English 233:  Introduction to Western Humanities -- Baroque & Enlightenment

An outline of Molière's Tartuffe -- Act Three

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Act Three

i. Dorine forestalls Damis, the hot-headed son of Orgon, from rashly confronting Tartuffe with violent threats.

She reveals Elmire has sent for Tartuffe to sound him out.

Unable to persuade Damis to leave, and hearing the approach of Tartuffe, she shoves Damis in a closet.

ii. Tartuffe finally enters the action in his own person.

Catching sight of Dorine, he goes into a great show of piety

He calls offstage to his manservant Laurent, ordering him to hang up his hairshirt and his scourge.

He reproves Dorine for immodesty of dress.

He reproves her for the immodesty of her reply.

Dorine tells him Elmire wants to speak with him.

His reaction confirms Dorine's suspicions, confided to Damis in the previous scene, that Tartuffe is soft on his patron's wife.

iii. Tartuffe exposes his true nature to Elmire.

He humbly insists his numerous prayers for her recovery were too unworthy in God's eyes to have been responsible for it.

Elmire wants to discuss "a private matter" and expresses the hope that "you'll be entirely unconstrained and frank."

Mistaking her opening as a come-on, Tartuffe makes physical advances (pressing her fingertips, putting his hand on her knee, fondling the lace collar of her gown).

Elmire, trying to get back to her agenda, asks if he's heard of Orgon's intention to break his promise with Valère and give Mariane to Tartuffe.

Tartuffe assures her that he looks elsewhere for the bliss he desires.

Elmire, hoping to get him to resign Mariane in favor of celibacy, seeks agreement with her conclusion that "you care for nothing here below."

Tartuffe responds with a marvelous opportunistic caricature of orthodox theology and a declaration of his passion for Elmire.

Elmire rebukes him for not restraining his passion and thinking, before speaking, of the unsuitability of such a declaration to his character of piety.

Tartuffe: "I may be pious, but I'm human, too." And later: "I'm no angel, nor was meant to be."

[A declaration, notice, that the sequel will ironically call into question. ]

There follows a masterpiece of guile — a calculatedly "passionate" (but nevertheless lustfully impassioned) pitch, which begins as an appeal to perversions of familiar religious concepts (the weakness of the flesh, the power of the celestial to inspire by its beauty, the conquering power of "seraphic glance," the nature of angelic goodness as the disposition to comfort distress, the nourishing function of divine grace ["sweet manna"], the grateful praise ["hosanna"] due to such kind condescension) and culminates in an appeal to down-to-earth considerations of worldly practicality (Tartuffe's concern for his own good name gives Elmire the assurance that hers will not be imperiled by bragging indescretion on his part).

Taking up the topic of tattling, Elmire seizes the opportunity to begin to close the door on the box she hopes she has got Tartuffe in: she asks him if he isn't afraid that she might tell her husband.

Tartuffe says he relies on her charity towards human weakness and ends with an appeal to her vanity: "I am not blind."

[Another declaration the sequel will play on in ironic ways. ]

Elmire promises discreetness on condition that Tartuffe promise

that he will use his influence with Orgon to get him to go forward with the marriage between Valère and Mariane, and

that he will renounce any "desire to dispossess / Another of his rightful happiness."

iv. Damis intervenes, rushing in from the closet where he has been hiding.

[Note the irony: what seems opportune to him is in fact most inopportune. He has apparently been deaf to what Elmire has been up to, presumably because he can hear only what is echoing in his own mind. As a result his attempt to seize victory turns out to seize defeat from the jaws of victory. Yet we might want to look behind this rashness to speculate on what motivates it. One plausible possibility: the son wants to shine in his father's eyes, by demonstrating his devotion to his father's and the family's interests. The urgency to do this might be referable to two factors at work in this situation: his wish, as a dependent, to demonstrate his suitability to carry out his father's tasks in the future, and his wish to displace a factor that has displaced him in his father's attention and affection. If Orgon were a mature individual, he would regard both as gratifying — the first as reassuring, and the second as endearing. Since he is not, they are likely to strike him as threatening — the first as reminding him of his mortality, and implying his displacement, the second as challenging his authority to choose his own objects of affection (regardless of obligations external to his whim). What is charming in a child, however, — filial jealousy and the urge to prove oneself before others — can be alarming in one who is supposed to be an adult: it is not fitting for Orgon to be driven, out of spite, to "show the others" (his dependents) his power to put them in their place. ]

He insists on exposing Tartuffe before his father.

