(Le malade imaginaire)
By Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, Known as Molière (1622-1673)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings..© 2010
Type of Work and First Performance
The play was first performed on February 10,1673, at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in Paris, with Molière in the lead role as Argan, a hypochondriac. During the fourth performance on February 17, Molière began coughing up blood on the stage and died hours later at his home.
A one-paragraph introduction praises Louis XIV, king of France, for military exploits. Although the introduction does not provide specifics, it is clear that it refers to his campaigns in the Spanish Netherlands, beginning in 1668, to strengthen French borders and to expel Spanish from strategic locales.
Following the introduction is an eclogue, a poem with a rural setting, that further praises King Louis. It begins when an actress portraying Flora, the goddess of flowers, rounds up shepherds and shepherdesses, telling them the king has won glorious victories. Dancing and music follow to celebrate Louis's victories.
Following the eclogue is a prologue that was added in a 1674 edition of the play. It presents an actress portraying a shepherdess in a forest who is pining for her beloved and complains that ignorants médecins (ignorant doctors) cannot heal the pain she feels.
The action in the three acts of the play takes place in the second half of the seventeenth century at the Paris home of a hypochondriac. It was a time when many physicians still relied heavily on enemas and bleeding to purge the body of illness, methods that often worsened the condition of the patient. Apothecaries and physicians often prescribed concoctions prepared from plants, minerals, and various chemicals with unpredictable results.
Argan: Hypochondriac who regularly takes various concoctions prescribed by a physician and prepared by an apothecary. He plans to marry his older daughter to a physician so that he will have constant access to medical services.
Molière wrote some of his plays entirely in verse and some entirely in prose. In The Imaginary Invalid, the introduction and the three acts are in prose; the eclogue and prologue are in verse; and the interludes are mainly in verse, with some prose.
Writing dialogue in prose enabled Molière to break free of the rigid rules of Alexandrine verse, the standard format for plays in seventeenth-century France. (Examples of his plays in Alexandrine verse are Tartuffe and The Misanthrope.) Hobart C. Chatfield-Taylor (1865-1945)
has written that Molière's prose dialogue is unsurpassed in its brilliance: "Molière's . . . genius lay, above all else in telling the truth about mankind,—and prose was its normal vehicle. As a poet, he has been surpassed, but never as a writer of concise, vigorous, and truthful prose dialogue,—a dialogue so expressive of human thoughts and human emotions that his characters are still as
lifelike as on the day they were drawn" (335).
Chatfield-Taylor, Hobart C. Molière: a Biography. New York: Duffield and Company, 1906.
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2010
Based on the 1673 French version of the play and on the Charles Heron Wall English translation of the play at Project Gutenberg
Note: All the scenes take place in the Paris home of a hypochondriac named Argan.
Argan is a hypochondriac. He regularly takes concoctions provided by his physician, Purgon, and an apothecary named Fleurant. So worried is he about his health that he has betrothed his older daughter, Angélique, to a young doctor so that he will have ready access to medical services. Angélique is already in love with another young man, Cléante. When Argan tells her that someone has asked for her hand in marriage, she concludes that the petitioner was Cléante. She says, “I ought to obey you in everything, Father.” However, a moment later, he informs her to her dismay that she is to marry Purgon's nephew, Thomas Diafoirus, who will complete his medical studies in three days.
Argan's outspoken servant, Toinette—aware that Angélique loves Cléante—tells her master that Angélique ought to be allowed to marry a man of her choosing. When Argan orders her to mind her own business, Toinette refuses to back down. Argan then tells her that a daughter should be willing to help her father. Besides, Thomas Diafoirus is the sole heir of his father's estate. Moreover, his uncle, Purgon—who has no wife or child—approves the marriage, and he has an income of eight thousand francs a year. Toinette tells him his plan is nonsense and that Angélique will not consent to it. Argan then says that if Angélique refuses to cooperate he will place her in a convent. Argan and Toinette argue further, and Argan chases and threatens her.
Angélique tells Argan to stop running, for he will make himself ill. Finally, he plops into a chair; Angélique and Toinette leave.
