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The Miser by Hendrick Gerritsz Pot, Uffizi Gallery (Wikimedia Commons)

The Wealthy and the Miser

In literature, miserliness is not necessarily associated with considerable wealth. Misers are persons who feel comforted by their money and may enter into a fit of rage or collapse when they lose money. For Molière‘s Harpagon, a literary miser featured in L’Avare, money is as dear to him as his very life. In other words, for Harpagon, Molière’s miser, money is no less than Shylock’s “pound of flesh.” In comedies, miserliness may be an obstacle to a young couple’s mariage.

Molière’s Harpagon is a fine example of literary miserliness, but as a blocking character he is not boastful, which is the case with L’École des femmes‘ Arnolphe, who is certain he will never be un cocu, cuckolded, and Tartuffe’s Orgon, who can be tyrannical with impunity. Tartuffe takes sin out of sinning. Pantalone is the miser of the commedia dell’arte and he is also boastful, which leads to ridicule, the worst of fate.

L’Avare: in a Nutshell

  • Harpagon: the miser
  • Anselme: an older gentleman
  • Élise and Cléante: Harpagon’s children
  • Mariane and Valère: Anselme’s children

But let us return to Molière’s Miser. Harpagon is a blocking character and greed is the flaw that jeopardizes the marriage of the young lovers: two couples. Molière’s miser does not want to give a dowry to his daughter Élise. He wishes to marry her to a person who will take her without the usual dowry. Anselme, a fine gentleman, will marry her “sans dot” (without a dowry). Very few men married women who did not bring a dowry. As for his son, Cléante, Harpagon would like him to marry a widow. In 17th-century France, widows had a freedom and privileges daughters or married women did not enjoy. Widows had money, their dowry, but also wealth inherited from their deceased spouse. They could choose their second spouse or choose not to marry. A widow would be a perfect spouse for Cléante. She would look after him.

Élise’s friend Valère hopes to find his father, in which case he would be rich. A kind destiny may save him. Anselme is Valère’s father. In theory, his father drowned. As for Cléante, he hopes to be able to live elsewhere with Mariane, whom his father wants to marry. It will turn out that Mariane is Anselme‘s daughter who will ensure she marries Cléante. In other words, there an anagnorisis (a discovery) which will save both Valère (Élise) and Mariane (Cléante). Anselme is the father Valère is looking for and Mariane’s father. As for Harpagon, he will think he has lost a buried treasure, but it is concealed, not stolen. Cléante’s valet La Flèche has found it and confiscated it. When Harpagon is reunited with his treasure, a cassette reminiscent of Orgon’s cassette (Tartuffe), he is delighted and abandons plans to marry.

In short, when it is proven that Anselme is Valère’s father as well as Mariane’s father and Mariane’s mother’s husband, the young couples may marry. There is sufficient money. Anselme will pay for all expenses. Besides, he has found his wife, whom he thought had drowned.

We will continue and perhaps finish looking at L’Avare in my next post.

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Shylock after the Trial, Sir John Gilbert (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Predecessors and Descendants of Molière’s L’Avare

  • Shylock (The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare) & predecessors
  • Séraphin (Un Homme et son péché by Claude-Henri Grignon)
  • Gesta Romanorum, Il Peconore, The Orator 

My last post was about Molière’s Miser‘s ancestry. Molière’s L’Avare (The Miser) (1658) is rooted in Roman playwright Plautus’ Aululuria, The Pot of Gold.  In the commedia dell’arte, Pantalone is the miser. However in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (1596-1599),  we meet Shylock, the Jewish money-lender and miser. Among works preceding Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Molière’s L’Avare, we should also mention Il Peconore, a collection of short stories by Giovanni Fiorentino (1378), published in Milan in 1558, and the Gesta Romanorum, a collection of Latin tales dating back to the end of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th century, one of which, the three caskets, inspired Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and The Orator, a tale or novella by Alexandre Sylvane, published in 1558 by Lodovico Domenichi and published in an English translation by William Painter, in 1596. (See Sources, The Merchant of Venice, Wikipedia.)

Literature has other misers closer to us. Scrooge, the protagonist of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) is a miser. The miser also inhabits fables.[1] “A Beirut Maronite (a Roman Catholic following the Syrio-Antiochene rite, widespread in the area), Mārūn al Naqqāsh (died 1855), who knew French and Italian as well as Arabic and Turkish, adapted  Molière’s  L’Avare (“The Miser”) and presented it on a makeshift stage in Beirut in 1848.”[2]

In 1933, Claude Henri Grignon (8 July 1894 – 3 April 1976), a French-Canadian writer, journalist and politician, wrote a novel entitled Un Homme et son péché. The novel grew into one of the most popular Quebec radio serials, Un Homme et son péché. Later, it became a very successful television serial, entitled Les Belles Histoires des pays d’en haut (en haut is north). The musical theme of the television serial was a movement from Glazunov‘s Seasons: Autumn, Petit Adagio. Claude-Henri Grignon’s Un Homme et son péché also inspired a film: Séraphin: Heart of Stone, 2002.

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Jessica, The Merchant of Venice by Luke Fildes

Conclusion

Literature has types, prototypes and archetypes (see Jungian archetypes, Wikipedia). These figures are universal and describe, in an intensive way, very real persons. One of Honoré de Balzac‘s Comédie humaine characters is Eugénie Grandet, a miser. The literary depiction of characters, or types, is rooted in Theophrastus (c. 371 – c. 287 BCE) who inspired La Bruyère (16 August 1645 – 11 May 1696), the author of Les Caractères (1688). Playwrights and writers, fabulists, in particular, have often depicted misers, occurrences of intertextualityMisers usually meet with a sorry end, but Molière’s L’Avare doesn’t.

Love to everyone

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Sources and Resources

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[1] La Fontaine, L’Avare qui a perdu son trésor, The Miser who had lost his Treasure (1[IV, 20]);  Le Savetier et le Financier, The Cobbler and the Financier (2.[VIII, 2])
[2] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Islamic-arts/Dance-and-theatre

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François Couperin 3/3, Le Charme-L’Enjouement, Watteau

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© Micheline Walker
22 November 2016
(Revised 23 November 2016)
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