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Moliere’s Tartuffe: An Enlightened Perspective on Women

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Molière’s Tartuffe satirizes the religious hypocrite, and is intended as a critique of the misuse of religion. Yet through the development of its plot and its characters, Molière makes an even broader social commentary, touching upon the Enlightenment ideals of reason and the hierarchical structure of society. This is most apparent in the way Molière upholds the Enlightenment belief that females are capable of reason, demonstrating their capacity for rationality and cleverness, and presents a critique of an irrational patriarchy which attempts to oppose them. It is the female characters in Tartuffe who recognize the hypocrite and his malice, demonstrating their clear sense of right and wrong. Their insistence on revealing what is really going on and their attempts to subvert the irrational patriarchal authority allow them to succeed where the men of the family failed in bringing about the unmasking of Tartuffe’s fraud. This happens despite the power exercised by Orgon and the social world of the time where women exist in utter subordination to fathers and husbands.

The French society of Molière’s time was one where men exercised political and economic power, and where the subordination of women was accepted as necessary. The patriarchal position of power held true in the domestic household as well, and this is demonstrated by the attempts of the father, Orgon, to exert authority over it. He makes clear his position of authority to his daughter Mariane by telling her that Tartuffe will “be your husband, is that clear? It’s a father’s privilege”. His insistence that Mariane marry Tartuffe sets the stage for the conflict that will play out later in the work, and demonstrates that he cannot see through Tartuffe’s mask of hypocrisy. Despite petitions by Dorine, the maid, not to force Mariane’s hand, he says that “Dear daughter, I mean to be obeyed, and you must bow to the sound choice I’ve made”. It is his power as the father that allows him to make such demands, and he perhaps make such demands to reinforce that patriarchy. Unfortunately, because of his foolishness and failure to reason, this authority also creates the dilemma that must be resolved. Molière’s critique of such power is thus that, in the hands of the irrational, it can cause serious strife or contribute to conflict. Indeed, Orgon, acting with authority in his foolish manner, forces his own son Damis out of the house. Further in the play, he even hands over the deed of his household to the hypocritical Tartuffe. His foolishness and susceptibility to Tartuffe’s façade is thus the source of the conflicts in the play, for he has authority to make poor choices, and is antithetical to the Enlightenment ideal of reason. His arrogance prevents him from listening to the voices of reason that try to dissuade him, and allows Molière to show how the women of Tartuffe act with reason and cleverness by subverting his authority.

The female members of the household are forced to dissuade Orgon from following through with his irrational and arrogant plans. This quickly becomes apparent through the protests of Mariane’s maid, Dorine. She points out Tartuffe’s incompatibility with Mariane, warning Orgon that “he’s made for horns, and what the stars demand your daughter’s virtue surely can’t withstand”. This argument is rational and formed from Dorine’s understanding of human nature, and thus demonstrates the capacity for women to reason; it is clear that Molière supports the Enlightenment belief that women are capable of reason, and in this case even more so than the male authority. She also sees through Tartuffe’s mask, something Orgon is incapable of doing, by telling him “A man whose spirit spurns this dungy earth ought not to brag of lands and noble birth”. Of course, Orgon fails to heed these warnings, and Damis is forced to try to subvert him by telling Mariane to “Tell him one cannot love at a father’s whim; that you shall marry for yourself, not him” and, again demonstrating the female capacity for reason, pleads with Mariane to “Do listen to reason, won’t you?”. Mariane’s character is that of the submissive daughter, and Molière uses this character type to demonstrate and reinforce the patriarchal dominance of Orgon over the women of his household. By doing so, Dorine’s subversion of that authority is further illuminated, as is the commentary intended by it; that she must resort to subversion against the authority of the patriarch to combat irrationality shows the extent to which the rational capabilities and will of the women of Molière’s society are undervalued and how the extent of that patriarchal authority and arrogance is perhaps too great. Orgon’s wife and the target of Tartuffe’s affection, Elmire, is also capable of and privy to this subversion against Orgon’s irrational will. When Tartuffe inappropriately begins to make advances on her, she seizes the opportunity to prevent the foolish marriage of Mariane and Tartuffe by saying “I’ll tell my husband nothing of what’s occurred if, in return, you’ll give your solemn word to advocate as forcefully as you can the marriage of Valère and Mariane”. At this point, the conflict of the play could be resolved, as Elmire has Tartuffe trapped; either he must renounce his marriage into the family or she will reveal his hypocrisy. That she was able to create such a dilemma for Tartuffe demonstrates her strong cleverness and ability to successfully subvert patriarchal authority, and thus Molière is illuminating the strength of the female intellect and will. Unfortunately, this moment, and the opportunity to resolve the conflict, is ruined by the entrance of Damis, who tosses accusations at Tartuffe to reveal his deceit. That this near-resolution to the conflict, set up by a female, was ruined by the overly zealous actions of a man is a strong critique of the contemporary perceptions of female capabilities versus male capabilities.

