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L’École des femmes, François Boucher (dessin) & Laurent Cars (gravure)

Our dramatis personæ is:

Arnolphe, or Monsieur de la Souche
Agnès, une ingénue, raised by Arnolphe
Horace, the jeune premier whose father is Oronte
Oronte, Horace’s father and a friend of Arnolphe
Chrysalde, the raisonneur and Arnolphe’s friend
Enrique, Chrysalde’s brother-in-law

The dramatis personæ also includes a notary, a maid (Georgette), and a valet (Alain).

Arnolphe & Monsieur de la Souche

  • a fortuitous victory
  • two names

In L’École des femmes (1662), the victory of the young couple, Horace and Agnès, is mostly fortuitous and irony is the main literary device used by Molière. Ironically, Horace tells Arnolphe, the blocking character, or senex iratus, everything he and Agnès have done and everything they plan to do.

Molière has made this possible by creating a barbon who has just changed his name. Young Horace, our jeune premier, thinks his rival is Monsieur de la Souche, not Arnolphe. Our pedant, Arnolphe, is a friend of his father as well as Chrysalde’s friend. Horace does not hesitate to ask him for money no more than Arnolphe hesitates to loan him the amount he needs. He also gives him the wallet. Arnolphe knows he will be repaid. Ironically, Horace has no reason to think that Arnolphe is not supportive of him in every way. On the contrary.

In fact, after he and Agnès have fled the house in which she was kept by Monsieur de la Souche, a jealous man, Horace asks Arnolphe, his rival, to look after Agnès while he makes preparations for what we suspect is a wedding. Horace wishes to protect Agnès’ reputation and he must speak to his father’s regarding his marriage. He therefore asks Arnolphe to be Agnès’ temporary guardian. Irony suffuses the comedy and, at this point, reaches its climax.

C’est à vous seul [Arnolphe] aussi, comme ami généreux,
Que je puis confier ce dépôt amoureux. (Horace, V. ii, 1430-5.)
[(…) and as I have trusted the whole secret of my passion to you, being assured of your prudence, so to you only, as a generous friend, can I confide this beloved treasure.]
The School for Wivesp. 24.


Octave Uzanne, Le Livre, Paris, A. Quantin, 1880 [1719 edition]. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Éloignement fatal ! Voyage malheureux !

Irony also stems from Agnès’ ignorance. Arnolphe has Agnès raised in a convent, asking that she learn as little as possible about the ways of the world. That, he believes, is his very best precaution. He doesn’t want to cuckolded.

As you know, before leaving for about ten days, Arnolphe directs Georgette, Agnès’ maid, and Alain, her manservant, not to let anyone into Agnès’ house. He also directs Agnès not to see anyone. However, Arnolphe has learned from Horace that he has seen a lovely woman and that he is in love, which is why he needs the money he has just borrowed. Arnolphe is afraid and decides to speak with Agnès. He tells her that he has he has been told than an unknown young man came to her house. These people, he says, are méchantes langues, slandering tongues. He claims he is ready to bet they are not telling the truth.

Mon Dieu, ne gagez pas : vous perdriez vraiment. (Agnès, II. v, 473.)
[Oh, Heaven, do not bet; you would assuredly lose.]
The School for Wives, p. 10.

Quoi! c’est la vérité qu’un homme… (Arnolphe II. v,  474.)
[What! It is true that a man… ]
(…) Chose sûre.
Il n’a presque bougé de chez nous, je vous jure.
(Agnès II. v, 475-6.)
[Quite true. I declare to you that he was scarcely ever out of the house.]
The School for Wives, p. 10-11.

She has given him a ribbon, and he has kissed her arms, Arnolphe wants to know more.

Passe pour le ruban. Mais je voudrais apprendre,
S’il ne vous a rien fait que vous baiser les bras. 
(Arnolphe, II. v, 580-1.)
[Oh! let the ribbon go. But I want to know if he did nothing to you but kiss your arms.]
The School for Wivesp. 12.

Comment. Est-ce qu’on fait d’autres choses ? (Agnès, II. v, 582.)
[Why! do people do other things?]
The School for Wivesp. 12.

(…) Non pas.
Mais pour guérir du mal qu’il dit qui le possède,
N’a-t-il point exigé de vous d’autre remède ? (Arnolphe, II. v, 583-4.)
[Not at all. But, to cure the disorder which he said had seized him, did he not ask you for any other remedy?]
The School for Wivesp. 12.

Non. Vous pouvez juger, s’il en eût demandé,
Que pour le secourir j’aurais tout accordé. (Agnès, II. v, 585-6.)
[No. You may judge that I would have granted him anything to do him good, if he had asked for it.]
The School for Wivesp. 12.

