The Imaginary Invalid

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Editor: Anne Marie Hacht
Date: 2005
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 20. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 24
Content Level: (Level 4)

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The Imaginary Invalid




Molière is the stage name of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, one of the most important dramatists in French history. His plays have been delighting and intriguing audiences since they were first performed in seventeenth-century France, at which time they pleased King Louis XIV and changed the face of French comic drama. A subtle and profound satirist, actor, philosopher, and master of character, Molière combined all of these elements into his plays, drawing heavily from tradition but also incorporating his own unique insights. Skillfully combining his acting and writing skills, he was also an incisive social critic, ridiculing institutions from organized religion to medicine, and poking fun at the Parisian bourgeoisie (the middle class made up of prosperous tradesmen).

Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid) was Molière's final play, first performed in February 1673 in Paris. A satire of the medical profession and a comedy-ballet, or a comedy combined with song and dance, the play contains a good deal of farce and was written to amuse King Louis XIV. It is also a superb character study of a hypochondriac, or a patient obsessed with being ill, and it contains a brilliant social and political commentary on Paris in the 1670s. Many critics have even found a subtle but powerful philosophical strain in the work, and it is an excellent example of the stylized comedy-ballet popular in Louis XIV's courtly theater. Molière himself played the main role of the hypochondriac Argan, and famously coughed up blood during hisPage 75  |  Top of Article fourth performance, dying later that evening in what came to be known as a bitter irony, given the play's subject of imaginary illness. The play is now widely available in collections such as the 2000 Penguin Classics edition of The Miser and Other Plays: A New Selection, in which it is translated as The Hypochondriac.


Born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin on January 15, 1622, in Paris, Molière grew up in a wealthy bourgeois family. His maternal grandfather introduced him to the theater at a young age. Molière's father sold upholstery to the king's household. His mother died in 1631, and two years later, his father remarried. Molière went to a Jesuit college and worked in the court for his father. He left Paris to study law, but in 1642, Poquelin told his father that he was unsuited to a legal career. He soon signed a contract with Joseph Béjart and Béjart's sister Madeline to set up a drama company called the Illustre Théâtre (Illustrious Theater).

It was with the opening of this theater that Poquelin took the stage name Molière, a name which may come from one of thirteen French hamlets or from the obscure novelist Molière d'Essartines. Staging tragedies and tragicomedies, the Illustrious Theater was not very successful, and within eighteen months it was in enough debt that Molière was put in jail until his father helped the other members of the troupe obtain his release. With the patronage of a duke, the company then spent thirteen years touring the provinces, during which time Molière established himself as its leader both as a writer and an actor, and the Illustrious Theater performed its first Molière comedy by 1655.

In 1658, the troupe finally established itself in Paris, due largely to the fact that they pleased King Louis XIV, and he allocated them a space to perform during the off-days of an Italian troupe that normally performed there. Within two years, the troupe moved into the Théâtre du Palais-Royal (Theater of the Royal Palace), a prominent theater inside the Royal Palace of Paris. As the director of his troupe, Molière commissioned plays as well as staging his own work, which consisted largely of comedies and comedy-ballets. He became increasingly popular and played both to royalty and to a large bourgeois audience, but he came under intense criticism from religious conservatives for his portrayal

Molire Molière

of marriage. This struggle culminated in a five-year ban of Tartuffe, a play about a religious hypocrite, until Louis XIV overcame opposition and allowed it to be staged in 1669.

In 1665, Molière produced his famous play Dom Juan (Don Juan), about a seductive gentleman who defies God. By this time he had married Armande Béjart, the much younger sister of his previous lover and fellow actor Madeline Béjart, and he had begun to decline in health. In 1673, he staged The Imaginary Invalid, acting in the main role of Argan until the fourth performance, during which he coughed up blood. Molière died that evening, February 17, 1673, at his home. His body was refused a Christian burial, as he was labeled an unrepentant actor, until King Louis intervened to have him buried, without ceremony, in the parish cemetery.



The play begins with a prologue and an alternative prologue. The first prologue is titled "Eclogue," which refers to a short poem that is usually "pastoral,"Page 76  |  Top of Article or reflecting idyllic, rural shepherd life. This eclogue involves a number of gods from classical mythology, including Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, and Pan, the Greek god of shepherds and fertility. After an introduction praising Louis XIV and stating that the comedy-ballet was "devised for his relaxation," the prologue praises the king's war efforts with a rustic song and dance, until Pan enters and says that the best way to serve Louis is to entertain and charm him. The much shorter alternative prologue is a monologue, or speech by a single character, in which a shepherdess laments that foolish doctors cannot heal the sorrows of her heart.

Act 1

Act 1 opens with Argan adding up his many doctor's bills and ringing for the maid, Toinette, who reveals her impatience with Argan and goes to fetch his daughter, Angélique. Argan, who is a hypochondriac, then goes off to the bathroom while Angélique asks Toinette for advice about Cléante, the young man with whom she recently fell in love, and who has promised to ask for her hand in marriage. When Argan returns, Angélique is delighted to hear him tell her of a marriage he has arranged for her, until she discovers that she is betrothed not to Cléante but to Thomas Diafoirus, who is about to graduate from medical school. Toinette argues with Argan, but he threatens to put his daughter in a convent unless she marries Thomas, and he chases Toinette with a stick.

Argan's second wife, Béline, enters and consoles him, and Argan calls for a notary to discuss his will, since he would like to leave all of his money to his wife. Toinette warns Angélique that her stepmother is trying to undermine her interests, but Angélique is only concerned that her father does not arrange for her to marry a man she loves. Toinette promises to send word to Cléante about the arranged marriage by talking to Punchinello, an old money-lender. The scene then shifts to the "First Interlude," in which Punchinello sings his lover a serenade, until he is interrupted by an old woman, a chorus of violins, and then a group of archers, who he bribes to avoid being arrested.

Act 2

Cléante enters disguised as a friend of Angélique's music master, and Toinette shows him in to meet Argan and Angélique. Monsieur Diafoirus then enters with his son Thomas, who makes a fool of himself during his elaborate introductions. Argan asks for some music, so Cléante describes a story of a shepherd pained by his lover's father arranging her marriage with another man (clearly inspired by his own predicament), and he and Angélique improvise a pastoral love song. After Argan interrupts them and Béline enters, Angélique avoids promising her hand to Thomas, and Argan threatens to put her in a convent if she does not agree to the marriage within four days.

Thomas and his father leave after giving Argan ridiculous medical advice, and then Béline enters to inform her husband that she caught Cléante in Angélique's room. Argan questions his younger daughter Louison about it, and she eventually admits that Cléante came in and kissed Angélique's hands. Argan's brother Béralde then arrives to tell Argan that he has an offer of marriage for Angélique. Béralde brings a company of gypsies with him who, in the "Second Interlude," sing about young love and dance a ballet.

Act 3

After plotting with Toinette to prevent Angélique's marriage to Thomas, Béralde argues to Argan that Argan is imagining his illnesses and that doctors are frauds. Monsieur Fleurant enters to give Argan an injection, and when Béralde objects, the doctor complains to his superior—Thomas's uncle, Monsieur Purgon—who then enters and angrily tells Argan he will have nothing to do with him. Argan is very worried, until Toinette enters disguised as a doctor, pretending to be ninety years old, and claiming that Argan's previous doctor is a fool.

