Study Guide

Tartuffe Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Tower of Babylon

You may have heard of this little thing called the Tower of Babel. Yeah, it's referenced in the name of that Brad Pitt movie, but it's also in Tartuffe. In Act 1, Scene 1, Madame Pernelle slams everyone within hearing for being decadent, immoral, and unprincipled. She serves up some extra-strong Haterade for Elmire and her hard-partying ways:

People are driven half-insane
At such affairs, where noise and folly reign
And reputations perish thick and fast.
As a wise preacher said on Sunday last,
Parties are Towers of Babylon, because
The guests all babble on with never a pause;

What matters in this passage is the little matter of allusion. What you might think is just a cringe-inducing pun (Babylon, babble on) is also a reference to a passage in the Book Genesis, chapter eleven.

Here's the short version of the story: Back in the day, a bunch of people made their way to Babylonia. Now, everybody in the whole world spoke the same language at this point. One day, everybody got together and decided that they were going to build a big city, a city with a huge tower that reached all the way up to heaven. The project got under way immediately: since all the people spoke the same language it was easy to get them on the same page. Now, God saw this going down, and thought to himself, "Hmmm, if all these same-language-speaking people can get together and build this heaven-reaching tower, who knows what else they can do. I'd better confuse them all by making them speak different languages." And so it was done. That is, the people couldn't understand each other, and were scattered all over the place. The city, on the other hand, was never finished. (You can read the whole story here.)

At this point, you're probably all like, "OK, Shmoop, this is pretty cool and all, but what does this have to do with Tartuffe?" In Tartuffe, as in the Babel story from Genesis, language is confused. Often Tartuffe is the one responsible. He has a knack for bending religious language to his will. As he tells Elmire in Act 4, Scene 5:

Some joys, it's true, are wrong in Heaven's eyes;
Yet Heaven is not averse to compromise;
There is a science, lately formulated
Whereby one's conscience may be liberated,
And any wrongful act you care to mention
May be redeemed by purity of intention.

So, basically, Tartuffe tosses everything out the window: the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"), and makes up his own set of rules. And he does it all with language.

Tartuffe's linguistic agility is shown throughout the play. He first tricks Orgon by praying loudly in church. When Damis accuses Tartuffe of trying to seduce Elmire, the con man bamboozles Orgon with reverse psychology. When Tartuffe is involved, everything becomes babble, meaningless stuff meant only to manipulate others and advance his schemes. Madame Pernelle may have everything all topsy-turvy, but her above words sort of define the play. It's a story about cutting through the meaningless babble and finding the truth.

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