The Age of Enlightenment – Tartuffe

A college paper I had to write for my World Literature II class. I hope you enjoy, and I welcome any/all feedback.

At the beginning of the 18th Century, a new movement swept across the Northern Hemisphere, The Age of Enlightenment (1650 – 1800). The Enlightenment was a time when certain writers, and thinkers thought they were more ‘lightened intellectually’ than their counterparts. It was a time in European/American history where intellectuals came forth, and broke free from the reigns of the monarchies. They essentially chose to no longer listen to the monarchies, and instead find the answers to life through scientific reasoning; not by what the monarch was telling them. The Enlightenment is the era in Western philosophy, intellectual, scientific, and cultural life, in which reason was advocated as the primary source of legitimacy and authority. Developing simultaneously in France, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and the American Colonies, the movement was brought on by Atlantic Revolutions, especially the American Revolution by breaking free from the British. The Enlightenment inspired the authors of the American Declaration of Independence, the United States Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and the Polish-Lithuanian Constitution of May 3, 1791. Reason was the main point of the Age of Enlightenment; people began to question God and the Church. The monarch dictated they all did things by the right hand of God/God influenced their decisions. The idea of ‘Human-Rights’ sprung up.

The idea of ‘Human-Rights’ sprung up after the French, Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. When the French revolutionaries drew up the Declaration in August of 1789, their sole aim was to topple the institutions surrounding the hereditary monarchy and establish new ones based on the principles of the Enlightenment. The main goal of the Enlightenment was to apply the methods learned from the scientific revolution to the problems of the society. The Monarch and the Church were not too keen on this idea; however, The Enlightenment was the time when all scientists, poets, writers, etc. came forth with their ideas and were no longer frightened of the consequences they may have. Its advocates committed themselves to the ideas of “reason” and “liberty”. They began to question ideas, and not just go along with them because the Church or Monarch was telling them to.  Liberty meant freedom from religion, freedom from the press, and freedom from unreasonable government (i.e. torture, censorship, etc.). Many Enlightenment writers influenced ordinary readers, politicians, and even heads of state all over the western world.

            The Enlightenment was not a single movement, or a written set of ideas; the Enlightenment was less a set of ideas than it was of values. A prime example of ‘The Age of Enlightenment’ through literary contracts would best be portrayed by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Moliere’s play, Tartuffe. In Tartuffe, one of the main characters, Dorine, signifies closely with the ideas and actions of the Enlightenment period. Tartuffe is the hypocrite of the story; he had his eyes on Orgon’s wife and wanted to steal his estate. Dorine was the clever servant.

            In the first act of Tartuffe, Dorine is introduced as Mariane’s lady’s maid and Moliere immediately begins to depict the character as logical, intelligent, and a plain speaking person. In a conversation that takes place between five characters over the course of the opening act, Madame Pernelle states several long statements. One of the statements, Madame Pernelle is stating how Orante is “virtuous and devout”, Dorine immediately points out that Orante is virtuous and devout primarily due to the fact that the character no longer has the beauty of youth and has instead chosen to live her life in the solitude of her own estate (Moliere, 316). Further into the act, Madame Pernelle continues to talk and states herself of being “A person of sense…” (Moliere, 317), however, later slaps another character; showing that Madame Pernelle’s actions are not that of the Enlightenment, and Dorine’s are.

In scene three of the same act, Orgon returns from a business trip and inquires from Dorine the state of his house. Dorine tells Orgon about how his wife is ill, but he seems uninterested and is only concerned about his houseguest, Tartuffe. Dorine finds his answers to be obsurd, and answers his questions in a sarcastic tone. Orgon, still only caring about his houseguest, doesn’t even notice her sarcasm and still wishes to learn more about the man. Dorine’s sarcastic expression of her incredulity at Orgon’s indifference to his wife’s illness is a fantastic example of the thoughts and feelings towards that of the Enlightenment.

            I thought it was best fitting to elaborate on some of the key elements in Tartuffe that made it such a great adaptation to ‘The Age of Enlightenment’. Through the use of key elements, and literary formats, Tartuffe has been placed in history as one of the best literary plays of all time.

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