Elmire remonstrates:

1) She has Tartuffe where she wants him.

2) She's promised silence.

3) "To make a scandal would be too absurd. / Good wives laugh off such trifles, and forget them; / Why should they tell their husbands, and upset them?"

Damis will have none of this, and insists on exploiting this heaven-sent opportunity of indubitable proof.

He runs down his grievances.

1) He has "swallowed my just wrath for too long."

2) He has too long "watched this insolent bigot bringing strife / And bitterness into our family life."

3) "Too long he's meddled in my father's affairs, / Thwarting my marriage-hopes, and poor Valère's."

4) "It's high time that my father was undeceived."

He insists that the suitable occasion has now arrived.

1) "And now I've proof that can't be disbelieved."

2) This "proof was furnished me by Heaven above."

3) Such an opportunity may not arise again: "It's too good not to take advantage of. / This is my chance, and I deserve to lose it / If, for one moment, I hesitate to use it."

Elmire tries to get a word in edgewise: "Damis . . ."

Damis cuts her off, insisting on having his satisfaction.

[Note that this is the same pattern we have noticed in the opening scene (Madame Pernelle's leave-taking) and that we will see once again (when Orgon refuses to listen to Damis' case against Tartuffe [III.vi.]) This "determined deafness" is a variation on the theme of "insistent blindness." ]

Although he insists that "I must do what I think right" (an unimpeachable principle of reason), it is clear that his judgment of what is right for the occasion is distorted by passion: "Madam, my heart is bursting with delight, / And say whatever you will, I'll not consent / To lose the sweet revenge on which I'm bent." In this heedless frame of mind he rushes forward: "I'll settle matters without more ado."

[The essential point to note is that Molière here is setting Damis up to be recognized later on — in the scene which climaxes in his disinheritance by his father — as "his father's son." If we do not recall this scene later on, we will not appreciate the comic irony in what Orgon does. ]

v. Orgon enters.

Damis informs him of what he has just witnessed.

Elmire expresses her misgivings (and exits).

vi. "Trial scene": the judge shows he has lost his judgment.

[This scene is one of those masterpieces of dramatic construction that repays careful detailed analysis. In this outline, though, we will confine ourselves to a sketch of a few main points.]

Tartuffe begins by confessing that he's "a wretched sinner, all depraved and twisted, / The greatest villain that has ever existed. My life's one heap of crimes, which grows each minute," and begs to be expelled from the house as punishment.

[Comic dramatic irony here: everything he says about the facts is true, but Orgon rejects these characterizations; everything he recommends is appropriate, but totally insincere.

 It is remarkable that Orgon does not pardon these offenses, but does not take Tartuffe's confession seriously. (Neither of course does Tartuffe, but in a different way altogether!) Indeed, he declares Damis' charge to be a "foul. . . lie." What are we to make of this? What strange thought process — what perversion of "reasoning" — are we to imagine is going on in this man's mind? What premises might he have been stuffed with that he might be acting from here? A plausible possibility is that, for Orgon, such self-professions of personal depravity are to be understood as a kind of generic acknowledgment that every properly informed Christian should make. The source of this, we might suspect, is the standard insistence, in puritan sects (whether Calvinist Protestantism or Jansenist Catholicism), on admission of a certain "extreme" doctrine of Original Sin. Now since this applies to everybody, distinctions among sinners are effectively obliterated: everyone is equally (i.e., abominably) bad, and no one can escape this curse of Adam. And this has the effect of making such confessions a kind of pro forma ritual. (Note, by the way, that in the course of his self-accusation, Tartuffe never mentions the specific act of trying to seduce his patron's wife; he confines his auto-prosecution to completely general evil — precisely the sort of stuff everyone is, in theory, guilty of.)

Ah, but there is a difference after all: there are those who, not having a proper conviction of sin, damnably proceed on assumption that their spiritual condition is reasonably healthy, and so are not moved to confess what they do not believe, and there are those who, convinced of their moral wretchedness, privately and publicly, and ask for divine forgiveness, for themselves and others. This is what a good Christian does. Moreover, by faith a Christian affirms that this forgiveness, if sincerely sought, will be forthcoming, and is atoned for in Christ's crucifixion. Such a person is, then, purified.

