Alceste, the protagonist of Molière’s The Misanthrope is a complex character who exemplifies the virtuous social misfit. His position in the play displays the complex relationship between the individual and society.
Alceste has his personal code of ethics with which he judges the society around him. And he doesn’t discriminate when it comes to judging people. He judges everybody. This is because he is fed up with the hypocrisy of the people around him. In fact he’s so fed up that the play opens with him having decided to quit human society altogether Philinte, his close friend trying to dissuade from doing so. Alceste also has a degree of honesty and simplicity that endears him to some characters , including the readers. However, his inflexible sense of virtue and the rigidity of his nature is thoroughly incompatible with the times and he just cannot integrate into the 17th Century French Society.
That the protagonist of Le Misanthrope has received complex responses across centuries demands a careful consideration of his situation.
Molière’s Alceste seems to be self-conscious without being self-aware. His view of a unified notion of himself militates against the multi-dimensional nature of his character mixed motivation underlying his actions. Hopelessly in love with a flirt (Célimène) who embodies all that he hates, he expects others to abide by his ideals that he himself cannot keep as is seen in his hopelessly roundabout criticism of Oronte in Act 1. Just after telling Philinte that a man should always say what he means, he criticises Oronte’s bad verses in a rather twisted language, as if almost wary of expressing his real feelings.
Add to this, he lacks any sense of humour and he takes himself too seriously – to the point of appearing ridiculous. He forces his strictures on Philinte about being absolutely truthful and honest all the time and refuses to entertain his harmless joke when play opens. Alceste is also in many ways similar to people he so passionate despises. His misanthropy is similar to the gossip scene that he objects to. Act V Scene II exhibits a painful degree of similarity between Alceste and Oronte when both demand a response from Célimène for their advances.
Context is everything. And because Alceste doesn’t consider the social context of his behavior, he becomes the butt of joke in front of other characters whenever they are together. Alceste’s tirades and lectures, though sincerely expressed become absurd in front of others who are watching him and he ends up being the butt of joke in many situations. Perhaps, the most important reason of him being the butt of joke, as Larry Riggs correctly observes, is that he doesn’t recognize the ”performative aspect” of virtue, that individuals are always at complicated intersections of various dynamic social processes which require a dynamic response, like the the “flexible sort of virtue” that Philinte propounds. The art of artifice becomes natural if the nature of society itself is artificially constructed. Alceste trades the requisite relative for abstract absolutes. This trading of the practical for principles make him incongruous to the context, which often become a cause of his comic situation. This tension between the individual and the society forms the central conflict in The Misanthrope.
Alceste also fails at taking stock of the immediate context. He becomes a cause of embarrassment for Célimène by demanding her to resolve private matters in a public gathering. Neither does he realise that he is a butt of joke when in Act 2 Scene 7 Clitandre and Acaste laugh at his condemnation of Oronte’s bad verses due to which a legal suit has been filed against him:
ALCESTE – Short of a special order from the king, commanding me to think their plaguy verses are good!
I shall maintain, by heaven, they’re wretched, And any man that made them merits hanging.
(To Clitandre and Acaste, who laugh)
By God’s blood, gentlemen, I didn’t know I was so entertaining.
Alceste may have nothing to do with society but the society still isn’t done with him, for it isn’t content with making him a mere butt of joke : he must be ousted. Alceste’s self-exile may seem like a voluntary choice but between his claim in the first scene to his final decision to actually quit the society in the fifth scene lie two formidable lawsuits and possibilities of real harm.
Failing to contextualize his position within 17th century French aristocracy would mean making the same mistake that Alceste commits: ignoring that he is a part of the society whether he likes it or not and that his particular attitude is possible only in a certain kind of society which has its fair share of unabashed hypocrisy. His being a butt of joke when he criticizes its hypocrisy says as much about the society as it does about himself.
Alceste’s position may be somewhat vindicated when we consider that the “raisonneurs” Philinte and Eliante, the only sensible and sincere characters in the play share some degree of sympathy for Alceste and try to dissuade him from his foolish plan of quitting the society altogether.