Tartuffe Summary

The play, written by Moliere goes far from the average French farce. The simple and easily understandable structure is discarded, the play starts from the middle of events and the main character, Tartuffe, doesn’t appear until the third act. These peculiarities though still allow “Tartuffe” to be classified as a farce play - Tartuffe is a trickster who scams the average middle-aged man, pretending to be living saint. The rest of the cast also qualifies: Orgon’s smart wife Elmire and her handmaid Dorine, who are no less tricksters, but benevolent one, beautiful and innocent Mariane who is in love with equally handsome and virtuous young man Valere and Madame Pernelle, who is an exaggerated Puritan and a comic relief.

The play starts from the huge quarrel started by Madame Pernelle, Orgon’s mother, who wants to move immediately. She claims that Orgon’s family sank in the decadence and immorality beyond any redemption and doesn’t want to have anything in common with her son. During the argument we learn more about the family Orgon lives in and the mysterious man named Tartuffe. Now we know that Orgon is happily married to much younger and beautiful Elmire. Elmire adopted his two kids from the previous marriage and became a benevolent and kind stepmother. Orgon’s kids, Damis and Mariane love Elmire back and trust her as they would trust their own mother. The siblings are luckily engaged to another pair of siblings: Mariane to Valere and Damis to his sister. Everything was fine until the mysterious Tartuffe shows up.

Orgon met Tartuffe while he was praying in the church. Tartuffe had no house, no money and no property at all, but he looked so sincerely religious and enlightened, that Orgon immediately believed Tartuffe is a living saint. He invites Tartuffe into his home, where the scoundrel immediately feels too free and starts hypocritically shaming others, trying to make them obey. A happy and jovial family turns into the mix of prison and monastery: now every family member has to follow strict rules, constantly pray and cut short their mundane happy moments, because it’s a sin. Orgon is ecstatic about the new order in his house, but his family is less than amused. Finally, seeing that no one objects, Tartuffe demands that Marianne breaks her engagement to Valere, saying that she is too frivolous and needs to marry the pious man to avoid going to Hell. Orgon gladly accepts this idea and goes to Marianne. He believes that she admires Tartuffe as much as he is, so when he, pretending to be a good father, asks her about her feelings towards Tartuffe, Orgon is clearly shocked to hear the answer - there are none. Orgon strictly lectures his daughter about what she has to feel: admiration, love and desire to immediately marry him instead of Valere. Mariane is too shy to object openly and is almost ready to bitterly agree, but luckily for her, Elmire’s handmaid, Dorine overhears the conversation and immediately interferes, mocking her master and saying that idea of marriage to Tartuffe is utterly ridiculous - angering him and thus saving poor Marianne from the rest of the talk.

After Marianne’s father leaves, Dorine harshly scolds Marianne for being so spineless and too weak to defend her love, but finally the handmaid decides to help her and promises to make a plan. When Dorine leaves, enter Valere, who have already heard the rumors about the breaking of the engagement. Marianne can’t say anything in particular, so they end up arguing over nothing. Dorine manages to settle down their argument and offers Marianne to pretend to be obedient and ready to marry Tartuffe, winning them time. Not the best decision, but the only one the trio has for now.

When Dorine reports to her mistress about Orgon’s plans everyone wholeheartedly hates Tartuffe and wants him out. Even Orgon’s brother-in-law interferes, calling him an idiot and asking about the rumors about postponed Mariane’s wedding. Orgon confirms the rumors but doesn’t tell the reasons, that makes Cleante - the aforementioned brother-in-law - worry about the poor girl very much. The only person at home who admires Tartuffe as much as Orgon does is Madame Pernelle, who clearly indulges in following the strict rules and abstinence from joy, considering it the righteous way of life.

Dorine tries her best to somehow break the bond between Orgon and Tartuffe, also trying to get Tartuffe’s new valet, Laurent into troubles. She and Elmire do anything to return the previous life to their family, but Tartuffe is a great con artist and he seems to have an unlimited power over Orgon.

Meanwhile, Madame Pernelle starts her own personal scheming crusade against Elmire. She considers Elmire too frivolous and sinful, loving clothes and amusements much more than God. She believes that Elmire has spoiled Marianne and Tartuffe, that saint man, makes a great sacrifice to marry such a brat now to save her soul. Madame Pernelle isn’t capable to receive pleasure just from living and considers joy, laughter and interest in something except prayers, a sin and disgrace. Orgon, who was taught by his wife to enjoy life, now returns back to his previous state of an extreme Puritan. Moreover, he believes that every family member shall sacrifice their well-being for the sake of Tartuffe. Even when Dorine reports to him that mistress is dangerously ill, the only his concern is the health of Tartuffe - he is afraid that his personal saint can fall ill too, because of contagious disease. Nevertheless, Tartuffe is perfectly healthy, he eats lavish meals and sleeps in the soft bed, while the rest of the family have to live without any comfort, eating plain food and sleeping not well enough.

