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How to Attack Hypocrisy
Moliere's play, Tartuffe, was written to illuminate the hypocrisy that was running rampant in the France of his day. It is the story of an older man, Orgon, his family, and the effects of Tartuffe, a supposed holy man, and his influence on Orgon. In the end, Tartuffe's hypocrisy is revealed to Orgon, who has been blind to it throughout the play. Punishment follows quickly. It seems obvious that Moliere's purpose is to attack hypocrisy by showing his audience the nature and ruthlessness of hypocrites. However, I feel that Moliere fails in his attack. There seems to be little in the play that would deter a person from practicing the hypocrisy illustrated in the play. In fact, I believe that Tartuffe could do the opposite and promote the benefits of hypocrisy.
It seems, judging by Moliere's depiction, that a person has little defense against the hypocrite. One might think that reason would be a suitable protection against fraud, but the two characters exhibiting any degree of rationality, Cleante and Dorine, have no affect on the outcome of the play. Cleante is the voice of reason. From the very beginning, he sees through Tartuffe's deception and tries to warn the other characters, but his efforts are in vain. No one listens to him. Dorine, a lady's-maid who consistently offers good advice, fairs slightly better that Cleante, for she is able to convince Mariane and Valere to resist Orgon's wishes. However, she has a minimal affect on the plot because there is never any need to resist Orgon. Tartuffe is revealed before any forced wedding takes place.
Moliere illustrates with amazing clarity just how easy it is to deceive those who have strong feelings or beliefs. In Tartuffe, it is Orgon's religious piety that Tartuffe preys upon in order to become Orgon's confidant and trusted friend. Because of this trust, Orgon bequeaths everything he owns to Tartuffe and is willing to force his daughter to marry the hypocrite even though she despises Tartuffe. Tartuffe has no difficulty in deceiving Orgon and gaining his confidence. It seems very easy. He has the same affect on Orgon's mother, Madame Pernelle. It may be claimed that Orgon has some special weakness that Tartuffe was able to take advantage of but I think that there is a part in everyone that is susceptible to the false praise and gratifications that the Tartuffes of this world are willing to provide. There is a bit of Orgon in all of us.
In the end, Tartuffe is revealed as the hypocrite he is. However, even this is not enough to stop him, for Orgon has given all of his possessions to his one time friend. There is nothing that Orgon and his family can do. Tartuffe, wanting to take charge of his new property, rushes to the Prince of the land to have the family evicted. The Prince, however, "who sees into our inmost hearts" (70), knows Tartuffe's true nature and has him imprisoned. Thus, the play comes to a happy end. The problem in using such a device to overthrow the villain is that it seems that nothing short of divine intervention has the ability to punish hypocrisy such as Tartuffe's. The Prince comes into the story at the end and resolves the situation. He does not analyze the evidence and come to a conclusion as a normal man would have to do. He just sees directly into Tartuffe's heart, much in the same way that God does. The use of the Prince to set things right seems to suggest that people such as Tartuffe should expect judgment in the next life but that there is nothing to worry about in this one.
It necessarily takes a being such as the Prince to punish Tartuffe. Tartuffe gained his advantage over Orgon by deceit which, although possibly wrong morally, is definitely not against the law. Tartuffe never promised Orgon he would gain anything as a result of their association. All of Orgon's possessions were legally transferred by official documents over to Tartuffe so there would have been nothing a court of law could do about it. Only a being that is above the law can punish Tartuffe and that is exactly what the Prince is.
Moliere does a poor job of attacking hypocrisy directly. It may be, however, that Moliere is not trying to attack hypocrisy directly by the plot and characters of his play but rather as a result of people watching his play. He may be trying to educate the masses about the reality that there are people willing to take advantage of a person's beliefs just to gain wealth and power. I think that the best, and only, defense against hypocrisy is education and this may be just the point of Tartuffe. By showing people the kinds of things hypocrites are able and willing to do by deception, Moliere may be trying to force his audience to actively seek out and conquer the hypocrisy around them.
There is a danger in Moliere's approach. While trying to educate his audience, he may actually bring some over to the other side. In other words, some of his audience may see the relative safety and ease in gaining money and power through deception. If it had not been for the Prince, Tartuffe would have been a fairly rich and powerful man through very little effort of his own. This kind of opportunity may prove to be too irresistible for some people. After all, there seems to be no adequate defense against hypocrisy, it is very easy to accomplish, and there seems to be no way to punish it in this world. As a result, Tartuffe could make the problem of hypocrisy larger that it was in the first place. To make his effort more effective, I think Moliere should not allow the villain's scheming to work as well as it does. Tartuffe should have been punished by a human representative, not a divine one.
The attack on hypocrisy in Tartuffe is defective. Moliere almost makes the hypocrite's life look better than that of the other characters in his play. If Tartuffe had not been so rash in the end, it is possible that he would have received everything he had wanted (besides Elmire). It may be that Moliere meant his play not as a direct attack on hypocrisy, but rather as an agent by which he could educate his audience. In this way, his play would have indirectly confronted hypocrisy. The problem with this, however, is that it is unknown to what extent his play accomplished this, especially since it was banned before it could reach many people. Whether this is what Moliere intended or not is unknown. However, it seems to be more reasonable to me than the hypothesis that he meant Tartuffe to be an attack on hypocrisy. If that was Moliere's aim, then I feel that it failed miserably and, possibly, even backfired.