Summary and Analysis
Act IV: Scenes 4-8
Alone with her husband, Elmire instructs Orgon to hide under a table and not to be surprised by some strange behavior on her part. She informs him that she will be only too glad to drop the entire act whenever he is fully satisfied that Tartuffe is a hypocrite who is determined to seduce her. She also reminds Orgon to save her in case Tartuffe advances too far too rapidly.
When Tartuffe arrives, Elmire has him close the door so that they will not be caught as they were earlier by Damis. She then confesses how glad she is to see him. Tartuffe is at first confused by her change until Elmire explains that women are by nature reluctant to confess their love and that her objection to the marriage with Mariane was caused by jealousy. Tartuffe says that he will not be fully convinced until he has more concrete proof and advances toward Elmire. She restrains him by asking time to catch her breath. In order to delay his advances, she inquires if her love might not be offensive to Heaven, toward which Tartuffe professes such reverence. Tartuffe assures her that his purity of intent will be accepted in Heaven's eyes and that there is not sin when that sin is committed in secret. Only the scandal of having the sin known can make the act a sin.
Elmire says loudly that she will have to yield to his desires, and if it is a sin for her to yield, then the person who drove her to the sin must be held responsible. She delays him by asking him to open the door and look out to see if anyone is around, especially her husband. Tartuffe says disparagingly that Orgon is so stupid that even if he saw them he would doubt his sight. Nevertheless, Elmire insists that he go out to look.
After he is gone, Orgon emerges from his hiding place, completely astounded. Elmire tells him to return to hiding until he is completely satisfied, but Orgon is now convinced of Tartuffe's hypocrisy. As Tartuffe is returning, Orgon hides behind Elmire and then immediately accosts Tartuffe and orders him from the house. Tartuffe then reminds Orgon that the house now belongs to him and that Orgon — not Tartuffe — is the one who must leave.
When Orgon is alone with his wife, he confesses that he is frightened about the deed he signed and also about a certain strongbox that should be in Tartuffe's room upstairs. They leave to ascertain its whereabouts.
During the entire episode concerning Elmire's exposure of Tartuffe, the reader must remember that the comedy is more apparent to the viewing audience than it is to the reader because the audience is constantly aware that Orgon is hiding under the table, and, at various moments, the audience would have glimpses of Orgon as he momentarily emerges from his hiding place.
When Elmire tells her husband to stop her whenever he has seen enough to satisfy his doubts and when he has been completely convinced, the situation illustrates Molière's general view of comedy as explained elsewhere. Molière, for example, would always show his main character in sufficient episodes until that character's total absurdity was exposed. Here, Elmire will continue in her charade with Tartuffe until her husband cries "enough." Her final remonstrance to him is that he is to save her from her plight because she does not want to carry the pretended rendezvous too far.
Consequently, part of the comedy of the scene relies upon Orgon's refusal to be convinced. For example, after a couple of speeches, Elmire feels that Tartuffe has already said enough to prove that he is out to seduce her. She constantly coughs and talks to the table in a very loud voice, hoping that her husband will put an end to the farce. It is, however, even more comic when Orgon refuses to believe what he hears and allows his wife to be subjected to further indignities. However, from the perspective of the audience, the comedy lies in the way that Elmire holds off Tartuffe's advances while her husband remains stupefied under the table. The scene could be played with a great deal of physical action as Elmire verbally expresses her devotion for Tartuffe, but continually moves away from him.
Furthermore, Elmire feels that Tartuffe's religious hypocrisy is fully revealed in the manner that he suggests that he will be responsible for any sin which they might commit.
After coughing loudly a number of times and still not being rescued by her husband, Elmire finally pretends to consent to the seduction, but conceives of another ruse to gain time by asking Tartuffe to see if anyone is watching. She pretends to be afraid that her husband might catch them. At this point, Tartuffe finally seals his fate by saying that Orgon is too stupid to understand — even if he caught them.
It seems that only when Tartuffe insults Orgon personally does he finally enrage Orgon sufficiently to make him emerge from his hiding place and denounce his friend. The irony is that he would allow his wife to be put in a compromising position, but only when he was the subject of a personal affront would he denounce Tartuffe as a scoundrel. Consequently, the comedy stems from a type of delayed emergence as we notice Orgon taking so long to be convinced and, finally, being convinced only when he is revealed as an object of contempt.
In Scene 6, after Orgon has been so adamant in his view that only he is correct, we delight in Elmire's sarcasm when she tells him to go back to his hiding place until he is completely convinced. Dorine will later chide him for being too stubborn for too long.
In Scene 7, we take delight in finally having the scoundrel Tartuffe confronted with his own hypocrisy. But when Orgon says that he has long suspected Tartuffe and thought that he would soon catch him in some type of hypocrisy, there is no evidence to support Orgon's claim. In fact, since he was so hard to convince in the preceding scenes, we must assume that he cannot accept all of the indications about his own stupidity.
The scene offers another reversal. After Tartuffe's hypocrisy is exposed, the tables are turned when Tartuffe reveals that he is now master of the house and that it will be Orgon who will have to leave.
Molière's technique here is not to dwell upon Orgon's stupidity — it would be too easy to merely make him the butt of more sarcasm. Instead, once illuminated, Orgon then feels the weight of his own stupidity by being made the victim of Tartuffe's machinations. Molière does not allow us to revel in Orgon's mortification, but immediately makes us feel a bit sympathetic for him, since he now stands in danger of losing everything.
The final scene of the act offers one more bit of suspense as Orgon states his concern about a certain strongbox which we later discover contains some important papers pertaining to the State.