An Analysis of Hypocrisy in Moliere’s Tartuffe


An Analysis of Hypocrisy in Moliere’s Tartuffe

No greater example of the religious hypocrite exists in all history than the example of the Philistine. What characterizes the Philistine (and all hypocrites) is something Richard Weaver describes as a barbarian desire to see a thing “as it is” (24). What Weaver implies is that the hypocrite, while making a great show of piety and the possession of virtue, actually lacks the interior life that indicates the real possession of transcendental virtue. The hypocrite is encouraged by outward show: he cares nothing for the life of the soul. The soul, in fact, being of a spiritual and abstract nature, is not even something the hypocrite takes care to fathom. For this reason, the hypocrite is impatient of all contemplation — as Weaver says: “Impatient of the veiling with which the man of higher type gives the world imaginative meaning, the barbarian and the Philistine, who is the barbarian living amid culture, demands the access of immediacy” (24). This paper, therefore, will examine the ways in which the several different characters of Moliere’s Tartuffe either behave as hypocrites or as true and honest — and show how those who understand the notion of true charity are preserved from Tartuffe’s evil influence.

The characters in Moliere’s play who reveal an understanding of true charity are, of course, the true lovers whose true love is threatened by the arrival of Tartuffe. They are Mariane and Valere. Unlike Monsieur Loyal (whose name is ironically hardly fitting of his character), the daughter of Orgon (duped by the hypocrite Tartuffe) and her lover evince a real loyalty to one another that no imposter can shake. Cleante, Orgon’s brother, also discerns the hypocrisy of Tartuffe — and so does his housemaid, Dorine, who upbraids Orgon relentlessly, attesting at the same time that she does so out of love (Moliere 2.1). Likewise, the son of Orgon, Damis, who witnesses first hand the pernicious nature of Tartuffe, displays a love of truth that is at the heart of all true charity, when he confronts Tartuffe face-to-face (but, of course, Tartuffe manages to dissemble his way out of the confrontation). Even Orgon’s own wife is preserved from swallowing the lies of Tartuffe — she neither gives in to his advances nor is duped by his “piety.” Not until Orgon himself witnesses with his own eyes the extent of Tartuffe’s depravity do the scales finally fall from his eyes. But by then it is too late — and only a kind of heavenly justice can save Orgon and his family from losing everything to Tartuffe.

What, then, is Moliere’s lesson for those who wish to remain free from the snares of the hypocrite? His lesson is the play itself: “In a climate of social and religious persecution, Moliere created Tartuffe, a masterful satiric comedy dealing with hypocrisy and intolerance” (“Moliere’s ‘Tartuffe’” 2). Like the great French tragedian Racine before him, Moliere was aware that all drama, whether tragic or comic, was dependent upon the audience’s ability to discern what is true. That discernment, of course, leads to the audience’s experience of the cathartic effect — that which, as Aristotle says, “purifies the emotions” (White).

All of these elements are related: the intellect’s ability to discern truth; the willingness to purify the emotions; and the possession of the virtue of charity. Each of these elements acts as a safeguard against the advances of the hypocrite, and it is the exact absence of these elements in the character of Orgon that allows him to be duped. As a satire of false piety, Moliere held the mirror up to human nature, and like all great art, Tartuffe acts as a mirror: those who condemned the play when it first premiered in Paris demonstrated the same defects of character that Moliere gives in the person of Orgon: the inability to discern the true from the false. As Alfred Bates asserts, “True religion is never confounded with hypocrisy, but is upheld with a warmth that suggests the fervor of his own religious sentiment, which shows his characteristic hatred of imposture in any shape” (182). True religion in the 17th century was under attack everywhere: Protestantism had been well in effect for over a century.

