An Analysis of Molière’s Use of Irony for Comedic Purpose and Critical Purpose in Tartuffe.
Mollière, french playwright of the classicism movement said: “The duty of comedy is to correct men by amusing them.” This quote is intriguing because when we think of a comedy, we typically think of a play that makes its audience laugh, not one that attempts to rectify them. In Tartuffe, the use of irony has a comedic value as well as a critical one. Indeed, the comedic dimensions of the play hide a sinister, serious critique of the 17th century French society. This essay will analyze the use of irony for a comedic purpose in parallel with its use for a critical purpose.
Molière’s style of writing allows for comedic irony throughout the play.
We first notice the play’s comedic irony in Scene 1 of Act I through the character of Mme. Pernelle. In that scene, Mme. Pernelle is portrayed as a stereotypical, authoritative, blunt old woman. The dialogue between her and the other characters illustrates a feeling of superiority on her part, as if she believes that she is above everyone morally, but her style of expression shows otherwise. This incongruence between her style of expression and the claims she is making creates an element of comedic irony. Her feeling of superiority is shown when she says “girl, you talk too much,” “you, boy, grow more foolish everyday,” and “as for you, child,” as she belittles others by referring to them as girl, boy, and child. On top of that, Molière’s use of ellipsis in the scene indicates that she repeatedly interrupts Cléante and Elmire, adding to the depiction of her lack of respect for others. Mme. Pernelle’s character could be taken seriously, but the familiarity and vulgarity of her language makes her discourse ironic, as it dismisses her authority. This is illustrated through her use of the interjections “nonsense!” and “rubbish!”
Scene 1 of Act II adds on to the comedic aspect of the play through an ironic misunderstanding between Orgon and Marianne. While the misunderstanding between the two
regarding Marianne’s feelings towards Tartuffe is already funny itself, the accumulation of interrogations and interjections in their dialogue adds on to the comedic effect.
” Marianne: What?
Orgon: What’s that?
Adding to this effect is the use of the ellipsis shows a substantial pause of hesitation, which allows Molière to mimic a hesitation in Marianne’s speech.
Perhaps the most comedic in the play, Scene 5 of Act IV combines elements of comedy of repetition and comedic irony. In this scene, Tartuffe tries to convince Elmire to be with him and Elmire pretends that she is falling for him, but, in reality, she is trying to expose him in front of Orgon, her husband, who is hidden under a table. The comedy in the scene comes from dramatic irony, as the audience can see Orgon under the table but Tartuffe doesn’t know he is there. The comedy of repetition is present through Molière’s repetitive use of didascalies. Orgon won’t come out from under the table after Tartuffe’s advances to Elmire even though she coughs repeatedly:
“(she coughs, to warn her husband)(…)
(Elmire coughs, this time more loudly)(…)
(she coughs once more)”
Despite Elmire’s best efforts, Orgon doesn’t catch on. This illustrates his naivety. Orgon’s position under the table gives way to comedic irony as he, the boss of the house, is in a vulnerable and
somewhat humiliating position physically and socially, as his mentor, whom he praises, is making advances towards his wife. There is irony in the fact that his current position is opposite to his social ranking. Additionally, comedic irony exists when Tartuffe says “Why worry about the man? Each day he grows more gullible” as he critiques Orgon for his naivety while he is the one actively being deceived.
Although the irony in Scene 5 of Act IV is amusing, Molière also uses it as a tool to critique society. First, the irony in Orgon’s position and his reluctance to come out from under the table serves to condemn the naivety of those who allow hypocrites like Tartuffe to have power over them.
Additionally irony is used to pass judgment on castruisty when Tartuffe says: “some joys, it’s true, are wrong in Heaven’s eye, yet Heaven is averse to compromise.” While castruisty, or rule-based reasoning is very present in the Church, Molière’s paradoxal use of the word “compromises” suggests that it is corrupt.
Molière’s use of irony as a critique of religious hypocrisy was already present in Scene 3 of Act III, when Tartuffe uses religious language to legitimize his lewd feelings for Elmire. Before this scene, Elmire thought of Tartuffe as a devout christian, but this scene puts her face to face with the hypocrisy in his character. Molière’s use of didascalies creates a contrast between his claim that he is a devout christian and his actions of sexual nature. Tartuffe “(places his hand on Elmire’s knee)” and “(she draws her chair away, tartuffe pulls his after hers.)” These actions indicate a physical, sexual desire for Elmire. From a religious point of view, his desire is already immoral, but the fact that his way of actively trying to seduce her is unacceptable. We also see irony in his rhetoric when he says “Our senses are quite rightly captivated by perfect works our maker has created.” The use of the word “senses” suggests that Molière’s passion for Elmire is superficial and not “a pure and deep devotion” like he claims. Additionally, Tartuffe takes away the responsibility for his feelings by using the
argument that Elmire is God’s creation to justify his sexual desires. He does that once more when he says “With your celestial charms before his eyes, a man has not the power to be wise,” implying that he is a helpless victim and that his desires are out of his control.
The ending of Tartuffe is ironic in itself. Throughout the last act, pressure builds up, and audience members are waiting for disaster to happen, but the entire conflict of the play is hurriedly resolved by the arrival of the King. Orgon is to keep his belongings and Tartuffe is to be sent to prison. How could a conflict that has been built up for 5 Acts be resolved in just one tirade? By now, we know very well that Molière isn’t afraid to criticize powerful presences of society. The absurdness of the ending can therefore be understood as him ridiculing the king. By allowing the king to resolve the entire intrigue of the play, he denounces the king’s arbitrary power over society.
In this essay, ironic elements in Molière’s Tartuffe were discussed in order to justify the thesis that Molière’s use of irony has both a comedic purpose and a critical one. Understanding the irony of the play is extremely important because it is largely through irony that Molière achieves his goal of “correcting men by amusing them.” Furthermore there is irony in how the play was received, as Molière was highly criticized by the church for disrespecting religion whereas his purpose was to criticize fake devotion and not the church itself.