariane is absolutely stereotypical, as the obedient and passive daughter whose purpose in the play is mostly functional - her marriage serves as a catalyst for much of the conflict. It is Dorine who pushes most of the boundaries – she is loud, opinionated, and a dynamic player in the action. She is barely discussed as a sexual object, and instead exemplifies rationality and clear-headedness on the level of Cleante, whom many critics believe speaks for Moliere himself. Overall, Moliere seems steeped in his era's view of women while being willing to consider other perspectives as well.

  10. How does dramatic irony work in the play?

    Dramatic irony - the effect caused when the audience knows more than the characters - is at the center of Tartuffe. By the time the titular character enters, the audience is well aware that he is a scheming hypocrite whose every word is to be doubted. The main effect of the dramatic irony is humor. The more Tartuffe play-acts his piety, the funnier it is to see Orgon's blindness. Further, dramatic irony helps to raise the tension, especially in scenes where characters hide to eavesdrop on a conversation. Particularly in the scenes with Elmire, the audience enjoys two levels of dramatic irony - the level of delusion reflected in Tartuffe's insistence on a pious facade, and the impending discovery of the eavesdropper. Almost every scene is imbued with some dramatic irony, which Moliere achieves by giving the audience opportunity to hear characters speak about one another. For a play mostly about deceit and the nature of appearances, it makes sense that Moliere would so fully employ this theatrical device.

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