The Misanthrope and Its Complex Hero

by Thomas Hubeart

© 1996 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

"I cannot improve on it, and assuredly never shall," said Molière of his satire The Misanthrope, {1} and the critic Nicholas Boileau-Despréaux concurred by accounting it one of Molière's best plays.{2} But the French public did not like it much, preferring the dramatist's more farcical The Doctor in Spite of Himself--a play that, according to tradition, was written two months after The Misanthrope's premiere to make up for the latter's lack of success.{3} In fact, The Misanthrope horrified Rousseau, who thought that its aim was, in Donald Frame's words, "to make virtue ridiculous by pandering to the shallow and vicious tastes of the man of the world."{4} Both he and Goethe after him regarded Alceste, the protagonist, as a tragic figure rather than a comic one.{5}

It is evident from such a diversity of sentiments that the work before us is complex enough to provoke a variety of reactions. On the one hand, Molière made The Misanthrope a comedy, not a tragedy. Alceste, despite his bold railings against the hypocrisy of society, often finds it impossible to set a heroic example in front of his all-too-"civilized" circle. He is no lone upholder of a noble creed forced to martyrdom for his beliefs; in fact, his announcement, at the end of the play, of the martyrdom he is imposing upon himself--exile to "some solitary place on earth/Where one is free to be a man of worth"{6}--makes him look less heroic than ridiculous.

And yet, if we do not place our sympathies with Alceste, we search this play in vain for another character worthy of them. The silly marquises do not command much respect. Arsinoé is conniving, spiteful, and a critic of everyone else's morals. Oronte is not only as vain as the marquises but somewhat farther gone in self-delusion, especially regarding his literary pretensions. C&eacutelimène is a manipulative coquette with a sarcastic tongue and a cold heart. Philinte seems a rather neutral character who, like Hamlet's Horatio, is "a piece of dramatic structure" thrown in simply to be Alceste's confidant. Éliante is even less defined, and her most notable speech, a somewhat flippant pronouncement about love,{8} is (in my opinion) alienating instead of endearing.

We must turn to Alceste, for he at least values honesty and sincerity. He truly wishes to rip off every hypocrite's mask, to force all men to stand accountable for what they really are. Although he asserts, "No, it is general; I hate all men,"{9} his stance is motivated by his rejection of the evil that they do, not any personal ill will. Since an audience likes to suppose itself on the side of virtue, it will naturally sympathize with a protagonist who opposes vice. In addition, as Frame points out,

". . . Molière endows Alceste with a magnetism that is his alone. Not only does Oronte seek to become his friend; he enjoys the devoted friendship of Philinte, and he is the man most loved by the three leading ladies of the play."{10}

But the fact remains that Alceste's zeal for the chastisement of society is adulterated by what Richard Wilbur calls "his vast, unconscious egotism."{11} Alceste has to lie to himself, to assure himself that the world is uniformly as bad as he makes it out to be. The faults of mankind, great as they are, become enormous when Alceste mentally exaggerates them in order to work himself up into one of his tirades against hypocrisy.{12} It would be more logical for one who hates the world's ways as much as he does to set a good example himself, in order to inspire others to reformation, or at least to sting their consciences. But Alceste makes little effort toward doing this. Perhaps this is because his self-worth and self-esteem depend on the assumption that he alone is properly indignant against hypocisy. Mere exposure of the world's wickedness suits him, but its total eradication would remove the defining struggle of his life.

Also, although his speeches to Philinte constitute a brave, "me-against-the-world" facade, Alceste finds that he cannot isolate himself from all humanity. Love exerts its influence over him, and he desperately wants C&eacutelimène to agree to separate herself from the world with him--in his words, to "Find all in me, as I find all in you."{13} His total disillusionment with her leads to what can technically--but only technically--be called a "comic fall."

Is this play, then, a representation of "the satirist satirized"? Does Alceste's uncompromising attitude render him more ridiculous than sympathetic to the audience? I think that such a position would be an oversimplification, if not an outright distortion. We have already noted that Alceste is alone in pointing the finger at hypocrisy, though even he does not push society to reform itself. He may seriously misevaluate both his own character and that of C&eacutelimène. But because much of his social comment has foundation, and because he is sincere in his stance, we sympathize with him and forgive his excesses.

However, C&eacutelimène, her three conceited "noble" suitors, and even the unseen scoundrel who worms his way into a judicial victory over our hero, give resonance to Alceste's picture of a flagrantly evil social order. They cannot be pardoned by the audience. Alceste, for all his egotism, is sensitive to the feelings of others--so much so as to back away from his own principles of candor and frankness when Oronte seeks applause for his doggerel. But most of those around Alceste are malicious in pursuing their personal ends: the unseen adversary is simply detestable, the suitors lash out savagely against anyone who does not give them their "due," and C&eacutelimène treats Alceste like a puppet on a string, mercilessly manipulating him and, in the end, crushing him emotionally.

These wicked people misevaluate more seriously than does the comic hero in assuming that their own worth justifies them whenever they treat their fellow humans like dirt. At the end, as Alceste punishes himself, they get off scot-free. But in a sense their fate is worse than his: while he may be argued to have learned something in the course of the play (at least about C&eacutelimène), they remain as blind and as foolish as ever. Further, Alceste's self-imposed exile seems more than enough punishment for his folly, but the people-users in his circle can only be punished by the indignation of the audience on his behalf.{14}

Thus Alceste turns out to be a comic hero who is not particularly laughable. Although his exaggerated disgust for mankind amuses us at times, we realize that his assertions have a substantial element of truth to them. The audience cannot take him wholly seriously, but neither can it dismiss him as a buffoon. The genius of Molière has made this protagonist of The Misanthrope truly human, and his faults not only amuse, but provoke compassion and a re-evaluation of the way things are in human society.

(October 21, 1985)


{1} Cited in Molière, The Miser and Other Plays, trans. John Wood (Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1953), no page number (advertisement for its companion volume, The Misanthrope and Other Plays).

{2} Donald M. Frame, "Introduction to The Misanthrope," in Molière, The Misanthrope and Other Plays, trans. Donald M. Frame (NY: New American Library, 1968), p. 19.

{3} Frame, "Introduction to The Doctor in Spite of Himself," ibid., p. 87.

{4} Frame, "Introduction to The Misanthrope," ibid., p. 19.

{5} Ashley Brown and John L. Kimmey, eds., Satire: An Anthology (NY: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1977), p. 121.

{6} V.iv., ll. 1806-7 in Frame's translation, which is the translation quoted throughout this paper. In Richard Wilbur's version (the entire text of which is given in Brown and Kimmey, pp. 121-72), this is marked as V.viii, ll. 21-2.

{7} Cf. John Dover Wilson, "Introduction," in William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1936), p. xlviii.

{8} II.v, ll. 711-30 (ll. 153-72 in Wilbur).

{9} I.i, line 118 (so also Wilbur).

{10} Frame, "Introduction to The Misanthrope," op. cit., p. 21.

{11} Richard Wilbur, "Introduction to The Misanthrope," in Brown & Kimmey, p. 360.

{12} Ibid., p. 361.

{13} V.iv, line 1782 (V.viii, line 50 in Wilbur).

{14} I do not include Arsinoé in this, since in a sense she receives some sort of punishment when in the last scene (V.iv [ in Wilbur]) she is put to shame by Alceste's implication that he is fully aware of her true motives. Her discomfiture should be enough to satisfy a sense that poetic justice has been served in her case.

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