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Jean-Léon Gérôme
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Molière’s TARTUFFE

It’s not whether your lie — all that matters is whether you get caught. Some notes on Molière’s classic.

Molière’s TARTUFFE

It’s not whether your lie — all that matters is whether you get caught. Some notes on Molière’s classic.


An overriding theme of Molière’s Tartuffe is not one of religion directly, but of that age-old concern of comme il faut, propriety, and appearance versus reality. The central problem that the play confronts is not with Tartuffe’s being a religious hypocrite (though, don’t we all just love those?), but with the fact that he uses his powers to manipulate others and — perhaps most importantly — the fact that his hypocrisy becomes known. Duping people is not evil; duping people to the point that it threatens their well-being may just be; duping them and having them find out definitely is.

The epigram above expresses this theme very eloquently, and it comes from the play’s anti-hero himself. Here, he is trying to seduce his patron’s wife Elmire, while she, in turn, is trying to show Tartuffe for the hypocrite he is; Orgon is hiding under the table and listening their heated conversation.

Tartuffe uses the Zeitgeist of the Enlightenment to prove his point; the word “think” echoes Descarte’s cogito ergo sum — I think, therefore I am — the centerpiece of the Enlightenment and its privileging of the individual’s reason over emotion and passion. His use of it, however, is ironic. While the Enlightenment thinkers aspired to moderate the passions through correctness and reason, Tartuffe seeks to fulfill his bodily desires by using arguments couched in reason. By thinking the world exists in this way, Tartuffe’s actions seek to make it so. One of the ironies here is that Tartuffe uses reason not to better himself morally, but to exercise his lust. This is not the only passion that Tartuffe seems to have in excess: he is also gluttonous, prideful, and greedy.

It seems Molière is asking his audience the question: what happens when reason is applied to furthering the goals of the body? This question should be familiar to us today: while society’s best people tell us to control ourselves, they themselves can’t seem to follow that advice. A student suggested that that those with the most power and authority in the play (thinking of Orgon and his mother, I’m sure), seem to be the ones who are the most blind to Tartuffe. It’s difficult for us to condemn Orgon, however; we all seem to have at least a bit of Orgon in us, no?

Orgon seems to be searching for an order beyond that of his immediate experience. Unfortunately, he chooses the wrong metaphysical guide. He is at the top of his game in other aspects of his life: he is the patriarch; he is well off; he has the favor of the king for his political support; he has a beautiful, younger wife; he has an heir and a lovely daughter. What is he lacking? Perhaps, like Tolstoy in his later years, he has the guilt of the rich and doubts that he has lived as a good servant of God. Can you see any support for this in the text? What is Orgon’s motivation for his seemingly blind devotion to Tartuffe? And why is Orgon the only one in his household fooled by the impostor?

The problem is not with Tartuffe’s being a religious hypocrite (though, don’t we all just love those?), but with the fact that he uses his powers to manipulate others and that his hypocrisy becomes known. Duping people is not evil; duping people to the point that it threatens their well-being may just be. But duping people and getting found out in the end is the height of all evil, even in our culture.

People lie. I don’t think there’s anyone so naive as to think that everyone is honest all of the time. Honesty is an ideal — one, I think, that people don’t really want to live up to. Yes, I know we give it plenty of lip-service, but when it comes down to it, people want to be deceived — I know I do every time I login to do my banking, when I try on a new pair of slacks, or when I write something new. However, this is not what I’m talking about. I think the problem goes even deeper: it’s, perhaps, not that we want to be deceived, but that we don’t want to learn to question in the first place. If we can remain blissfully naive, unaware of alternatives, then we do not need to question our values as being correct or even harmful. If we remain focused — moral, good, upright, etc. — then it becomes easier for us to be controlled by those who also espouse the same beliefs and values. I know, I’m being all abstract. Let’s use Tartuffe as an illustrative text.

As I said above: it’s not the fact that Tartuffe lies to Orgon and his family that makes him a scoundrel (indeed, one could question the outcome of his deception as as morally dubious and relevant, but more on that below), but that Tartuffe is caught in a lie that makes his actions intolerable. For, being caught in a lie shakes the foundation of decorum, something which seems much more important than morality itself.