Béralde then says that Béline is trying to trick her husband, and Toinette suggests that Argan pretend to be dead so that he can discover the truth about his wife. Argan agrees, and Béline responds to her husband's death by praising heaven, complaining about him, and plotting to get his money. Argan shocks her by sitting up, and then he tries the same trick on Angélique, who laments his death sorrowfully and tells Cléante that she wants to renounce the world and her engagement. Pleased with his daughter, Argan agrees to Angélique and Cléante's marriage provided that Cléante becomes a doctor, but Béralde suggests that Argan become a doctor instead, and Argan agrees to undergo the medical-school graduation ceremony.

The "Finale" of the play is a comical song-and-dance graduation ceremony, written in a corrupt form of Latin that, in the original edition, contains enough French, Italian, and Spanish to make it comprehensible to Molière's audience. MostPage 77  |  Top of Article English editions of the play have translated many of the words in the ballet into English, so readers who do not know any Latin can understand that Argan passes a short and absurd test and gains his degree, with the chorus celebrating.



Argan's daughter Angélique is a kind young woman whose main goal in the play is to marry for love. She hopes to marry Cléante, with whom she fell in love when he came to her defense at the theater. Angélique always acts with deference to her father, although she protests against a marriage to Thomas and does not get along with her stepmother. When Argan pretends to be dead, it is likely that Angélique actually feels as devoted to him as she claims (although Toinette may have informed her of the plot beforehand) because she consistently defends her father and is genuinely affectionate towards him.


The play's main character, Argan, is a selfish hypochondriac and a fool, with two daughters. He is obsessed with his own imagined illnesses to the point where he seems to think of nothing else, to the consternation of his brother and his daughter Angélique. He is also extremely gullible, allowing his doctors to overcharge him, his maid to trick and confuse him, and his wife (who calls him a "nuisance to everybody") to nearly manipulate him out of his fortune. Appearing to be almost a stock character, he is temperamental and explodes into a burst of comical anger when he is frustrated, and he is satirical of silly and selfish bourgeois gentlemen. Molière pokes fun at this class of people chiefly through his characterization of Argan.

Argan has a tender side as well, however, and the subtlety of his characterization is one of the chief accomplishments of the play. Eventually, he even endears himself to the audience by allowing them to sympathize with him as he is manipulated by everyone around him, and he reveals that he is basically kind by agreeing to allow his daughter Angélique to marry Cléante. He is very affectionate to his wife until he discovers that she is only interested in his money, and he does love Angélique in his own way, despite the fact that his overwhelming priority in arranging her marriage is the satisfaction of his own petty interests. By the end of the play, he appears harmless and benevolent, however much he is a shallow and ridiculous father, which is why he is an appropriate main character for a comedy. Molière himself played the role of Argan during the first four performances of the play, until Molière died of a lung disorder.


Béline is Argan's second wife. She is a manipulative woman interested only in Argan's wealth, and she wants to send both of her stepdaughters to a convent so they will not receive their inheritance. Although she showers Argan with affection and pretends to indulge him in his imaginary illnesses, her true character is revealed when Argan pretends to be dead and he listens to her happy reaction.


Concerned about his brother Argan's foolishness, Béralde is involved in the scheme to help Angélique marry Cléante, and he presents Cléante's suit to his brother. Béralde continually calls Argan naive and attempts to bring him to his senses about doctors, his daughter, and his wife, but Argan tends not to listen. One of Béralde's most passionate beliefs is that the medical profession is a sham, and he has a long scene in which he argues with his brother about doctors, belittling them and stressing their ridiculous failures. At the end of the play, he uses his influence to bring about the joke of Argan's graduation from medical school.

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  • The Imaginary Invalid was made into an audio recording in 1999 by L.A. Theatre Works.

Monsieur Bonnefoi

Monsieur Bonnefoi is the notary who informs Argan of the Parisian law regarding inheritance. HisPage 78  |  Top of Article name means "good faith" in French, which is an ironic touch because he is shady in his dealings, scheming to transfer Argan's funds completely to Béline.


Angélique's lover Cléante is a young gallant with whom Angélique falls in love at the theater. After he hears that Argan is arranging for his daughter's marriage to another suitor, Cléante shows his resourcefulness by pretending to be Angélique's music teacher and singing a love song with her. Angélique describes him as gentlemanly, chivalrous, and handsome, and he is equally devoted to her, willing to go to medical school if Argan requires it as a condition for their marriage.

Monsieur Diafoirus

Monsieur Diafoirus is the doctor who, with Argan, arranges his son and Angélique's marriage. The brother-in-law of Monsieur Purgon, he is very proud of his son Thomas and coaches him along in his speeches without recognizing that Thomas is making a fool of himself. He is also an incompetent doctor, since he makes a ridiculous and arbitrary diagnosis of Argan.

Thomas Diafoirus

Angélique's betrothed, Thomas is a "great booby." As his father points out, he is dim-witted, persists in ridiculous arguments, and has a "blind attachment to the opinions of ancient authorities." Argan likes him despite his foolish speeches and his indifference to Angélique's feelings towards him, and despite the fact that Thomas is a poor doctor and a stubborn bore.

Monsieur Fleurant

Monsieur Fleurant is an "apothecary," an archaic word for a pharmacist, and an assistant to Monsieur Purgon. He is offended when Béralde convinces Argan to postpone an injection, and he complains to his superior.


The Roman goddess of blossoming spring flowers, Flora is also associated with fertility. She appears in the first prologue to the play, inviting the shepherds to frolic and praising Louis XIV.


Louison is Angélique's younger sister, who appears, according to Béralde, not to be in line to inherit any of Argan's fortune. She loves her sister and attempts to disguise her knowledge of Cléante's visit to Angélique from her father, but she admits what she has seen when her father threatens to beat her.


Pan is the Greek god of shepherds and rural life, often represented as having the features of a goat. He appears in the prologue, urging the shepherds to amuse Louis XIV.


Punchinello is the "old money-lender" who tells Cléante the news of the arranged marriage, and he sings and dances in the comical first interlude. Toinette tells Angélique that this favor will cost her "a few buttery words," presumably because Punchinello is a rich old man who likes to chase after young women.

Monsieur Purgon

Argan's chief doctor and Thomas Diafoirus's uncle, Monsieur Purgon is a prime example of the incompetent and greedy doctors whom Molière mocks. His name means "cleanse" or "purge" in Latin, a joke relating to his preparation of enemas to clear Argan's bowels. His only appearance in the play is to threaten and dismiss Argan after Monsieur Fleurant informs him that Argan has postponed an injection.


Toinette is the clever family servant and the chief schemer in the plot to arrange Angélique and Cléante's marriage. Cunning and resourceful, she tricks and outsmarts Argan, pretends to take Béline's side, disguises herself as a doctor, and organizes the ruse that Argan has died in order to reveal Béline's and Angélique's true feelings about him. Toinette is also the most astute of the characters, in part because she is not a member of the silly bourgeoisie Molière satirizes, and in part because her occasional snide comments and observations provide witty comedy. She is also quite selfless; she is devoted to Angélique and says she would "rather die" than desert her, which seems to be her entire motivation for plotting against Béline.

