By Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, Known as Molière (1622-1673) 
A Study Guide
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Plot Summary
Type of Work
Controversial Debut
King to the Rescue
Dramatic Irony
Verse Format
Rhyme Scheme
Lovers in Conflict
Questions, Essay Topics
Molière Biography
Complete Free Text: English
Complete Free Text: French

Study Guide Prepared by By Michael J. Cummings...© 2005

Type of Work 

Tartuffe is a five-act stage comedy that satirizes religious hypocrisy. To win the laughter of the audience, the author infuses the play with witty dialogue, caricature, situation comedy, and irony.

The setting is a middle-class home in Paris. The time is the 1660's, when Louis XIV sat on the throne of France. 
Protagonist: Orgon 
Antagonist: Tartuffe
Orgon: Head of a Parisian family who takes in a supposedly impoverished man, Tartuffe, because he exhibits great piety and appears to adhere to a strict moral code. 
Tartuffe: Hypocrite who dupes Orgon and his mother, Madame Pernelle. Like a parasite, he lives off Orgon, eating his food and using his money. All the while, he lusts after Orgon's wife while also entertaining a proposal to marry Orgon's daughter. 
Madame Pernelle: Officious, overbearing mother of Orgon. 
Elmire: Loyal wife of Orgon. She spearheads a scheme that helps expose Tartuffe as a villain.
Mariane: Daughter of Orgon, who wishes her to marry Tartuffe even though she loves a young man named Valère. As a demure young lady and obedient daughter, Mariane is in a quandary because she cannot bring herself to oppose the will of her father.
Valère: Mariane's beloved.
Dorine: Feisty, outspoken maid of Mariane who well knows from the beginning that Tartuffe is a miscreant. She frequently interrupts conversations to offer common-sense advice, as well as prickly gibes. 
Damis: Loyal son of Orgon. His father ostracizes him for denouncing Tartuffe.
Cléante: Level-headed brother-in-law of Orgon.
Monsieur Loyal: Court bailiff who, on behalf of Tartuffe, attempts to evict Orgon and his family. 
Policeman: Officer who arrests Tartuffe.
Flipotte: Madame Pernelle's servant.
Lawrence: Tartuffe's servant. 
Argas: Friend of Orgon. He entrusts Orgon with documents that Tartuffe steals and attempts to use against Orgon. Argas has no speaking part in the play. 
King Louis XIV: He intervenes in the Tartuffe-Orgon clash, ordering Tartuffe's arrest and exonerating Orgon. Louis XIV has no speaking part in the play and is not mentioned by name.

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
Based on Curtis Hidden Page's English translation of Tartuffe. The text is in the public domain.
Madame Pernelle decides to cut short a visit one morning with the family of her son, Orgon. He has been away for two days but is expected to return momentarily. As she and her servant, Flipotte, prepare to leave, Orgon’s wife, Elmire, asks why she is leaving so soon. Madame Pernelle replies, 
    Because I can't endure your carryings-on,
    And no one takes the slightest pains to please me.
    I leave your house, I tell you, quite disgusted;
    You do the opposite of my instructions;
    You've no respect for anything; each one
    Must have his say; it's perfect pandemonium.
Orgon’s son and daughter—Damis and Mariane, as well as Mariane’s maid, Dorine—try to speak, but Madame Pernelle cuts them off. She calls Dorine an impudent servant girl and Damis a fool destined for failure, then tells Mariane “butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth” and “I don’t like your doings on the sly.” Turning to Orgon's wife, Elmire, Madame Pernelle tells her that her conduct in everything is all wrong, including her extravagance in buying clothes. Orgon’s “dearly departed” first wife (the mother of Damis and Mariane) set a better example for the children than Elmire, Madame Pernelle says. Cléante, Elmire’s brother, makes his attempt to speak to Madame Pernelle, but she interrupts him, too, saying his way of living is one “that decent people cannot tolerate.” 

The only one she praises is a guest staying at the home at Orgon’s invitation. His name is Tartuffe, whom Orgon reveres as an upright and holy man but whom the rest of Orgon's household views as a hypocrite. Madame Pernelle says everyone should listen to Tartuffe because he will lead them to heaven. Dorine protests, saying, "There's not a thing we do but what's a crime; / He censures everything, this zealous carper." Damis says, “His actions rouse my wrath at every turn.”