Decorum suggests that one should speak only in certain situations and only about certain topics. Tartuffe himself voices what we don’t want voiced, not outright, but by his actions. Tartuffe knows the rhetoric of morality, but his intent and actions contradict what he espouses. Ironically, when Tartuffe gives advice, it’s often very decorous and frequently pragmatic. For example, before Orgon disinherits Damis, Tartuffe confesses to Orgon:

Believe his story; the boy deserves your trust.
Why, after all, should you have faith in me?
How can you know what I might do, or be?
Is it on my good actions that you base
Your favor? Do you trust my pious face?
Ah, no, don’t be deceived by hollow shows;
I’m far, alas, from being what men suppose;
Though the world takes me for a man of worth,
I’m truly the most worthless man on earth. (3.6.28)

At face value, Tartuffe is right, but part of the dramatic irony is that Orgon cannot see that Tartuffe is a scam artist when the rest of his family can. Orgon seems blinded by his desire for power, but it’s his very actions, especially those that banish Damis and make Tartuffe a rightful heir, that damn him socially. Orgon’s perceptions of truth are blinded by his desire to maintain his superiority: “I shall defy you all, and make it clear / That I’m the one who gives the orders here” (3.6.57-58). If Orgon had listened to Tartuffe here, then he would not have been vulnerable. One could suggest that Orgon got what he deserved, ignoring the speeches of moderation from Cléante, dismissing the words of Dorine as out-of-line, and not seeming to care one whit about anything else other then his diminishing dominance. At this point, while everyone can see Tartuffe for what he really is, he is not in a position to be a threat, only a nuisance.

It’s only after act three that Taruffe gains the power to act with impunity, or so he thinks. He keeps up the act, but becomes more bold. The problem arises when Tartuffe actually says what he believes that causes the scandal and discomfort. For example, when he’s trying to persuade Elmire to prove her love for him physically, he states:

If you’re still troubled, think of things this way:
No one shall know our joys, save us alone,
And there’s no evil till the act is known;
It’s scandal, Madam, which makes it an offense,
And it’s no sin to sin in confidence. (Tartuffe, 4.5.116-120)

Sin is not something done to one’s self. Like morality, it must be shared to be sinful. While I’m aware that religion suggests otherwise, the notion of “sin” and subsequent moral positions are all based on our relationships to others. If two consenting adults keep their actions with each other a secret, is there really sin? Tartuffe makes us uneasy because he questions the foundation of morality: here, adultery is not a sin, if no one else finds out. It only becomes sinful if someone else is hurt, like a cuckolded husband. What makes Tartuffe immoral is his blasé response to someone else’s pain, pain usually precipitated by the same. Tartuffe has no remorse or compassion, just desires. His actions, decorous or not, cannot be allowed to operate with impunity.

Tartuffe does seem to be a bit sociopathic. That is, he has no regard for others, only his is own desires. Just this diagnosis makes us feel better by suggesting that Tartuffe is an anomaly, that he is the twisted exception, not the rule. However, the end of the play suggests that reason and goodness might need help of a higher power in order to combat those who might use the semblance of reason and goodness for their own selfish ends. Perhaps the king’s intervention represents that of law: for what are laws but to officially mediate between passion and what aught to be?

Other themes addressed in Tartuffe

Hypocrisy is harmless until it threatens others. Throughout the play, Tartuffe remains a harmless nuisance until he believes that he has the legal upper hand. In fact, the entire house sees through his charade, but tolerates his presence because he seems to provide something for Orgon that they cannot.

Injustice must be set right by an external force. Tartuffe’s duping of Orgon cannot be solved by the latter — it takes a deus ex machina in the form of a writ from the king to set matters right. M. Loyal here might represent the unthinking servant of the law, but Louis himself as closest to God on earth. Sometimes the system is unjust, Molière seems to suggest, but hopefully the one in control of it is not. Here, Molière seems to depart with the enlightenment thinkers like Newton who saw God as the watchmaker — a depersonalized deity that has created a logical universe that only reason can divine. It does, however, make sense that a king should be the most reasonable human; while this might not be the case in our experience, Molière’s play suggests this ideal.

Following that, it seems that man-made codes are also sometimes ineffectual, unjust, and hurtful. Tartuffee challenges hierarchy, superstition, tradition, and conventional wisdom with its characters and situations. In many instances, Molière turns conventions and expectations on their heads: Dorine, while representing the lower class, might be the most shrewd; Tartuffe, while seemingly the most holy and selfless is, indeed, the opposite; Elmire, while look down on by Madame Pernelle as a indecorous coquette, is the driving force behind unmasking Tartuffe. Alternately, Cléante does seem to be the voice of reason, but he ironically ineffectual when he tries to make others see it.

Molière illustrates the tension between reason and passion that the Enlightenment thinkers were concerned with. What does Molière’s play seem to suggest about this epic battle? Does reason or passion win at the end?


Originally published on January 15, 2006 and January 30, 2008.