Page 79  |  Top of Article


The Medical Profession

It is immediately clear that Molière is interested in a pointed satire of the entire medical profession in The Imaginary Invalid, an agenda that is common to many of the dramatist's works. In a manner that would have been familiar to contemporary audiences, the play constantly ridicules the pompous behavior, misuse and overuse of Latin, incompetence, ignorance, and selfishness of doctors. Monsieur Purgon and Monsieur Fleurant are mocked by their very names, which suggest "purging" and "flowery," respectively, and Monsieur Diafoirus and Thomas are shown to be incompetent doctors with intolerable personalities.

Molière attacks doctors with satire that is not simply farcical, however; at the beginning of act 3, Béralde's discussion with Argan about the medical profession is an eloquent and even philosophical argument against the medical profession. Béralde questions the basic reasons for living, pointing out that nature should be left to itself. Although the claim that doctors are useless may seem doubtful today, it was not an extreme view during the seventeenth century, and the idea that nature is too complex for humans to understand and that life should be embraced as a phenomenon outside the realm of science is a philosophical notion to which modern readers can relate.

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  • The Imaginary Invalid is a comedy both in the classical sense of the word (a story with a happy ending) and in the sense that it is meant to be humorous. Seventeenth-century audiences found the play quite humorous. Explore the differences in humor between seventeenth-century France and twenty-first-century America, and explain why certain parts of the play would have been humorous then, but are not as humorous now. What techniques and sources does Molière use to amuse his audience, and which comedic traditions are the most important to The Imaginary Invalid?
  • Molière was a masterful actor as well as a playwright, and he played the role of Argan for the first four performances of The Imaginary Invalid. Research Molière's life and discuss the reasons he might have chosen to write this role for himself. Consider how Argan's imaginary illnesses might have related to Molière's real illnesses, from which he died after the play's fourth performance. Also, discuss more broadly how you think Molière combined his acting and writing talents, and how each were affected by the other.
  • Read two or three other comedies by Molière, such as Tartuffe, The Misanthrope, and/or Don Juan. Compare the common themes and techniques of the plays you read. Which of the plays do you find most applicable to today's concerns? What makes The Imaginary Invalid unique? Many critics have found themes that are present throughout Molière's works; discuss some themes that you notice arising again and again, and compare how they are treated in each play.
  • Sometimes Molière's comedy is difficult to visualize on the page. Act out one of the more farcical scenes, such as act 2, scene 5, in which Argan and Monsieur Diafoirus keep attempting to speak at the same time. Then try performing or reading aloud your favorite scene in the play. Discuss how this reading/performance enhances your understanding of the scene.

Since Molière's presentation of medicine is such a central theme in the play, it also relates to many of the dramatist's other thematic ideas. For example, critics have connected Argan's imaginary illnesses to the imaginative endeavor of a play, since these are both obsessions associated with the creator'sPage 80  |  Top of Article pleasure; they are both spectacles that affect the subject psychologically, and they both must be reconciled with bourgeois demand for moneymaking and reasonable prices, which is why Argan is so interested in having a doctor in the family. Also, Molière's ideas about the medical profession can be related to the "solipsistic" philosophy sometimes associated with him—the theory that one's own existence is the only certainty.

Love and Arranged Marriage

Love and marriage in seventeenth-century Paris are important themes both in the play itself and in its pastoral musical interludes, which involve shepherds, mythological figures, and gypsies dancing and singing. All the musical interludes, with the exception of the finale, dwell on the wonder and greatness of youthful love, which underlies the play's main conflict of Angélique's struggle to marry her true love, Cléante. The struggle exists between the force of young love and Argan's bourgeois desire to save money and continue his absurd obsession, since Argan has complete control over his daughter's wealth and love life. The villain in this struggle is Béline and the false love and greedy manipulation she represents.

Molière portrays the young lovers as completely under the power of Argan's wishes, although they do have the ability, like Béline, to manipulate him onto their side. It is possible that the play criticizes the father's power over arranged marriages, since Argan is so selfish and petty, although it is unclear that Molière would actually advocate any serious institutional change. Also, it is not necessarily clear that pleasure-seeking young love is actually the solution to the play's problems of selfishness, greed, and incompetence.

Class and Politics

The prologue establishes that the play was written chiefly for the pleasure of King Louis XIV, and seventeenth-century audiences would have realized that Molière was trying to secure further patronage and regain the favor he was in danger of losing to his previous collaborator, Jean-Baptiste Lully. Although the prologue is ambiguous and mildly ironic in its praise of Louis, arguing that the best way to praise the king's military accomplishments is by performing for his idle pleasure, its flattery is mostly in earnest, since Louis's patronage was so vital to the playwright. And Molière indulges in something both he and the king thoroughly enjoyed: ridiculing the bourgeoisie.

The bourgeoisie class, which comprised the majority of Molière's audience, is one of the main objects of Molière's satire. While ridiculing their silliness and greed, The Imaginary Invalid also attacks middle-class incompetence, immorality, shallowness, and the unsuitability of the bourgeoisie to hold so much power over their children. An important element of this satire is Toinette's plot to manipulate Argan into supporting his daughter's love, since she is a lower-class maid exerting power and influence over the middle-class father figure. Nevertheless, the bourgeois Béralde is vital to the success of this plan, and there is ultimately no real shift in the household's balance of power. Molière, who is from a bourgeois background himself, pokes fun at the middle class to please the king and other noble patrons, but it is unclear that his representation of them goes beyond mild ridicule.



Once his theater troupe was established in Paris, Molière knew he had to please both Louis XIV, his most important patron, and the bulk of the theater-going bourgeois audience. Perhaps his greatest innovation in this regard was the invention of the "comedy-ballet," a form that combines song and dance with farce and "comedy of manners" (witty comedy that is satirical of a particular social class). Comedy-ballets were Molière's most popular genre, and often, especially in The Imaginary Invalid, their musical intervals provide an important and insightful commentary on the main action. A good example of this is Cléante and Angélique's pastoral song, which directly mimics their own situation.

Comedies of manners originated in ancient Rome and, particularly in Molière's work, are known for combining careful attention to character development with the use of characters of a certain "type," meant to be representative of their social position. Molière's comedies often contain an obsessive father, a reasonable brother, a manipulative second wife, and a plotting servant, although these characters are not merely stock types, but full and unique personalities. With over-elaborate plots that are often simply an unimportant backdrop to thePage 81  |  Top of Article characters and the social scene, comedies of manners provided an opportunity for theater audiences to laugh at themselves. Combining this convention with ballet was instrumental to Molière's success, and it resulted in a very popular form that laid the foundations for later developments in theater and music, such as French opera.


The Imaginary Invalid also contains elements of "farce," or exaggerated and even bawdy comedy that often involves stereotypical characters and improbable situations. Farce originated in Greek and Roman drama, and the style gradually developed a reputation for crudeness and low comedy, but farce had been popular in the French theater since the fifteenth century. Molière's audiences continued to enjoy a certain amount of buffoonery, although Molière's use of farce was one of the areas in which he encountered opposition in the church and among French moral conservatives. The Imaginary Invalid is most clearly farcical during its episodes of physical comedy, such as when Argan chases Toinette with a stick, although scenes such as act 2, scene 5, in which Argan and Monsieur Diafoirus continually attempt to speak at the same time, are also farcical.


