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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Misanthrope!