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LesFemmesSavantes (2)

Les Femmes savantes
(engraving by Moreau le jeune)

Our dramatis personæ is

CHRYSALE, an honest bourgeois
ARMANDE & HENRIETTE, their daughters
BÉLISE, his sister
TRISSOTIN, a wit (bel esprit)
VADIUS, a learned man
MARTINE, a kitchen-maid
JULIEN, servant to VADIUS

The scene is in Paris


  • Les Précieuses ridicules
  • The Salons
  • l’honnête homme & galanterie
  • literature

Les Femmes savantes is the last of Molière’s three grandes comédies: five acts written in alexandrine verses. It was preceded by Tartuffe (1664) and Le Misanthrope (1666). It would be classified as a comedy of manners (mœurs).

Molière may have drawn his inspiration from a play by Calderón, or Chappuzeau’s L’Académie des femmes.[1] There is a degree of intertextuality in Molière’s Femmes savantes.  However, the play originates in Molière’s own Précieuses ridicules (The Affected Ladies), a one-act play, first staged on 18 November 1659  at the Petit-Bourbon, Molière told Donneau de Visé that he wished to revisit Les Précieuses ridicules

Préciosité was a seventeenth-century movement that had a civilizing influence on courtiers and the rapidly-growing bourgeoisie. L’honnête homme was born in Salons, but he is a descendant of Baldassare Castiliogne‘s (6 December 1478 – 2 February 1529) Il Cortegiano or The Book of the Courtier, written between 1508 and 1528.

The galant homme also developed in the Salons. Courtship was modelled on Madeleine de Scudéry‘s Carte de Tendre, featured in Clélie, one of her novels. The map of the country of love, a French Arcadia, was engraved by Francois Chauveau. Précieuses (precious women) wanted to be courted as indicated in the Carte de Tendre, a monument to proper galanterie, based on rather astute psychology. It represented three forms of love: reconnaissance (roughly, indebtedness), inclination (attraction), and estime.

Les Femmes savantes

(Bold letters are mine.)

  • Philaminte
  • Armande
  • Bélise

Les Femmes savantes features three femmes savantes. They are Philaminte (Chrysale’s wife), their daughter Armande, and Chrysale’s sister Bélise. Armande has a younger sister, Henriette, who wishes to marry. For our femmes savantes, sexual intercourse is bestial. In this respect, Molière is revisiting his Précieuses ridicules. Précieuses enjoyed listening to the witty poetry of the gentlemen they entertained, but were not easily convinced to marry. Our learned women are besotted.

For instance, when Clitandre tells Bélise that he loves Henriette, hoping to win an ally, but Bélise believes he is using an oblique approach to tell her that he loves her.

Ah certes le détour est d’esprit, je l’avoue,
Ce subtil faux-fuyant mérite qu’on le loue;
Et dans tous les romans où j’ai jeté les yeux,
Je n’ai rien rencontré de plus ingénieux.
Bélise à Clitandre (I. iv. p. 9)
[Ah! truly now, the subterfuge shows excellent wit. This subtle evasion deserves praise; and in all the romances I have glanced over, I have never met with anything more ingenious.]
Bélise to Clitandre (I. 4)

Bélise has read too many romances inhabited by shepherds and shepherdesses. She cannot be Clitandre’s ally.

As for Clitandre, he is an honnête hommewho wishes to marry a woman who does not consider sexual intimacy bestial. He finds in Henriette a young lady who looks forward to being a loving wife and a good mother. Henriette tells her sister Armande, a learned lady, that if their mother had always rejected men, Armande would not be alive. Procreation ensures the perpetuation of human life and nature has made lovemaking pleasurable.

Mais vous ne seriez pas ce dont vous vous vantez,
Si ma mère n’eût eu que de ces beaux côtés;
Et bien vous prend, ma sœur, que son noble génie
N’ait pas vaqué toujours à la philosophie.
De grâce souffrez-moi par un peu de bonté
Des bassesses à qui vous devez la clarté;
Et ne supprimez point, voulant qu’on vous seconde,
Quelque petit savant qui veut venir au monde.
Henriette à Armande (I. i, p. 3)
[But you would not have been what you boast yourself to be if our mother had had only her nobler qualities; and well it is for you that her lofty genius did not always devote itself to philosophy. Pray, leave me to those littlenesses to which you owe life, and do not, by wishing me to imitate you, deny some little savant entrance into the world.]
Henriette to Armande (I. 1)

Philaminte is forewarned by Julien, a valet to Vadius, a “learned gentleman” whom Trissotin introduces in Chrysale’s home, that Trissotin wants to marry her daughter, because of the family’s wealth, and that he plagiarizes (IV. iv, p. 59) (IV. 4 EN). But Philaminte is so blinded by Trissotin that she does not heed Julien’s warning. On the contrary.

