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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Misanthrope!