The Bourgeoisie

During the mid-seventeenth century, a class of wealthy tradesmen and entrepreneurs who were not a part of the peasantry nor of the nobility began to increase in size in France. Known as the bourgeoisie, this increasingly powerful group lived in large towns, especially Paris, and largely worked as merchants, tradesmen, master-craftsmen, and professionals. Because of their financial power, the bourgeoisie were able to influence local politics and enjoy a distinguished legal status; they were able to extend these privileges to their peers and divide themselves from the laboring masses.

The bourgeoisie grew increasingly stable through the seventeenth century, and inspired a sense of belonging among its members. Business associations became personal and religious associations as bourgeois families met in church and attended the same social functions. Also, bourgeois father figures had complete control over their wives and daughters, who had almost no financial rights under the law, and these fathers tended to marry their daughters into other bourgeois families. These connections strengthened the sense of identity in the middle class, and tended to inspire economic growth in cities.

Outside the established traditions of the French court, however, the bourgeoisie met with a large amount of resentment and dislike as they became established. Although members of the bourgeois class were comparatively well educated, the gentry tended to stereotype them as ignorant and petty. Associated with vanity, miserliness (or financial greed), and decaying morality, the bourgeois type was a favorite target of playwrights as well as conservative moralists. Many of Molière's plays, including The Imaginary Invalid, include caricatures and broad satires of bourgeois types, and this seemed to please both the nobility that attended his plays and the bulk of the bourgeois theatergoing crowd that may have enjoyed laughing at themselves.

Louis XIV and the Nobility

The most powerful and privileged persons in seventeenth-century France, whom Molière desired to please in order to survive as a dramatist, were the French nobility and particularly King Louis XIV. The well-established French nobility was an extremely exclusive group that married within its ranks; status came largely from birth and race, although the king could confer coats of arms, and certain offices earned their holders noble titles. Exempt from direct taxation, the nobility, together with the king, formed the power base of the government. They were also the key patrons of the arts; nobles such as Bernard de Nogaret de La Valette and Armand de Bourbon had been the chief means by which Molière's troupe had funded its extended tour of the provinces.

Louis himself was by far the dramatist's most important patron during Molière's time in Paris, however. The king not only funded Molière's troupe; he provided them with a performance space and even interceded on the dramatist's behalf when his play Tartuffe was condemned by moral conservatives, including Louis's mother. Louis's favor for Molière waned in the 1670s, however, and in 1672, the musician Jean-Baptiste Lully, who was Molière's former collaborator, gained from the king the right to oversee all theater performed with music. BecausePage 82  |  Top of Article of Lully's influence at court, The Imaginary Invalid premiered not in court for Louis but in Molière's regular theater. The play is clearly designed to curry favor with the king; it contains precisely the mix of music and comedy that Louis enjoyed, and Molière knew Louis would laugh at its flamboyant ridicule of the bourgeoisie.

The late 1660s and early 1670s were periods of prosperity and expansion for the French monarch; he had spent large sums on his own grandiose lifestyle in order to impress on the nation his authority and power since his assumption of the role of first minister, after the death of the powerful Italian minister Cardinal Jules Mazarin in 1661. Provoking a series of wars against his neighbors, expanding the French colonial influence, and building an enormous palace in Versailles, the king became known as Louis the Great and established France as the dominant European power. Louis had already begun to run out of funds by the time The Imaginary Invalid was performed, however, because of the expense of the palace at Versailles as well as military spending and lavish excesses. These spending sprees would contribute greatly to the decline in France's power around the turn of the seventeenth century, as well as to the end of a golden age in French literature.

Commedia Dell'Arte

In addition to the tradition of "comedy of manners," described above, Molière was influenced by the Italian comic form, commedia dell'arte, which was flourishing in Paris and throughout continental Europe. Known for its framework of stock characters present with only minor variations in all performances, commedia dell'arte would often consist of a situation such as a young couple's love coming into conflict with their parents' opposition. Actors typically used masks to portray the common ensemble of stock characters. When Molière's troupe established themselves in Paris, they performed on the off days of a theater occupied by Italian players of commedia dell'arte.

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  • 1670s: Under French law, a father has complete authority over his daughter's marriage, and a husband has complete authority over his wife and her wealth.
    Today: In France, women are financially equal under the law and no one requires his/her parents' consent to marry, although males must be at least eighteen years old and females must be at least fifteen.
  • 1670s: The Parisian theater is funded by a combination of the bourgeoisie, the nobility, and the king, but most theatergoers are bourgeois.
    Today: Theaters are often subsidized by the French government and tickets are more accessible to lower-income groups, but the upper middle-class continues to be the primary audience group in many Parisian theaters.
  • 1670s: Louis XIV is king of France, exerting increasing power over religious and state affairs, building an extravagant palace in Versailles, and pursuing an aggressive foreign policy agenda.
    Today: France is a democratic republic and has not had a monarch since 1848. Its president is the center-right politician Jacques Chirac, who, along with the German president, opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq.


Molière had developed numerous enemies among devout conservatives and jealous rivals by the time The Imaginary Invalid appeared. Tartuffe was banned for a period of five years because of its commentary on religion, before Louis XIV's pious and conservative mother died and the king interceded to allowPage 83  |  Top of Article the play to be performed. But the personal, aesthetic, and moral criticism that peaked in the mid-1660s had leveled off well before the performance of Molière's final play. His main concern at this point was not the view of the critical majority or his bourgeois audience; it was the favor of his long-standing and most important patron, Louis XIV, because the king had recently transferred his favor to Molière's longtime collaborator, Jean-Baptiste Lully.

One of the dramatist's main concerns in The Imaginary Invalid, therefore, was to please the king, and the play was received very well during its first performances, until all of the reactions to it were dominated by Molière's death. Since then, critics have frequently dwelled on the irony of this death due to a lung condition; Molière performed as the imaginary invalid Argan, and lung trouble is the condition that Toinette ascribes to all of Argan's problems while she is disguised as a doctor. In his essay "The Doctor's Curse," J. D. Hubert writes, "Contemporaries of the author dwelled at length on this morbid paradox," and he cites one of the epitaphs concerning Molière's death by an anonymous author: "here lies Molière; since he was a great Actor, if he acts the part of an imaginary corpse, he does it very well."

Molière's collected works were published in 1682, and since then, he has been widely recognized as an extremely important writer and actor. His acting style influenced the comic style for generations afterwards, his plays have been continually produced throughout the world, and many critics (including the Enlightenment-era philosopher Voltaire) have discovered profound philosophical ideas and systems in his plays. Twentieth-century critics have been particularly interested in the relationship between Molière's theatricality and the content of the plays themselves, and The Imaginary Invalid has taken a prominent role in this discussion because of its irony related to Molière's acting and his personal life.


Scott Trudell

Trudell is a freelance writer with a bachelor's degree in English literature. In the following essay, Trudell discusses Molière's self-consciousness about performance, reality, and the role of the theater in The Imaginary Invalid.

