Portrayal of Virtues and Vices in The Misanthrope

Unlike the English comedies and even comedies of manner, this French comedy The Misanthrope is not so much of what is called didactic literature; this means that Moliere's primary intention is not to tell what is right and to teach the society a definite lesson. One must keep in mind that Moliere is no revolutionary nor is he even a mild social reformer.

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (Moliere)

Moliere is first of all an observer of life and next a man who contemplates what he has noticed, and finally looks with a smile upon the virtues and vices of man and society. Alceste does nothing to pacify or to improve the condition of the Court about which he is so furious. On the contrary, his influence is brought to nothing, there is no improvement, and he himself goes off to solitude. He has given up the struggle, defeated by his own domineering will unchecked by reason.

However, Moliere means to speak well of virtues like friendship, moderation and love; and he means to be critical of vices like excess hypocrisy and betrayal in The Misanthrope. Friendship is a more difficult quality to be had; acquaintances abound and these contacts must be kept, but the art of making a friend and keeping that friend is highly complicated. Philinte suffers much from Alceste, and the latter even dismisses him at the end of the Act I. Friendship can never blossom from the false attitudes of Celimene and Arsinoe, nor from the gentlemen of the Court, Oronte and Acaste. The two moderate members, Philinte and Eliante, have many acquaintances and achieve some good from adhering to these groups. Friendship, nevertheless, only develops when two comparable individuals meet; this genial situation is seen in the relationship between Philinte and Eliante. Just as friendship comes slowly, so also will love come about from friendship? Eliante rejected Philinte at the beginning of Act IV, but they are paired at the play's end. Courtesy, good manners and gentleness are also virtues in Moliere's play. These virtues could be vices, however, if they hid the hypocrisy of false men and women.

It is interesting that the vices in The Misanthrope are the failure to follow the virtues; moreover, vices are also curiously the excess of what would be virtues if they were moderate. Virtue becomes vice when they are extreme. Virtue is not its own reward and justification; there is a social function and purpose in the application of virtues. When man and society are disrupted by the virtues run rampant and become vices, then these attributes are ridiculous and ludicrous. Of course, there are also outright vices detailed in The Misanthrope. Insult, bribery, lying, etc., are used to defeat Alceste in the lawsuit. When justice can be subverted, a social organization is in severe trouble. The result of the flouting of vices, such as the above, by the leading members of the nation is nothing short of disastrous for everyone. These vices are the most obvious and evil, but there is also the price of hypocrisy under the guise of politeness. Celimene is caught in this trap when the letter is produced in which she ridiculed all her male friends; she is left without friends and even acquaintances.

Thus, in The Misanthrope the dramatist suggests that virtues are gentle and moderate behaviors and values, whereas vices are extremities and the absurd use of virtues. Of course, bare vices in their ugly forms are there, but the over-vaunted and misused virtues look equally ugly and dangerous. It means that the main emphasis is centered on the danger of virtue being converted into vice by lack of understanding, as in the case of Alceste. It may be seen in consequence, why this play is the most controversial and most philosophical drama in the theater of Moliere.

The Misanthrope Study Center

The Issue of Incompatibility in The Misanthrope

Individual versus Society in The Misanthrope

Alceste as a Social Misfit in The Misanthrope

Dramatic Technique in The Misanthrope

The Misanthrope as a Comedy of Manners

Contrasts of Human Relationship in The Misanthrope

The Misanthrope Study Center

Introduction of The Misanthrope

Summary of The Misanthrope

The Misanthrope as a Social Satire

Morality in The Misanthrope

Biography of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Moliere