Tartuffe was nothing when Orgon took him in, Dorine says. Now he thinks he is the master, ruling everyone. He won’t even let other visitors come to the house. Dorine says Tartuffe frowns on visitors because he wants to keep them away from Elmire, whom he covets. But Madame Pernelle says he keeps people away because, until recently, too many guests were stopping by, making a noise and annoying the neighbors—to say nothing of the suspicion of scandal their visits arouse among gossips. She then cuffs Flipotte, telling him to get a move on, and they leave.

While Elmire, Damis, and Mariane walk out with Madame Pernelle, Dorine tells Cléante that Madame Pernelle’s admiration of Tartuffe pales in comparison with Orgon’s.
                         He calls him brother, loves him
    A hundred times as much as mother, son,
    Daughter, and wife. He tells him all his secrets
    And lets him guide his acts, and rule his conscience. 
At the table, Orgon always gives Tartuffe the seat of honor and the best and largest portions of the food. He also gives him money. Damis now worries that under Tartuffe's influence Orgon will refuse to allow Mariane to marry her beau, Valère, as Orgon had promised, and interdict Damis’s own relationship with Valère’s sister.

When Orgon arrives and asks how the family has been in his absence, Dorine tells him his wife had suffered a severe headache and nausea two days before. But he seems little concerned about anyone but Tartuffe. Again and again he asks how Tartuffe has fared. Dorine tells him that Tartuffe is “stout, fat, fair, rosy-lipped” and on the evening when Elmire had nausea Tartuffe “unctuously ate up two partridges, / As well as half a leg o' mutton, deviled.”

Later, when Cléante criticizes Tartuffe, Orgon defends him:
    His converse has transformed me quite; he weans
    My heart from every friendship, teaches me
    To have no love for anything on earth;
    And I could see my brother, children, mother,
    And wife, all die, and never care—a snap.
Cléante reasons further with him, to no avail, then discloses the main reason for his visit to Orgon’s house: He has come on behalf of Valère to make arrangements for the latter’s marriage to Mariane. But Orgon now avoids naming a wedding day. He says only that “I shall do the will of heaven.” Cléante, worried that Orgon has changed his mind, goes off to inform Valère of his concern.

Meanwhile, Orgon tells Mariane that he wishes her to marry Tartuffe—in fact, it is his decree that she do so. Mariane is shocked. Dorine, overhearing the conversation, speaks up in Mariane’s defense: “Your daughter’s not cut out for bigot’s meat.” But Orgon presses his case, praising Tartuffe but condemning Valère as a gambler who is not often seen at church. As Orgon talks, Dorine frequently interrupts him, and he calls her an “impudent viper.” Dorine then mocks him, saying he is displaying anger even though—under Tartuffe’s influence—he professes to be holy. Dorine’s baiting gets Orgon so worked up that he decides to take a walk to calm himself.

After he leaves, Dorine urges Mariane to stand up for her rights. “What is love worth,” she says, “if it has no courage?”

Tartuffe enters with his servant, Lawrence. While Lawrence puts away Tartuffe's hair shirt and scourge, Tartuffe orders him not to receive visitors. If anyone comes calling, Lawrence is to say that Tartuffe is out sharing his money with prisoners. When Dorine informs him that Elmire wishes to speak to him alone, Tartuffe brightens at that prospect. Meanwhile, Damis posts himself in a nearby closet to eavesdrop on the conversation between Tartuffe and Elmire. 

Dorine leaves as Elmire enters and sits down with Tartuffe. Immediately, he places a hand on her knee, saying he likes the feel of her gown. She moves her chair away. He moves his toward her. Elmire then asks him whether it is true that her husband wishes Tartuffe to marry Mariane. When he says Orgon hinted at such, she asks him whether his preoccupation with spirituality would allow him to consider marriage. Tartuffe replies,
    Love for the beauty of eternal things
    Cannot destroy our love for earthly beauty;
    Our mortal senses well may be entranced
    By perfect works that Heaven has fashioned here.
    Its charms reflected shine in such as you,
    And in yourself, its rarest miracles.
Without further ado, he reveals that his heart is “all inflamed” with love for Elmire, and he heaps lavish praises on her. Elmire takes advantage of the moment, saying she will keep secret Tartuffe's love for her. In return, however, he must must openly endorse the marriage of Mariane and Valère.

