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The Learned Ladies by Molière

April 27, 2011 17 comments

Les Femmes savantes by Molière (The Learned Ladies). 1672.  

Recently, I’ve watched The Learned Ladies for the first time. As often with Molière, it was a thought-provoking comedy. In the 17th C imagery, the “Learned Lady” is the female of the Pedant.

In that play, the main family is composed of two parents and two grown-up and single daughters. The mother, Philaminte and the elder daughter, Armande are the learned ladies. They’re under the spell of a ridiculous pedant named Trissotin. He acts like a guru; they think he hung the moon and swoon over every single verse he writes. The father, Chrysale and the younger daughter, Henriette have more matter-of-fact concerns, are far from well-read and totally accept it. In between stands Clitandre, once infatuated with Armande and now in love with Henriette. The plot is centred on Clitandre and Henriette who want to get married and need to obtain her parent’s consent. Chrysale agrees with the project while Philaminte would rather marry Henriette to Trissotin.  

Several themes are quite modern in this play. In the opening scene, Armande and Henriette argue about marriage. Armande can’t understand why her sister rejoices in marrying Clitandre. She thinks she should have higher goals than taking care of a family and run a household. She preaches an interest in philosophy, that Henriette should study to improve her mind. But Henriette is perfectly satisfied with the fate of a housewife.  

Chrysale is the model for the bourgeois vision of life when Philaminte would be more the spoke-person of the Parisian literary salons. The play reflects the discussion of the time, the bourgeois being despised and the salons praised. (The spectators of Molière’s plays did come from the court and he was their protégé.)

Marriage was abundantly discussed in salons: was it an honest or a degrading situation? The question was also debated in the famous novels by Mlle de Scudéry. Philaminte and Armande want to promote a mind-over-matter attitude. Love must be ethereal, without physical contact and the mind must overcome instincts and natural desires. Armande lost Clitandre on the Map of Tenderness because she fancied a cerebral love. He gave up on her. However, she can’t help being jealous when she realizes that her former lover eventually fell in love with her down-to-earth baby sister. Molière seems to remind us that it’s not easy to shut out feelings, perceptions and act rationally all the time. I also saw in this attitude a disguised critic of Cartesianism. On the contrary, Henriette is happy with every day life routine and she doesn’t want to ignore the needs of her body. As she points out, Armande should be happy that their mother followed her desires at least twice or they wouldn’t be here to talk about it. She also states that someone needs to give birth to the future scientists and philosophers.  

The other great issue is the education of young girls. In the foreword, we are reminded that in 1672, a girl would be hardly taught how to read and would receive a religious education. Things were changing in the 17th C as scholars began to write in French instead of Latin. Their work became accessible to women who wanted to study and in fashionable salons, women became more educated. Molière mocks the Learned Ladies, not because he thinks women shouldn’t be educated but because their excesses make them ridiculous. He mocks their blindness, the way they worship Trissotin. It could be sexist but I didn’t think it was since he also makes fun of Trissotin himself. Clitandre is the most sensible character who manfully holds the middle ground: flesh and mind should live in harmony; temperance in everything is the key; learned women are respectable and even desirable. He only criticizes pedantry. Trissotin represents the old school of thought: he refers to Ancient philosophers like Aristotle; Clitandre represents modernity.

Another theme is followed all along the play: the roles of husband and wife in a marriage. Chrysale argues that the man should command but he’s not the master in his own house. Philaminte wears the trousers and he’s afraid of her. His challenge will be to gain power to impose Clitandre as his choice of a husband for Henriette. There are enjoyable scenes during which he tries to re-gain the lost ground and face his wife. He needs a lot of encouragements from his brother and his daughter to do it. 

In the foreword and afterword of my edition, it is explained that the condition of women was abundantly discussed in the 17th C. The ideas that women were doomed to ignorance and servitude, that marriage wasn’t always fair, that the education of young girls needed to be improved started to stem from these discussions. The roots of feminism were born in that century and will be developed in the 18thC.  

The Learned Ladies is a play in “alexandrins” which are to classic French theatre what iambic pentameters are to Shakespeare. I hardly noticed them when I watched the play. It is full of comical devices which are Molière’s trademark. It’s funny, witty, thought-provoking. The questions regarding the position of women in the society, their access to education and the opposition between motherhood and work still exist nowadays. This play talked to me as a woman, despite the time distance. Obviously, in our Western world, the situation of women has improved immensely since the 1970s. However, in some countries, women still have to choose between their job and motherhood. And there’s a lot to do in developing countries to promote equality.

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