The Misanthrope

by: Molière

Act II

Summary Act II

Basque announces the arrival of a man to see Alceste. Alceste asks the Officer to enter.

The Officer announces that the Marshals of France (a judicial body created to settle matters of honor) would like to see Alceste about his "squabble with Oronte." Alceste finds the request ridiculous, and refuses to withdraw his criticism of Oronte's poem. Philinte pleads for Alceste to be reasonable. Eventually, Alceste agrees to go see the Marshals.

Analysis

Like Alceste, Célimène first appears as a sketch of a character type. With her gossiping and flirtatiousness, Célimène seems to represent the stereotypical spoiled daughter. She enjoys her society as much as Alceste despises it, setting up the central irony of the play: Alceste falls hopelessly in love with a representative of the society he abhors. Molière does not imply that Célimène's behavior is appropriate or moral. Rather, he uses her to comment of the lifestyle of one who has completely given herself over to the values of society. Alceste, who is probably more moral, at least more honest, than Célimène, is unhappy. The second act begs the question of whether morality or happiness is more important.

In a sense, Célimène projects her own style of misanthropy. While Alceste's ill will extends to the whole of society, Célimène's is targeted, and as such, more biting. In Act II, scene iv, Célimène demonstrates her capacity to bear malice when she mediates a gossip session among her suitors. Célimène differs from Alceste in that her misanthropy is tactful. She speaks behind the backs of those whom she criticizes, not to their faces as Alceste does. Additionally, Célimène's honed sense of humor obscures the severity of her insults. She entertains her suitors with her mockeries, whereas Alceste entertains no one with his.

With the gossip session, Molière indicates that mockery is a social construct. Without the encouragement of the suitors, Célimène would have less reason to degrade others. Alceste points out to the suitors, "Her satirical humour is fed and watered by your wicked flattery" (II.iv). In Alceste's ideal world, neither mockery nor flatter would exist. Such a world being implausible, however, society must find some medium, and perhaps flattery alone is not all bad. We can certainly imagine a type of flattery that does not encourage the recipient to mock. Act II, scene iv, depicts a world of floating values in which there is no concrete standard. The only obvious faults appear to be those connected to extreme values. Alceste's complete refusal to acquiesce marks his rejection of societal values, however ambiguous those might be.

In what is probably Éliante's most important speech (at the end of II.iv), she introduces the concept of justification. She defines a "man in love" as one who recognizes his lover's faults as virtues. Here, Molière maintains the ambivalence of ethics. Few would argue that love is wrong or wicked, but what if it blinds those in love from the truth? By Éliante's argument, love could be blamed for contributing to falsehood. Conversely, Alceste might be incapable of love because he cannot accept dishonesty in any form. He argues that "the proof of true love is to be unsparing in fault- finding" (II.iv), but this reasoning seems to define some kind of distant, theoretical love, not the visceral love that Éliante describes. Molière suggests that Alceste is at war with himself over the nature of his love for Célimène. Often, he tries to fight his deep, uncontrollable frustration with Célimène by applying the rationality of his system of beliefs. Like all humans, Alceste falls victim to the whims of the heart.