The Role of Reason in Tartuffe
Moliére’s Tartuffe speaks volumes about reason by highlighting it in some of the main characters, while at the same time exaggerating the lack of it in others. The period known as the Enlightenment overemphasized the importance of the ability to reason, often leaving man feeling that he alone was in control of his destiny. The play is a clever satire, which attacks religious hypocrisy, gullibility, foolishness and social problems that were all present in society during the time period in which it was written. Moliére uses his pen as a teaching tool to point out the folly of relying only on one path to obtain knowledge, whether that path is religion, reason, or experience, and subsequently losing sight of the truth.
The play begins with Madam Pernelle cutting everyone off mid-sentence and refusing to listen to anyone, while at the same time declaring that no one in the house will pay attention for a single minute. This scene sets the tone for the foolish premise of only trusting one’s own ideas and perceptions. This closed mindset prevails throughout the play.
The work presents the voice of reason in the lowly maid, Dorine, the less powerful brother-in-law, Cléante, and the son, Damis. These three see Tartuffe for the hypocrite that he is and try in vain to convince the others of the man’s clever deceptions. Dorine openly labels Tartuffe as a fraud and a bigot. She humorously describes the pious imposter as a “man of destiny” and then adds, “He’s made for horns.” This is amusing because it insinuates that he is the Devil and not a man of God. These are bold statements for a member of her class. She is much more insightful than most of the characters, but she is repeatedly told to be quiet and is referred to by Orgon as a dunce or a dunderhead. Unfortunately, the words of reason from Dorine, Cléante, and Damis have no effect on Orgon’s or Madame Pernelle’s favorable impression of Tartuffe. However, these reasonable characters provide an interesting balance between themselves and the foolishness of the other characters.
The reader’s introduction to the master of the household, Orgon, begins with a ridiculous conversation where Dorine reports that Elmire has been ill during his absence. Speaking almost as if he is deeply in love, Orgon is unable to even entertain thoughts of concern for anyone except Tartuffe. Orgon and Madame Pernelle are so convinced that they are endowed with the absolute truth that they are unwilling or unable to even consider the real truth. Their eyes are blind and their ears are deaf to anything that is in direct conflict with their preconceived ideas or beliefs concerning Tartuffe. Madam Pernelle’s obtuseness concerning Tartuffe is dwarfed by her son’s complete and total devotion to the con man. They are both easily duped and vehemently refuse to allow their minds to be changed by others, which could possibility indicate an inherited naivety and hardheadedness.
Mariane is more of a neutral character. She is not without the ability to reason, but feels powerless to go against her father’s wishes. In one of the early scenes, she tells her father that she will say whatever he tells her to say. This statement demonstrates the power of her father’s control. Mariane and Valére both seem rather foolish when they are first discussing the possibility of her marriage to Tartuffe. Neither is voicing what they truly feel about the situation. Moliére uses Mariane’s character to point out conflicts between the parent and the child, one struggling to gain some small amount of control and the other struggling to maintain complete control of his family. The reader is made aware of other familial control issues between the in-laws, the husband and the wife, and the father and the son. For this reason, it is even more interesting that Orgon willingly turns almost all control of everything in his life over to Tartuffe. The relationship of the characters in the play mirrors some of the control struggles and problems in society at that time, only on a smaller scale. Many of these same struggles and problems still exist today in families and society.
Tartuffe had been thoroughly discussed by the other characters long before he actually made his entrance. His words and actions immediately uphold the impression previously given by those who see him for what he is. As he tries to seduce Elmire, he speaks of religious matters and the secrets of science. He blatantly states that “Heaven is not averse to compromise.” When Damis tells his father of Tartuffe’s betrayal, oddly enough, Tartuffe does not deny it. He actually says that he is wicked and tells Orgon to charge him with any deed and adds that he will not defend himself. Orgon’s irrational response is to accuse Damis of being deceitful. This scene provides proof that Orgon is totally under Tartuffe’s spell. He refuses to believe the awful truth about Tartuffe even when it comes directly from the man’s own lips. Even after Orgon is forced to see Tartuffe’s true character, he is unable to convince Madame Pernelle of the evil man’s deceitfulness until she sees proof of his deception in the form of an eviction order. It is at this point that they are both chided for their stupidity by Dorine when she appears to defend Tartuffe’s benevolent act of liberating them from material things that might have endangered their salvation.
Metaphors, allusion, and comic devices are all powerful tools used in Tartuffe to make a statement about the existence of hypocrisy and other social ills in society at that time. The play serves as a warning against the dangers of blindly accepting anything at face value. It was not meant as an insult to the religious community. This is evidenced by the fact that in the end Tartuffe is exposed as an imposter. Common sense and a willingness to consider the perceptions of others seem to be the missing components for those characters so completely duped by Tartuffe. It is important to note that social status does not dictate reason and in this play Moliére gives the voice of reason to the less important characters. Many people are capable of reasoning, but not all are capable of coming to the correct conclusion. The reasoning ability of the human mind is great, but reason alone is not enough to ascertain the truth in every situation.