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Tartuffe is a comedy of manners written by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Moliere in 1759 during the enlightenment period of history. In this work, Moliere attacks the hypocrisy and corruption that had gradually crept into some of the old man-made institutions such as the church and the aristocracy. As the plot unfolds, and the struggle between rational and irrational characters develops, Moliere's enlightened reasoning becomes visible in the reflection of the folly and absurdity that he builds into the targets of his satire. The contrast between the behaviors that Moliere assigns to his stereotyped characters and the popular perception of these same characters in real life creates a wide gap raising questions in the minds of the reader. This "reconciling" of fact with fiction causes a rising of tension that is dispelled through laughter. With this in mind, Moliere's ideas for fixing things can be learned by examining the opposite attributes of these characters. For instance, the opposite of dishonesty is honesty. The opposite of hypocrisy is integrity, and the opposite of blindly accepting the percepts of demagogues is free thinking. Thus, Moliere's advocating of honesty, integrity and freedom of thought in the church and upper classes of society qualifies him to be counted among the leaders of the enlightenment movement in the eighteenth century.
In Act I, Scene 1 of Tartuffe, Madame Pernelle is visiting her son Orgon's home when she becomes irritated at the household members and visitors for not paying enough attention and respect to her. It is at this time that Dorine, Maryane's ladies-maid, further angers Madame Pernelle over comments she makes about Tartuffe, Orgon's house guest. Madame Pernelle defends Tartuffe, "Well, mark my words, your souls would fare far better if you obeyed his precepts to the letter." Dorine replies, "You see him as a saint. I'm far less awed; In fact, I see right through him. He's a fraudâ€¦" In this exchange, Moliere portrays Dorine as a voice of reason in order for Madame Pernelle to be clearly seen as pompous and irrational. In the end, it becomes obvious that Madame Pernelle would have been wise to take heed to Dorine's rational counsel.
Another confrontation between the rational and irrational can be followed in Act I, Scene 5 as Cleante tries to talk to Orgon about his misplaced admiration of Tartuffe. Orgon tells Cleante, "Oh, had you seen Tartuffe as I first knew him your heart, like mine, would have surrendered to him." Cleante responds, "And, while your praise of him is quite sincere, I think that you've been dreadfully deluded." This is one of the major faults that Moliere finds with the aristocracy, blindly following the precepts of another instead of thinking for themselves. Once again, had Orgon listened to Cleante's rational advice, he would have avoided all the trouble that followed.
Also, in another conversation in Act V, Scene 2 as Orgon finally discovers the truth about Tartuffe, he tells Cleante, "Just think of it: behind that fervent face, a heart so wicked, and a soul so base! I took him in, a hungry beggar, and thenâ€¦Enough, by God! I'm through with pious men:" To this statement, Cleante answers, "Ah, there you go-extravagant as ever! Why can you not be rational? You never manage to take the middle course, it seems, but jump, instead, between absurd extremesâ€¦" Moliere is presenting a contrast between the shallow, emotionally clouded thinking of the aristocracy and the rational thinking of the enlightened. Cleante is trying to advise Orgon to calm down and use rational thinking to put these upsetting events into proper perspective. If Orgon could do this he would not have gotten himself into such an awful predicament. In Act II, Scene 2, Moliere continues to chip away at the aristocracy by drawing attention to Orgon's tyrannical domination of family members, especially Maryane. When she tries to resist Orgon's decision to have her marry Tartuffe, he states, "In short, dear Daughter, I mean to be obeyed, and you must bow to the sound choice I've madeâ€¦"
In Elmire's interaction with Tartuffe, reason is once again seen triumphing over hypocrisy and deceit. It seems that among the several vices covertly enjoyed by Tartuffe is his lust for the ladies, and one of the services he graciously offers to Orgon is to keep a close eye on his attractive wife, Elmire, to insure her fidelity to him. However, when Orgon announces that he has decided to give the hand of his daughter, Maryane, in marriage to Tartuffe, Elmire intervenes. She attempts unsuccessfully to privately persuade Tartuffe to allow Maryane to marry her original fiancée Valere. During this encounter, Tartuffe makes improper advances toward Elmire saying, "In short, I offer you, my dear Elmire, love without scandal, pleasure without fear." Then, after declining this proposal, Elmire tries to reason with him by promising not to tell Orgon about his momentary loss of control, if he would release Maryane from her obligation to marry him. Elmire says, "But I shall be discreet about your lapse, I'll tell my husband nothing about what has occurred if in return, you'll give your solemn word to advocate as forcefully as you can the marriage of Valere and Mariane."
In the final analysis, it is Tartuffe who with no visible redeeming qualities plays the heavy weight villain. Elmire, being a person of reason, is seen pitted against his irrational and deceitful behavior as he begins to reveal his true colors as a self-serving, pious fraud, and hypocrite to the end. The very idea of Tartuffe, an old fat middle aged man, marring an attractive young woman such as Maryane is absurd to everyone except Orgon and Tartuffe. Elmire fails in her attempt to negotiate with Tartuffe and is forced by the marriage dilemma to formulate a different plan to deal with the situation. This new plan involves Orgon hiding under the table and finally gives Tartuffe enough rope to hang himself or at least expose himself as a con artist to everyone involved including the king himself.
If all the irrational characters in Tartuffe had taken the advice of all the rational characters, there would have been no tale to tell. Everyone would have smoothly conducted their business successfully without friction. Considering that events did not move ahead with ease, but did finally work out satisfactorily, it could mean that the irrational characters had accepted and acted upon enough of the advice from the rational characters that a good result was finally achieved in the end with a little luck from the King. Had all the irrational characters taken the advice of all the rational characters there would have been nothing to write.
Throughout Tartuffe, Moliere uses satire to champion the cause of reason and chip away at what he perceives to be unnecessary and destructive practices and beliefs that had gradually encrusted many of the old institutions of the day. He pays particular attention to hypocrisy in the established church. He sees avarice and corruption in the way the church exercises massive political power over its' members and in the accumulation of great wealth by many church officials. Being a "comedy of manners", Moliere also finds the blind trust that the aristocracy seems to place in the old social institutions of the day to be particularly worthy of his biting humor. He feels that each individual was given a mind capable of doing its' own thinking, and that mind should be used freely and often to guide his path.