Argan's second wife, Béline, comes in and fusses over him while he tells her what happened. When Toinette returns, Béline warns her never again to upset Argan or she will fire her. After Béline and Argan are alone again, Béline further pampers Argan, and he tells her that she is his only support and comfort. In fact, he says, he is just now making a will to reward her for the love she has shown him. Béline tells him “that the very word 'will' makes me die of grief." Then he reminds her that he had asked her to speak with their notary, and she says she already has him standing by outside the room.
After the notary—Monsieur de Bonnefoi—enters, he informs Argan that in Paris he cannot will assets to his wife. However, he can circumvent the law by willing his estate to a friend of his wife, who in turn could give it to Béline upon his demise. Another option is to prepare bonds that will eventually end up in her hands. Finally, he can simply give her money. Argan decides first to make a will according to the outlined options, then to make her outright gifts of twenty thousand francs hidden in wainscoting and two bills, one worth four thousand francs and the other worth six thousand francs.
Meanwhile, outside the room, Toinette warns Angélique that the notary is part of a scheme Béline is using to gain control of her father's money. Nothing will be left for Angélique. When Angélique says her only concern is her love for Cléante, Toinette says she will do all she can to thwart Argan's plan to marry her to Thomas Diafoirus. She begins by
having an old usurer she knows—Punchinello is his name—inform Cléante of what is happening.
Toinette announces the arrival of Thomas Diafoirus and his father, who is also a physician. Thomas introduces himself to Argan with a prepared speech, after which he says to the elder Diafoirus, “Has this been prepared to your satisfaction, Father?” Mr. Diafoirus says, “Optime.”
It is obvious to the audience that Thomas is a klutz. His father acknowledges that his son lacks wit and even says he was so slow as a child that he did not learn the alphabet until he was nine. However, he says that “trees of slow growth bear the best fruit.” Furthermore, he says, Thomas is a hard worker and has good judgment. Best of all, he rejects the foolish views of modern physicians—who claim, for example, that blood circulates through the body—in favor of the views of ancient physicians. When Argan asks Thomas whether he plans to seek a position at the king's court, Thomas says he would prefer to practice among ordinary people.
“What is vexatious among people of rank is that, when they are ill, they positively expect their doctor to cure them,” he says.
Toinette says, “How very absurd! How impertinent of them to ask of you doctors to cure them! You are not placed near them for that, but only to receive your fees and to prescribe remedies.”
When Argan requests a song for their guests, Cléante says he and Angélique will perform a passage from an opera about a shepherd, Tircis, and a shepherdess, Phyllis, whose father is attempting to force her to marry another man. Cléante then gives Angélique a piece of sheet music with no words, and they improvise lines that obliquely express their feelings for each other and their fears about the arranged marriage. Argan says the opera is in bad taste and dismisses Cléante.
Later, Argan has Diafoirus and his son examine him. After checking his pulse, they conclude he has a problem in the spleen. However, when Argan tells them Purgon found that it is the liver that acts up, the elder Diafoirus says the two diagnoses are the same because the spleen is in sympathy with the liver by means of the “vas breve of the pylorous and often of the meatus choledici.” What it all means is that the doctors are incompetent, although Argan accepts their explanations.
After they leave, Béline tells Argan that she saw Angélique speaking with a young man. He ran off as soon as he spotted Béline. However, Argan's younger daughter, Louison, heard everything, Béline says. When Argan forces Louison to give a report, she says the young man told Angélique he loved her and kissed her hands.
Argan's brother, Béralde, comes in to propose a match for Angélique. He has Cléante in mind. Argan tells him not to “speak to me of that wicked, good-for-nothing, insolent, brazen-faced girl. I will put her in a convent before two days.” Béralde then says he has brought some gypsies dressed as Moors to entertain him. Afterward, he and Argan can have a talk, he says.
After the gypsies dance and sing, Argan goes for a walk. Meanwhile, Toinette persuades Béralde to go along with a scheme she has concocted: to pretend that she is a doctor.