Et moi, pour trancher court toute cette dispute,
Il faut qu’absolument mon désir s’exécute.
Henriette, et Monsieur seront joints de ce pas;
Je l’ai dit, je le veux, ne me répliquez pas:
Et si votre parole à Clitandre est donnée,
Offrez-lui le parti d’épouser son aînée.
Philaminte à Chrysalde (V. iii, p. 70)
[And I, to put an end to this dispute, will have my wish obeyed. (Showing TRISSOTIN) Henriette and this gentleman shall be united at once. I have said it, and I will have it so. Make no reply; and if you have given your word to Clitandre, offer him her elder sister.]
Philaminte to Chrysale (V. 3)

Trissotin will be unmasked by the raisonneurAriste, Chrysale’s brother, who fools Trissotin into believing that Chrysale and Philaminte have lost their fortune. Trissotin no longer wishes to marry Henriette who may therefore marry Clitandre, to whom she is attracted. 

A Portrait of Armande

Ironically, Clitandre, who will marry Henriette, first courted Armande, who claims him for herself on the grounds of immorality on his part, an absurd claim.

Au changement de vœux nulle horreur ne s’égale,
Et tout cœur infidèle est un monstre en morale.
Armande à Clitandre (IV. ii, p. 52)
[Nothing can be compared to the crime of changing one’s vows, and every faithless heart is a monster of immorality.]
Armande to Clitandre (IV. 2)

Est-ce moi qui vous quitte, ou vous qui me chassez?
Clitandre à Armande (IV. II, p. 52)
[Do I leave you, or do you not rather turn me away?]
Clitandre to Armande (IV. 2)

Armande so loves Clitandre that she is ready to overcome her aversion for nœuds de chair and chaînes corporelles. She has harmed herself.

Hé bien, Monsieur, hé bien, puisque sans m’écouter
Vos sentiments brutaux veulent se contenter;
Puisque pour vous réduire à des ardeurs fidèles,
Il faut des nœuds de chair, des chaînes corporelles;
Si ma mère le veut, je résous mon esprit
À consentir pour vous à ce dont il s’agit.
Armande à Clitandre (IV. ii, p. 53)
[Well, well! Sir, since without being convinced by what I say, your grosser feelings will be satisfied; since to reduce you to a faithful love, you must have carnal ties and material chains, I will, if I have my mother’s permission, bring my mind to consent to all you wish.]
Armande to Clitandre (IV. 2)

But it’s too late, says Clitandre.

Il n’est plus temps, Madame, une autre a pris la place;
Et par un tel retour j’aurais mauvaise grâce
De maltraiter l’asile, et blesser les bontés,
Où je me suis sauvé de toutes vos fiertés.
Clitandre à Armande (IV. ii, pp. 53-54)
[It is too late; another has accepted before you and if I were to return to you, I should basely abuse the place of rest in which I sought refuge, and should wound the goodness of her to whom I fled when you disdained me.]
Clitandre to Armande (IV. 2)

Bélise still thinks she is in Clitandre’s heart.

On pourrait bien lui faire
Des propositions qui pourraient mieux lui plaire:
Mais nous établissons une espèce d’amour
Qui doit être épuré comme l’astre du jour;
La substance qui pense, y peut être reçue,
Mais nous en bannissons la substance étendue.
Bélise à tous (V. iii, pp. 70-71)
[Propositions more to his taste might be made. But we are establishing a kind of love which must be as pure as the morning-star; the thinking substance is admitted, but not the material substance.]
Bélise to all (V. 3)

Trissotin and Vadius

In the meantime, Trissotin and Vadius, have quarelled bitterly. Molière did not depict real persons. He used miroirs publics (La Critique de l’École des femmes, sc. 6). However, Trissotin is modelled on l’abbé Cotin, who had a vile temper, and Vadius is the sarcastic Gilles Ménage. Both gentlemen dishonour themselves by quarrelling, which is not insignificant. They are not to be admitted to Salons, where there is no room for anger. Nor is Philaminte a candidate for a Salon.

