Author     About Us

Another look at Moliere's l'Avare (The Miser)

by Richard Seltzer,,

This article is based on a paper written in while a student at Brentwood School in Brentwood, Essex, England, May, 1965

Act IV, Scene 7 (assignment = explication de texte)

It's quite easy to skip lightly over this passage, noting the irony of "j'ignore... qui je suis, et ce que je fais," the exaggerated images carried to ridiculous lengths, the sentence by sentence development and logic, his all-inclusive suspicion, etc. Then a few comments about Harpagon's distorted sense of values (poor chap), about his love of money being like love of a woman, about his slapstick acting and talking directly to the audience, making it obviously comedy, about his separation from the world of the other characters being emphasized by his even noticing the audience...

But this play has a deeper level on which it can be read more meaningfully.

I asked myself:
Why should a man of his age
Be alone, alone
On a wide, wide stage
In a world of his own?

A man can't be born an exile, un etranger. One also can't change over night.

In this scene (IV 7) for the first and only time the depth Harpagon's feelings is immediately apparent. The object of his passionate, self-less, never-ending love is money; but money is an unnatural object for emotion: he could not have loved it thus from his birth. Here then is a highly sensitive man, who builds his whole world on the object of his love, who is totally lost, helpless, as good as dead without what is dearest to him. Consider this man as young; consider him as speaking about a woman, his dearly beloved, his wife for instance.

The clue lies in this character who is never present, never mentioned, never alluded to: Harpagon's dead wife. The children obviously don't have very fresh memories of her, for Cleante in his anger would hardly refrain from including her memory in his reproaches of his father's actions. It is therefore natural to assume that she died shortly after the birth of the children and that Harpagon, who is so capable of surrendering himself completely in love, loved her deeply.

Add to this wife the many other possible lost loves he could have had, loves upon whom he could likewise have centered, founded his world: mother, friend, pet... Think of Felicite in Flaubert's "Un Coeur Simple": one lost love after another, one resulting misery after another, coupled with a need to love someone, something. She finally transfers her love to the stuffed corpse of the parrot she had loved; she ends up, in sheer emotional self-defense or exhaustion, loving an object which is already dead and therefore cannot die, which she can safely trust she won't be deprived of.

Jump back to Harpagon, similarly oppressed by "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" but not just un coeur simple, on the contrary highly intelligent and sensitive, with depths of feeling Felicite is incapable of: a tragic rather than a pathetic character (at this stage at least). Instead of a stuffed parrot, his defense, his shield, his wall (hence his "raideur") is in making money the object of his love. The soul may endure forever in another world; but in this one, money is more obviously permanent: it can be buried and continually watched, guarded to ensure it's continued presence.

Thus the exile. Money has taken the place of man. THink of the passage by Donne about "no man is an island." Replace man with coin or a denomination of money, and the similar emotion of Harpagon is expressed: another's waste of money touches him personally.

Think of the whole play with this in mind. The Mariane incident is a faltering step back toward normality. Harpagon lowers the stiff shield a moment and partially bares himself to possible pain. He considers marrying Mariane even if she doesn't have any money. No wonder he attacks his son so mercilessly with no holds barred (IV 3). No wonder he clings all the more tightly to his "chere cassette" in the last scene after he has lost this last human contact, last renaissant human love. Harpagon is in fact the only dynamic character in the play.

Ah! Then shows forth the profound irony of the play. These "hommes raisonables", "hommes naturels" with their normal human relationships and love: they are revealed throughout and especially in I 1 and IV 1 as of many words, precious words, highly scrupulous about conventional forms, not too likely to get carried away by passion. Among them "...chacun tient les memes discours. Tous les homes sont sembables par les paroles; et ce n'est que les actions qui les decouvrent differents." These foolish wretches capable of only superficial feeling, these puppets, these pointless machines going through the actions of the fertility cults, doing just as expected, prescribed just at the right moment: they, irony of ironies, consider Harpagon as a feelingless automaton, a comic character incapable of human emotion. If they be basking in the light of reason and nature, then surely Harpagon is buried, buried in a deep dark pit of emotion, close to the heart of experience. The contrast is not between sane and insane, right and wrong, but between shallow and deep.

Then what meaning this scene pours forth! "Je ne jette mes regards sur personne qui ne me donne des soupcons, et tout me semble mon voleur." Sure, on the surface, quite comic, quite ridiculously suspicious. But further on, Moliere makes clear his meaning. "Ils me regardent tous, et se mettent a rire. Vous verrez qu'ils ont part sans doute au vol que l'on m'a fait." And indeed they do take part in the theft: they -- all who associate with him -- laught at him, help rob him of his precious reason, push him further in his folly. No one cares for him or bothers to try to understand him. If they would, he would certainly be ressucite, could begin life anew. But they just humor him, use him, and laugh at him. He himself is also guilty; but his is a guilt of cowardice, a cowardice related to that of suicide rather than the callousness of the others.

Reread the play and you'll see that practically every  word takes on a new significance.

So now you say, "Fine, you've rambled for pages. It's a curiosity, interesting enough for a moment's thought.  But you are reading too much into the play, rather than studying the text itself. Moliere never thought of such things when he wrote it. He didn't intend such an interpretation."  But this very question of intention takes the reader to the heart of the play, to the machinery that produced it, and with just one more step the controls are nearly within reach.

If for a moment at least in IV 7, Moliere himself is speaking, when he speaks of guilt: personal guilt and the guilt of all who could laught at him, what could he mean? Isn't it the guilt, despair, frustration of a genius who realizes the extent of his power of self-expression but feels he has failed, prostituted it, sold it to the mob and thus failed to produce a work which he could consider worthy, of which he would dare to say: "This is my life, my masterpiece: whatever time or chance does to me or it: I created it; I completed it; c'est moi." Every time the audience laughed, didn't they push him further in his folly of writing only comedies fashioned to make the audience laugh more, of changing and suppressing passages and ideas to keep them laughing? And those laughs that kept pushing him and that he kept seeking in a  vicious circle meant money.

Does his life bear this out? His mother died when he was ten, and his first high-flying theatrical hopes crashed in debtor's prison; but such searching for miseries and evidence of love of money in the hope of making a point by point comparison between Moliere and Harpagon is futile and probably worthless.  Two short quotes from the introduction should suffice as proof of the high probability of the essential: "Certain critics have regretted the fact that Moliere was obliged to expend so much of his time and genius on the writing of Court plays and ballets." "There is no doubt that he amassed a considerable fortune and was able to enjoy many comforts; he had much to make him happy but he was inclined to be morose: 'il fit rire, mais il ne riait pas.'"

Is it comedy or tragedy? Useless academic question. wAs life ever either purely comic or tragic? On rit et pleure tout a la fois. C'est un chef-d'oeuvre! C'est la vie! Final crowning irony: his despair at never having written his masterpiece produced his masterpiece: he did create himself in worlds; he actually placed himself naked on the stage and the crowd laughed at the emperor's new clothes.

This site is published by Samizdat Express, Orange, CT,  Orange, CT   
privacy statement