Argan returns. When Béralde asks him why he wants Angélique to marry a doctor, Argan explains that he wants a physician nearby to treat his ailments. Béralde then tells him that it is Angélique's wishes that count and that there is a more suitable match for her. Besides, he says, there is nothing wrong with Argan. Even if there were, doctors' potions would be useless against the illness.
Fleurant enters just then with one of his concoctions. When Béralde tells Argan not to take it, Fleurant is insulted and leaves. Béralde and Argan continue their conversation about doctors and diseases. In a short while, Purgon arrives and denounces Argan for refusing medicine that he himself prescribed. He then says he is dropping Argan as a patient and withdrawing his approval of a marriage between Thomas Diafoirus and Angélique. Argan blames Béralde for doing “all the mischief,” but Purgon does not listen. Before leaving, he tells Argan that his condition will develop into bradypepsia, then progress to dyspepsia, apepsy, lientery, dysentery, and dropsy. Then he will die. Argan immediately thinks his condition is worsening.
Toinette enters disguised as a male doctor who travels from town to town seeking patients with challenging afflictions. She tells Argan that he has a reputation as the most celebrated patient in the world. Out of curiosity, she could not help but come to administer to so illustrious a person. Of course, she herself is one of the world's greatest doctors, she says. To prove her claim, she asks Argan how old she looks. He says twenty-six or twenty-seven. But she tells him she is ninety.
“[T]his is what the secrets of my art have done for me to preserve me fresh and vigorous as you see,” she says.
Argan believes her and submits to her examination. When she feels his pulse, she pretends to detect an irregularity and asks who has been treating him and for what. He says he has been treated by Purgon and other doctors for liver and spleen problems. Toinette then says they are “ignorant blockheads,” for it is his lungs that are the problem. She also criticizes the diet Purgon prescribes for him. After her exam, she recommends amputation of an arm that she says is attracting all the nourishment he takes in. He should also pluck out an eye that interferes with the proper function of the other eye. Before the “doctor” leaves, she tells Argan that she will send a colleague of hers to look in on Argan.
Béralde then resumes his pleas on behalf of Angélique, but Argan says he has made up his mind that she will become a nun. Béralde responds that it is Béline who is guiding his wishes as part of a nefarious plot. Béline, he says, wants Angélique out of the way and does not care a whit about Argan. When Argan refuses to think ill of Béline, Toinette (now dressed as herself) pretends to side with Argan and suggests that they conduct a test to show Béralde how much Béline loves Argan. Here is how it will work: Argan will simply lie down and play dead.
“You will see what grief she is in when I tell her the news,” Toinette says.
Argan agrees to the plan but says, “Don't leave her too long in despair, for she might die of it.” After Béralde hides in a corner, Béline enters. Toinette is weeping.
“He just breathed his last here in my arms,” she says.
Béline says, “Heaven be praised. I am delivered from a most grievous burden. How silly of you, Toinette, to be so afflicted at his death. . . . [He was a] wretch, unpleasant to
She then asks Toinette to help her locate Argan's money and important documents. Argan rises and says, “I am very glad to see how you love me, and to have heard the noble panegyric you made upon me.“
Toinette and Argan repeat their performance in front of Angélique. But she deeply laments the “death” of her father. When Cléante comes in, Angélique tells him they cannot go through with their plans to marry. Her father opposed the marriage, and she must respect his wishes.
After Argan comes back to life a second time, he tells Angélique and Cléante that they may marry if Cléante becomes a doctor. Cléante agrees to do so. However, Béralde says it is Argan who should become the doctor so that he will never have to worry about having access to expert care. All he has to do is wear a cap and gown during a special ceremony that will infuse in him the knowledge he needs and confer on him the degree of doctor of medicine. Argan leaves to don the proper attire.
Béralde then summons a group of performers he has hired. After Argan returns, the performers act the parts of physicians and apothecaries, dancing and chanting in a mixture of Latin and French, as well as coined words in both languages, while inducting Argan into the medical profession.