Trissotin & Vadius (commons.wikimedia.org)

The Senex Iratus

Les Femmes savantes is a mundus inversus in that the pater familias is a mater familias. Philaminte, Chrysale’s wife, rules. In Les Femmes savantes, Molière has vested unto a woman, the authority normally vested in men. Women are just as capable of opposing a marriage as men are. In this play, the blocking character is used at its most basic level, that of function. So, Philaminte, Henriette’s mother, is our alazṓn. As for Chrysale, Henriette and Armand’s father, let us read.

Non: car comme j’ai vu qu’on parlait d’autre gendre,
J’ai cru qu’il était mieux de ne m’avancer point.
Chrysale à Ariste (II. ix, p. 27)
Certes votre prudence est rare au dernier point!
N’avez-vous point de honte avec votre mollesse?
Et se peut-il qu’un homme ait assez de faiblesse
Pour laisser à sa femme un pouvoir absolu,
Et n’oser attaquer ce qu’elle a résolu?
Ariste à Chrysale (II. ix, p. 27)
[No; for as she talked of another son-in-law, I thought it was better for me to say nothing.
Chrysale to Ariste (II. 9)
Your prudence is to the last degree wonderful! Are you not ashamed of your weakness? How can a man be so poor-spirited as to let his wife have absolute power over him, and never dare to oppose anything she has resolved upon? ]
Ariste to Chrysale (II. 9)

Chrysale is not so docile. Philaminte is as Chrysale describes her to his brother Ariste: bilious, “un vrai dragon,” and a “diable.

Mon Dieu, vous en parlez, mon frère, bien à l’aise,
Et vous ne savez pas comme le bruit me pèse.
J’aime fort le repos, la paix, et la douceur,
Et ma femme est terrible avecque son humeur.
Du nom de philosophe elle fait grand mystère,
Mais elle n’en est pas pour cela moins colère;
Et sa morale faite à mépriser le bien,
Sur l’aigreur de sa bile opère comme rien
Pour peu que l’on s’oppose à ce que veut sa tête,
On en a pour huit jours d’effroyable tempête.
Elle me fait trembler dès qu’elle prend son ton.
Je ne sais où me mettre, et c’est un vrai dragon;
Et cependant avec toute sa diablerie,
Il faut que je l’appelle, et «mon cœur», et «ma mie»
Chrysale à Ariste (II. ix, p. 28)
[Ah! it is easy, brother, for you to speak; you don’t know what a dislike I have to a row, and how I love rest and peace. My wife has a terrible disposition. She makes a great show of the name of philosopher, but she is not the less passionate on that account; and her philosophy, which makes her despise all riches, has no power over the bitterness of her anger. However little I oppose what she has taken into her head, I raise a terrible storm which lasts at least a week. She makes me tremble when she begins her outcries; I don’t know where to hide myself. She is a perfect virago; and yet, in spite of her diabolical temper, I must call her my darling and my love.]
Chrysale to Ariste (II. 9)

Philaminte has un pouvoir absolu (absolute power). So, a form of doubling, or a comedy is required.  The marriage that ends comedies will take place because the raisonneur, Chrysale’s brother, will bring to Philaminte and Chrysale letters indicating that they have lost their wealth. Trissotin will no longer wish to marry Henriette and Clitandre will attempt to look after Chrysale’s family.

In other words, salvation comes through a ploy. No deus ex machina is required, but Ariste resorts to a “théâtre dans le théâtre.” This process underscores the powerlessness of the society of the play. The alazṓn, a senex iratus, would block the marriage comedy demands, were it not for a little “farce.”

La Querelle des femmes

Moreover, we cannot include Les Femmes savantes in the querelle des femmes or the woman question, as Philaminte, whom I call the blocking character, is a woman. Given that she would force sexual intercourse on her daughter. Philaminte is extremely cruel.

The title of Les Femmes savantes may lead the reader or spectator to expect a discussion on the merits of knowledge in the case of women. However, Molière’s play has little to do with the benefits of educating women. Les Femmes savantes is yet another comedy where a blocking character opposes the marriage of young lovers. However, there is a difference. The blocking character is not the traditional heavy father. Philaminte, a woman, is our tyrant.


Sources and Resources


[1] Maurice Rat, ed. Œuvres complètes de Molière, 2 (Paris: La Pléiade, 1956), p. 993.

[2] Dessins par Lorentz, Jules David, etc. Gravures par les meilleurs artistes, Paris, Schneider, 1850.


J. P. É. Martini: Plaisir d’amour (1785) for soprano and fortepiano / Le Poème Harmonique

© Micheline Walker
26 March 2019