Moliere’s technique, however, in shaping the drama and the way in which the hypocrite is revealed is indicative of the way in which the Philistine is exposed: it is not through self-admission (which would require humility, charity, and introspection), but rather through his outward actions: actions that are inconsistent with the actions expected from one who professes to one of religion’s adherents: “Without the aid of dialogue or soliloquy, the heart of a man who could neither desire nor endure any close investigation is discovered and ascertained in all its intricacies, with the certainty of navigators tracing the line of an unknown shore” (Bates 182). In other words, the audience discerns along with the players themselves, the nature of Moliere’s title character.

At the same time, the audience learns the good nature of the other characters. Dorine gives a perfect analysis of Tartuffe at the very outset of the play: “Tis downright scandalous to see this unknown upstart master of the house — this vagabondwho so far forgets his place, as now to censure everything, and rule the roostHe passes for a saint in your opinion. In fact, he’s nothing but a hypocrite” (Moliere 1.1). Dorine’s analysis, however, is lost on Orgon’s mother, who, one is led to believe, is just as condemning as Tartuffe himself — even if she does not display the same degree of perfidy. According to Madame Pernelle: “Things would go better if all were governed bypious orders” (Moliere 1.1).

The problem with Madame Pernelle’s analysis is that she mistakes the outward semblance for the inward grace. She is not incorrect in her sentiment: piety is not a bad habit. Where she errs is in her judgment that it is Tartuffe who possesses piety. Dorine sees well enough that he does not in his actions. Madame Pernelle is fooled merely by his words.

Damis is another, however, who sees through Tartuffe’s words — even if his grandmother and father do not: “I suspect Tartuffeputs my father up to all these wretched shifts” (Moliere 1.4). Yet, it is Damis’ love for his sister that allows him to see truthfully — for the eyes of charity see most clearly.

The eyes of Orgon are like those of his mother, clouded by a desire to follow blindly: the desire to lay down one’s will at the feet of a master. The only trouble is that every charlatan is on the lookout for such people, who refuse to use their intellect to discern truth from falsehood. Orgon illustrates such well enough when he says: “Whoever does his will, knows perfect peace” (Moliere 1.6).

Likewise, Orgon is deceived by the perfectly obvious deceptions of Tartuffe: “He humbly kissed the earth at every moment; and when I left the church, he ran before me to give me holy water at the door” (Moliere 1.6). Orgon, however, hilariously points out the unholy actions of Tartuffe (thinking them, ridiculously that they are the marks of holiness): “He censures everything, and for my sake he even takes great interest in my wife; he lets me know who ogles her, and seems six times as jealous as I am myself” (Moliere. 1.6). These are the signs of the virtuous, but rather of the scandal monger.

Cleante, Orgon’s brother, sees well enough, beginning his exclamation with (hilariously) a blaspheme (“zounds” was a contraction of “by His wounds,” His being Christ’s): “Zounds, brother, you are made, I think!”

But rather than listen to reason, Orgon is immediately put off by the language that Cleante uses. Because Cleante shows himself given to cursing, he cannot be of sound judgment — at least, Orgon believes. Thus, Orgon shows himself rather to be a fool than a hypocrite: “Brother, your language smacks of atheism; and I suspect your soul’s a little tainted therewith” (Moliere 1.6).

Again, Cleante gives sound judgment: “True heroes never are the ones who make much noise about their deeds of honour, just so devotees, whom we should follow, are not the ones who make so much vain show” (Moliere 1.6). But Orgon will have none of it: he responds instead a total lack of humility. Already, sensing that his discernment is under attack, he displays his pride by mocking Cleante. Orgon refuses to stop and consider the arguments made by Cleante. Instead, he stifles his intellect for the visceral thrill of righteousness that Tartuffe allows him to feel.

The next subject that comes up is the marriage of Orgon’s daughter to Valere. Here Orgon reveals that not only is he duped by Tartuffe’s illusions, he is also under the sway of Tartuffe’s advice.