Critics and scholars have long been fascinated by the self-conscious irony of Molière's last play. The dramatist's death only hours after the finale of its fourth performance, during which Molière, in the role of Argan, coughed up blood onstage, was long considered his final, greatest joke, and countless commentators noted that actual life seemed to be merging with the theatrical world in a sort of triumph of illusion by the famous actor. Molière's theatricality and showmanship continue to be common topics of discussion in criticism of the playwright and actor, including his ability to combine the arts of writing and acting, and his interest in incorporating the role of the artist and creator into the world of drama.

One aspect of this self-conscious theatricality that is particularly important to The Imaginary Invalid is the idea of imagination and falsification as it relates to art and performance. Elaborately theatrical, flamboyantly dramatic, and specifically designed to please King Louis XIV, on the surface the play might seem to be a simple farce or an unsubstantial joke. Far from reinforcing the idea that the purpose of the theater is simply to divert and amuse its audience, however, Molière was interested in highlighting drama's power to influence and attack society. This essay will argue that The Imaginary Invalid is a sophisticated and self-conscious critique of the function and purpose of the theater, the value of which, Molière suggests, lies in its intimate connection to reality.

Aside from the prologue's ironic insistence that the purpose of the play will be "to charm [King Louis's] leisure. / And contribute to his pleasure," the clearest hint that the play is a self-conscious analysis of theater is the insistent theatricality of its characters. Toinette, Béralde, and even Béline are all capable of theatrical creativity in the form of arranging and directing other people according to their own motives. Cléante and Angélique manage to subvert their real feelings into an improvisational musical performance, while Punchinello and the pastoral figures of the interludes comment on the themes of the play in the form of a ballet. Even the incompetent doctors are able to make a performance of their craft—in fact, since it has no substance and is something of an imaginary craft, medicine is shown to be nothing but a performance.

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A scene from the 1981 stage production of The Hypochondriac, a translated version of the The Imaginary Invalid, performed at the Olivier Theatre in London A scene from the 1981 stage production of The Hypochondriac, a translated version of the The Imaginary Invalid, performed at the Olivier Theatre in London

Indeed, it soon becomes clear that every character in the play is a master of the art of performance, amusement, and trickery, with the important exception of Argan himself. Incompetent and gullible, Argan is unable to manage his own affairs or judge the true character of his loved ones. He is a stock character similar to Homer Simpson in the popular television show The Simpsons, for whom audiences feel a certain affection because of his childlike tenderness, despite the fact that he is an ignorant and dim-witted father figure. It is this tender aspect of Argan's personality that leads Toinette to call him "kind-hearted." Because of his innocence and his inability to decipher all of the theatrical manipulations at his expense, Argan inspires sympathy among the audience and endears himself to them.

But it is fascinating and ironic that Molière would choose to render his main character, and the role he played, unable to participate in the games and performances of the other characters. Argan must be coached along in his every action, even in his bowel movements, whence comes a great deal of the play's farcical humor. Argan continually alludes to his "bile" throughout the play, and a bowel movement serves as the excuse for Argan to leave the room two out of the three times he does so during the course of the plot. As Monsieur Purgon (whose name suggests cleansing or purging in Latin) notes while defending the injection that Argan has refused, it is Argan's enemas, "which would have produced a startling effect on the bowels," that cause him to rush to the toilet. Yet, in a typical and comical misidentification, Argon says of Toinette: "She's the cause of all the bile I make."

These references to bowel movements and enemas are important because they suggest that Molière uses Argan's "bile" as a metaphor for the performance and theatricality that he is unable to effect by himself. The constipated Argan is always a mere tool of the manipulations around him, whether as a means for Béline to access his fortune, a means by which Angélique can marry her lover, or a means by which the doctors can marry into the bourgeoisie and take their money. And, as he ironically recognizes, his chief manipulator is his maid, Toinette, even more so than the scheming doctors. It is she who is figuratively (or, through metaphor instead of literally) able to cause his bowel movements, because it is she who is most competent at manipulating Argan to effect what she desires.

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Molière's choice to use bile as a metaphor for theatricality is partly a joke on the low reputation of the theater; biographers have speculated that the reason Molière took his stage name was to avoid the disgrace his father would endure to be associated with a dramatist. But, more importantly, the metaphor emphasizes the play's distaste for cheap tricks and petty manipulations. To Molière, doctors were petty liars and thieves who survived by taking advantage of the public with elaborate ruses; their manipulations were offensive and absurd because they failed to appreciate that the human body is a mystery mankind cannot understand. Similarly, Béline's trickery and the notary's shrewdness are offensive because their only object is money.

This is not to say that Molière views all theatricality in this light; Argan's complete lack of the talent for performance is also undesirable, which is why he needs to learn how to become a doctor, and therefore an actor, in the course of the play. Indeed, Béralde's and Toinette's manipulations are seen in a comparatively positive light because the object of their endeavors is not money or selfishness but Angélique and Cléante's marriage. Even these tricks are portrayed as inelegant and even vulgar, however; at its best, trickery is portrayed as a shrewd joke. Theatricality and performance remain associated with bile, and it is worth asking why Molière seems to be devaluing his own craft.

Sidebar: HideShow


  • Molière's Don Juan (1665) is one of the dramatist's most compelling and radical plays. It follows the adventures of the seductive and anti-religious Juan of Spain, and it was banned throughout Molière's lifetime by religious conservatives.
  • William Congreve's The Way of the World (1700), a satirical play about the settling of a fortune and the arrangement of a marriage, is one of the most influential English comedies of manners from the Restoration period.
  • Phaedra (1677), by Jean Racine, is a tragedy based on the classical model. Although it is vastly different in style and content from any of Molière's works, it reveals another major prodigy from this period of French history.
  • The French philosopher Voltaire's famous work Candide (1759) is a provocative and ironic attack on optimism by a thinker who valued the philosophy he found in Molière's plays.
  • Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan (1892) is an example of a vibrant comedy of manners from a vastly different era, taking as its subject the vain and hypocritical English upper class of the late Victorian era.
  • Geoffrey Treasure's Louis XIV (2001) is a comprehensive and readable guide to the life of the famous French king and the atmosphere of seventeenth-century France.

Since the answer to this question becomes clearer when taken in the context of Molière's other self-conscious devices in the play, it will help to examine a few of these devices before making a conclusion regarding the dramatist's apparent self-deprecation. Perhaps the most obvious of these devices are the many instances of performances within the performance, from the musical prologue and interludes to Cléante and Angélique's love song in act 2. Commenting on the action of the play more substantially than Molière's previous comedy-ballet interludes, these episodes often come closer to what is really at stake in the play than does the main plot. Cléante and Angélique's song is their only opportunity to express their true feelings to each other; Punchinello's dance brings out the connection between love and money more forcefully and clearly than in the rest of the play; and the shepherds and gypsies meditate on young love and directly attack doctors without the need to code their social commentaryPage 86  |  Top of Article into metaphors or subtext. These interludes are not interludes at all, but real and direct commentaries on the themes of the play.

Another example of this refusal to treat theatricality as merely a diversion comes in the ironic first prologue, which, although it is earnest in its flattery of the king's recent military successes in the Dutch War, is nevertheless mainly a good-natured joke about the "reign of love and pleasure" that characterized Louis's home rule, referring to Louis's many mistresses and extravagant idleness. Pan's comment that "silence and sedateness / Serve best to sing his greatness" is entirely ironic, both because the prologue is nothing but a song of the king's greatness and because Louis was known (and is still known) more than any other French monarch to favor flamboyant and elaborate celebrations of his greatness. Instead of "silence and sedateness" on political themes, the goal of The Imaginary Invalid is to confuse reality with theater so that Molière's commentary on the real world can be as cutting and real as is possible.

