Alceste is the protagonist and title character of The Misanthrope, as well as the genesis of the play's central conflict—the clashing of Alceste's value system with the status quo. Frustrated by the lack of sincerity and the prevalence of corruption in the society around him, Alceste frequently lectures others about the value of honesty and the ills of hypocrisy. Unfortunately for him, no one really listens. As one man among many who do not share his views, Alceste is isolated. However, in spite of his isolation, he does garner the affections of both men and women. Philinte seems to respect Alceste's integrity, and both Arsinoé and Célimène demonstrate attraction to him.
Alceste's journey through the play does change him in some ways. By the end, he shows a willingness to forgive, offering his hand in marriage to Célimène even though she has offended him. Additionally, Alceste admits his own weaknesses, recognizing that he, like everyone else, is prone to fall victim to love. Alceste, does not, however, change completely; indeed, he ends up quite close to where he began, enraged at Célimène's behavior.
Molière uses Alceste in part as a satirical device. The playwright shows that a strict code of ethics cannot survive the society he satirizes. However, Alceste is more of a character study than he is a symbol. He is multi- dimensional, as comic extremism and common human emotion are juxtaposed within him.
Although Alceste drives the action of The Misanthrope, the world of the play revolves around Célimène. She is young, energetic, and naughty enough to pique everyone's interest. Just as Alceste is set apart by his sour attitude, Célimène stands out by her charm and wit. Nearly every man of the court has his eye on her. She has learned to operate within her society almost perfectly: she flirts and gossips enough to remain the center of attention, with a knack for saying the right things to the right people. Célimène and Alceste are complete opposites, and their relationship—especially his attraction to her—is one of the play's great ironies. The fact that she cares for him indicates her susceptibility to emotion.
In the play's final scenes, Célimène journeys too far in the direction of carelessness. Her gossip comes back to haunt her when several of her suitors discover a letter she has written that pokes fun at all of their faults. Eventually, all the suitors, except for Alceste, desert her. Though confident, Célimène is unsure of what she wants. She never demonstrates any intense desires or frustrations, which may explain her lack of a strong value system. Célimène is sharp-witted in attacking others, but her ability to apply a keen eye to her own feelings and intentions is dubious. She shows a proclivity to want others to make decisions for her: after Oronte and Alceste ask her to choose between them, she turns to Éliante to decide on her behalf. In short, for all of her charm, Célimène lacks maturity. Molière suggests that this maturity will be difficult to develop if Célimène does not start taking more responsibility for her words and deeds.
Molière blesses Philinte with a sharp sense of balance. Célimène may play society well, but Philinte respects this society. He is forgiving and he accepts that people are flawed. Of course, this makes Philinte a bit boring, but also makes him a nice contrast to Alceste. Philinte serves as an informal advisor to Alceste, suggesting that Alceste consider moderation in his dealings with others. Unfortunately, Alceste does not heed his friend's advice, and he continues to damage his social standings. Philinte is a selfless friend, offering himself to Éliante conditionally, allowing Alceste first rights to her. Philinte is also the only male figure in the play who does not compete for Célimène's adoration.
Ultimately, Molière rewards Philinte with the only successful relationship in the play. In the final scene, Philinte and Éliante share their feelings for one another and exit together. The playwright implies that modesty and restraint are the proper code of behavior. Such a code is foreign to Alceste and Célimène, both of whom are left unhappy and alone at the end of the play.
In some ways, Philinte is a narrator. Much of the action of the The Misanthrope, aside from his romance with Éliante, does not involve Philinte. He comments to Alceste and Éliante on the more volatile characters as they carry the story along. Philinte's temperament never really changes and his actions are never impulsive.
Like Philinte, Éliante is well adjusted. She generally avoids gossip—in contrast to her cousin, Célimène—and she seems content not to be the center of attention. Éliante distinguishes herself from Philinte with her wit and her shrewd observance of human behavior. Where Philinte might abstain from comment, Éliante jumps in with a well thought out opinion. She delivers an intelligent critique of the way men behave when in love, and she offers a balanced analysis of Alceste's behavior. Éliante also stands up to her cousin when Célimène requests that Éliante choose a lover for her. Éliante refuses, forcing Célimène to get herself out of her own mess.
Éliante's only noticeable weakness lies her ambivalence towards Alceste. She appears to feel some sort of obligation to Alceste, even agreeing to become his lover so that he might avenge Célimène's deception. Ultimately, though, Éliante decides that her heart lies with Philinte. Indeed, Éliante and Philinte are the perfect match in many ways. Just as Philinte is the only completely respectable man in the play, Éliante is the only woman not guilty of obvious hypocrisy and deceit. With their moderate behavior and true—or so we are led to believe—devotion to one another, Éliante and Philinte represent a moral and social stability lost to the rest of the Court. In the pairing of Éliante and Philinte, Molière offers a new spin on the traditional happy ending. Although the ostensible "hero"—Alceste—cannot find happiness, the real heroes do. They remain selfless to the end, following Alceste off to keep him from leaving.