Hoping to expose Tartuffe, Damis later tells his father about the conversation he overheard. But instead of calling Tartuffe to task, Orgon accuses Damis of lying in an attempt to ruin Tartuffe’s reputation. Summarily, he disinherits Damis, orders him out of the house, and—to spite everyone else in his family—designates Tartuffe as his sole heir and future son-in-law. He even draws up a deed that consigns his property to Tartuffe.

While Tartuffe goes out to file the deed with the proper authorities, Elmire persuades Orgon to hide under a table at the moment Tartuffe returns. There he will be able to eavesdrop on a conversation in which Elmire will engage Tartuffe while no one else (except Orgon, hiding) is in the room. All goes according to plan. When Tartuffe again vows his love for Elmire, trying to lure her into an affair with him, he  tells her “secret sinning is no sin at all.” Upon hearing that outrage, Orgon comes out, denounces Tartuffe, and expels him from the house—but not before Tartuffe threatens to get even. He has the deed, after all. Orgon later discovers that Tartuffe also took a box containing certain documents entrusted to Orgon by his friend, Argas. Argas’s property—in fact, his very life—depends on the documents. However, because he has run afoul of the law, the documents could incriminate Orgon for hiding evidence if they fall into the hands of the authorities. 

When Madame Pernelle comes by, Orgon informs her of Tartuffe’s villainy. But she refuses to believe him, saying:
    My dear, appearances are oft deceiving,
    And seeing shouldn't always be believing.
Her obstinacy enrages Orgon. Dorine seizes the opportunity to scold Orgon for earlier doubting her and the others.
    Fortune has paid you fair, to be so doubted;
    You flouted our report, now yours is flouted.
Soon, a court bailiff, Mr. Loyal, arrives with a notice of eviction for Orgon and announces that Tartuffe is “henceforth lord and master” of the home. Madame Pernelle, finally a believer, says, “I'm all amazed, befuddled, and beflustered!”

Valère arrives to report that Tartuffe has turned the incriminating documents over to the king and that a warrant has been drawn up for Orgon’s arrest. When Tartuffe shows up with an officer, he announces that Orgon is to be taken into custody. But the officer instead arrests Tartuffe, saying the king himself intervened and unmasked Tartuffe as a fraud. Tartuffe, it seems, is a “known scoundrel” with a long history of crimes that he committed under other names. The officer returns Orgon’s deed and the papers from the box, noting that Orgon has been a faithful servant of the realm. When Orgon prepares to lash out at Tartuffe, Cléante stops him, saying:
    Brother, hold!—and don't
    Descend to such indignities, I beg you.
    Leave the poor wretch to his unhappy fate,
    And let remorse oppress him, but not you.
    Hope rather that his heart may now return
    To virtue, hate his vice, reform his ways,
    And win the pardon of our glorious prince;
    While you must straightway go, and on your knees
    Repay with thanks his noble generous kindness.
Orgon takes Cléante’s advice, and the family prepares for the wedding of Valère and Mariane.

First Presentation Creates Controversy 

Tartuffe debuted as a three-act play in 1664 before King Louis XIV at the Palace of Versailles. Although Louis liked the play, court clergymen condemned it because they believed it unfairly lampooned religion and its practitioners. However, Molière did not intend to mock religion or sincere churchgoers but, instead, to satirize overly rigid religion and self-righteous churchgoersin particular, members of a heretical Catholic movement, Jansenism, condemned by the Vatican. (For more on Jansenism, see Theme 2, below). But it is easy to understand why the play received a hostile reception from the church hierarchy: Molière had presented the hypocritical antagonist, Tartuffe, as a clergyman in this early version of the play. To still the controversy the play aroused, the king banned public performances of it. After Molière revised it twice, enlarging it to five acts and recasting Tartuffe as a layman, Louis approved it for its first public performance, which took place on February 5, 1669. It went on to enjoy a reputation as one of the finest stage comedies in French literature..