Finally, Molière's crafty showmanship is perhaps at its most obvious when, in act 3, Béralde and Argan argue about the plays of Molière. This is more than a clever joke; it sets up a confusing problem of perception for the audience by inverting the real world and the theatrical world. In discussing Molière's plays about doctors, Argan and Béralde seem to be in the audience, while the audience naturally appears to be the play. Also, this is one of two scenes most strangely resonant with Molière's actual death, since Argan forecasts that Molière will die from ignoring the benefits of medicine. The other instance is Toinette's appearance as a disguised doctor, in which she attributes all of Argan's illnesses to the lungs, which is the condition from which Molière actually died.

With these examples of Molière's self-conscious adeptness at confusing theater with reality in order to make a more striking comment on the real world, it should be much clearer why the dramatist used bile as a metaphor for performance and seemed to devalue his own craft. It is the showperson's classic trick of modesty, pretending to be simple and shallow in order to extend and substantiate the illusion. By establishing Argan, the role he played, as an incompetent and foolhardy person with no ability to perform or manipulate, Molière accomplishes his greatest illusion in the play, to make his artistic creation real. This is how the great actor was able to reach out and grab his audience, challenging their assumptions and forcing them to acknowledge that his satire, cloaked as a comedy-ballet and a pleasurable diversion, was incredibly real and urgent to their world.

Source: Scott Trudell, Critical Essay on The Imaginary Invalid, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Albert Bermel

In the following essay, Bermel provides an overview of The Imaginary Invalid, examining the play's theatricality, its central character, and themes of medicine and love.

Did Molière's last work kill him or keep him alive until he had brought it to life? After writing, staging, and playing the demanding lead in the three-act farce-comedy with spectacular trappings, he collapsed and died only four performances into the run of this anything-but-crazy quilt, sewn together, while he was gravely ill, from bits of his earlier comedies and farces, with the addition of swatches of new merriment, irony, and caustic observation.

Of the staple figures the author adapts from his repertoire, as though pulling favorite old garments from a wardrobe, Argan belongs with the other masters of the house: he explicitly claims the right "to do what seems good to me" in his family (III, 3); this right includes offering his daughter the option of wedding the man of his choice (in this case, a young doctor) or going into a convent. The daughter, Angélique, like the nubile daughters in earlier Molière, has her heart set on somebody else, a scrupulous young man named Cléante, who resembles other jeunes premiers in finding himself compelled into trickery in order to woo her. Argan's brother, Béralde, is the last in a line of interlocutors who are generous to a fault with their advice and, unless assigned to vivid or even eccentric actors, tend to disappear into their lines and become transparent.Page 87  |  Top of Article Toinette, the maidservant, has the motherliness of Nicole and Dorine, together with a dash of the wiliness and agility displayed by the playwright's conspiratorial male servants. A notary, an apothecary, and several physicians, all derived from the pedants of the earlier writings, especially the ones in Doctor Love, round out the cast of familiar faces. Argan, like Orgon, has a young second wife, Béline, but she does not resemble Elmire or the other wives; she is more of an analogy with Tartuffe: an object of affection and, at the same time, a sweet-talking, malicious hypocrite. Above all, Argan shares with other would-be masters of the house a hunger for something he does not have, which looks attainable but proves elusive. The Sganarelles of The School for Husbands and The Forced Marriage, Arnolphe, and Harpagon want a young and malleable bride; George Dandin hopes for the dissolution of an indissoluble marriage; Orgon seeks a spiritual son and heir; Monsieur Jourdain would break away from the mediocre middle; and Argan yearns for triumph over disease, a form of yearning for immortality. The only strict novelty in the dramatis personae is a significant child's role, that of Argan's eight-year-old daughter, Louison (played in the original production by the daughter of Mlle Beauval, who took the part of Toinette).

But as always, Moliéresque mannerisms and full-blown idiosyncrasies give a blunt or fine freshness to each character, and most strikingly to the role designated for himself. Argan does not quite qualify as an imaginary invalid, despite the play's title. He lives in a state of anxiety as he wavers between constipation and diarrhea. These he brings on by engorging a chemical banquet intended, in alternation, to scour and restabilize his bowels. In the play's opening soliloquy, as he queries the charges on the bills submitted by his apothecary, he recites a catalogue of seventeenth-century purgatives, laxatives, softeners, hardeners, emollients, internal cleansers, and other agents that correspond to the items hawked during today's dinner-hour television—only here they accumulate in an incantatory poetry-by-listing reminiscent of the one declaimed by Volpone as he plays the charlatan Scoto of Mantua—or of the delicacies that Dorante in The Bourgeois Gentleman says he would have liked to prepare for the dinner party given by him and paid for by Monsieur Jourdain. Argan's speech reveals a devout attitude toward medicine, a preoccupation with the expulsion of dirt, wind, and disorder, a vision of the body freed from the impurities of intrusive matter, a perfectly lubricated and impeccably organized organism that is the counterpart of an immaculate soul. To Argan the notion of health, the ideal that is an absence, has its own mystique and can be attained only by a fervor that almost mounts to a belief in witchcraft. Like Beckett's Krapp and Hamm, he spends much of his time awaiting the next internal spasm, his nearest equivalent to a sign of grace from on high.

Molière only slightly tempers this dedication to medication. Just as Harpagon can, so to speak, step outside himself and pretend to become the loving father as he offers to give up his prospective bride to his son, and just as Monsieur Jourdain "lends" Dorante all the cash he asks for but keeps a notebook with a reckoning of the total debts, so Argan shows a streak of practicality as he cuts as much as two-thirds off the apothecary's asking price for certain medicines. He is never altogether submersed in his fanatical devotions. By plotting the scene as a monologue, Molière shows us Argan at odds with himself, an eager imbiber of medicine pitted against a manager of the household accounts—like a millionaire, he plays Mr. Frugal when it comes to small expenses. The internal conflict finally erupts into anger, a flow of bile, which generates fear. What harm will the bile do him? He realizes he is alone and vulnerable; he calls for help. And by the conclusion of the play's first speech we can diagnose his sickness as not imaginary but real, a chronic (and comic) terror that he may suddenly die unattended.

This husband and father has his blind spots. The most obvious one, after his unbounded faith in physic and physicians, is his wife. He believes she loves him without reserve even in his supposedly ailing condition, while the others in the family havePage 88  |  Top of Article already taken her for the "gold-digger" she is. He confides that he wants her to bear his child (his doctor has said it can be done!) and that he means to disinherit Angélique and Louison in her favor and presumably the baby's (I, 7). By contrast, Harpagon and Orgon never openly declare their similar intentions of acquiring new offspring to replace the present ones as legatees, although these intentions can be deduced from the plays. No doubt Argan expects to enroll the child as soon as possible in a medical school, but in the meantime he can bring a doctor into the family for free consultations by giving Angélique to Thomas Diafoirus, a recent medical graduate and another of Argan's blind spots.

