Summary and Analysis
Act I: Scene 2
Oronte, a rival suitor for the hand of Célimène, interrupts the discussion between Alceste and Philinte. He praises Alceste highly and pledges everlasting friendship. Alceste refrains from entering into a pledged bond of friendship, maintaining that the two men should get to know each other somewhat better. Oronte then suggests that by way of establishing their friendship Alceste should evaluate a sonnet he (Oronte) has just written. As he reads the poem, Philinte praises certain parts while Alceste recoils from both the poem and the praise. Finally, Alceste is so angered at the false praise that he has difficulty in restraining himself. As Oronte forces Alceste to make an evaluation of the poem, Alceste cannot bring himself to flatter such a piece of nonsense. He eventually tells Oronte that the poem, style, and subject matter are sheer affectation. He advises Oronte to put the poem away and never read it again in public. When Oronte realizes that Alceste will not praise the poem according to the custom of society, Oronte becomes highly indignant and leaves in a fit of rage.
In the first scene, Molière set up his dialectic between the completely frank view and the tactful view. In the second scene, he introduces a character which will test the two viewpoints. The entrance of Oronte brings the abstract ideas to a practical test. Oronte is obviously the type of dissimulating fop which Alceste was decrying in the first scene. Consequently, the appearance of Oronte openly supports Alceste's argument.
It is further established in this scene that Alceste does not know how to function in his role of "social animal." As Oronte talks to Alceste, the latter seems to take no notice of Oronte's presence. He makes only a mild effort to be tolerant. Yet, Alceste does not immediately reject Oronte and attempts to back out gracefully. He does not openly reject Oronte's friendship, but tries to get around accepting his friendship. And later, he does not openly criticize Oronte's poem until he is forced to pronounce an opinion. Alceste is infuriated that Philinte will volunteer praise when it is not asked for. Actually, Alceste tries to present an analogy of another person who wrote poetry, hoping that Oronte will see the connection and thus relieve him from making a pronouncement. Only when he is pressed by this pest, who simply wants to receive the same flattery, does Alceste actually tell him that the poem is trite and insignificant.
The poem illustrates all the flaws which Alceste objects to in the society. The poem is filled with affectations and elaborate similes, thus showing a fondness of elegant and false language. These are the basic qualities which Alceste objects to in his society. He prefers a type of poem which expresses a simple emotion in a straightforward manner.
Toward the end of the scene, we see the result of Alceste's adherence to his viewpoint: That is, he has made an enemy by refusing to praise Oronte's poem. Alceste will be summoned to appear before the marshals because of his refusal to compliment Oronte's poem. Both viewpoints will later be exposed to be ridiculous, but for the final actions of Scene 2, it is enough to note the anger caused by Alceste's honest criticism.