Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Hypocrisies of Social Behavior
Though disagreeable, Alceste is often right, especially when it comes to discerning hypocrisy. For all of the characters but Alceste, life is a balancing of flattery and gossip. Célimène behaves as if she enjoys the company of her suitors, but a letter from her, made public in the final act, suggests otherwise. Arsinoé claims to take Célimène's side when her name falls under criticism, but the old woman attempts to undermine Célimène's relationship with Alceste by telling Alceste of a love letter written by Célimène to Oronte.
However, Molière does not seem to be totally opposed to hypocrisy. He suggests that a little duplicity may be allowable, as long as no one gets hurt. The people of the Court are too insecure to accept the kind of brutal honesty that Alceste endorses. Without some flattery and the occasional white lie, any amicability among the characters would disappear. Philinte embodies the closest-to-perfect balance of truth and deception. He dislikes Oronte's poem, but tactfully refrains from insulting Oronte. However, when honesty is called for, Philinte is truthful. He is unafraid to admit his true feelings for Éliante, and, when Alceste's ranting gets out of hand, Philinte disciplines him with an honest critique of Alceste's behavior.
The Acceptance of Human Flaw
French society rejects Alceste, not because he is wrong or immoral, but because he is intolerant of human shortcomings. Indeed, the world might be better place if everyone could accept Alceste's doctrine of brutal honesty, but such is not the case. Ironically, Alceste seems able to recognize his own flaws, but he remains unable to accept the faults of others. Molière suggests that the only way to survive the society he depicts is to mix integrity with tact. Philinte serves as exemplar of Molière's prototype for proper social function. Philinte understands Alceste's frustrations, but realizes that venting those frustrations publicly will only bring trouble.
Molière's characters also demonstrate a tendency to deny their own flaws. By wearing the mask of "excessive piety," Arsinoé buries her own social ineptitude. She is not pious for the sake of piousness, but because she cannot accept her inability to attract men. Likewise, Alceste denies his love for Célimène (though not always) by carrying on about her deplorable traits. Ironically, the characters often use their criticism of each other to help them deny their own faults. The suitors, especially, are often so caught up in gossip that they have no time for self-reflection.
The Irrationality of Love
A large part of Alceste's angst derives from his inability to harness his love for Célimène. He knows of her faults (and reminds her of them frequently) and he knows that her values and manners do not mimic his. Yet he loves her still. Alceste, whose life proceeds according to a strict, rational code of ethics (rational in his mind), learns that love is not reasonable or rational. Alceste often curses the hold that Célimène has upon him, recognizing that, although he is strong-willed in maintaining his version of integrity, he is still victim to human emotion. In this way, he cannot separate himself from the mankind that he abhors.
The Misanthrope searches for the proper balance between reason and love. Molière would not likely advocate giving oneself completely over to "the irrationality of love." Some tact and observance of decorum is certainly necessary. But, one must be assertive in satisfying one's emotions. Part of the comedy of the play derives from the romantic dormancy of the suitors. They show up at Célimène's house and essentially sit around and wait on her to bestow her affections upon them. At least Alceste actively discusses his attraction to Célimène, however angst-ridden that attraction may be. Philinte may be the only character who gladly accepts love's irrationality. He and Éliante appear truly happy at play's end.
The Rationality of Compromise
For Molière, Philinte is the portrait of rationality. He understands that living among others requires tact and discretion. Philinte has opinions, but he reserves expressing them for occasions in which he will not offend others—quite the opposite of Alceste's behavior. Molière does make a distinction between morality and rationality. We might argue that Alceste is more moral, or at least more true to himself than Philinte. Philinte is clearly more rational, understanding that one must compromise, even compromises one's own set of values in order to satisfy others.
Just when one might think that Alceste has learned something about the art of compromise, he exhibits a comic resistance to striking a deal with Célimène. In the final scene of the play, Alceste asks Célimène to abandon society with him—a ridiculous proposal. Célimène, not wanting to resign to isolation, proposes that they marry but remain in Paris. Alceste refuses what is probably the best outcome that he could have imagined at the beginning of the play. One could argue that Alceste refuses Célimène's offer only because it represents a compromise. Alceste cannot stand not to have it his way completely.
The Legal System
The Misanthrope is strewn with mention of court cases and legal battles. Alceste is involved with two lawsuits, one with Oronte before the Marshals of France and another about which the audience knows little detail. Additionally, Célimène briefly mentions her involvement in a lawsuit. Molière uses the French legal system as a metaphor for societal constraint. Alceste's personal relationships are strained, just as his standing before the law is threatened. On a figurative level, Alceste's misanthropy separates him from the other characters. More literally, the court demands Alceste's physical separation from society. Alceste's personal offenses translate into legal offenses.
Célimène's letters provide impetus for much of the dramatic action of the play. Alceste's discovery of a letter to Oronte supposedly drives him to confront Célimène about her infidelity. Later, the suitors discover a letter from Célimène that insults of them, resulting in their abandoning her. For the character of Célimène, these letters represent another level of superficiality. In the company of her suitors, Célimène is flirtatious and friendly, a cover perhaps for her true opinions of them. Her letters are a symbol of the distance between the social Célimène and the private, critical Célimène. With the writing and distribution of letters, Célimène is able to distance herself from her more offensive thoughts.
The men of The Misanthrope attempt to impose some kind of rigidity to human relationships and emotion by seeking commitments with one another. Oronte hopes to secure Alceste's friendship with a handshake, an act that appears ridiculous given the differences between Oronte and Alceste. Similarly, Clitandre and Acaste attempt to strike a deal over their attractions for Célimène: if one of the men falls out of favor with her, he will step aside to better the chances of the other. With the motif of deal-making, Molière exposes the disconnect between formality and emotion.
The openness of Célimène's house parallels her own personal openness to the advances of her suitors. Men are allowed to come and go freely, and Célimène does not show any discretion as to who comes and who goes. Beyond its role as a symbol of Célimène's flirtatiousness, the house serves as a conduit for the action of the play. The fluidity of entrances and exits moves the play along and provides the opportunity for interruptions and discoveries.
Oronte's poem is one of the more satirical elements of the play. The poem acts as a testament to the pretentiousness of French aristocracy, implying the false confidence of aristocrats like Oronte. Oronte's poem is comically bad, calling into question the intelligence and ability of the upper class. Perhaps Molière is demonstrating the existence of the upper class by inheritance alone and not by merit.
Alceste's "Rustic Solitude"
The "solitude" that Alceste seeks—a physical separation from society—represents his attitudinal and moral separation from the other characters. This solitude might also represent Alceste's delusion. Indeed, it would be difficult for him to totally retire from others' company. Alceste deceives himself in thinking that such a retirement is a feasible alternative, an alternative he creates because he cannot bear the reality of having to find a way to exist with others. Philinte understands this; as the play draws to a close, he follows Alceste in an attempt to convince him not to leave. While Alceste insists on the honesty of others, he deceives himself.
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