The central theme of Tartuffe is hypocrisy, as exhibited in the holier-than-thou attitude of the antagonist. Tartuffe is the personification of hypocrisy, pretending to be morally upright and extremely pious when he is really a scoundrel. 
The Absurdity of Zealotry

During Molière's time, a rogue Roman Catholic movement that advocated extreme piety gained a modicum of popularity. Called Jansenism, it promoted the Calvinist tenet of predestination along with an austere, almost unforgiving moral code. Pope Innocent X condemned Jansenism in 1653 in a papal edict entitled "Cum Occasione" ("With Occasion"). In Tartuffe, Molière, a Roman Catholic educated at a Jesuit school, lampooned Jansenism in particularand fanaticism of any kind in generalthrough his characterization of Tartuffe. Thus, Molière was doing with his play what the pope had done with his edict. However, when the play opened before the king and his court at Versailles Palace, the clergy frowned on it because they thought its purpose was to satirize all clergymen, as well as the Catholic religion in general. Molière had to revise the play twice before the king approved it for public performance. Oddly, Molière, though a lifelong Catholic, remained out of favor with the church for the rest of his days because he chose to act in plays as well as write them. Acting at that time was considered a sinful profession, and the church refused full communion to those who performed on the stage. 
Orgon foolishly believes in everything Tartuffe says and does. Even though his family members call his attention to Tartuffe’s obvious hypocrisy, Orgon stubbornly supports Tartuffe, even making him his heir and offering him the hand of his daughter. Orgon’s utter gullibility represents the attitude of churchgoers who accept sham religion characterized by zealotry. It also represents the foolhardiness of anyone who falls victim to hypocrisy in any form. However, in his mockery of Orgon and Tartuffe, Molière does not in any way impugn sincere religious attitudes.
Underdogs Can Bite

Though only a lowly servant girl, Dorine is perceptive, witty, and bold—an astute judge of character who is not afraid to speak her mind. In many ways, this maid of steel is the most admirable character in the play, demonstrating that one does not have to be highborn to be high-minded. Her opposition to female subservience in a male-dominated society is centuries ahead of its time, as evidenced by the advice she gives Mariane after the latter's father, Orgon, orders her to marry Tartuffe:
    Tell him one doesn't love by proxy; 
    Tell him you'll marry for yourself, not him; 
    Since you're the one for whom the thing is done, 
    You are the one, not he, the man must please; 
    If his Tartuffe has charmed him so, why let him 
    Just marry him himself—no one will hinder. 
All-Consuming Power of an Obsession

In Tartuffe, Molière satirizes preoccupation with abnormally rigid piety and morality. But it is not the antagonist, Tartuffe, who suffers from a fixation or mania; he is a charlatan who only pretends to be a religious perfectionist. Rather, it is the protagonist, Orgon, who labors under an obsession. His neurotic fascination with Tartuffe's perfidious preachments on religion and holiness is so powerful that he forcefully betroths his daughter to Tartuffe, ignores his ailing wife, and disinherits his son in favor of Tartuffe. At a time when such men as Tartuffe actually existedpreaching an austere form of spirituality that narrowed the passageway to heavenMolière well realized the need for remedial laughter to expose the hypocrites and their perverse obsessions.
The climax of a play or another literary work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of Tartuffe occurs, according to the first definition, when when Orgon, hiding under a table to listen to a conversation between Tartuffe and Elmire, learns that Tartuffe is a fraud. According to the second definition, the climax occurs when the policeman arrest Tartuffe at the behest of the king. 

The King to the Rescue: A Tolerable Contrivance
After Tartuffe implicates Orgon for obstructing justice, all seems lost for Orgon—his property, his money, his good name. But, wonder of wonders, an officer of the king suddenly announces the arrest of Tartuffe as the real villain in the play, saying the wily monarch has seen through the scheming con artist. This intervention from on high—a throwback to the deus ex machina appearance of a deity in an ancient Greek play—is clearly a literary contrivance that weakens the verisimilitude of the ending. Nevertheless, it is a forgivable contrivance, for Tartuffe is a comedy that relies in part on caprice for its effect. Besides, Molière had to remain in the good graces of the king if he wanted to stage the play in public. What better way to do so than to make the king a hero?.

