Summary and Analysis
When Orgon arrives from the country, he immediately inquires about his household. But he ignores Dorine's report of his wife's indisposition and, instead, inquires about the health of Tartuffe. Each time he shows concern for Tartuffe, Dorine tells him more bad news about his wife. Totally unresponsive to his wife's problems, Orgon continually feels sorrow for Tartuffe, who has fared well in his host's absence.
After Dorine leaves, Cléante tries to get Orgon to be more reasonable. Orgon, however, will hear no criticism against Tartuffe and characterizes him as an excellent man. Orgon describes some of the pious things which have endeared Tartuffe to him and, when Cléante tries to point out that some of these acts are obviously false piety, Orgon accuses Cléante of being too much a part of the current rage against true piety. Cléante points out that good deeds characterize a religious man, not loud protestations of devotion.
Orgon listens to Cléante, but ignores every word and is about to leave when Cléante detains him to ask about the forthcoming wedding between Mariane and Valère. He points out that Orgon has already given his word of honor that the marriage will take place. Orgon, rather than answering Cléante directly, maintains that he will be guided by the will of heaven in this and all other undertakings. Cléante senses that something is going wrong and plans to warn Valère.
Scene 4 is a highly comic scene which leaves no doubt in anyone's mind that Orgon is completely duped and is also blinded in his devotion to Tartuffe. The comic technique of this relies basically upon the servant-master relationship in which we have the shrewd servant who ridicules the stupid master and the master who is never aware that he is being ridiculed. The other comic technique is simply the use of repetition. That is, when Orgon shows no interest in his wife's condition, she then tells him how content and well off Tartuffe is. That Orgon then feels sorry for Tartuffe and ignores his wife's condition indicates the extent of his folly. This lack of concern verifies Dorine's statement earlier that Orgon does not care for his wife or children and could easily dispose of them in his enthusiastic attention to Tartuffe. Dorine's closing remarks carry a sharp point of wit as she laughs in her master's face without his knowing it.
In Scene 5, Cléante tries to admonish Orgon for being so wrapped up in Tartuffe that he does not even realize that the servant is ridiculing him, but at the same time he admits that Orgon is deserving of the ridicule.
Orgon's first attempted defense of Tartuffe is highly revealing in that, when he tries to explain exactly what virtues Tartuffe possesses, he can only stutter, "He's a man . . . a man who . . . an excellent man." Obviously, Orgon is so influenced by this man that he has apparently lost all ability to evaluate anything rationally.
Orgon's speech also sets the tone for all of the objections to the play during Molière's times. It should now be apparent that the clergy and others did not object to the obvious portrayal of a hypocrite in religious matters. Even though it was true that in the earliest productions, Tartuffe was often depicted as a member of the clergy, such forthright satire would not be highly objectionable, even to the clergy. Ironically, the objections rested upon Orgon's ready acceptance of many of the Christian doctrines and on his perversion of these basic doctrines. When Orgon says that Tartuffe "has taught me to view this dunghill of a world with scorn," he is expressing one of the cardinal principles of a saintly man. Many of his other expressions are also those which are admired in the saints of the church. The behavior of Orgon is revered when that same behavior is evinced by one of the church's saints. For example, a saint is a person who would despise the world and spend all of his time learning to reject the things of this world. Orgon thus exhibits the qualities which would define a saint.
Orgon also says that his soul has been freed from all earthly ties or loves. If his brother, mother, wife, or children were to die, it would not matter to him. Again, the saint is often seen as a person who puts aside his earthly cares and allegiances in favor of more spiritual matters. This stems from the very roots of Christian doctrine, since the true saint cannot allow any earthly loves to interfere with his divine mission.
Finally, in terms of the norm in society, a saint is a person who by definition is abnormal. He is separated from the mainstream of society and stands apart from the average person. Consequently, for Molière to choose a person such as Orgon to adopt the language of the saint and then to have him mouth certain basic Christian doctrines while at the same time acting so foolish and contrary to common sense — the combination of these qualities caused many people to react strongly against the play and demand that it be banned.
We should also remember that Molière wrote in an age that demanded a certain adherence to common sense, good conduct, and rational behavior. Even though Orgon is advocating important Christian principles, we cannot say that he is conducting his life by any principles of good sense, thus causing the audience to condemn not only his actions but the very Christian doctrines which he advocates. For example, note how often Cléante exclaims, "Good God, have you lost all of your common sense!"
What becomes apparent to the audience in Orgon's description of Tartuffe is that he is a person who plays upon the outward acts of religion. Orgon describes how loudly Tartuffe prays in church, how obsequious he is in performing minor tasks in the church, and what humility he has in accepting only small gifts. These descriptions make it obvious that Tartuffe is using the outward acts of religion to appear religious.
Cléante, who has never met Tartuffe, recognizes the hypocrisy in such acts and tries to reason with Orgon. Cléante suggests that even in religious matters a man must employ common sense and criticizes the apparent "affected zeal" and the "pious hypocrisy" practiced by Tartuffe. He suggests that the truly religious person has no desire to parade his "holiness" before the world for all to see. Furthermore, Cléante points out that the truly religious man does not spend his time chiding and criticizing others; instead, he is moderate and humane, trying to teach by good examples rather than by vituperative criticism. Cléante concludes that Orgon has been greatly deluded by Tartuffe.
Orgon, however, is so deluded that he cannot listen to any criticism. The high degree of his absurd deviation from the norm of behavior is rapidly becoming apparent to the audience and we now observe how far he will go in his absurdities before regaining his rationality.
Act I closes with Cléante inquiring about Orgon's promise that his daughter could marry Valère. To the right-thinking religious man, a word of honor is binding. Yet Orgon, who has previously given his word of honor that the marriage can take place, begins now to retract. The first act, which opened with the blustering of Orgon's mother, closes with the fickle equivocations of Orgon.