Religion is obviously one of the play's central themes, but it is crucial to realize that the play intends to expose religious hypocrisy, not to attack religion overall. Tartuffe is defined by his outward displays of religious piety, and through them, he manipulates Orgon into overlooking his family's welfare. One could even understand Orgon's motive as wanting to feel close to God himself. Certainly, Moliere sees the absurdity and danger of such religious hypocrisy. However, through Cleante, the play reveals the significant distinction between hypocrisy and true spirituality. Cleante suggests that a true holy man does not brag about himself or viciously condemn others, is not prideful or showy, and does not aim to curry political or social favor. Cleante stresses that true holy men of virtue do exist, but it is part of their nature not to be recognized as such. Therefore, the play aims to mock religious hypocrisy, while suggesting its biggest fault is the way it maligns and compromises the glory of true religion.
Overall, the play posits ambition as a vice rather than a virtue, as those who possess it do not achieve their desired results. As example, two of the play's main characters, Tartuffe and Orgon, fall prey to their overweening ambition.
Orgon is clearly an ambitious man, a bourgeois gentleman with a fancy house and a family. He has earned favor from the King for supporting him in the wars, and hopes that his household will uphold a suitable morality to ensure a continued good reputation. Unfortunately, he is so fixated on this goal that he falls prey to Tartuffe's machinations, and almost causes his family's downfall. One can certainly understand Orgon as too fixated on his social ambition, and this flaw as that which leaves him open to Tartuffe's attack.
Similarly, Tartuffe's ambition destroys him. He could have lived happy and content as Orgon's holy man, but his desire to control the latter's house is too overwhelming. He wants to have Orgon's wife, house, and reputation for his own. Because he is not content to simply live off Orgon's hospitality, he engineers his downfall. Overall, the play presents ambition as something to be wary of.
Even though there is no actual sexual encounter in the play, the theme of sex looms large throughout. Lust is the primary vice that both Tartuffe and Madame Pernelle lambast (Tartuffe when he refuses to look at Dorine's bosom, the latter in criticizing the household's lax morality). However, sexual desire also causes Tartuffe's downfall. In actuality, he is defined more by his body for the audience than by his soul. He is a glutton, a drunkard, a slouch, and most of all, a libidinous creature who cannot control himself with Elmire. It is only this final vice that provides the family with ammunition with which to destroy him. The play seems to suggest that sexuality is a natural part of humanity, and one most dangerous when we pretend it does not exist and hide instead behind flowery, empty rhetoric of abstinence and virtue.
Justice is a very significant theme in the play. Most obviously, Orgon demonstrates the disastrous quality of injustice through his disavowal of family obligations; his blindness towards Tartuffe leads him to disinherit his son, force his daughter to consent to a loveless marriage, and treat everyone with disrespect. By the time he recovers his right mind, the effects of his injustice cannot be controlled, except by the larger justice of the King. The monarch stands as a bastion of true justice, both in the way he sees through Tartuffe's deceit and ensures that the villain is punished and the innocent people forgiven. Finally, justice in this play is inextricable from the king. The monarch dispenses both royal justice and divine justice, for Tartuffe is also being punished for his sins.
Marriage is a significant element of the play, both in terms of affecting and informing the story. In terms of the former, the threat of marriage between Tartuffe and Mariane sets plans in motion that cause the complexity of the final three acts. Further, the pressure for socially acceptable marriage helps to understand many of the character motivations. Mariane's submission to her father reflects the fact that, during the 17th century, a father had the right to choose his daughter's spouse. However, this right carried a pressure to make the right choice. Not only would marriage to Tartuffe have caused Mariane a lifetime of unhappiness, but it also would have inextricably connected the family to this charlatan. A bourgeois gentleman ensured his family's reputation through matches made between good families, and hence could hurt his family through a poor choice. It is not coincidental that the sign of order's return at the end of the play is affected through the impending nuptials between Mariane and Valere, a man she loves and a good social match. It is clear that a just and pure marriage is valuable to a household, as well as to society as a whole.
Most of the characters in the play can be understood in terms of their loyalty, or lack thereof. Tartuffe exemplifies disloyalty. He has been invited into Orgon’s home on the basis of his piety, but he feels little thankfulness to either Orgon or God. Orgon also exhibits disloyalty towards his family. He breaks his promise to let Mariane marry Valere, and banishes his son from the house. Further, Orgon is somewhat involved in a traitorous affair towards the King, as represented by the papers in the strongbox. Most of the family is defined by its unwavering loyalty to Orgon, even when he does not deserve it. Ultimately, they are all saved because of their loyalties. The family stays together because the wronged parties forgive the patriarch, and Orgon is forgiven his disloyalty by the King partly as result of previous loyalty shown the monarch during the wars. Ultimately, loyalty is presented as a virtue – especially when that loyalty is towards one’s king and one’s family.
It is immediately clear that family is central to the play, when Madame Pernelle describes each family member in terms of his or her relation to the unit. They are all inextricably tied together in the house, and the betrayal of one member - Orgon - has caused or threatens to cause great trouble for them all. Orgon's greatest sin, in fact, is not in loving Tartuffe but in neglecting his family in favor of the hypocrite. He disinherits Damis, forbids Mariane from marrying the man she loves, criticizes his brother-in-law, and clearly worries more about Tartuffe's health than Elmire's. Orgon is upfront about these feelings, saying “[Tartuffe’s] taught me to love nothing and no one! / Mother, father wife, daughter, son - / They could die right now, I’d feel no pain” (11-12). This view, of course, is almost disastrous for the family. Dorine, Cleante, and Elmire work to save the family, which only happens when Orgon admits his fault. The play's final happy ending occurs when the family is reunited and safe, and Orgon gives his blessing for Mariane to start her own family.
Tartuffe Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Tartuffe is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
If the function of comedy is to correct men's vices, I do not see why any should be exempt. Such a condition in our society would be much more dangerous than the thing itself; and we have seen that the theater is admirably suited...