The things get worse when Tartuffe’s real intents and desires are revealed. He wants to use Marianne to stay in the family (and has nothing against the young girl warming his bed), but one woman is not enough for him: Tartuffe’s main goal is Orgon’s wife Elmire. When Elmire slowly recovers from her disease, he comes to her, pretending to be concerned about her health. Tartuffe shamelessly compliments her appearance and ends up laying his hand on her knee. Elmire tries to resist, but Tartuffe is too persistent and it seems that next time it could turn into something much more dangerous than mere touch. Luckily for Elmire, her stepson Damis accidentally sees their conversation and his distressed stepmother - he was in Elmire’s room when Tartuffe entered and had to hide in the cabinet. Enraged by this behaviour, Damis goes straight to his father, saying that Tartuffe is trying to seduce his wife against her will. But Orgon is so deeply under the influence of Tartuffe that he immediately claims it is a lie and goes as far as ordering Damis to apologize before Tartuffe. This is too much for Damis and he stands against his father’s order, blatantly refusing to do so. Enraged, Orgon kicks his son out of his house, claiming that he doesn’t have a son anymore. Tartuffe still pretends to be deeply offended and Orgon, trying to apologize for his son, immediately gives his house to Tartuffe and announces that Marianne will marry him immediately. He praises Tartuffe for his piety and honesty and the con artist finally shows that he is ready to pardon the “sinner”.

This is too much for Elmire. Disowning her son, almost disgracing her and now marrying her daughter is something she can’t stand anymore. Elmire gives an oath to reveal the true identity of Tartuffe. After a long argument she persuades Orgon to hide under the clothed table and listen to Tartuffe when he thinks he is alone with Elmire. Orgon, who is completely sure that Elmire and Damis are lying to him, agrees and sits quietly under the table when Elmire invites Tartuffe. She hints that her husband is too dumb to suspect anything and asks Tartuffe to tell him his intentions. Reassured, Tartuffe tries to seduce he, clearly stating that he wants her as her mistress after he marries Marianne and mocking Orgon for being so stupid. Enraged, Orgon stands and immediately demands that scoundrel leaves his house immediately. But Tartuffe isn’t going to obey. Laughing, he reminds Orgon that he himself gave him his house and all the rights to it, so it is a big question now who will stay and who must leave.

But there is something much worse than the fact Orgon and his family are now homeless. In his home Orgon hides a terrible secret given to him by his friend, Argas, a political criminal who plotted against the King and now is exiled. Orgon suspects that there are some important documents in the box Argas gave to him, something that may mean execution for Orgon for the highest treason and the same fate to Argas. Orgon was so foolish and reckless that he told Tartuffe about the box, so now he fears that Tartuffe will blackmail him with it. Seeking help, Orgon rushes to his brother-in-law and tells him everything that happened (except the box), promising him to never talk to the religious people again and avoid them by all means possible. Cleonte, though, is not amused, saying that religion itself isn’t bad just because some scammers use it for their own benefits. Cleonte scolds Orgon again for having such an unbalanced temper, but for now he can’t help him in any way. Sad, Orgon returns home, hoping that Tartuffe will have mercy on his family.

But the morning of the next day shows that mercy is unfamiliar concept for Tartuffe. He uses his right as the owner of the house to throw all the family away. Everyone except Madame Pernelle looks at Tartuffe with sheer hatred, but the old lady still can’t believe that her reverend saint turned up to be a villain. She tries to settle down the situation and shame Orgon, saying that he should immediately apologize before Tartuffe, because it is surely some mistake. She continues her lecturing until the sheriff appears and asks the family out. At this moment Madame Pernelle finally believes that everything is going to end ugly. She is completely broken and disillusioned now.

But even now Tartuffe isn’t satisfied. He decides to completely destroy Orgon just for his own amusement. Taking the box with the dangerous documents, the scoundrel goes straight to the King, saying that he is the new owner of the house, who has just realized that the previous owner was a traitor. Everything starts to look grim, Tartuffe demands Orgon to be arrested immediately, but a sudden turn saves the poor family. Before the King takes the box, he looks at Tartuffe closely and suddenly recognizes him as convicted criminal who was long wanted in the other city. Orgon, on the contrary, has an excellent reputation of a respected citizen and former army member. The King himself breaks all the deals made between Orgon and Tartuff and frees Orgon from any promises he gave to Tartuffe. Tartuffe is going to the jail, the house is returned to Orgon, his wife can now again enjoy life without being shunned and Marianne is finally free to marry Valere. The box that was so dangerous for Orgon to keep was returned to him by the King, unopened - the King believes his subordinate so much that he doesn’t even check the documents inside.