By Iris Kline
During Molière’s life in seventeenth-century France, women were not regarded according to the same standard that they are today. Molière often depicted controversial social issues, and his portrayal of women was not an exception. He focused a lot on contrasts between social classes and the hierarchies within the houses of nobility at the time. A commonality in his plays was the concept of hypocrisy and criticisms of the “faux dévot” or religious hypocrite, and this was extremely controversial in his time, as the French monarchy was Catholic, and Catholicism was widely recognized in France. This is relevant to other facets of Molière’s work, particularly because of the Church’s view of women. Molière challenged not only the beliefs of the church, but also the oppressive systems put in place by it. He covertly challenged socially ingrained misogyny in a way that would be hard to see if you weren’t looking.
One common theme in his plays is the idea of a father giving up his daughter to a suitor, usually of wealth or power. Although this idea is inherently misogynistic, it was the norm of the time and not seen in that way; marriage was more of a business transaction or even a necessary sacrament to get into heaven, than an act of love. While still employing this marriage system, Molière simultaneously challenges the idea by writing female characters as complex humans, rather than objects ready to be traded. He does not write women to be submissive and obey the men;rather they are sure of themselves and know what they want, not just accepting their fate of marrying the man their father chooses. Many times, female characters end up getting to marry the man they truly love, a small act of rebellion against the patriarchal confines they are forced into.
In addition to the controversy of marriage, women in Molière’s plays are multi-faceted, and often portrayed as more intelligent than their male counterparts. For example, in his play Tartuffe, Elmire, the wife of Orgon, is the one to convince Orgon that Tartuffe is a hypocrite. She comes up with an elaborate scheme to show her husband that Tartuffe is not who Orgon suspects him to be, proving her intelligence and Orgon’s lack thereof. Elmire’s plan ends up working so well that Orgon no longer forces his daughter to marry the hypocrite, exemplifying solidarity between the women in the novel. This, among other instances, is a subtle way that Molière challenges traditional stereotypes of women. They become central parts of his plays and, ultimately, the driving forces of plot and interest. Overall, Molière’s plays counteract misogynistic social norms of the seventeenth century, primarily through strong female characters who defy stereotypical expectations of how they should act.
Molière's Tartuffe: An enlightened perspective on women. A Really Cool Blog - ... about science & space, people & politics, various musings & other cool things too. (n.d.). Retrieved November 14, 2021, from http://www.reallycoolblog.com/molieres-tartuffe-an-enlightened-perspectives-on-women/.
Tebben, Maryann. “Speaking of Women: Molière and Conversation at the Court of Louis XIV.” Modern Language Studies, vol. 29, no. 2, Modern Language Studies, 1999, pp. 189–207, https://doi.org/10.2307/3195414.