Now Tartuffe does these things. Therefore he is a good Christian and pure. Therefore (here's the absurd non-sequitur) he wouldn't have done the ugly thing that Damis says he did. Therefore Damis is lying. The key is: form has become an effective substitute for content. When the evidentiary process is reduced to such a caricature of reasoning, it backfires: the criminal is acquitted as innocent, and his accuser convicted of a "deceitful" attempt to "stain his purity." A deep comic irony here is that, on some level, Orgon has conceived the judgment (shared by Molière!) that these elaborate general declarations of grave depravity are "theatrical," and not to be taken seriously as confessions of specific sins. Orgon in effect takes this self-condemnation as a protestation that "I am not the sort of man who would do what I'm charged with doing." ]

Orgon breaks in to upbraid Damis for telling shameful lies and, when Damis protests, tells him to shut up.

[This stifling of his son's attempts to speak is made comically flagrant by arranging for it to occur a total of five times (ll. 18, 37, 38, 39, 45) in the course of this short scene (three of these instances occurring in such rapid succession that the entire series of exchanges takes place within three lines! (See the note on Damis' conduct in the previous scene.) ]

Tartuffe advises Orgon to listen to and believe Damis.

[Here we get (from this consummate con-artist) a mini-sermon on faith, and the problems of trusting appearances.]

He begs Damis to revile him with the most shameful names, because "I've earned them all, and more."

Orgon launches into a comic routine of switching rapidly back and forth between pleading with Tartuffe and upbraiding Damis.

[Note the themes here: the son is a "monster" and "villain": "heartless," an "ingrate"; Tartuffe is continually addressed as "Brother" and seen as the soul of offended virtue.]

Tartuffe begs Orgon to pardon Damis.

[Note the brilliant shift of ground here! Damis is, of course, innocent of the charges Orgon is lodging. Yet, inasmuch as pardon is appropriate only when one has committed an offense, Tartuffe's intercession encourages Orgon's delusion that Damis is in the wrong. Additionally, of course, Tartuffe's plea amounts to a projection of his own condition upon Damis, since it is he (Tartuffe) who is in need of pardon.]

Orgon is overwhelmed by this demonstration of incredible virtue: "Such goodness cannot be!"


Damis correctly sarcastically admires this "true charity."

Hushing Damis once more, Orgon launches into a tirade against his family for their bad motives (ill-will towards Tartuffe), and their manipulative trickery in trying to alienate him from this saintly man.

[Note that Orgon has so identified with Tartuffe, whom he begins by characterizing as a victim of the family's maliciousness, that he shifts into seeing himself as the victim of this same depraved collective will.]

He resolves to "spite this household and confound its pride," and to do so by giving his daughter to Tartuffe.

Damis asks incredulously whether he is going "to force her to accept [Tartuffe's] hand."

[Damis has raised a distinct issue: what if Mariane doesn't want to marry Tartuffe?]

Orgon declares yes, he'll "defy you all."

[In other words, that Mariane doesn't want to marry Tartuffe is, in his present mood, a mark in favor of his resolution, whose point is to spite his family.]

He orders Damis to ask Tartuffe's pardon.

Damis refuses.

Enraged at Damis' insulting Tartuffe and defying his father,

expels him from the house

resolves to disinherit him, and

curses him.

viii. Damis having left, Tartuffe moves into a new phase of his act.

He begins to harp upon his suffering at

being blackened in Orgon's eyes

the quarrels his presence occasions in the household.

He proposes to leave.

[Note the similarity of Tartuffe's behavior to coyness in courtship. ]

Orgon will have none of it.

Tartuffe proposes keeping away from Orgon's wife.

Orgon refuses — again, out of spite: "whatever they may say / It pleases me to vex them, and for spite, / I'd have them see you with her day and night."

Then he lets his spite carry him to the climactic follies:

"What's more, I going to drive them to despair / By making you my only son and heir" and (!)

"This very day, I'll give to you alone / Clear deed and title to everything I own."

[What's the connection with Damis' behavior in Scene iv?]

He declares that "[a] dear, good friend and son-in-law-to-be / Is more than wife, or child, or kin to me."

[Can you put your finger on what is absurd about this?]

He asks Tartuffe ("dearest son") whether he will accept his offer.

And Tartuffe's blasphemous reply: "In all things, let the will of Heaven be done."

Orgon's final couplet embraces two strong motifs:

"Poor fellow! Come, we'll go draw up the deed.

Then let them burst with disappointed greed!"

Copyright (c) 1996 by Lyman Allen Baker.

Permission granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.

Revised 23 November 1996.