Book Review: Molière’s Tartuffe

Le Tartuffe, ou l’Imposteur (Tartuffe, or the Hypocrite)

by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Molière

Note: In this detailed review, I discuss most significant plot turns, character developments and interactions, and issues of authorship and publication. I also compare English and French versions. These aspects may or may not spoil the book for you.

Another classic for my book club, this 17th-century comic play I read during November in both French* and English**, brushing up on some French vocabulary, switching to English when the going became too cumbersome. My first reading was in college French class. A manageable English read, the piece is relatively light in mood and not of excessive length, with a straightforward plot to match.

In French, Molière demonstrates impressive poetic skill, rhyming the entire work in couplets of roughly 6-foot meter (one more foot than in pentameter, for those learning prosody) and of varying rhythm (i.e., not all iambic). These elements augment the original language’s inherent music.

Certain translations of Tartuffe into English, our group discovered, take liberties with the bawdiness level (raising it) and modulate the degree of rhyming compared to the French version, among differences beyond the universal dilemma regarding works in translation: Some are simply truer to the original than others.

Tartuffe is a play with a societal message—a critique of the false zealot wherever he may rear his head, but particularly within the French religious establishment. It was so effective in touching a nerve in the day that the Church succeeded in convincing King Louis XIV to ban the play, which led to Molière’s significant revisions and redactions. It would be fascinating to be able to read the uncensored version for a clearer picture of Molière’s creative vision and political viewpoint, but alas, it has been lost to history.

Among admirable characters, Dorine shines as the ultimate bold and witty servant; lady of the house Elmire provides subtler moments of comic relief; and her brother Cléante is a great voice of reason advising the rest of the family. A kind of echo of Orgon, the young Damis lacks his father’s severe blindness to the impostor’s potential villainy.

Master of the house, Orgon, like his mother Madame Pernelle, is quite simply a blustering idiot and, I would argue, Molière’s primary satirical target as the French society archetype of the unthinking hothead. So easily and completely duped by vice in the guise of virtue, Orgon extends his obstinacy to the point of dismissing all his family’s concerns and doubting all their testimonies. He must, and does, see for himself.

At last, and late in the play, we come to the title character. Tartuffe represents the hypocritical icon pretending to be a holy pauper whom Orgon has taken in, but it is really Orgon who is taken in by Tartuffe. Using the veneer of Heaven, the impostor insinuates himself to gain power, financial reward, and the sexual conquest of the ladies of the house—the mother through lust and the daughter through marriage—and all right under Orgon’s nose. But like the young couple in love, Mariane (Orgon’s daughter) and Valère, Tartuffe serves merely as the fulcrum on which the household’s foolish zeal and reason rise and fall.

Overall, the action keeps a steady pace, and the dramatic developments are interesting and often amusing, but, primarily a play of ideas, Tartuffe studies the nature of morality and its pretensions in the hands of people. With the rather abrupt surviving ending, the Prince of France is exalted as a practically omniscient god swooping in to solve all conflicts swiftly and at once, dispensing justice against the impostor Tartuffe and supporting his loyal subject Orgon. The ass-kissing on Molière’s part is obvious, if understandable.

Despite this positive turn, with Orgon unchanged and a household saved from itself, it is zeal and emotionality—not reason—that emerge victorious.

Through the main characters’ portrayal, Molière manages to declare mixed results. After all, to adapt Obi-Wan Kenobi’s line from the film Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope, “Who’s the more foolish—the fool or the fool who follows him?” Who is the more dangerous figure? The cowardly, deceitful impostor or the extremist who violently shifts from blind zeal to blind rage in response to him? As layered in vice as Tartuffe is, Molière seems to condemn the latter more than the former. At least Tartuffe has a purpose, a method to his menace, whereas Orgon is aimlessly volatile.

Importantly, rationality, the one true weapon against the cowardly, hidden vice posing as and extolling virtue–that phenomenon the French call l’hypocrisie–arises from neither Orgon nor his Sovereign, but from his policing brother-in-law. As the curtains close, this measured man Cléante, and perhaps to a lesser extent the ill-respected and snarky Dorine, seems forever fated to keep his sister’s husband out of the trouble into which he so easily falls and drags the rest of his family.

If Molière has inserted himself into his most famous work, surely it is in the form of Cléante, but the extent to which post-publication surgery disfigured this apparent face of reason can never be known. Tangible life lessons and social critiques come through nonetheless, as Molière’s Tartuffe trains the discerning reader to think about, if not quite see through, even his own comedy’s “Tartuffery.”

My ratings: 4 out of 5 stars for the French edition*, 3 stars for the English translation**


* Goodreads.com metadata on the French edition I used:

I created this edition on Goodreads.
Le Tartuffe
0.00  ·  rating details  ·  0 ratings  ·  1 review
Paperback, Classiques Larousse – Texte Integral, 200 pages
Published 1990 by Larousse (first published February 5th 1669)
original title Le Tartuffe ou l’Imposteur
ISBN 2038713151

** Goodreads.com metadata on the English translation I used:

TARTUFFE OR THE HYPOCRITE
by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Moliere, Curtis Hidden Page (Translator), Dagny and John Vickers (Producers)
Average: 3.65 of 5 stars  ·  rating details  ·  19,983 ratings  ·  427 reviews
Released January 2000.
ebook, EBook #2027, 126 pages.
Published October 26th 2008 by Project Gutenberg
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2027 (first published 1664)

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