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)
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?
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?