A Tartuffian Enterprise

by cheri

Moliere’s 17th-century comedy Tartuffe is about the character Tartuffe who ensconces himself into Orgon’s house as a deeply religious man and then seduces Orgon’s wife, Elmire. Since its first stage debut in 1664, the word tartuffe has come to symbolize hypocrisy, particularly in those who use religious doctrine as a social or political tool to get what they want.

It could be argued that the hero of Stendhal’s 1830 novel, The Red and the Black, Julien Sorel, is a twitchy little scheming tartuffe in his own right. And a very successful one indeed, until the end of the novel, that is, when his head rolls from the guillotine. His second mistress, Mathilde-a sort of modern day self-absorbed drama queen with gorgeous blue eyes and other curvaceous attributes, steals  Julien’s severed head and buries it. His first mistress, the married M. de Renal, dies within three days of Julien’s death. This ending surely will be one of the subjects of the seminar in soggy Paris beginning on Monday evening.

Despite some of the psychological redundancy and overkill that Stendhal infuses into the young priest Julien, who impresses his employers with his photographic memory of the Bible and his ability to speak in Latin,  I am willing to consider the many themes intended for us, Stendhal’s  readers. I am always ready to consider.

To that point, each of us brings our life experience to the table when discussing a novel. Did we achieve our societal goals? Our materialistic goals? Do we agree with the politics of the time? Are we in business-like marriages? Are we religious? Would we like to take the arm of someone who isn’t our spouse and sneak away into a garden for a lot of fun? In our discussions, we also bring our secrets, which  remain secret in such discussions, but which often influence our reactions to the plot, the characters, and the takeaway.

Stendhal’s The Red and the Black is a piece of historical fiction about so many things–the political landscape of post-Napoleonic France between 1815-1830, the attempts at upward mobility by the young hero, a liberal son of a country carpenter,  the many tartuffes that pervade French society at the time (and of course today as well) ,  the role of 19th-century French women and the art (or lack thereof) of seduction, and infidelity.

I wonder how many tartuffes will be around the table?



About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
This entry was posted in Education, People, Writing and Teaching and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to A Tartuffian Enterprise

  1. Richard says:

    A magnificent, lively, comprehensive, highly intelligent review.

    You brought the novel to life for me. But I don’t think I’ll read it again

    • Cheri says:

      Funny you would say that (about not reading it again). All the people in our class who had read it twice said they liked it after the second reading.

  2. shoreacres says:

    I know I had a copy of this book at some point. I remember the cover of the paperback edition I had. I’m even sure I read it. But I don’t remember Tartuffe, the mistress, the guillotine, or the burial of the severed head. Maybe I didn’t read it, after all.

    In any event, your description makes it sound like a terrific read — not for now, but perhaps for next winter, when there aren’t so many appealing things to do in the out-of-doors. (What am I saying? Maybe it would suit August, when huddling indoors with a nice AC and a book has much to commend it.)

    • Cheri says:

      Hello from Paris, Linda! Several of our classmates have French friends, who, they said, hated this book. We’ve come to believe that the reason is that The Red and the Black is critical of just about every aspect of French life of the late 18th/early 19th centuries…Our host could not even find a Stendhal Institute here in Paris. It’s as if Flaubert, Zola, Balzac and the rest have eclipsed anything Stendhal wrote. The book did grow on me and after hearing other students’ opinions of many aspects of the novel, I have changed my mind about it.

  3. Brighid says:

    What an interesting, teasing, post. I haven’t read that book, but it certainly sounds like I should. Will put it in the queue.

  4. Cyberquill says:

    Someone’s mistress steals a severed human head and buries it? Goodness sakes. Not my kind of novel. Way too much tension. I’d much rather be reading about some happy camper’s horse noshing on molasses-dipped oats in a pine forest without any drama or electrical outlets.

  5. Cheri says:

    You can see where that book (and all of the other ones I have started and never finished) is headed. You would definitely like the character Mathilde in this novel. No question.

    • Cyberquill says:

      I’m sure I’d enjoy it just as much as I enjoyed Tartuffe when my mom took me to see it at the Vienna Burgtheater (with Klaus Maria Brandauer playing lead) when I was about ten years old. (You can read that one of two possible ways.)

  6. I have seen this Molliere play a number of times. There is a wonderful Scottish dialect version by Glaswegian, Liz Lockhead. Best for me was a pantomime version in our local pub.

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