Summary and Analysis
Act III: Scenes 5-7
Orgon arrives at the opportune moment and Damis tries to reveal that Tartuffe has been trying to seduce Elmire and is thus filled with treachery. He explains that Elmire was not going to reveal the offense because of her gentility, and Elmire responds that she sees no need of ruining her husband's peace of mind when her own sense of honor does not demand it. Then she leaves.
Orgon turns in wonder to Tartuffe, who exclaims in the most religious language that he is wicked, depraved, and deserving of being driven from the house. He would not defend himself against any charge Orgon or Damis wish to level against him.
Immediately, Orgon turns on Damis and reproaches him for trying to impugn a good man's name. Tartuffe suggests that Orgon should believe Damis' story because while the world takes him to be a good man, he feels that he is the most worthless and the most sinful man in this world. He kneels down and tells Orgon to heap upon him all of the abuse in the world.
Orgon, instead, turns against his son, calling him a villain and an ingrate. Tartuffe, on bended knees, implores that Orgon be gentle with Damis and not harm him. The more Tartuffe begs for tolerance for Damis, the more Orgon turns against his son. Damis refuses to ask pardon of Tartuffe and immediately Orgon disinherits him and throws him out of the house.
Alone with Orgon, Tartuffe offers to leave the house, but Orgon will not hear of it. Instead, he is determined to make his family jealous and to vex them by making Tartuffe his heir and son-in-law. As they leave to draw up the proper documents, Orgon reasserts his belief that Tartuffe is worth more than his wife, his children, or his relatives.
When Damis tries to reveal that Tartuffe has tried to make Orgon a cuckold, Elmire does not either affirm or deny the accusation, but merely puts forward the proposition that a wife should not always be running to her husband with tattle (particularly when her husband probably would not believe her). Here, at the close of the third act, Orgon is revealed in his total absurdity. This is the turning point of the drama and the last two acts will be devoted to forcing him to see his own mistakes.
Orgon's absurdity is almost unbelievable, and it shows how completely he is deceived by Tartuffe's hypocrisy. The reader, to fully appreciate this scene, must understand that during the accusation, it is traditional to have Tartuffe assume a most pious attitude, and in some productions he would be reading piously from his prayer book during the entire accusation.
In asking Orgon to believe all the dreadful things about him, he is adopting a basic religious attitude in which the saintly person over exaggerates his own sins. Here, the irony occurs because Tartuffe is guilty of all the crimes he confesses to, yet Orgon refuses to believe him and immediately turns on his son Damis.
In an age in which rational behavior was extolled, this irrational behavior of Orgon's is the height of madness. As Cléante said earlier, even the religious man must, at times, exhibit good common sense and have a practical side to his nature. Orgon, in his enthusiasm for his newfound religion will not even listen to his own son; he angrily disinherits him — an act which might suggest a saint who would deny his family for the sake of spiritual values. However, driving one's son from the house and cursing him can hardly be called the acts of either a religious man or a sane man. Finally, as Orgon plans to sign away all of his property, partly to vex his own family, we see illustrated for us the extent of his religious fanaticism; in other words, such absurdity as can hardly be believed.