Study Guide

Célimène in The Misanthrope

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Bella Swan, Eat Your Heart Out. But Now That You're a Vampire, Don't Take That Too Literally.

Bella may have guys fawning all over her in Twilight, but she could never rule them with an iron first like Célimène does. We know two things about Célimène: (1) her milkshake brings all the boys to the yard; (2) she doesn't care about any of them. Oh, and she's really good at keeping people infatuated with her.

Not even her reputation scares them off. According to Arsinoé, "The quantity of gentlemen you see/ And your by now notorious coquetry/ Were both […] vehemently criticized/ By everyone […] " (3.5.15). In other words, everyone in Paris is talking about her. What's not clear is whether that's a bad thing—or a good thing.

The Original Mean Girl

Célimène was written as stereotypical example of women in the seventeenth century who were called les précieuses or, in a less frou-frou language, the precious ones.

We're used to precious meaning something super important or fancy, or even adorable, like, a precious little kid, but this meaning is a little different. This kind of precious means someone or something that is way too refined or delicate. So like that kid you knew who went to England for a year and then came back with all kinds of fake manners and accents that he never had before? Or, you know, the 2000s favorite indie rock band with all the high-falutin' lyrics and prog-rock experiments? Yeah, that's the precious we are talking about.

So these were educated ladies who liked to sit around in literary salons (think about them as fraternities for literature geeks) playing word games and talking about love. Educated ladies were a weird thing at the time, and since these ladies also happened to be hoity-toity, they got made fun of a lot. Molière has written two plays just making fun of these ladies, Les Précieuses ridicules and Les Femmes savants.

What does this have to do with Célimène? Well, she spits hot fire. We said that the precious ladies liked to play word games, but we don't just mean Words With Friends; we also mean ripping people to shreds. These ladies actually changed the French language with the crazy way they spoke, full of metaphors and allusions and poetry. So just like these ladies, Célimène brings the art of dissing your opponent to new heights.

While Mr. Wilbur does a great job of translating the Molière's play, it is a bit more difficult to see how awesome Célimène really is in his verse than in Molière's. Bear with us, since we're not Nobel-prize-winning poets, or anything, but we'll try our best to show you how she works her magic.
Take Act Two, Scene Five, Lines 54-66, where Célimène is talking about someone named Bélise. In French, Célimène says this:

Le pauvre esprit de femme, et le sec entretien!
Lorsqu'elle vient me voir, je souffre le martyre :
Il faut suer sans cesse à chercher que lui dire,
Et la stérilité de son expression
Fait mourir à tous coups la conversation.
En vain, pour attaquer son stupide silence,
De tous les lieux communs vous prenez l'assistance :
Le beau temps et la pluie, et le froid et le chaud
Sont des fonds qu'avec elle on épuise bientôt.
Cependant sa visite, assez insupportable,
Traîne en une longueur encore épouvantable ;
Et l'on demande l'heure, et l'on bâille vingt fois,
Qu'elle grouille aussi peu qu'une pièce de bois

We would translate this more literally like this:

Such a poor lady, and such dry conversation!
Whenever she comes to see me, I suffer like a martyr
You have to sweat endlessly to find something to say to her
And the sterility of her face
Kills all conversation instantly.
You try in vain to attack her stupid silence
With the help of all commonplace things
Like sunshine and rain, the cold and the heat
But she can exhaust those subjects quickly.
Yet her visit, unbearable enough
Drags on until its length is insufferable
And you ask what time it is, and you yawn 20 times
But she doesn't move any more than a bump on a log

Check out that hyperbole! Our translation isn't a work of art or anything, but you can see that Célimène speaks in a very ornate way. Bélise's conversation isn't just stupid, it's "dry"; her face isn't expressionless but "sterile."

What is also important about this scene is that it shows how at ease she is with words and how much pleasure she gets from making fun of other people. She and her friends rapidly talk about a bunch of people, and it seems like Célimène wants to top herself each time with her insults. (For more about these insults, check out "Writing Style.")

She Runs This

Célimène is the only character in the whole play who demands that things be done. Even when things are going bad for her, she still maintains control. Before Alceste is about to tell her how angry he is, she says, "[…] You've grounds for hating me./ Do so; I give you leave," as if he can only hate her if she lets him (5.7.15).

She's also the only person who treats Alceste with no regard at all. Other people seem kind of scared of him, but she couldn't care less, and mocks him to his face. If we were to say anyone had power in the play, at least for the first four acts, it would be Célimène. The problem with her kind of power is that it can come back to bite you, and it does. Célimène uses words to manipulate people, and when her written-down words are exposed, she's abandoned.

Here's the thing. We're pretty sure Molière wanted us to think Célimène was a silly hussy, but we think she's pretty awesome. (Maybe it's all the Spice Girls we grew up with.) Yeah, things didn't end so well, but we imagine she'll just pick herself up and make a new set of friends. Just … not us.

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