Chrysalde was right. Virtue is not enough:

(…) L’honnêteté suffit. (Arnolphe, I. i, 106.)
Mais comment voulez-vous, après tout, qu’une bête
Puisse jamais savoir ce que c’est qu’être honnête. (Chrysalde, I. i, 107-8.)
(…) Virtue is quite enough.
But how can you expect, after, all, that a mere simpleton can ever know what it is to be virtuous?]
The School for Wives,  p. 4.


I Gelosi performing, by Hieronymous Francken I, ca. 1590


The School for Wives combines several comic texts: the farce, the comedy of manners, and the comedy of intrigue. It is also rooted in the commedia dell’arte. Arnolphe resembles Il Dottore, an inflated character who ends up deflated.

Arnolphe has the audacity to think he can fool destiny and destiny undoes him. In LÉcole des femmes, destiny reigns supreme and Arnophe will be the trompeur trompé of farces:

(…) Oui ; mais qui rit d’autrui
Doit craindre qu’en revanche on rie aussi de lui. (Chrysalde, I. i, 45-6.)
[Yes; but he who laughs at another must beware, lest he in turn be laughed at himself.]
The School for Wives, p. 3.

He, Chrysalde, believes he cannot control destiny. He therefore refrains from mocking others so others do not mock him. According to the laws of comedy, lashing out leads to a backlash. The deceiver is deceived.

In Act I, scene 4, Arnolphe tells Horace that watching cocus is like watching a comedy. But he is now on the same stage, as the cocus he ridiculed, thinking he could shape destiny and boasting about it.

C’est un plaisir de prince, et des tours que je voi
Je me donne souvent la comédie à moi. (Arnolphe, I. iv, 295-6.)
[It is a pleasure fit for a King; to me it is a mere comedy to
see the pranks I do.]
The School for Wives, p. 7.

In this scene, we see to what extent Arnolphe himself has caused his demise. Agnès is so innocent she “would have granted him [Horace] anything to do him good, if he had asked.” Would that she had known more! Chrysalde was right. Virtue is not enough.

(…) L’honnêteté suffit. (Arnolphe, I. i, 104.)
[Mais comment voulez-vous, après tout, qu’une bête
Puisse jamais savoir ce que c’est qu’être honnête.] (Chrysalde, I. ii, 105-6.)

(…) Virtue is quite enough.
[But how can you expect, after, all, that a mere simpleton can ever know what it is.]
The School for Wives, p. 4.

Arnolphe is fully undone. However, he is included in the final society, imperfect as it may be.

Allons dans la maison débrouiller ces mystères,
Payer à notre ami ces soins officieux,
Et rendre grâce au Ciel qui fait tout pour le mieux.  (Chrysalde, V. scène dernière, 1775-7.)
[Let us go inside, and clear up these mysteries. Let us shew our friend some return for his great pains, and thank Heaven, which orders all for the best.]
The School for Wives, p. 29.


Molière as Arnolphe (detail)


Les Farceurs français et italiens depuis soixante ans et plus, 1670


When Horace first meets Arnolphe, in Act one, he is carrying two letters addressed to Arnolphe. These indicate that Oronte, Horace’s father, will be visiting with a person Horace does not know.

We know, therefore, that there may be unexpected changes, a discovery: anagnorisis.

It so happens that the guest who will accompany Oronte, Horace’s father is Enrique, Chrysalde’s brother-in-law. It was a private marriage and a daughter was born to Henrique and Angélique. Enrique had to leave France unexpectedly, so the child was left in the custody of a woman who grew too poor to look after Agnès. This woman had to entrust her charge to a person who could afford to raise Agnès. Agnès was 4 years old. These are the circumstances under which Arnolphe became Agnès’ ward. She is now 17.

In Act V, when Enrique arrives, Agnès ceases to be Arnolphe’s ward. Suddenly, after 13 years, Arnolphe no longer has any authority over Agnès. In fact, Agnès can talk. She is not “bête.” Arnolphe therefore leaves devastated and unable to speak: “tout transporté et ne pouvant parler.

Scholar Bernard Magné has noted that in the final discovery scene (reconnaissance) scene, Arnolphe loses the ability to speak:

(…) Dans la scène de reconnaissance finale,
Arnolphe perd réellement l’usage de la parole.[1]

Earlier, when he was pulling a reluctant Agnès away, Arnolphe called her causeuse (a talker):

Allons, causeuse, allons. (Arnolphe, V. ix, 1726.)
[Come along, chatterbox.]
L’École des femmesp. 29.

Agnès has indeed gained the ability to speak :

Oui : mais pour femme, moi, je prétendais vous prendre,
Et je vous l’avais fait, me semble, assez entendre. (Arnolphe, V. iv, 1510-11.)
[Yes; but I meant to take you to wife myself; I think I gave you to understand it clearly enough.]
The School for Wives, p. 26.

Oui : mais à vous parler franchement entre nous,
Il est plus pour cela selon mon goût que vous. (Agnès, V. ix, 1512-13.)
[You did. But, to be frank with you, he is more to my taste for a husband than you. With you, marriage is a trouble and a pain, and your descriptions give a terrible picture of it; but there—he makes it seem so full of joy that I long to marry.]
The School for Wives, p. 26.

