Tartuffe: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

Moliere's ''Tartuffe'' is a story about a man who falls prey to misplaced adoration. The dramatic work presents several dramatic features which define the play as a comedy of manners. Of particular importance is Moliere's satirical look at religious hypocrisy.

Plot

If there is a simple message to Moliere's Tartuffe, it would be appearances can be deceiving. Tartuffe is a wanderer whom Orgon takes into his home. Tartuffe impresses Orgon with his devout religious and moral beliefs and behavior. As a result of his carefully constructed persona, Tartuffe becomes adored by both Orgon, and his mother, Madame Pernelle. They place so much faith in his words, that they ask Tartuffe for his advice before they make any decision, often at the expense of Orgon's family members.

This does not sit well with the rest of the family, who see Tartuffe for the phony he really is. Despite their pleadings, Orgon believes Tartuffe's word implicitly, to the point where he agrees to marry his already engaged daughter to Tartuffe. This is the last straw, and the family plans to entrap Tartuffe in the presence of Orgon so he can see the type of person Tartuffe really is. Since Tartuffe lusts after Orgon's wife, Elmire, she is at the center of their scheme.

The first attempt at entrapment fails as Orgon's son, Damis, misinterprets the situation and accuses Tartuffe of treachery. Tartuffe plays the victim and Orgon disinherits Damis, calling him ''traitor, you're a blight/on this house.'' The second attempt works better as Orgon hears Tartuffe attempt to seduce his wife. He finally sees Tartuffe for the scoundrel he really is, but unfortunately, Tartuffe has papers showing that Orgon signed the house over to him. Tartuffe evicts the family, but as they begin to leave, a messenger from the king arrives. He arrests Tartuffe for his nefarious actions against Orgon. The king also invalidates the paperwork that gives Tartuffe Orgon's home. This ending is pleasing not only for Orgon, but the audience as well.

Social Conventions

Although the story as a whole doesn't initially strike one as being a comedy, some of the social conventions that are attacked in the play create humorous effect. In most, if not all homes, the father is the authority figure. Not here. Household staff mentions that ''Orgon once ruled this house in his right mind.'' Now, Orgon allows Tartuffe to ''do just as he wishes.'' Because of this, Orgon ends up looking like a fool before his family.

Orgon's son, Damis, as the eldest son, stands to inherit when his father passes. Because of the intrusion of Tartuffe, and Orgon's devotion to Tartuffe, Damis ends up losing his claim to Tartuffe. To make matters worse, Orgon tells Tartuffe that he wants him ''to flaunt…this friendship with my wife.'' Orgon is blind to Tartuffe's ambitions and essentially gives him what he wants over the protestation of his own son.

The final social convention that is corrupted and thereby contributes to the humor of the play is the chastity of Orgon's wife. The man who claims to be the most moral is the one most lacking. Tartuffe lusts after Elmire, and had it not been for Orgon's family creating a situation whereby Orgon could see the true measure of Tartuffe's character, Tartuffe may have eventually put Emire in a situation where her chaste nature is questioned.

Structure of Plot

The plot of Tartuffe does not seem very credible that someone would be duped to this level by a wandering stranger. Yet in this story, those are the events that occur. Because the play is considered to be a comedy of manners, the emphasis is more on creating a pleasing aesthetic (i.e., humor) rather than a credible plot. The sudden appearance of the king's messenger emphasizes this point.

In order to create a happy ending, and allow the audience to leave feeling happy or pleased, a quick resolution needed to take place. In the instance where there is no other way than to insert a character to quickly resolve matters, this is called deus ex machina, wherein the resolution occurs by the hand of God. For the sake of this play, one could conceivably alter this phrase to rex ex machina, an indication that it is the actions of the king which save the day.

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