Essay: Cuckoldry in Moliere's the School for Wives

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Cuckoldry in "School for Wives"

Cuckoldry in "The School for Wives"

Moliere endows his character Arnolphe in "The School for Wives" with a chauvinism characteristic of many men in seventeenth century French society. No doubt, his intention is to lampoon this character, as the play's subtitle indicates. Nor must Moliere have felt highly of the convent education given to some young women of the times, for this likewise comes under humorous scrutiny in the work. While the play suggests much that falls in line with a type of feminism, and can be taken today as an instructive and relevant assertion of such a social critique, this essay will contend that these issues are important sidelights to a larger concern. It will read the play as a commentary on the contest between fate and the human will, which strives inadequately to counter this force. The themes of cuckoldry and chauvinistic education are established only so that Moliere can call them into question through a representation of aleatory love and, in the final analysis, of the preeminence of fate over human planning.

Moliere's Arnolphe seeks control, and what he fears most is cuckoldry. Therefore, it is not difficult to establish the ways in which he tries to order life to his aims. He has devoted twenty years of his life studying other men's marriages, preserving himself from an institution in such shambles. "For twenty years," he claims, "I've sagely contemplated the woeful lives of men unwisely mated, and analyzed with care the slips whereby the best-planned marriages have gone awry" (Moliere, IV.7). All he sees around him is the shameless exploitation of men by unscrupulous wives who won't bat an eye, if they are educated types, to betray their husbands in romantic trysts. His derogatory view of educated women is mirrored negatively in an elevated view of his own untarnished honor, which must be preserved against their treachery. He wishes not to be "duped" like the husbands he mocks (I.1). Social reputation is the primary frame of reference for his calculated approach to gender relations. He seeks only a woman of senseless virtue who will protect his honor through meek submission and in deference to his mastery. Beauty and wit are useless to him, he tells his friend (I.1). He is conditioned by a certain view of marriage which chains women in their place. It is why later he gives Agnes, the young woman in his charge whom he aims to marry, a book to "educate" her in the proper etiquette for a married woman. To preserve himself from being cheated upon, he has "arranged to be secure forever" against this possibility (I.1). This issue of cuckoldry is framed within the question of fate. From the start, Chrysalde asserts the view that "fate gives men horns, and fate can't be withstood" (I.1). Arnolphe wants nothing to do with fate, taking matters into his own hands.

To arrange for security against all the "tricks and ruses, shrewd and sly, which wives employ, and cheat their husbands by" (I.1), he secludes Agnes. Carefully he has plotted out her course, from its inception where she is "reared according to my plan" by nuns who are told "to keep her growing mind a perfect void" (I.1). Thus we notice his intention both to control the young woman and to keep her in ignorance. She is to be plain and uneducated. Should she know verse or have too much brain, she would lure fops to the house for parlor entertainments (I.1). He condemns educated women by contrast to the simple peasant girl he wishes to marry: "For all your verse, and prose," he says, ". . . can't match this good and modest ignorance" (I.3). His problem with education is that by its ruse, a woman may attract paramours. Education spawns dishonorable deception. He operates from the assumption that he can "mold her into what shape I like" (III.3). Women are malleable and must be controlled through their ignorance.

There is a view of women here that is misanthropic. Intelligence and the ability to discuss matters artfully are linked irresistibly with infidelity. An educated woman is apparently unable to keep from temptation. Partially this must have to do with the practice of arranged marriages at the time, where love was not meant as part of the business transaction. Chrysalde points to this, saying… [END OF PREVIEW]

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