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Discuss the notion of superficiality in The Misanthrope. How do the characters use the superficial to help them cope with the personal strains society places upon them?
Molière demonstrates that being a part of society—French aristocratic society, at least—carries a significant amount of stress. He illustrates this stress through the frenetic action of the suitors seeking Célimène's attention, with Arsinoé's desperate attempt to court Alceste, and with Alceste's frustration over having to put up with the people of the court. To cope with this stress, many of the characters build a defense by creating superficial selves. Though Célimène's outer self is a carefree flirt, in her conversations with Alceste, she lets on that she may have deeper feelings for him. Célimène's carefree exterior guards her against falling too deep into a potentially painful relationship with Alceste. Likewise, Arsinoé wears a mask of prudishness to avoid the painful truth that men are not interested in her.
Alceste refusal to create a superficial self might explain his tormented existence. The absence of superficiality in his behavior leaves him open to all of the pains of life. In trying to preserve his integrity, Alceste makes himself miserable—so miserable that he must ultimately leave the presence of others. Molière appears to favor a balance between superficiality and honesty, a balance represented by the level-headed Philinte.
Assess Alceste's misanthropy. What, if any, good qualities play a part in his general unhappiness?
Ironically, Alceste's sour attitude derives in part from good intentions. He does not hate for the sake of hating, and he is not completely hated. Arsinoé hopes for a romance with him, and Philinte is his loyal friend. In theory, Alceste's outlook on life might work. He insists upon honesty—which most would consider a respectable quality—and he despises hypocrisy.
Alceste's fault lies in the strictness of his doctrine. If someone exhibits hypocrisy or dishonesty, Alceste passes a final judgment, writing the transgressor off for good. Though strictly honest, Alceste is unforgiving. He remains unable to sift through human fault to find the good in people. Additionally, there appear to be no exceptions to his rules of sincerity. Alceste tells the brutal truth even if it offends, despite Philinte's pleadings for Alceste to demonstrate more tact. Philinte argues that small falsehoods that do no harm can hardly be considered signs of depravity. In fact, these white lies may be a sort of social lubricant, allowing acquaintances to remain on good terms with one another. Alceste disagrees, and he accepts the social rejection that comes from his behavior.
The difficulty of labeling Alceste's misanthropy "bad" makes him a far more intriguing character. We might even sympathize with Alceste at times, provoking an evaluation of current value systems and social behaviors.
Describe the role of the legal system in The Misanthrope.
Molière makes frequent reference to the courts. Alceste is involved in two court cases, and Célimène briefly mentions a court case of her own (though this case is neither explained nor referred to again). In a literal sense, the courts move the plot of the play along. When the court calls for Alceste's presence, he leaves the play momentarily, allowing certain subplots to develop. When Alceste loses a case and risks arrest, he decides to isolate himself from all human contact, a decision that drives the series of events that end the play.
Symbolically, the courts represent the status quo of society in The Misanthrope. The courts are the standard-bearer of the shared values of the community depicted in the play. Just as the courts take legal action against Alceste, Alceste's society acts to segregate him from the rest of them. By the end of the play, Alceste is banished both legally and socially. Molière uses the courts to send Alceste the collective message that his behavior is inappropriate and does not befit the times. Moreover, Alceste's sincerity in testifying before the Marshals of France—he again expresses his honest opinion of Oronte's poem—emphasizes Alceste's commitment to his values.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Misanthrope!