Obscurantism is opposition to new ideas and human progress in all its forms. In The Imaginary Invalid, Monsieur Diafoirus and his son, Thomas (who represent incompetent physicians), reject seventeenth-century medical advances in favor of adherence to ancient methods of treating patients. They even reject English physician William Harvey's discovery of the circulation of blood in one direction throughout the body, as described in Harvey's 1628 book, An Anatomical Exercise Concerning the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals. The following passage, spoken by the elder Diafoirus when describing his son, expresses obscurant thinking while alluding to Harvey's discovery:
[A]bove all things, what pleases me in him, and what I am glad to see himGreed
Purgon and Fleurant regularly charge Argan for dozens of so-called healing agents containing such ingredients as rhubarb, sugar, whey, and pomegranate syrup. Although it is obvious that Argan's afflictions are imaginary, his money is real; and Purgon and Fleurant are only too willing to relieve him of it. Greed also infects Argan's wife, Béline. She pretends to love him, but she loves only his money and spends her time scheming to get it.
Quackery in the medical profession is an obvious target of Molière in The Imaginary Invalid. Béralde dismisses the effectiveness of physicians' treatments when he tells Argan, "All the excellency of their art consists in pompous gibberish, in a specious babbling, which gives you words instead of reasons, and promises instead Of results" (3.3).
If Argan suffers from any condition, it is gullibility. He accepts without question the quack cures of Purgon and Fleurant. He believes that his wife is beyond reproach. When Toinette presents herself in the guise of a male physician, he believes her description of herself as an accomplished practitioner. In the real world of seventeenth-century France, physicians frequently duped gullible patients like Argan into paying large fees for needless or ineffective treatments.
Purgon and Fleurant deceive Argan into believing that their concoctions are efficacious and necessary. Béline deceives him into believing that she loves him. The machinations of these characters reflect those of people in the real world who regularly use deceit to get their way.
Travails of Courtship
In a day when arranged marriages were commonplace, Angélique and Cléante must resort to trickery to see each other and to Toinette's clever scheming to thwart Argan's plan to match Angélique with Thomas Diafoirus. In the end, love triumphs.
For selfish reasons, Argan opposes Angélique's marriage to Cléante. He tells Toinette, "It is for my sake that I give her this doctor [Thomas Diafoirus], and a good daughter ought to be delighted to marry for the sake of her father's health."
The climax occurs when Argan's scheming wife denounces him while he is playing dead. This development is the turning point that leads to the resolution of the conflict between Argan and his daughter.
Molière uses verbal irony (in which a speaker means the opposite of what he or she expresses) in The Imaginary Invalid to satirize quackery, greed, and inanity. Note, for example, Toinette's ironic replies in the following examples.
Molière also uses dramatic irony (in which a character is ignorant of information known to the audience). This figure of speech occurs intermittently to underscore Argan's inability to realize that he is a hypochondriac. It also occurs when Béline is unaware that Argan is playing dead, causing her to reveal her true feelings toward him. Other instances of dramatic irony occur when (1) Argan thinks Cléante is Angélique's music teacher; (2) Thomas Diafoirus fails to recognize his inanity, most notably when he invites Angélique to take part in the dissection of a woman's corpse; (3) Argan believes Toinette is an accomplished doctor, and (4) Angélique is unaware that Argan is playing dead.Physical Comedy
During performances of The Imaginary Invalid, audience laughter results not only from what the characters say but also from what they do. An example of physical humor (burlesque, slapstick) is the following scene in which Argan chases Toinette.
ARGAN. (running after TOINETTE). Ah, impudent girl, I will kill.Allusions and Vocabulary
anodyne (French, anodine): Agent that relieves pain, analgesic.
Over the centuries, writers have centered many tragic and comedic works—or parts of them—on spouses and wooers in conflict. Among these works is The Imaginary Invalid. Others analyzed by Cummings Study Guides include Molière's The Misanthrope, The
Miser, and Tartuffe; Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing,The Taming of the Shrew, and Othello; Jane Austen's Pride and
Prejudice, Euripides' Medea, Virgil's Aeneid (Dido episode), Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, and Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary.
Study Questions and Essay Topics