in Space, Time, and the Imagination
Molière’s L’Avare (The Miser): Satire, the Satiric, and Comedy
From Comedy in Space, Time and the Imagination, pp. 121-125
If Les Précieuses Ridicules barely fits within our definition of comedy and only roughly fits within the standard descriptions of Molière’s comedy, L’Avare (The Miser) comes close to fulfilling the full expectations of the Molièrean formula and is easy to work with in terms of pure comedy. Even in The Miser, however, Molière is more complex than he might initially seem.
The pattern of The Miser is basically that of a single eccentric figure who stands in the way of the happiness of the society around him. Harpagon is a miser who has decided to marry an attractive but poor young girl, Mariane, who has recently moved into the neighborhood. Unfortunately, his son, Cléante, also has noticed the girl and fallen in love with her. To complicate matters, Harpagon’s daughter, Élise, has been carrying on a secret courtship with Valère, who has taken employment as Harpagon’s butler to be near Élise. Harpagon has recently received an attractive offer for Élise’s hand from a mysterious stranger, Anselme.
In this highly involved situation, which critics from Freud to Frye have considered archetypically comedic, Harpagon’s response to every situation is totally dictated by his miserly and grasping character. Eventually, his miserliness puts him at odds with every other character, including his children, his intended wife, the matchmaker, and his servants. These characters, despite their otherwise disparate interests, are quickly drawn together into a single alliance opposing Harpagon.
With the alliance established, it takes no time at all for the miser to give himself away, divulging the location of his gold while trying to conceal it. Servants and children manage to abscond with the treasure and gain the upper hand. Once in control, the children are able to reveal their true loves. In a typically burlesque ending, the miser’s discomfiture loses center stage to a bizarre series of coincidental revelations. The butler, Valère, is revealed to be the son of a noblemen, shipwrecked with his family sixteen years previously. Mariane is also revealed to have suffered shipwreck, again sixteen years previously. And the mysterious Anselme is revealed to be that very nobleman, the father of both Valère and Mariane, now reunited with his children. The play ends with the young lovers winning the consent of both parents and the children restoring Harpagon’s gold.
In its fundamental comedic patterning, The Miser if obviously directed to the question of whether society can survive when confronted with the human tendency to feed one’s idiosyncrasies and to become a socially destructive eccentric. Molière’s fundamental answer is a patterned action that demonstrates that the eccentric, by his very nature, will turn all society against him. Though the rest of society’s interests are so divergent as to be nearly incomprehensible when presented as a fast-moving farce, the eccentricity of the miser somehow manages to redirect everyone’s energies against him. The ease with which the other characters finally gain control demonstrates both that the eccentric has given a hostage to everyone who is willing to use his eccentric desires against him and that society as a whole has more than enough talent and ingenuity to find a way around a powerful but eccentric blocking figure. Thus, to the central comedic question, Can society survive in the face of powerful eccentricity? Molière answers a resounding yes.
If there is anything difficult and in need of careful examination in The Miser, it is not this basic comedic assertion. Rather, what needs some explanation is the odd final scene with its burlesque revelation of the reunion of Anselme’s family. The parallels to Shakespearean plots from Comedy of Errors to The Tempest are, of course, impossible to ignore. But in Shakespeare, the use of a shipwreck theme fits comfortably into an interpretation of the plays as basically asserting the role of Providence in the affairs of men. For Shakespeare, the world and its seeming accidents are finally governed by an immutable but beneficent Providence that keeps the world on course and precludes its descending to the lowest levels of man’s cruelty and depravity. But the Molièrean corpus seems cynical and totally unwilling to come to such an assertion of Providence.
In The Miser, we have additional reason to doubt the providential assertion of the ending in that Molière has done nothing to incorporate the ending into the rest of the play. It is indeed tacked on. The play could just as easily end with the servants and children getting their way, Harpagon being discomfited, and Anselme being summarily dismissed as a suitor for Élise’s hand. Molière then has provided two endings for his play, the first coming when Harpagon is forced to give in to his social adversaries, the second being the coda revelations of interrelationships among Anselme, Valère, and Mariane.
The best explanation for this strange double ending is that the second ending is satire rather than comedy. It is Molière’s assertion that he does not believe in a providential solution to society’s problems. It is as if Molière were saying, “I have already shown you why society survives the distortions of eccentricities. But most of you in the audience are not hard-headed enough to see the solution with all its hard, impolite corollaries. Therefore, I will give you a second, Pollyanna ending, which is totally unlikely and farfetched. I would just as soon you could look at the real ending, and if you can, the second ending is a neat contrast. But if you can’t accept the first ending, you can leave the theatre happy, if empty-headed, with the second.”
If this is Molière’s assertion, Shakespeare and Molière employ an identical stage convention to assert absolutely antithetical positions. Perhaps nothing in Shakespeare and Molière would serve better to contrast the Renaissance English character of Shakespeare and the French secular seventeenth-century character of Molière. The formal difference is not in the convention; it is in the pattern, of which the convention is merely one element. Using superficially identical conventions, different authors can make diametrically opposed comedic import statements by linking them with other parts of the pattern in ways that lead to opposite implications.
As in Plautus and Shakespeare, we again find in Molière that comedic authors are not averse to introducing chance elements and may even introduce chance elements to advance the plot when there seems no necessity. Far from indicating an artistic fault or extraneous contingency that forced their use, such chance elements repeatedly prove to be part of the central import of the plays in which they are incorporated. It is only an Aristotelian influence in criticism that blinds us to these justifiable uses of chance and forces us to condemn great playwrights. Morris Bishop’s comments on Molière’s deus ex machina endings only typify the narrow vision that results from such ready application of Aristotle’s prejudice:
[the introduction of deus ex machina denouements] is not good certainly, and there is no use dragging in the deus ex machina of the Greeks. But, aside from the fact that the theories of the well-made play had not yet imposed themselves, Molière was bound by a stage convention. Comedies regularly ended with a salute of all the players to the audience (our curtain call); it was customary to have all the characters onstage, and the obvious way to arrange this was to show some massive imbroglio, settled by the appearance of an outside agent to resolve the situation with a minimum of explanation.[i]
Once we have accepted the Aristotelian prejudice, we are forced to admit that consistent Molièrean practice is “not good certainly” as comedy! We are forced to apologize for him by saying that he was bound to stage convention when of all French comedians he seems to have been the most willing to redirect the force of theatre toward his own ends. We excuse his endings as makeshift and ill-constructed.
Without the Aristotelian prejudice, we are free to see Molière making a salient and typically cynical and satiric implied statement. Instead of unconsciously accepting the idea that Molière was employing bad practices in some of his greatest plays, we are free to see why audiences for three centuries have been able to respond to the plays with an enthusiastic sense of Molière’s unique achievement. Most of all, we are free to recognize that even in Molière’s most comedic and formulaic plays, satire is wrestling with comedy for the upper hand and the central import of the play. In Molière’s greatest play, Tartuffe, satire did gain the upper hand and the comedy became little more than a convenient vehicle.
[i] Introduction,” Eight Plays by Molière, edited by Morris Bishop (New York: Modern Library, 1957), p. xii.