Of course, it is not only the women who use reason to see beyond Tartuffe’s mask. The other men in the household recognize Orgon’s irrationality and see through Tartuffe’s facade, and thus demonstrate their own capacity for reason. Yet, unlike the women, they are ineffective in trying to subvert patriarchal authority and resolve the conflict. Damis, in his zeal against Tartuffe, is disowned by Orgon and forced out of the household. Cléante, Orgon’s brother-in-law, is a source of constant reason and moderation, but his petitions to Orgon are constantly ignored. Indeed, Orgon says to him “brother, in counseling you have no peer; all your advice is forceful, sound, and clever; I don’t propose to follow it, however”. He does not present any greater opposition to Orgon’s irrationality, and does not participate in the subversion of it. The failure of the men to oppose Orgon and successfully reveal Tartuffe’s hypocrisy allows Molière the opportunity to further demonstrate the capabilities of the women. As it is they who reveal the hypocrisy of Tartuffe and not the men of the house, his unmasking is a testament to female reason and cleverness.

This unmasking comes when Elmire uses Tartuffe’s affection for her against him. She tells Orgon that “you’ve been too long deceived, I’m quite tired of being disbelieved”, again demonstrating the arrogance of the patriarch in the face of reason, and orders him to “pull up this table, and get under it”. With Orgon hidden, she then makes her own advances on Tartuffe, tricking him into believing “the storm has only bettered your position; my husband doesn’t have the least suspicion” that “my heart – perhaps too quick to yield – feels free to let its passion be revealed”. Tartuffe responds to her “affection” with his own, and in doing so reveals to the hidden but listening Orgon that he is a hypocrite. This trick is incredibly cunning, and because Elmire was able manipulate a man it is demonstrated that women are capable of using more reason and more cleverness than men. Thus, not only does Molière uphold the Enlightenment belief that women are as capable as men in using reason, he posits that women can be even more capable then men. Yet there is more to be said about the role of women in the revelation of Tartuffe’s hypocrisy than just this. By having Orgon finally recognize the foolishness of his beliefs and accordingly end his demand that Tartuffe marry Mariane, the women have successfully subverted his patriarchal authority. They have prevented him from carrying out his will. In doing so, they have broken down the hierarchal structure which had previously opposed and suppressed them. This is a major commentary on and criticism of the role and position of women in the social hierarchy of Molière’s time. He is putting forth the idea that women can successfully subvert the subordination which society at the time demanded of them, and that perhaps they should. It is thus no small wonder that Tartuffe was such a controversial work.

Unfortunately, the revelation of Tartuffe’s hypocrisy does not resolve the conflict in the play. By the time the women are able to reveal his true character, Orgon has already signed away the deed to his house because of his arrogance and ignorance. Yet this is not the fault of the women; instead, it further demonstrates and critiques the failures of irrational patriarchal authority. Without Orgon’s arrogance, the conflict would have been resolved at the point where the women reveal his hypocrisy. Of course, without his foolishness, the conflict would never have happened in the first place.

In Tartuffe, Molière upholds the Enlightenment belief that women are as capable as men of reasoning, and then takes it even further. He demonstrates their cleverness and cunning through their acts of subversion against the patriarch’s authority. This rebellion against irrationality is vindicated when they are successfully able to lift Tartuffe’s mask and reveal his hypocrisy. The arrogance and ignorance of Orgon’s patriarchal authority is also subject to criticism and commentary by Molière, who uses it as a way to warn against the dangers of irrational authority. The fact that the rational women are able to successfully subvert the irrational patriarch’s power through cunning to demonstrate his folly is a major reversal of the social position and perception of women in Molière’s time.


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  1. Sioux

    Yes, I totally agree with your contentions about how Molière felt about women and that he subscribed to the principles of the Enlightenment, and furthermore, that he portrays women as equal partners of reason, and perhaps, even smarter than men in this regard. Women are not just beautiful creatures for Molière, passive and to be idealized or placed on a pedestal–that is all well and good–but even more so, they are capable of the same kind of critical reasoning that men exhibit. This must have been highly heretical in his time, at least with the ruling populace. Elmire is his feminist In Tartuffe. She dares deny the Church and her husband to seek the truth, but cleverly, on Molière’s part, she is not so bold at to be offensive to their sensibilities of the time. She is still a woman in every respect, and a desirable woman at that, whose daring honesty as an individual sits in direct juxtaposition to Tartuffe’s blaring hypocrisy as a charlatan.

  2. Marci

    Thank you for this critical piece of writing. I had to read this in the 9th grade in 1987 in New Jersey, but I didn’t understand it then and it did not stay with me due to my own development and stage of consciousness. In 2015 and 42 yrs old, this story and analysis, gives me hope that not all are caught up in the web of patriarchal nonsense. I love art and literature for pointing our human qualities throughout the ages that exemplify equality. Which set the stage for the feminists of 2015. Thank you. Adult adoptee from S. Korea (where the neb-confucianist patriarchal culture leaves not much individuation and expression for women)

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