Molière and the Raisonneur

An essay analyzing Molière’s utilization of the stock character, the raisonneur

Molière is a name that cannot be uttered without the recognition of his genius contributions to comedy and theatre.  Both an actor and a playwright, Molière penned countless works, comic and tragic, but he is best known for his farces rife with social commentary, such as Le Misanthrope and Tartuffe, ou l’Imposteur.  A particular type of character recurs in these comedies and is seemingly perfected by Molière, the “raisonneur.” While it is often simply defined as a character that serves as the playwright’s intended mouthpiece, this character often serves an integral purpose to the plot and lends greatly to the humor of the play.  Where the “raisonneur” was once nothing more than the voice of reason, Molière saw fit to breathe new life into the character, and two fine examples of that new life come from his works, Le Misanthrope and Tartuffe, ou l’Imposteur.

First, it is important that the term “raisonneur” is more aptly defined.  The character not only serves as a mouthpiece for the writer, but they are the source of reason throughout the dramatic action, providing the audience and the other characters with the central ideas to the play’s intended purpose.  Typically, the raisonneur produces rational thought in comparison to other characters’ more emotional and impulsive behaviors.  Such is the case with characters like Philinte and Eliante in Le Misanthrope and Elmire and Dorine in Tartuffe.

Le Misanthrope follows the protagonist Alceste as his refusal to conform to society’s expectations of behavior drives him to exile.  Instead of “making nice” with his fellows, Alceste believes in the importance of expressing oneself and one’s true feelings.  This leads to him receiving an admirer in the noble, Oronte, who seeks for the blunt and impartial man to give his honest opinion on a poem he has written.  Alceste warns the younger man that his honesty may not be appreciated, but Oronte persists and reads the poem aloud.  Alceste does not hold back in responding to the piece and confesses his opinion to be that of disdain for the young man’s writing, ultimately claiming Oronte should never write again.  Offended, the noble leaves Alceste to the criticism of his friend, Philinte, who expresses his desire for Alceste to be more tactful and act with more appropriate decorum.

Alceste, unsurprisingly, does not conform to his friend’s wishes and instead goes about his regular pursuit of the lady Célimène, who is the embodiment of everything he hates about society as she pays close attention to decorum, flirts relentlessly with even those she hates, and never speaks her mind forthrightly, only behind the backs of those of whom she speaks.  Despite this, he finds himself compelled to her, as she elicits a passion within him no other seems to do.  When he discovers that she has broken her promise to love only him despite her numerous suitors by writing identical love letters to the other men, he produces an ultimatum – run away and marry him in exile or never be forgiven – she reveals her true colors and denies him, believing exile does not suit her.  Enraged, he leaves her and exiles himself to avoid arrest after appearing in court against Oronte for his cruel remarks to the young noble’s writing.

Throughout the play, Philinte remains steadfast in his attempts to sway his companion to be more tactful and most importantly, more reasonable.  Although Alceste is ordered to be arrested, the possibility of appealing in court is turned down instantly because the irrational Alceste no longer sees the need to live in a place he so adamantly hates, especially when the one thing that made him passionate before no longer saw any favor in his eyes.  While Philante, for the most part, spends his time trying to reason with the play’s protagonist, there is a very small subplot to be noted that gives this raisonneur a wider breadth of character, and that is the relationship he strikes with Célimène’s cousin, Eliante.

The young Eliante, much like Philinte, is a balanced and unsuspecting individual.  She does not involve herself in the gossip perpetuated by her cousin and Alceste, nor does she see the need to become the center of attention by leading on potential suitors.  Instead, she is content to let society be, but she is far from shy or unable to speak her mind.  She gladly opens up her own social commentary against men that fall in love, challenging Alceste’s definition of what an “honest love” is like, laced with sharp wit and astute observations:

Love, as a rule, affects men otherwise,

And lovers rarely love to criticize.

They see their lady as a charming blur,

And find all things commendable in her.

If she has any blemish, fault, or shame,

They will redeem it by a pleasing name.

