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L’École des femmes by François Boucher (peintre) and Laurent Cars (graveur)
La Critique de l’École des femmes par by François Boucher (peintre) and Laurent Cars (graveur)

The Deceiver Deceived

Oui, mais qui rit d’autrui,
Doit craindre, qu’en revanche, on rie aussi de lui.

Arnolphe à Chrysalde (I, i)
[Yes; but he who laughs at another must beware,
lest he inturn be laughed at himself
.]
Arnolphe to Chrysalde (I. 1, p. 96)

Irony is the literary device underlying L’École des femmes. In Act One, scene one, Arnolphe (see toutmolière.net) describes Agnès to Chrysalde. Agnès is innocent to the point of making him laugh:

La vérité passe encor mon récit./ Dans ses simplicités à tous coups je l’admire,/160 Et parfois elle en dit, dont je pâme de rire./ L’autre jour (pourrait-on se le persuader)/ Elle était fort en peine, et me vint demander,/ Avec une innocence à nulle autre pareille,/ Si les enfants qu’on fait, se faisaient par l’oreille.
Arnolphe à Chrysalde (I. i)
[What I have told you falls even short of the truth: I admire her simplicity on all occasions; sometimes she says things at which I split my sides with laughing. The other day would you believe it? she was uneasy, and came to ask me, with unexampled innocence, if children came through the ears.]
Arnolphe to Chrysalde (I. 1, p. 99)

There can be no doubt that laughing at others will cause others to laugh at Arnolphe when and if he is cuckolded. But, worse, Arnolphe will be cuckolded before he marries.

Expectations

  • Arnolphe
  • Climène the prude
  • le Marquis
  • Lysidas, the poet

As you know, communication cannot occur when an interlocuteur hears and sees what he expects to hear and see, which is irony. The Marquis, who has not even seen L’École des femmes, cannot say a word about it. Yet he maintains that the play is détestable. When Dorante asks him to say why the play is “détestable,” he cannot substantiate his “détestable.” All he can say is that the play is détestable because it is détestable, which is not an answer. He cannot dislike a play he hasn’t see, but he can dislike having been squeezed and frippé by the crowd at the entrance to the theatre. He has also heard laughter, which in his eyes is proof positive that the play is a flop, when in fact laughter proves that the play is enormously successful.

Molière seems way ahead of his time. This is the Theatre of the Absurd (le Théâtre de l’Absurde). Yet, it isn’t. Molière depicts humans “d’après nature,” as they are. By doing so, he illustrates flaws in information and communication that now constitute a theory (“noise” in Information Theory).

In other words, the Marquis has been told that the play is a flop, and expects to see a flop. In fact, laughter has caused him not to pay any attention to the play. He is, therefore, undone.

As for the poet Lysidas, he liked the play but says that the connoisseurs have not. So, he claims that L’École des femmes does not respect the rules of classical theatre, which it does. His response and the Marquis’s response have been conditioned by the attacks Molière faces and which he addresses by writing La Critique de l’École des femmes. Truth be told, the prude, the Marquis, and the poet reject The School for Wives because their judgement is flawed by “noise.” They see and hear what they have been told to see and hear. Spectators and readers will laugh honestly, but not a précieuse, a Marquis, or a poet.

Irony

In L’École des femmes, however, the main irony resides in Arnolphe’s failure to defeat Horace. Arnolphe has done the utmost to make sure Agnès knows no more than where to put the tarte à la crème, the cream tart. Moreover, young Horace, who does not know that Arnolphe is Monsieur de la Souche, tells Arnolphe, whom he trusts, all the stratagems he will use to take Agnès away from Monsieur de la Souche’s house, a doubling. Yet, although he is armed to the teeth, Arnolphe loses Agnès.

But an unforeseen event, the fortuitous return of a father, may prevent Horace and Agnès from marrying, despite their own stratagems. Oronte, Horace’s father, wants Horace to marry Enrique’s long-lost daughter. So, ironically, Oronte’s son Horace goes to Arnolphe to tell his woes and then asks our jaloux to protect him by keeping Agnès.

Jugez, en prenant part à mon inquiétude,/ S’il pouvait m’arriver un contre-temps plus rude;/ Cet Enrique, dont hier je m’informais à vous,/1635 Cause tout le malheur dont je ressens les coups;/ Il vient avec mon père achever ma ruine,/ Et c’est sa fille unique à qui l’on me destine.
Horace à Arnolphe (V, vi)
[Feel for my anxiety and judge if a more cruel disappointment could happen to me. That Enrique, whom I asked you about yesterday, is the source of all my trouble. He has come with my father to complete my ruin; it is for his only daughter that I am destined.]
Horace to Arnolphe (V. 6. p. 139)

An Anagnorisis

Fate may harm an authoritarian pater familias, but it is kind to young lovers and will not let the trompeur deceive anyone. It so happens, ironically, that Enrique’s daughter is Agnès and that he has returned much enriched. So, we have an anagnorisis. Horace had asked Arnolphe to hide Agnès so he would not lose her, which is the height of irony, Arnolphe being his rival. However, Agnès is Enrique’s daughter and the bride Oronte has chosen for his son. Moreover, Enrique is opposed to forced marriages and if there is a marriage, he will repay Arnolphe the full cost of bringing up Agnès. Agnès will owe nothing. Comedy may at times border on fairy tales. The young couple will marry. But, as mentioned above:

Oui, mais qui rit d’autrui,
Doit craindre, qu’en revanche, on rie aussi de lui.

Arnolphe à Chrysalde (I, i)
[Yes; but he who laughs at another must beware,
lest he inturn be laughed at himself
.]
Arnolphe to Chrysalde (I. 1, p. 96)

The play seems an exemplum (an example that illustrates a moral), as in a sermon or a fable. Comedy favours the marriage of a young couple. In Act Three, scene two of L’École des femmes, Arnolphe has Agnès read: Les Maximes du Mariage ou Les Devoirs de la femme mariée. Act Three, scene two pp. 37-40. Pleasure rules.

Le moyen de chasser ce qui fait du plaisir ?
Agnès à Arnolphe (V, iv)
[How can we drive away what gives us pleasure?]
Agnès to Arnolphe (V. 4. p, 137)

If obscénité there is in L’École des femmes and La Critique, it resides in the mind of prudes and it is the role some women choose to make up for their evanescent youth and beauty. They play a new role, but they are still on stage. The Marquis proves that the play is immensely successful. People were laughing. As noted above, Molière is way ahead of himself. This is théâtre de l’absurde (the Theatre of the Absurd). Yet, it isn’t. Molière depicts humans “d’après nature,” as they are. But by doing so, he illustrates flaws in information and communication that now constitute a theory (“noise” in Information Theory).

I will leave you to read whatever information I have had to leave out.

RELATED ARTICLES
Page on Molière
La Critique de l’Écoles des femmes: details (15 November 2020)
La Critique de l’École des femmes (10 November 2020)
Destiny in L’École des femmes (1st Novembre 2020)

Sources and Resources

Love to everyone 💕

Marin Marais: Sonnerie de Sainte-Geneviève du Mont de Paris (The Bells of St. Geneviève)
Chef d’une femme par François Boucher

© Micheline Walker
13 Novembre 2020
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