Tartuffe Summary and Key Themes

“Tartuffe” is a classic French comedy play written by Molière in the 17th century. It satirizes religious hypocrisy and gullibility through the character of Tartuffe, a cunning imposter who deceives a wealthy man and threatens to disrupt his family.

The play explores themes of deception, morality, and social satire.

Full Summary

Opening Scene: Chaos in Paris

The drama unfolds outside Orgon’s Parisian residence, with family tensions brewing. Orgon, the protagonist, is away, leaving behind his mother Madame Pernelle, children Mariane and Damis, stepmother Elmire, her brother Cleante, and the maid Dorine. 

Madame Pernelle’s departure sets the stage, as she criticizes each family member, spotlighting the discord triggered by Tartuffe, a pious yet questionable figure welcomed into their home by Orgon.

Act II: A Betrothal Upended

Mariane, betrothed to Valère, faces heartbreak as Orgon pushes her to marry Tartuffe. 

This shocking twist strains her relationship with Valère, leading to misunderstandings and a lovers’ quarrel. Dorine, ever the peacemaker, steps in, plotting with the couple to derail the unwanted union.

Act III: Tartuffe’s True Colors

The plan to thwart Mariane’s engagement to Tartuffe spirals out of control when Tartuffe himself appears. 

Elmire seeks his help to persuade Orgon against the marriage, but Tartuffe’s intentions are far from honorable. The scene escalates when Damis, hidden in a closet, accuses Tartuffe of treachery. 

Instead of siding with his son, Orgon banishes Damis, blindly entrusting Tartuffe with his estate.

Act IV: The Deception Unravels

The consequences of Orgon’s folly unfold. Elmire lures Tartuffe into a trap, with Orgon eavesdropping. 

Her feigned affection exposes Tartuffe’s deceit, but the revelation backfires as Tartuffe now legally owns Orgon’s house. The tension peaks with Orgon’s realization of a mysterious box’s significance.

Finale: Justice Prevails

The final act unravels the mystery of the box, containing sensitive documents Orgon safeguarded for a friend. Tartuffe’s plan to use the box against Orgon is foiled by a surprising turn of events. 

An officer, aware of Tartuffe’s sordid past, arrests him on orders from the prince. This twist of fate brings relief and celebration: Orgon is absolved, the family retains their home, and Mariane and Valère’s wedding is back on. 

Even Madame Pernelle, the last to be convinced, acknowledges Tartuffe’s hypocrisy.

Key Themes

1. Hypocrisy in Religious Piety

Central to “Tartuffe” is the exploration of religious hypocrisy, embodied by the character Tartuffe himself. 

He presents a facade of devout piety and moral superiority, yet his actions reveal a manipulative and immoral nature. 

Molière uses this contradiction to critique how religious zeal, when devoid of genuine spirituality and used as a tool for personal gain, can corrupt and deceive. 

The play provocatively questions the sincerity of those who loudly proclaim their religiosity, suggesting that true piety is often quieter and more humble.

2. The Dangers of Blind Faith and Gullibility

Orgon’s blind faith in Tartuffe, despite glaring evidence of his deceit, is a pivotal theme. This blind faith represents the dangers of uncritical acceptance of authority figures, be they religious, political, or social. 

Orgon’s refusal to see Tartuffe’s true nature, even when presented with direct evidence, reflects the human tendency to cling to beliefs despite contradictory evidence. 

This theme resonates with the concept of confirmation bias and the perils of surrendering one’s judgment to others. It also serves as a warning against the gullibility that can arise from excessive devotion, whether to a person, an ideology, or a belief system.

3. Family Dynamics and Social Hierarchy:

The play intricately portrays family dynamics and the impact of societal hierarchy within the household. 

The family is thrown into turmoil due to Orgon’s decisions, driven by his admiration for Tartuffe. The hierarchy within the family, where the patriarch’s word is law, reflects broader societal structures of the time. 

Molière examines the consequences of such hierarchical structures on individual freedom and happiness. 

Characters like Mariane and Damis are subject to their father’s whims, highlighting issues of parental authority and marital freedom. 

Additionally, the role of women and servants in challenging the established order, particularly through characters like Elmire and Dorine, showcases a subtle critique of societal norms and the quest for more egalitarian relationships.

Final Thoughts

Molière’s ‘Tartuffe’ is a brilliant exploration of hypocrisy and blind faith. 

Through witty dialogue and dramatic irony, the play criticizes the manipulation of religion for personal gain and the dangers of naivety and unquestioning loyalty. The characters, particularly Elmire and Dorine, display commendable wit and intelligence in the face of adversity. 

The resolution, where justice prevails and the family’s unity is restored, offers a satisfying closure.

Overall, ‘Tartuffe’ remains a timeless piece, its themes as relevant today as they were in the 17th century, reminding audiences of the importance of discernment and the perils of blindly following deceptive leaders.

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