The pale-faced lady’s lily-white, perforce;

The swarthy one’s a sweet brunette, of course;

The spindly lady has a slender grace;

The fat one has a most majestic pace;

The plain one, with her dress in disarray,

They classify as beaute negligee;

The hulking one’s a goddess in their eyes,

The dwarf, a concentrate of Paradise;

The haughty lady has a noble mind;

The mean one’s witty, and the dull one’s kind;

The chatterbox has liveliness and verve,

The mute one has a virtuous reserve.

So lovers manage, in their passion’s cause,

To love their ladies even for their flaws.

She is undoubtedly blunt, calling attention to each flaw a woman would have in the eyes of anyone but the lover, and then cleverly weaving it into the lover’s distorted perception; but due to the rarity of her speaking like this both previously and after the fact, her comments resonate more to the true nature of her character.  She is not unkind, nor is she unassuming.  She is an individual who has found balance between her criticism of society and its people as well as her own image in its place.

Philinte finds himself attracted to the young woman early on, and he promises that, should Alceste not choose to take her when Célimène does not, he will without hesitation.  As the play proceeds, Eliante finds herself compelled to Philinte in return and finally turns her affections towards him just as Alceste confesses he does not find himself worthy of her after his disastrous relationship with her cousin.  Philinte and Eliante are set to be wed at the very end of the play and with that bit of hope, they decide to follow Alceste into his exile and speak rationally with him, joining in an almost symbolic relationship of reason.  Instead of simply serving as a means of relating the story’s message to the audience – that of the need for balance between one’s serving of decorum and one’s individual expression – the two also display the traits that speak to that meaning and are rewarded for their adhering to it.

Not only does Molière speak to the balance between society and the individual, but he presents a more subtle acknowledgement to the need to balance one’s self with the ones whom they love.  For example, while Eliante is unapologetic for being herself, she recognizes that she is only accountable for her own actions, and when Célimène requests that she choose her suitor, Eliante refuses to be responsible for decisions Célimène should make on her own.  When all is said and done, Célimène and Alceste end up alone because of their inability to take responsibility for their own actions, seeing the acceptance of their own wrongdoings as a way of admitting defeat and losing what makes them who they believe they are, while Philinte and Eliante are able to find ways to express their devotion without completely altering their own character to compromise.

Where Philinte and Eliante do not perpetuate the plot further in Le Misanthrope, the voices of reason in Tartuffe do quite a bit more in the way of moving the story along and become even more prime examples of  Molière’s masterful development of the raisonneur.  The two plays differ in many ways, but most notable is the difference between the central conflicts.  Le Misanthrope is very much a social comedy, focusing more on situations dealing with society, its norms, and its call for decorum.  On the contrary, Tartuffe stands as a comedy dealing in much closer circles, particularly with Orgon and his family.  Although the role of society serves some purpose to the play itself, the central issues lie within the conflict that occurs amongst the family caused by the titular character, Tartuffe.

Orgon is the head of household where Tartuffe has become a permanent guest in his home, much to the chagrin of the rest of his family, seeing through Tartuffe’s hypocritical deceptions.  Tartuffe claims to be a pious man of God, having given up his material possessions to live a life devoted to the Lord.  Inspired by Tartuffe’s performance, Orgon immediately took him in and began valuing his word above anyone else in his household, and whenever anything is ever spoken against his beloved Tartuffe, he immediately denies it.

What sets the play in motion is Orgon recanting his word to Valère, to whom he had promised the hand of his daughter Mariane, in order to give her hand instead to Tartuffe.  Although Tartuffe shows no desire for his young daughter, he does not make an attempt to dissuade Orgon, as it means he will receive her dowry.  Instead, Tartuffe’s affections – or probably more accurately, lust – lie towards Orgon’s wife, Elmire.  Recognizing this, the family attempts to trick Tartuffe into seducing Elmire in order to convince her husband of his treacherous ways and more importantly, retrieve Mariane’s hand for the rightful Valère.

