Summary and Analysis
Act III: Scenes 3-4
After Tartuffe inquires about Elmire's health and pays her some obvious compliments, he then expresses his joy at being alone with her. She tells him that she wants to discuss something confidential with him and he responds by saying that he has long wanted to open his heart to her. He takes her hand and expresses his great admiration for her and Elmire draws back. She moves her chair just as he begins to feel her knee and to comment upon the softness of her gown.
Tartuffe pursues, declaring his passion for Elmire. She reminds him that such declarations ill become a pious man, but he replies by pointing out that even religious men can feel the power of such charms as those of Elmire. He then offers her his love with the assurance that she will be safe from gossip and slander because he also will want to protect his name; she can feel quite secure, he says, in having an affair without being discovered.
Elmire rebukes him and tells him that if he does not put an end to the forthcoming marriage between himself and Mariane, she will inform her husband of his proposal.
At this moment, Damis cannot restrain himself any longer and comes forth, asserting his determination to expose Tartuffe for the hypocrite he is. Elmire tries to restrain him, but his hot temper and hatred for the hypocrite are too strong for him to listen to reason.
The reader of the play sometimes forgets that the audience would be fully aware that Damis is hiding during this scene and is thus overhearing everything that Tartuffe says to Elmire. This comic technique, called the comedy of concealment, is often used by Molière.
Molière is careful here not to make Tartuffe a hypocrite in the abstract. Tartuffe is very human, a man who has all the basic impulses of any person, and the interest of the play lies partly in the fact that his own passion and desire for Elmire is the flaw that lets him forget his ultimate plan and causes him to abandon the careful disguise he has so far maintained.
Earlier in the play, Dorine had hoped that Elmire could have some influence over Tartuffe, but Tartuffe's passion for Elmire comes as a surprise to us. The manner in which he cannot control his passion and the way he pursues Elmire, who constantly rebuffs him, constitute the essential comedy of this scene.
Tartuffe's hypocrisy — once vicious — now becomes comic as we see the absurd manner in which he uses reverse logic to suggest that a woman is safe in having an affair with a pious man because the pious man himself must be careful to protect his name. Tartuffe's passion, furthermore, is so intense that he cannot discern that Elmire finds him repulsive.
Elmire's primary role is to get Tartuffe to repudiate the marriage between himself and Mariane. To accomplish this, she allows Tartuffe to proceed so far in revealing his love, but rather than making a scene about it or actually revealing his hypocrisy to her husband, her first desire is to prevent the impending marriage. Damis' arrival, with his hot-tempered determination to reveal Tartuffe's treachery, spoils the more reasonable plan put forward by Elmire. Elmire's view is the more rational view as she maintains that a woman should not run and tattle to her husband every time a man makes an overture to her.