Dr. Thomas and his father arrive for formal introductions (II, 5). Cléante, rejected as a suitor for Angélique, has already presented himself in the guise of a substitute for her music teacher (II, 4), and is invited by Argan to watch the proceedings, that is, to witness Argan's pride at having lured a medico into the family. As often happens in Molière, no mothers take part in the marriage arrangements or, indeed, in the play, only Toinette as a pseudomotherly but skeptical presence. She has previously registered her protests about the alliance. Angélique, she says, is not ill and therefore doesn't need to marry a doctor (I, 5).

After an exchange of greetings, during which both fathers speak at once and do not hear each other or comprehend that this means they are at odds from the start, the senior Dr. Diafoirus (the name is a play on the French word for "diarrhea") boasts that his son holds tenaciously to "the old school of medicine"; that he never changes his opinions; and that he vigorously disputes any new theories that come up, such as Harvey's proposal that blood circulated throughout the body, not exactly a recent discovery, since it was published fifty-four years before The Imaginary Invalid but remained in contention among French medical practitioners. Young Thomas may lack imagination and enterprise—did not begin to identify alphabetical letters until his tenth year—but now, according to his father, he has a reliable mind and the required temperament for fathering well-made children. The young doctor more than lives up to some of these boasts. His physical potential for fatherhood is not tested in the play, but he shows off his reliable mind as he recites by rote some speeches, balanced in their rhetoric, hackneyed through and through, and evidently composed by his father. He follows his father's instructions all the way, despite several lapses of memory and after he has directed the address meant for Béline to Angélique. He offers an engagement gift to his fiancée-to-be: a copy of his thesis attacking the "circulationists"; he then invites her to a performance, not of a play, but of the dissection of a woman's body, on which he will discourse. According to a stage direction, this mechanical monster programmed to appear human "does everything with bad grace and at the wrong moment," an example—perhaps exaggerated only a little, if at all—of the new graduate who has capitulated to the rules banged into his head and calls his calling an art while regarding it as a literally prescriptive science.

We soon learn the author's purpose in keeping Cléante onstage during this scene. Argan retained him as a reciprocal measure: after one father has shown off his son, the other must show off his daughter. She will sing for the guests, accompanied by the tutor. Cléante sets up a pastoral duet in which a shepherd and shepherdess exchange vows. Argan grows displeased with the content of the song, especially when he peeks at the sheets of music and sees there are no words written on them. Cléante replies that a new form of notation, just invented, incorporates the lyrics in the music; but to the audience it has by now become obvious that he and Angélique are openly improvising (in rhyme) as they seal a secret love pact.

This continuous, two-part scene (II, 5) lies at the heart of the play, not only in its structural placement, but also in its juxtaposing of the two types of wooing. The rigidity of the Diafoirus doctors, père et fils, relying on unfelt, rehearsed sentiments, contrasts with the spontaneity of Cléante and Angélique as they give vent to their outbursts of feeling. Diafoirus senior speaks of treating patients by "following the current" and going "according to the rules," but the method applies also to his and his son's conduct in life beyond their professional practices. The bleak young graduate has dragged himself through his training by obedience and obduracy. In order to qualify as a candidate, he was forbidden to trust his own thoughts and feelings; his father and teachers have trained him to suppress any glimmer of initiative.

Since The Imaginary Invalid is a divertissement, the three acts spill over into a balletic prologue, two intermissions, and a finale. But the drama itself can be broadly visualized as two connected parts. Part one consists of a demonstration of the follies and deficiencies of physicians and the foolish credulity of this one patient-victim; part two grows into an extended debate over whether medicinePage 89  |  Top of Article has any value at all, whether indeed it does more harm than good. The demonstration reaches one climax with the appearance of Dr. Diafoirus and his son. It rises to a second climax with the arrival of the apothecary, Monsieur Fleurant, syringe in hand, to administer an enema, which Argan declines to take after being pressured by Béralde, although he has strong reservations about giving it up (III, 4). With hardly any delay, Argan's personal physician, Purgon, strides into the house and because of his patient's refusal to follow orders, works himself up into a lather culminating in a curse: He wills Argan to sink into a succession of sicknesses (from bradypepsia to dyspepsia to apepsia to lientery to dysentery to dropsy) and thence, within four days, into death (III, 5). This second climax reduces Argan to a state of terror.

As a third climax, Toinette impersonates an itinerant male doctor who claims to have lived for ninety hale years by following his own miraculous cures and has now sought out this "famous invalid" to be his patient. When Argan tells of his symptoms (headaches, blurred vision, heart pains, and the like), "Doctor" Toinette repudiates Purgon's diagnoses, attributing all the maladies to Argan's weak lungs. She pooh-poohs the remedies and diet decreed by Purgon and advises Argan to have a leg amputated and an eye put out, advice he is reluctant to follow but can't quite bring himself to discredit, either (III, 10). The second climax and, even more, the third climax with its outrageous suggestions, push the action out of farcical satire and into the world of fantasy in which medicine sometimes operates, in both senses of the word, as they prepare us for the fantastic sequence of the finale.

The other part of the play, the debate that punctuates these climaxes, takes place, on and off, between Argan and Béralde, and it too leads into the finale. Béralde asserts (III, 3) that Purgon would never dream of questioning the dogmas he lives and works by; that he bears his patients no ill will (this statement is strategically placed, shortly before Purgon utters his curse), for he would despatch them all, Argan included, no more remorsefully or malevolently than he would, if need be, kill off his own wife and children, or even himself, for the sake of going the limit with a "cure." Argan counters weakly by accusing his brother of thinking he knows more than all the doctors put together. He protests that it is easy to argue against medicine when one is in good health and (as a smattering of his own malice pops out) wishes his brother were ill; then he might change his tune (III, 4). Béralde says that the only effective remedies are rest and the workings of nature without interference from the medical profession; Argan must have an uncommonly strong constitution for it to have withstood all the enemas, laxatives, and other drugs he has taken.

In the course of the debate, Béralde proposes a visit to "a comedy by Moliére on this subject." Argan badmouths Molière for making fun of doctors and patients. This touch of theatricalism reminds us that Argan enjoys robust health—physically, at any rate—but that his creator, while speaking the lines, is dying. How many "cures" had Molière been subjected to in the effort to preserve those organs "Doctor" Toinette blames for all Argan's symptoms, the lungs? In the play's ultimate scene (III, 14), Béralde, realizing that no argument can sap his brother's faith in medicine, closes the debate by suggesting that Argan become a doctor and learn to cure himself. Toinette supports him by adding that there is no illness rash enough to attack a doctor. Béralde has hired some actors for the finale, as Covielle did in The Bourgeois Gentleman, to induct the hero into a new mode of being, only this time they dress up not as Turks but as members of the doctoral faculty, as the play's two parts come together.

