Summary and Analysis
Act III: Scenes 5-6
Arsinoé immediately tells Célimène that she has come to prove her love and affections for the younger person by telling her all of the gossip that has been circulating about her. She explains that Célimène's conduct is beginning to win a certain amount of notoriety, and that recently in several conversations, she has tried to stand up for Célimène by explaining to others that Célimiène meant no harm in the things she did. However, Arsinoé is finally compelled to admit that Célimène's conduct must be wrong because so many people have criticized it. She concludes by saying that only the purest and best motives cause her to repeat what the various gossips are saying about her.
Célimène wants to repay the "favor," so she proceeds to tell Arsinoé what the town is saying about her. Generally, Célimène says, people think Arsinoé acts too much the part of the prude. She pretends to have virtues which she does not really possess. She makes an "outward show of virtue and modesty" but then paints herself in a disgraceful fashion by her actions. Célimène advises Arsinoé to "meddle less with other people's conduct, and look a bit more closely to your own." She ends by explaining that she has only said these things because of her concern for Arsinoé.
Arsinoé is offended, and reprimands Célimène for being so frank. Célimène, however, maintains that such mutual warnings are good and "dispel that blindness most of us suffer as regards ourselves." She also says that when she is older she will then perhaps become a prude, but "it's not time to be a prude at twenty." Furthermore, she doesn't like to be blamed for all of Arsinoé's disappointments.
Arsinoé maintains that she could have as many admirers as does Célimène if she lowered her standards enough to attract men. Célimène challenges her to do so, and as Alceste arrives at this minute, she excuses herself to go write some letters, thus leaving Alceste to entertain Arsinoé.
This scene, one of the most masterful in the play, is concerned with the social shams that masquerade as true human relationships. Each of the women claims to be telling the other one the prevailing gossip for her benefit. Arsinoé says that she has heard that Célimène is being talked about in many circles as being a gossip. What she says may be true enough, though we even doubt that, but the motive behind her telling is far from noble. In the same way, Célimène says that she has heard that Arsinoé is being talked about as being a meddler and ostentatious person. Actually the two women are speaking the truth as Alceste would have true friends do. But the truth is here disguised behind the facade of pretense; the purpose is not really to improve their relationship, but to antagonize and spite the other person.
The general purpose of social comedy is to point out the foibles of individuals so that they can reform. In this short scene Molière ironically presents two characters who are apparently trying to point out each other's failings — an admirable thing in comedy. But by using this traditional device in reverse — the two women are not reforming one another — he sharpens his criticism of the two women themselves.
Although in this particular scene Célimène and Arsinoé are not particularly admirable characters, Molière has them mouth certain general truths about each other's character. Neither of them, however, recognizes such as meaningful because of the purpose for which it is being told. For example, there are many stock phrases stated by each character: that we should judge ourselves before we judge others, that a woman becomes a prude only when she is too old to attract men, that we should clean our own backyard before we criticize our neighbors, etc. But the characters mouth these statements only as social formulas and are totally unaware of the truth behind the statements.
We have so far in the play seen Célimène functioning as a superb example of the society in which she lives. Now in this scene with Arsinoé, we see her feeling the pinch of criticism of the malicious side of society which she herself has helped support. By the end of the play, she will be trapped by the society which she represents; we get an intimation of that in this early scene.
The basic antagonism between Célimène and Arsinoé is the result of several factors. First, Arsinoé is jealous of the younger beauty. Célimène has taken away several of Arsinoé's admirers, and out of bitterness, Arsinoé has been telling people of her own virtue and suggesting that Célimène attracts suitors by being a loose woman. Célimène resents the slander and therefore accuses Arsinoé of starting the slander because she is too old to attract men herself.