When Orgon himself attempts to get Mariane to step in line and declare Tartuffe and true and worthy man, Mariane protests: “Why should you make me tell this dreadful lie?” (Moliere 2.1). Mariane might have pleased her father without regard for the truth, but because truth is due a greater respect than mere humanity, she shows her own virtue by refusing to consent to a lie. Orgon, however, insists that lies be truth and answers her question thus: “Because I mean to have it be the truth” (Moliere 2.1).

What explains Orgon’s behavior is simple: the loss of humility clouds his judgment so that he no longer sees the need to discern between truth and falsehood. Willing to accept the flattery of Tartuffe, Orgon now endangers the happiness of his children. Orgon reveals to all that he lacks the charity that must accompany discernment. Tartuffe’s poverty inspires him to philanthropy — which is hardly true charity. Rather philanthropy, though directed outward, is nothing more than an action designed to make oneself feel good. Orgon’s entire being has been taken over by the evil designs of Tartuffe because Orgon has allowed himself to be led into vice.

In fact, as more and more characters object, all Orgon can say is “Hold your tongue” (Moliere 2.1). His ears cannot bear the reproach that others heap upon him now. Guilty of having locked up his intellect, he is not yet ready to admit of his foolishness and will not tolerate others pointing it out to him.

But what is it, for example, that drives Dorine to speak so boldly to Orgon? “Tis love of you” — the charity and duty that the servant owes to the master: it is not flattery, it is not disrespect: it is honor, and Dorine possesses. Yet, Orgon refuses it: “I want none of your love” (Moliere 2.1). What Orgon wants, apparently, is nothing but flattery. Moliere’s Tartuffe becomes achingly similar to Shakespeare’s King Lear — another drama in which a foolish old man is deceived by flattery and put off by love.

However, there is a difference between Lear and Tartuffe — and this is that the former is a tragedy and the latter a comedy. While Lear realizes all too late that Cordelia has been most loyal to him out of all his daughters, Tartuffe realizes his foolishness just in the nick of time. And yet — not so — because Tartuffe still shows that he has the upper hand, when he serves Orgon and his family an eviction notice and takes over their dwellings.

It is only through the intercession of the king (the sovereign judge and the symbol of the Final Judgment to come) that Tartuffe’s antics are finally put to an end and happiness and order are restored. Yet, still, it is Cleante, the character who first tried to remove the blinders from Orgon’s eyes, who now restrains Orgon from delivering a final rebuff to the condemned Tartuffe: “I beg you, leave the poor wretch to his unhappy fate, and let remorse oppress him, but not you. Hope rather that his heart may now return to virtue, hate his vice, reform his ways, and win the pardon of our glorious prince” (Moliere 5.8). Cleante demonstrates the virtue that the pious truly maintain. Cleante, in other words, serves as the foil for Tartuffe, and the guide, should he now seek it, for Orgon. Orgon finally praises Cleante’s sound judgment and agrees to follow the king and symbol of true virtue.

In conclusion, Moliere gives several examples of characters whose virtue, charity, and ability to discern truth from falsehood keeps them from falling prey to the deceptions of Tartuffe. But he also gives, in the character of Orgon and his mother, the fool who allows himself to be swayed by flattery and deceived by Philistinism. As Weaver reminds us, it is the desire for immediacy and impatience with the spiritual that keeps the hypocrite from contemplating his own hypocrisy. Orgon, if not a hypocrite, is certainly a hypocrite’s follower — and he is saved not by own his own good sense, but by the intercession of goodness itself, which cleanses the eyes of Orgon and allows him to acknowledge the good sense of his brother, Cleante.

Works Cited

Bates, Alfred. The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization. UK:

Historical Publishing Company, 1906.

Moliere. Tartuffe. Project Gutenberg. 2004. Web. 23 July 2011.

“Moliere’s ‘Tartuffe’.” The University of Akron. 2005. Web. 23 July 2011.

Weaver, Richard. Ideas Have Consequences. IL: University of Chicago Press, 1948.

White, David Allen. “Greek Drama.” St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, 2000.

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