Dramatic Irony

Molière uses dramatic irony effectively in Tartuffe. The most notable example of itone which undergirds the entire playis Orgon’s unwitting approval of Tartuffe, whom the rest of his family and the audience know is a scoundrel. Orgon exhibits his naiveté again and again in the lines he speaks, including the following lines praising Tartuffe for watching over Elmire, Orgon's wife. (Tartuffe, of course, is not really looking out for Elmire's welfare; he is trying to seduce her.)

    He censures everything, and for my sake 
    He even takes great interest in my wife; 
    He lets me know who ogles her, and seems 
    Six times as jealous as I am myself. 
Dramatic irony is also evident in the words spoken by Madame Pernelle, who is adamant in her high opinion of Tartuffe. After Orgon at long last realizes that Tartuffe is a trickster, he informs her of the hypocrite's machinations. But, refusing to believe Orgon, Madame Pernelle tell him:
    My dear, appearances are oft deceiving,
    And seeing shouldn't always be believing.
She also observes:
    False suspicions may delude,
    And good to evil oft is misconstrued.
Molière's Verse Format

Molière wrote Tartuffe in one of the most popular literary formats of 17th Century France, Alexandrine verse. Each Alexandrine line consists of 12 syllables. Syllables 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11 are unaccented. Syllables 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12 are accented. In the middle of the line, between syllables 6 and 7, is a brief pause called a caesura. Occasionally, an Alexandrine line contains 13 syllables, the last one unaccented. In English versification, an Alexandrine line is equivalent to iambic hexameter, iambic referring to the succession of unaccented/accented pairs and hexameter referring the total of six two-syllable pairs. Following is the eighth line of Tartuffe in the original French, demonstrating the Alexandrine scheme with the caesura after the comma. The accented syllables are in boldfaced blue.

1   2     3  4     5    6      7  8    10  11 12
Et que de me complaire, on ne prend nul souci.
Loose English translation: And no one makes any effort to please me.
The Alexandrine format does not apply to lines with only a few syllables, as in the following line spoken by Orgon:
Ah! mon frère, bonjour. 
Ah! Good morning, brother.
Molière's Rhyme Scheme

Molière wrote Tartuffe in rhyming couplets. A couplet is a pair of lines in which the final syllable of each line rhymes. Following are lines 7-12 in the original French, demonstrating this rhyming pattern. Madame Pernelle is the speaker. The rhyming syllables are in boldfaced blue:

C'est que je ne puis voir tout ce ménage-ci,
Et que de me complaire, on ne prend nul souci.
Oui, je sors de chez vous fort mal édifiée;.................Madame Pernelle announces that she is ending her visit because no one in 
Dans toutes mes leçons, j'y suis contrariée ; ............her son's household takes her advice or treats her with respect.
On n'y respecte rien; chacun y parle haut,
Et c'est, tout justement, la cour du roi Pétaut.

Marital and Courtship Conflict: Common Literary Motif

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 Tartuffe. Others analyzed by Cummings Study Guides include Molière's The Miser, The Misanthrope; and The Imaginary Invalid; 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, andGustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary.


Study Questions and Essay Topics

  • Who are famous Tartuffes of today—that is, people who pretend to be upright in order to get money, property, or power? 
  • Name several genuinely pious, upright people in recent years who gained worldwide recognition because of their goodness. 
  • It appears that Orgon is not a good judge of character, for he accepts as gospel everything that Tartuffe says. Do you believe there are many people like Orgon who vote in elections?  
  • Who is the most sensible person in the play? 
  • In what ways does the play resemble a modern situation comedy? 
  • Molière exposes hypocrisy through comedy and satire. Others condemn hypocrisy and other reprehensible behavior through serious modes of expression, such as sermons or didactic essays. Which approach do believe is more effective? 
  • Do you believe Molière ridicules religion in the play? Or does he ridicule people who practice religion the wrong way?