Unfortunately, the first attempt is unsuccessful due to Mariane’s brother, Damis, who is enraged that his mother would have to involve herself in this deceit to make his father go back on his word to give Mariane to her rightful fiancé.  When Orgon enters the room to discover Tartuffe having revealed his love for Elmire, Tartuffe turns the tables and confesses that he is a sinner, coveting another man’s wife, and should be punished.  Orgon, so moved by his charade, disowns his son, and signs over all his possessions to Tartuffe.  He also “punishes” Tartuffe to spend every bit of spare time with Elmire in order to learn control over his lust-ridden thoughts.

At wit’s end, Elmire convinces Orgon to hide himself within the room where she proceeds to call for Tartuffe in order to witness the man’s true intentions.  He agrees, and Tartuffe enters the room to be accosted by Elmire in order to be provoked to express his feelings once again.  Just as he nearly has his way with her, Orgon reveals himself and angrily seeks to kick Tartuffe from his home.  However, he finally takes action outright against the head of house and seeks to reveal Orgon’s illegal dealings with a man from the past, which was information he had entrusted to Tartuffe before the beginning of the play.  He threatens that Orgon either take his family and leave or risk being incriminated and dealt with by the law.  As the family attempts to find their way out of this dilemma, a message from the court is delivered, revealing that the deed to the house is now in the hands of Tartuffe and they are to be evicted.

However, Tartuffe receives his comeuppance in the end and is arrested under the order of the king, who heard of his crimes and sought justice to the situation.  Orgon and his family are allowed to keep their home and go back to their way of life, having been issued a pardon for the father’s past actions, and the play ends with Valère and Mariane being set to wed.

Although nearly the entire cast of characters could be seen as the voice of reason against Orgon’s single-minded obsession with Tartuffe, the two characters that stick out as the most vocal are his wife, Elmire, and Mariane’s maidservant, Dorine.  Elmire is an incredibly tolerant woman, despite her own frustrations with her husband’s house guest.  Even though her disdain for Tartuffe is clear, and she has attempted to reason with her husband, she resists action against him at first.  When the last straw is drawn, however, she steps forward and plays her part in taking down the man who is destroying her home.  However, instead of acting on impulse like her irrational son, Damis, she seeks to manipulate the situation through words, prompting Tartuffe to confess and ultimately frame himself.  She meets his deceits with her own, matching his wicked intent with her own cleverness.  She not only speaks reasonably to her husband as she tries to convince him of the error in his judgments, but she also acts with a sensible manner and decorum, not stepping out of place against her husband or overreacting in her given circumstances.  She is consistently level-headed and is rewarded for being so by the end of the play.

On the other hand, there is Dorine, who serves less as a raisonneur for the protagonists and more for the young lovers of the play, Valère and Mariane, who find themselves in an argument, challenging the affections of the other.  After settling their dispute, she suggests that they wait until action can be taken against Orgon and Tartuffe, and she seeks to enlist the help of anyone she can find.  When Damis expresses his outrage, she attempts to calm him down and explains that she has arranged that Elmire speak to Tartuffe about his engagement to Mariane.  She engages actively with the forward momentum of the story, attempting to quell the conflict through the level-headed Elmire, and she serves as a satirical mouthpiece for the audience, seeing through the deceptions of Tartuffe and the erroneous ways of her masters.

On a more obvious note, the term raisonneur could also be applied to, and is very often applied to, the sensible brother-in-law Cléante, who confronts Tartuffe and sharply points out the hypocrisy in the man’s words and actions.  He also makes an effort to convince his brother-in-law of his misjudgment of Tartuffe, but to no avail.  Although Cléante is unarguably a raisonneur in the classic use of the term, he appears infrequently throughout the story and serves more as a foil to Orgon’s fickle, impulsive character.

Conclusively, Molière helped define the stock character of the raisonneur as well as provide it with more depth than that of a simple archetype.  Through the symbolic actions of Philinte and Eliante, he was able to give them more purpose than that of a character who speaks reason.  Through the active participation in the story of Elmire and Dorine, he showed that a raisonneur does not have to sit back and speak wisely but can also take action based on rational thought with a level head.  In the work of Molière, at least, reason must also be met with the balance of action, and the unity of the two is rewarding in and of itself.

(c) Morgan Lea Davis, 2012

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