“The Misanthrope”, analysis of a comedy by Molière

The comedy “The Misanthrope” was written by Molière in 1666. It differs from other plays of the French playwright by the dominance of the dialogues over external events, as well as by the specific psychologism and more subtle reveal of the evils of society. The comedy revolves around the hero who is amusing and tragic at the same time. Though Alceste refuses to accept human faults, he doesn’t notice either his own weaknesses or the flaws of his flighty beloved Célimène.

The story of “The Misanthrope” is mainly based on the meetings and conversations of the main characters Alceste, Célimène and Philinte with minor characters such as Oronte, Arsinoé, Éliante, marquises Acaste and Clitandre. Actually the entire play makes for the attempt of Alceste to exile himself from the hated high world and to end with his fatal passion for the coquette Célimène. In the first act Alceste tries to be truthful with people and gets up against the bad poet Oronte; in the second, he wants to remedy the shortcomings of his beloved; in the third, he refuses to be introduced at court; in the fourth, he ascertains that Célimène leads him on and forgives her again; in the fifth, having lost the case and discovered the detractive letter of the beloved, the hero completely gives up on people and on Célimène.

All the events of the comedy have mostly the internal nature. The protagonist calls out nobody to a duel and doesn’t fit someone else’s clothes. He tries to be true to himself from the beginning to the end, and this allows the spectator to see his spiritual torments. Alceste criticizes almost everything that sees in the surrounding society:

  • seeming friendship made with anybody who has a title or power (this is typical for all characters, but particularly for Célimène);
  • false compliments, thrown around (Philinte praises a bad sonnet by Oronte);
  • stabbing in the back (marquises Acaste and Clitandre, Célimène);
  • voluptuous wish to hit fancy (Célimène and her numerous suitors);
  • desire to make a career at court (the proposal of Arsinoé to raise Alceste higher);
  • unfair judgments, made not upon facts but on hearsay (Alceste’s lost case);
  • inability to speak the truth to people and even greater inability to admit it (Oronte, who files a lawsuit against Alceste because of his low opinion of Oronte’s sonnet).

While seeing other people’s fails, Alceste does not want to notice his own shortcomings. This makes him the object of the raillery of the friends and spectators. The protagonist is uncompromising, passionate, hot. He wants to see people as ideal, but refuses to understand the true essence of human nature, which Philinte tries to explain to him: as one cannot accuse a wolf of his bloodthirstiness, so one cannot demand too much from a man. People are what they are, you should accept them with all their weaknesses, and if possible, forgive them. Unlike Alceste, Philinte decides to take a hands-off approach when it comes to human nature, and stay away from other people’s problems. He considers personal peace of mind more useful than the constant bitterness present in his friend.

Taking into account all the pragmatism of Alceste’s beloved (the girl does not keep a crowd of suitors around for nothing – she receives something from each of them: adoration, reverence, help in business matters), Célimène also loves the truth as the main character does. Precondemning others, Célimène, meanwhile, reveals the main flaws of the society: lack of manners, excessive eloquence, laziness, boasting, striving for titles, dullness, pride, vanity. The truth doesn’t only entertain Célimène, but also protects her from attacks. For example, the girl clearly sees a rival in her “friend” Arsinoé who tries to shame her not so much by virtue, as by men.

Thus the criticism of the society’s flaws runs through the comedy at all levels of its development. Alceste is dissatisfied with the high world, Philinte tries to adapt to it, Célimène uses it for personal purposes and laughs at everything that is contrary to her understanding of the truth.

An interesting feature of “The Misanthrope” is the ambivalence of the artistic images of the characters. On the one hand, we see a “positive” Alceste who does not want to recognize and improve his shortcomings, on the other hand, we discover a “negative” Célimène, who honestly admits that she really has a sin to surround herself with men. But after all, as she says, she is only twenty years old, and has to enjoy life as long as it possible.

This entry was posted in Molière. Bookmark the permalink.