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Alceste is our title character, our protagonist, our main man, our head honcho, our…well, you get the idea. But if he is the title character, what is a misanthrope?
Well, the word comes from two Greek words that mean "to hate," and "mankind." So basically a misanthrope is a person who hates other people. Not just a certain kind of person; that's a bigot. No, a misanthrope hates everyone equally.
That is a super complicated word for something so basic, isn't it? You probably know someone who just hates people. Molière died a long time ago, so the much more convenient term "hater," had not been invented yet.
So, what makes Alceste a hater? Oh man, too many things. He is the president of the hater club. He sips on haterade exclusively. He basically says it outright shortly after we meet him with the famous line, "The friend of mankind is no friend of mine"(1.1.65). And then, in case we didn't get it, he says "I mean to break with the whole human race" (1.1.100). Oookay, guess he means it.
Not only does he hate people, but he can't even stand to live near them. He keeps threatening to go be a hermit and live all by himself, away from people: "Sometimes, I swear, I'm moved to flee and find/Some desert land unfouled by humankind." (1.1.148). Then at the end of the play, Philinte and Éliante have to go chase him down because his answer to life is living alone in a cave.
(By the way, for more on the word "misanthrope" and its implications for our not-so-heroic protagonist, check out "What's Up With the Title?")
Now, why does Alceste, our hater extraordinaire, hate humanity so much? Because people lack sincerity. Really, that wouldn't be at the top of our list, what with child soldiers and global hunger and all, but we guess he wants to starts small.
Also we guess seventeenth-century Paris had limited access to Google News.
Anyway, people be lyin', and Alceste hates them all. Not just insincere people, he hates people who are corrupt and the people who let them be corrupt. We get that a bit more because, yeah people who do horrible things are horrible. People who lie about liking your perfume? Really, not that bad. Actually kind of polite.
Anyway, back to our hater. He says, "Some men I hate for being rogues; the others/ I hate because they treat the rogues like brothers" (1.2.122). On the surface that sounds great because, not only do bad people stink (obviously), but as the late great Dr. Martin Luther King has said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." In other words, if you tolerate jerks, you're a jerk yourself. So clean up the Facebook friends list, why don't you?
The problem is that Alceste goes all the way down with this logic. If our BFF is wearing a horrible shirt and we don't, like, physically rip it off, are we really sad excuses for human beings? Was it your mom's job to tell you that, no, that macaroni painting you made her in kindergarten should not get to hang in the Guggenheim? Should your music teacher have informed you seriously that you should probably just close your mouth and hit the triangle?
Despite all of his hardline morality, Alceste has one huge Achilles heel: Célimène. Man, Alceste would do anything for her. Even go against all that stuff that he said about hating on people? Yep, Shmooperoos, even that.
You can hop on over to check out Célimène's "Character Analysis" to see more about her, but what you need to know about her right now is that she is fake. Fake, fake, fake. The "talking bad about you one second, kissing you the next second" kind of fake. Éliante says she's so fake that she doesn't even know the truth about how she feels. That's pretty fake, and yet Mr. Keeping-It-Real-Gone-Wrong himself loves her.
Alceste knows that it's hypocritical for him to love Célimène, but he can't help himself. He says, "True, true: each day my reason tells me so;/ But reason doesn't rule in love, you know" (1.1.259). Alceste is totally not the voice of reason in this play (that title goes to Philinte—check out his character analysis, too) and he is ruled by his emotions. His morals might make him rage and be angry with everyone, but his heart must be stronger because it makes him work against his morals.
We get it, you can't choose who you love. That's why there are so many stories about star-crossed lovers and love at first sight. The kind of love that Alceste and his buddies are talking about is like magic. But there is one thing that crosses the line for us with Alceste's brand of crazy: he actually asks Célimène to be a hypocrite.
To be precise, he tells her to "Pretend, pretend, that you are just and true,/And I shall make myself believe in you" (4.3.115). That's not really living up to his precepts, right? And then, just to spite him, Célimène refuses to lie this one time!
Not only that (Yeah, yeah, we know we said "one thing") but he promises that he will get with Éliante but when everything is over he is stuttering trying to find a way to back out on his word. Everything else we could excuse as him being twitterpated, but these last two things set our drool-o-senses a 'tingling .
So, which is it? Does Alceste get a free pass because he is in love, or does he betray everything he stands for?
Jean-Jacques Rousseau tells his friend in his essay "Letter to M. D'Alembert on Spectacles" that we should all side with Alceste in The Misanthrope because he upholds good and right morals, while everyone else is corrupt and deceitful.
Easy for you to say, Mr. Rousseau. We're not so sure it's all that black and white.
True, honesty is a virtue, but we are pretty sure that the Dalai Lama or Mother Teresa wouldn't just tell an old lady that her makeup is ugly even if it is. Aren't tact and restraint important, too? And consideration for other people's feelings? Plus, Alceste is always angry and yelling at people. So, even without the whole hypocrisy issue, we aren't sure if Alceste really has the moral upper hand.
Since we can't fully root for or against Alceste, we actually pity him more often than not. His constant chasing after Célimène is a little like a nerd chasing after the most popular girl in school, and it's pretty sad. Plus no one likes him and he loses his lawsuit. Doubly sad. (Or is it triple, at this point?) Okay, so it kind of serves him right, but at least he meant to do good things. And Oronte did ask for it.
Molière is pretty ambiguous about a lot of things in the play, and maybe Alceste most of all. Is he a voice of morality? Or is he a hypocrite? Should we stand with or against Alceste? Or, should we just pity the fool?