Moličre’s Tartuffe and Feminism in the Enlightenment
by
William H. Copeland

Women have been the most discriminated-against group of people in the entire history of humankind. They have been abused, held back in society, and oftentimes restricted to the home life, leading dull, meaningless lives while men make sure the world goes round. It seems strange that half of the world’s population could be held down so long; ever since the dawn of humanity, women have been treated like second-class citizens. Only in the past 100 years or so have women started to win an equal place in society in the Western world. However, the fight for equality has not been a short one. The seeds of the liberation movement were planted hundreds of years ago, by free-thinking people such as Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Moličre. Writing during the Enlightenment, his plays satirized a great many aspects of society, from hypochondriacs to hypocrites (Lawall 11). Although the Enlightenment was primarily a male-driven era, women began to strive for a greater place in the world, as evidenced by Moličre’s Tartuffe.

This dramatic masterpiece has several strong female characters, each displaying different aspects of this early form of feminism. For example, Madame Pernelle, the grandmotherly figure in this play, embodies the spirit of the older women in society. The reader immediately sees what a nasty, self-righteous figure she is. In the opening scene of the play, she grills her son’s wife, his children, and their maid. Speaking to Elmire, she hisses, "I wouldn’t make you welcome in my house. / You’re full of worldly counsels which, I fear, / Aren’t suitable for decent folk to hear" (Moličre 21). Tartuffe dupes her as easily as he dupes her son Orgon. She states boldly, "[Tartuffe] practices precisely what he preaches. / He’s a fine man, and should be listened to. / I will not hear him mocked by fools like you" (21). Such a statement demonstrates how she has not only fallen for his false piety, but she has also unknowingly adopted his hypocrisy. She treats her own family in the worst of ways, being both smug and argumentative at the same time. Mme. Pernelle obviously does not embrace the Christian virtues of kindness and love for one another.

Madame Pernelle knows her station in life as set forth by society. The reader can assume that she is an older lady and has been brought up in social circles. Despite being a widow, she does not seem to possess great independence. Her harsh words to her family members preach traditional values, such as leaving business matters and advice to the men, but merely uttering those words in mixed company she pushes against the societal walls. She may not have a great sense of independence, but she does express her opinion, and even argues with men, namely Cleante and Orgon.

Mme. Pernelle butts heads with Elmire, Orgon’s wife. Elmire is the most sensible member of the household, and she is probably the strongest voice of reason in the entire work. Her head is firmly planted on her shoulders. She sees straight through Tartuffe’s guise of piety and openly opposes him. She possesses a sharp cunning, setting a trap so that Orgon will see Tartuffe’s sexual advances. Elmire is a woman who knows her place in society and does not wish to cause too much uproar about her actions. At first, she does not want to do anything about Tartuffe’s coming on to her, stating:

                               Ah no, Damis; I’ll be content if he
                               Will study to deserve my leniency.
                               I’ve promised silence–don’t make me break my word;
                               To make a scandal would be too absurd.
                               Good wives laugh off such trifles, and forget them;
                               Why should they tell their, and upset them? (Moličre 46)

Elmire does not want to scandalize Tartuffe’s behavior; she simply wishes to brush it aside and not let it trouble anyone. Despite her inhibitions, she does decide to hide Orgon in the room next time Tartuffe comes to visit her, so that her husband will know. She does not choose this path to humiliate Tartuffe; instead, she simply uses it as a wake-up call to Orgon, forcing him to see Tartuffe’s hypocrisy.

Elmire is Mariane’s stepmother. Young and sweet, Mariane is still trying to get her feet firmly planted upon the ground. She knows right and wrong for herself but will not stand up to her father or anyone else by herself. For example, when Orgon decides she is to marry Tartuffe rather than her love Valere, she becomes extremely upset but stoically begins to prepare herself for that marriage. It is only after much prodding and argument with both Dorine and Valere that she decides to stand up for herself. Her lovesickness causes her to act irrationally when put in a hard place; she at first shuns Valere, then argues with him, before finally coming around. Her willingness to go along with her father’s plans for her shows what a good daughter she wishes to be, no matter how despicable the act may be. She realizes that being a good daughter is her supposed station in society; however, Dorine awakens her to the fact she needs to push against those boundaries and assert herself as a young adult.

Dorine, the maid, acts as the most vocal voice of reason in this play. It is somewhat ironic that only the children listen to her words of advice, even though she gives it freely to everyone else as well. Madame Pernelle says about her, "Girl, you talk too much, and I’m afraid / You’re far too saucy for a lady’s-maid. / You push in everywhere and have your say" (Moličre 21). She speaks her mind to all the characters, including Tartuffe, Orgon, and Mme. Pernelle. Because she comes across as being so contrary to the three embracing Tartuffe’s hypocrisy, there is much tension and argument among them. However, her arguments provide some comic relief. Her tone is often very sarcastic, and she fits into the stock character of a know-it-all maid. Madame Pernelle perceives her as being somewhat dangerous because of her lack of respect for societal bounds. Dorine asserts herself as a person always, never letting anyone push her around because he or she has a higher station, whether male or female. It is partly due to her influence that Mariane slowly starts to assert herself to some small degree. All in all, Dorine embodies the young adults of the day, those most influenced by the attitudes and norms of the Enlightenment.

Of the nine main characters in the play, four of them are women. Only a few hundred years earlier, such a high concentration of women characters would have been highly unusual. For example, Shakespearian dramas generally have only two or three women and many more men. But this sudden concentration of women characters should come as no surprise to the reader because of the beginnings of a feminist movement during this time period. Women began to seek equality, slowly at first, then eventually blossoming in the early 1900s. All the women in Tartuffe, regardless of their station in life, are striving for something more, something closer to being equal to men. The majority of the women are voices of reason. This fact is a particularly interesting one, because reason was the key concept of the Enlightenment. The emphasis on reason led women in the Enlightenment to think for themselves, allowing them to push against the boundaries the male-controlled society put up for them and planting the seeds of a feminist movement that would come about nearly three hundred years later.

Works Cited

          Lawall, Sarah, et al., "Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Moličre." The Norton Anthology of World 
               Masterpieces.
Lawall et al.11-13.

           ---. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. 7th ed. 2 vols. New York: Norton,
                1999.

           Moličre, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. Tartuffe. Lawall, et al. 13-68.

William H. Copeland, at the time of this writing a sophomore in Physics, wrote this essay for Dr. Barbara Murray’s ENGL 2112 class during Fall 2001 semester.