Page images

written in prose.

The nature of several scenes (e.g. the inventory scene and the lamentation of Harpagon) made verse impossible. On the other hand, Fénélon, speaking of Molière's style, says that the Avare is less badly written than the pieces which are in verse.

Now there is strong reason to believe that Molière at first intended to write the Avare in verse, and that the treatment of the subject, and perhaps also the necessities of theatrical management, made him give up the plan. A good deal of the play may be resolved into blank versethe rhymes alone are wanting. Take for instance the following passage (I. i.)

Vous voyez comme je m'y prends,
Et les adroites complaisances
Qu'il m'a fallu mettre en usage
Pour m'introduire à son service;
Sous quel masque de sympathie
Et de rapports de sentiments
Je me déguise pour lui plaire
Et quel personnage je joue

Tous les jours avec lui, etc. etc. Under these circumstances, Fénélon's criticism seems rather strange. As a matter of fact, Molière's verse is, if anything, better than his prose. La Bruyère, and several after him, have repeated Fénélon's charges against Molière's style. “Il n'a manqué à Molière,” says La Bruyère,“ que d'éviter le jargon et le barbarisme et d'écrire purement." To understand the injustice of this criticism it must be borne in mind that Molière wrote from 1653 to 1672, and that practically Corneille and Pascal were the only great writers who could have served him as models. He wrote therefore before the days when French writers deliberately rejected the supple freshness, the liberty and wealth, of the old language, and became “les esclaves de la correction.'

As regards Molière's style, the following conclusions suggest themselves after a study of the Avare. In the love scenes the language is bigh flown, pedantic, and sometimes involved ; on the other hand, the more familiar scenes (e.g. I. iii. ; III. v.), are written in bright, lively, idiomatic French, and full of the homely and pointed verve of the mediæval fabliaux.

“In general,” says M. Vinet, we may say that Molière's prose is good.'

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]


The plot, the characters, and the incidents were to Molière merely means to develop an idea and to create a type. The social and

domestic effects of avarice are what he wishes to describe. Harpagon is the creation which he has handed down to posterity to live side by side with such types as Tartuffe, Trissotin, and Monsieur Jourdain.

It was through not understanding this intention of Molière that Jean Jacques Rousseau condemned the Avare as an immoral play. He bases his accusation on the scene where Cléante insults and defies his father (Act IV. v.). “I give you my curse, says Harpagon. “I don't want your gifts," answers Cléante. “Is not a play containing such passages,” exclaims Rousseau, “a school of immorality ?” Discussing this opinion, M. St. Marc Girardin remarks, “If I wished in a sermon to describe avarice and to make it odious ; if I said that this passion makes a man forget honour, affection, and family; that the miser prefers his gold to his children; that these, reduced by their father's avarice to the last necessities, soon grow accustomed to respect him no longer; and that in this rebellion of the children lies the punishment of the father's avariceif I said all this in a sermon, who would be surprised at it? Who would take it into his head to assert that in speaking thus I encourage children to forget the respect which they owe to their parents ? Molière in the scene of the Avare which falls under the censure of J. J. Rousseau, has done nothing beyond putting into action the sermon which I am imagining.' Viewed in this light, Rousseau's accusation becomes a mere paradox. Molière has painted with realistic fidelity the consequences of avarice. The disintegration of home, the loosening of all bonds of natural affection and duty,—these flow from it. “Our house is hell,” says Jessica to Lancelot Gobbo. And so Harpagon's son is reckless and insolent, his daughter impertinent and deceitful; his servants hate and despise him; he is the gibe of his neighbours. what vigour,” says Geoffroy, “with what a faithful brush Molière depicts his miser-isolating himself from his family—seeing enemies in his children, his dread as he is theirs—concentrating all his · affections upon his money-chest, while his son is ruining himself by loans from usurers, while his daughter is carrying on an intrigue in the house with her disguised lover! The miser knows nothing of what is going on in the busom of his family, nothing of what his children are doing ; he knows nothing accurately beyond the amount of his crowns; that is the one thing which touches and which interests him : it is the only object of his sleepless nights ; for him money takes the place of children, relations, and friends,that is the moral which results from Molière's admirable comedy ; and if there be any picture capable of making avarice hated and despised, it is that.

This lesson is the result, not the conscious purpose, of the Avare.

“ With


[ocr errors]

Molière is the apostle of common sense, not a teacher of morality. He wished to paint a picture of life under certain conditions,—to make a work of art, -and he succeeded. Indeed, so true is his treatment, that he succeeded in a way which would have surprised him. A notorious miser who went to see his play acted was asked afterwards what he thought of it. “It is a very instructive piece, he answered, " and contains some excellent principles of economy.”


The Avare is based upon two plays—the Aulularia of Plautus and the Belle Plaideuse of Boisrobert, which appeared in 1654.

From the first he borrows the conception of the miser, who has buried a sum of money in his garden, who is constantly running to see if it is safe, and suspecting every one whom he meets of thievish intentions. Like Euclio, the hero of the Aulularia, Harpagon loses his gold, which a roguish servant abstracts; so also, meeting the young man, he charges him with the theft, giving rise to an amusing scene where the two are at cross purposes.

On the other hand, the relations generally between Harpagon and his son Cléante (especially the situation where the son recognises his father as the anonymous usurer), and, with some modification, the idea of the widow and her daughter with whom Cleante is in love, are borrowed from the Belle Plaideuse. It was originally Boisrobert's intention to call his play le Père Avaricieux, which is almost Molière's title.

Again, the scenes between Frosine and Harpagon (II. vi.) and the passage where Maître Jacques tells Harpagon what his neighbours say of him, are imitated from a play of AriostoI Suppositi.

Besides this general indebtedness, Molière has borrowed several details, as, for instance, the famous sans dot (I. vii.).

Voltaire therefore is only stating a part of the truth when he says in his Life of Molière that “there are in the Avare some ideas taken from Plautus and improved by Molière (e.g. the theft of the casket and the 'qui pro quo' scene). .. . All the rest of the piece is Molière's-characters, love-intrigues, pleasantries ; he has only imitated a few lines. " It is true that the miser whom Molière drew is not at all the same as the Euclio of Plautus. Euclio is merely a poor man who has found a treasure, and hardly knows what to do with it. Harpagon is a miser in the modern sense of the word-a kind of capitalist. His complaints of poverty are therefore all the more odious and untrue. Moreover, Molière's aim was different from that of Plautus, as were the audiences he wrote for and the times in which he lived.

1 The Aulularia had already served as the basis of a play by Pierre Larivey, Les Esprits (1579).

“ Je prends mon bien où je le trouve," Molière used to say. His dark, taciturn, observant face was constantly to be seen peering into old books, or watching Harlequin in front of his booth. And, with regard to such literary loans, it may be said that Molière's justification lies in the use he has made of materials collected from all sides. M. Génin, one of his most thoughtful and judicious admirers, says justly : “Would you reproach an alchemist for having picked up a piece of lead in the streets, in order to change it into gold ?”

1 Cf. the famous “mais que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère," copied almost literatim from a play of Cyrano de Bergerac.

« PreviousContinue »