Vraiment, il en sait donc là-dessus plus que vous ;
Car à se faire aimer il n’a point eu de peine. (Agnès, V. iv, 1539-40.)
[Of a truth then he knows more about it than you; for he had no difficulty in making himself loved.] The School for Wives, p. 26.

Le moyen de chasser ce qui fait du plaisir (Agnès, V. iv, 1527.)
[How can we drive away what gives us pleasure?]
The School for Wives, p. 26.

According to the laws of comedy, lashing out at someone leads to a backlash: trompeur trompé, deceiver deceived.

Honour is fragile

In Act I, Arnolphe expresses a view of marriage according to which a wife is dependent on her husband. He is glad that Agnès will owe him everything.

Je me vois riche assez, pour pouvoir, que je croi,
Choisir une moitié, qui tienne tout de moi,
Et de qui la soumise, et pleine dépendance,
N’ait à me reprocher aucun bien, ni naissance. (Arnolphe, I. i, 123-6.)
[I think I am rich enough to take a partner who shall owe all to me, and whose humble station and complete dependence cannot reproach me either with her poverty or her birth.]
The School for Wives, p. 4.

However, after realizing that he nearly lost Agnès, Arnolphe tells Agnès that he has difficulty making himself loved and that his honour is fragile. Horace knows how to make himself love:

Que ne vous êtes-vous comme lui fait aimer ? (Agnès, V. iv, 1535.)
[Why did you not make yourself loved, as he has done?]
The School for Wives, p. 26.

Car à se faire aimer il n’a point eu de peine. Agnès. (Agnès, V. iv, 1540.) 
[For he had no difficulty in making himself loved.]
The School for Wives, p. 26.

In Act III, Arnolphe says:

Songez qu’en vous faisant moitié de ma personne ;
C’est mon honneur, Agnès, que je vous abandonne :
Que cet honneur est tendre, et se blesse de peu ;
Et qu’il est aux enfers des chaudières bouillantes,
On l’on plonge à jamais les femmes mal vivantes.
Ce que je vous dis là ne sont pas des chansons :
Et vous devez du cœur ces leçons.
(Arnolphe III. i, v, 721-28.)
[Remember, Agnès, that, in making you part of myself, I give my honour into your hands, which honour is fragile, and easily damaged; that it will not do to trifle in such a matter, and that there are boiling cauldrons in hell, into which wives who live wickedly are thrown for evermore.]
The School for Wives, p. 14.

In short, Arnolphe is like Orgon who needs Tartuffe to be a tyrant. He also resembles Alceste who preaches truthfulness so he can believe those who praise him. If Arnolphe’s honour depends on marital fidelity, it is best he remain unmarried in a world that is at the complete mercy of destiny.

The problem with this play is the overwhelming power of destiny. The reconnaissance scene he is recourse no one should have to use. But Arnolphe’s précaution was useless. In fact, knowing everything Agnès and Horace were doing, Arnolphe loses Agnès. However, he does not lose her because he asks Arnolphe to look after her, he loses her because a real father arrives after a very long absence. Enrique suddenly replaces Arnolphe and does so fortuitously. Arnolphe loses his ability to speak, which, in the eyes of most people, is a privilege given human beings only.


Paul Scarron, La Précaution inutile (Source : Molière 21)

Something borrowed

Molière borrowed his École des femmes from Paul Scarron (c. 1 July 1610 in Paris – 6 October 1660 in Paris), the author of the Roman comique (1651-1657) who also translated Spanish stories, one of which was La Précaution inutile.

Antoine Le Métel d’Ouville also wrote a Précaution inutile. (See Molière 21.) Moreover, the full title of Beaumarchais’ Barbier de Séville is Le Barbier de Séville ou la Précaution inutile. The useless precaution is an archetypal mythos (story). It has affinities with Spanish and Italian comedies and the sketches of the commedia dell’arte. It seems Molière had read L’Astuta simplicitá di Angiolo.[2]


To conclude, I will quote Britannica:

The delicate portrayal in Agnès of an awakening temperament, all the stronger for its absence of convention, is a marvel of comedy, as are Arnolphe’s clumsy attempts at lover’s talk. Meanwhile, a young man, Horace, falls in love with Agnès at first sight.[3]


Sources and Resources

Love to everyone 

[1] Bernard Magné, “L’École des femmes” ou la conquête de la parole,  Revue des Sciences humaines, 145 (1972), p. 140.

[2) Molière, Maurice Rat ed, Œuvres complètes (Paris : Gallimard, coll. La Pléiade, 1956), p. 866.

[3] “The School for Wives”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 31 mai. 2016

“J’avois cru qu’en vous aymant”
Les Musiciens de Saint-Julien


© Micheline Walker
2 June 2016