Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Between Genders, between Genres: Celimene's Letter to Alceste in Moliere's 'Le Misanthrope.'

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Between Genders, between Genres: Celimene's Letter to Alceste in Moliere's 'Le Misanthrope.'

Article excerpt

To know that one does not write for the other, to know that these things I am going to write will never cause me to be loved by the one I love (the other), to know that writing compensates for nothing, sublimates nothing, that it is precisely there where you are not - this is the beginning of writing.

Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse: Fragments

Are the most important letters not those we never manage to write? Or, to be more precise, those we write, and rewrite - in our minds and on paper - but never allow ourselves to send? Such is the letter from Celimene to Alceste in Moliere's Le Misanthrope.

The reader may already be wondering, quite justifiably: what letter from Celimene to Alceste? Among the many problems posed by this letter, none is thornier than the fact that it is never identified as a letter from Celimene to Alceste, nor is its text ever given. Celimene writes to several of her fatuous suitors: her seemingly contradictory and disingenuous letters to them are read aloud in the play's final (and climactic) scene, the scene of her public disgrace. But she also writes another letter, a letter that mysteriously falls into the hands of her rival, Arsinoe, who then passes it along to Alceste as a sign of his mistress's treachery. Alceste confronts Celimene with this letter, but the mysteries surrounding it - to whom is it addressed? what does it say? when was it written? how did Arsinoe get hold of it? - are never dispelled.

It is my premise that Alceste confronts his mistress with the very letter which she has been writing (and rewriting, and rewriting) to him and which has accidentally fallen into his hands, and that this interpretation fits into and even explains a certain number of givens in the play. The ramifications of this reading bring us into two distinct but related areas of criticism: the study of gender and the study of genre. As I shall try to demonstrate, Celimene's letter can be interpreted as epitomizing the differences between how men love and how women love. But it can also be read as a literary artifact situated at the crossroads between classical theater and the incipient genre of the novel.

The Mystery of the Letter

Our first task, then, is to demonstrate how the play tells us, indirectly, that Celimene's mysterious letter is a letter to Alceste. Let us examine the sequence of events surrounding the letter. At the end of Celimene's acerbic confrontation with Arsinoe (3:4), the women's mutual accusations are cut short by the arrival of Alceste, presumably returning from dealing with the lawsuit brought against him by Oronte (775-76). But Celimene, rather than continuing her ongoing debate with Alceste over the status of their relationship, leaves the stage with the following ambiguous words:

Alceste, il faut que j'aille ecrire un mot de lettre Que, sans me faire tort, je ne saurais remettre.

[Alceste, I must go write a letter That I cannot put off/deliver without doing myself harm.!(1) (1037-38)

The ambiguity lies in the verb "remettre." The obvious meaning here is "to postpone": Celimene cannot put off writing this letter a moment longer, and so must leave her salon and go attend to it. But the verb "remettre" is also used to describe the act of delivering a letter. Might Celimene not be hinting that she is going off to write a draft of a letter that she does not necessarily intend to send, a letter that, were she to deliver it, would compromise her reputation ("me faire tort") in some unspecified way?

Celimene thus goes off to work on this mysterious letter that she is, perhaps, writing simply as an exercise in self-expression, while Alceste is left to deal with the unsubtle advances of Arsinoe. At the end of Alceste's scene with Arsinoe, the amorous prude convinces the object of her affections that she can give him clear proof of Celimene's treachery and unworthiness:

Donnez-moi seulement la main jusque chez moi; La je vous ferai voir une preuve fidele De l'infidelite du coeur de votre belle. …

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