In expressing his disgust with Molière's plays, Argan complains that the dramatist makes fun of "decent people like doctors" (III, 3). Béralde replies that he does not make fun of doctors; he ridicules medicine. Even if this claim truly expresses the author's intentions, and I am not at all sure it does, he or any other writer would have the utmost difficulty in separating out the practitioners from the practices, because of the nature of drama. Certainly, his mockery of doctoring and doctors begins early, with his second play, and continues intermittently to the end of his life. For several centuries, critics and biographers have been asking why. One obvious answer is that medicine repeatedly failed him. Ariane Mnouchkine in her televised version of the playwright's life implied another cause. In her first episode, the boy Molière watches a clutch of doctors attending his mother while she is dying; they seem indifferent to her plight and her family's, more concerned with their fees and professional squabbles than with saving her. The memory of their callous behavior stays vividly with him for the rest of his life. Mikhail Bulgakov, in his bouncing, dancing, slightly fictionalized biography of the playwright, refers similarly to the "succession of doctors" who attended Madame Poquelin; they came "mounted on donkeys and wearing sinister tall caps" (The Life of Monsieur de Molière, II).Page 90  |  Top of Article There are other plausible explanations: that in oral, written, and improvised plays, doctors were a traditional object of mockery; that in purporting to effect cures, they play God and therefore deserve to be cut down to size, as overweening heroes always were in Greek myth and tragedy, among them the "first physician," Asclepius, the son of Apollo, cruelly punished by Zeus.

Without discounting any of these possibilities, one can hypothesize that Molière would not have mocked doctors who a) attempted "natural" healing, without the aid of drugs and paraphernalia; b) scorned rules and mechanical reasoning. What he appears to find most objectionable in the doctors of his day—at least, the ones he made fun of—was their dogmatism. Memorized learning that leads to false certitudes and masquerades as science (while calling itself an art) is a sign of stasis, mental death in life. Hence, Thomas Diafoirus' machinelike behavior. This character is often played as an idiot. The role might seem more persuasive in performance if the actor begins like a well-ordered machine that runs with admirable smoothness—it makes one early blooper in mistaking Angélique for Béline—but gradually runs down, as if its power were cut off. The Diafoirus dogmas then give way to the improvised love duet, inspired by impulse and passion, which are signs of humanity and life. Such an interpretation flatly contradicts the old view of Molière as the apostle of rationality, but that view, in all its variations, was educed from favoritism, preferring some of Molière's characters and their arguments to others, rather than gauging the meanings of the clash of characters and of their ideas.

Molière's comic and farcical assaults on medicine are of a piece, then, with his assaults on the absolutist (and sometimes insincere and grasping) theologians of his time, as in Tartuffe and Don Juan; on amorality in the legal profession, as in Scapin; on secondhand scholarship, as in The Learned Ladies; and on the unbending personal traits evinced by his "masters of the house," from Arnolphe to Harpagon and Argan. The latter is nearly as dogmatic as his doctors are, and they in turn are nearly as miserly as Harpagon, in that they cling possessively to their bits of prejudice, which they look on as priceless possessions. Even so, the doctors in the play, who believe themselves repositories of the conventional medical wisdom of the age, prescribe differently. Diafoirus traces Argan's illness to the spleen and recommends roast meat for it; Purgon, who blames the liver, recommends boiled meat. When told of these conflicting causes, Diafoirus protects the profession by closing ranks quickly and says the spleen and the liver are "in sympathy" and that roast and boiled meat are "the same thing" (II, 6). Later, Toinette, playing the ninety-year-old quack, scorns all the previous medical advice Argan has received (III, 10). Doctors, in other words, exemplify blinkered attitudes, and Molière's spectators are more likely to have been familiar with—and adversely affected by—medicine than by other professions.

The doctors in this play may come across as figures of fun, but they are too humorously treated for us to regard them as willful villains, people who intend harm—even the incensed Purgon as he launches his curse. The action, however, does throw up one unmistakable villain, Argan's wife, Béline, who aims to dispossess Angélique and Louison, the daughters of the earlier marriage, and would like to see Angélique sent to a convent. In the same scene (II, 6) in which Thomas Diafoirus hopes to win over Angélique by pointing out that "the ancients" used to seize their prospective wives by force in order not to give the impression that the young women went eagerly into their arms, Béline, also speaking to Angélique, appeals to the "old times" when daughters obeyed their fathers without question. She thereby aligns herself with the dogmatic doctors.

But she has more medical discernment than they have. She has accurately diagnosed Argan's complaint as a desire to be fussed over and cajoled like a small child: when he feels bilious, she calls him "my baby boy" (I, 6). His addiction to medicine confirms that he "needs" such attentions. Because she plays up to his desire to be babied, much as Tartuffe plays up to Orgon's desire to be considered a man of great moral worth, Argan trusts her more than he does the others. Béralde even compares Argan's excessive fondness for medicine with his excessive fondness for Béline (III, 11). Bringing her insincerity into the open requires an old ruse suggested by Toinette, that Argan pretend to be dead so that he can hear how she will grieve over his body. As we expect, she sees him lying inert, is overjoyed, and looks forward to her inheritance. When Toinette then tells Angélique her father has died, she, by way of contrast, is stricken with remorse at having flouted his wishes.

But an actress who plays Béline as a villain from her first appearance on betrays the role. If she convinces Argan that she loves him, she should be able to convince the audience, or at least keep them in a state of uncertainty about her aims, until Argan is induced to play dead and show her up for what shePage 91  |  Top of Article is. Until that late switch, the character puts on an act, but her performance should not appear crass when we notice her on the same side of the conflict as the doctors. Much as Toinette impersonates a doctor and Cléante a music teacher, Béline impersonates a loving wife.

As for Argan, after impersonating an invalid, he will impersonate a doctor in the "third interlude," which serves as the ceremonial finale. Molière based this ritual on the secret, almost masonic, solemnities at the University of Paris, held when the Faculty of Medicine submitted candidates for questioning and approval. He brings onstage a chorus of surgeons, other doctors, and apothecaries who dance and chant their verses in a hodgepodge of rhymed pidgin-Latin, French, and Italian. The candidate, Argan, promises the identical treatment for wildly varying ailments: he will administer a clyster (or enema), then a bleeding, and last a purgative. He swears to obey the faculty's rules, never to swerve from "the opinions of the ancients," and to apply only the remedies prescribed by the faculty members, even if the patient is dying. As the degree is conferred amid balletic caperings, a chorus repeatedly congratulates Argan and wishes him an uncommonly long life ("a thousand, thousand years") in which to "eat, drink, bleed, and kill." This farcical rendition, undertaken by the actors recruited by Béralde, must have gravely offended those doctors who heard about it; probably only a few saw the staging, since most of them considered it below their dignity to attend the theatre at all, and the title of the play provided sufficient warning that Molière had once again attempted to lance their profession.

Medicine and theatricalism may dominate the action and themes of The Imaginary Invalid, but like all of Molière's plays, it contains a love story: Cléante wins Angélique; Argan loses Béline (the Béline he loved and trusted), although whether they remain married is unresolved in the action. Molière sustains the love motif in the prologue and the first and second interludes, intricately rhymed pastoral ballet-operas with music composed by Charpentier, which are often dismissed as having no bearing on the play and omitted from some translations. There are actually two alternative prologues. The first, an elaborate gathering of nymphs, shepherds, shepherdesses, the goddess Flora, and the god Pan, pays tribute to Louis XIV for the courage he showed during his recent wars in Holland, welcomes him home as "the greatest of kings," and implies that his triumphs in battle have made France (and the prologue's Arcadia) safe for lovers. The second prologue, a lament in four verses by a shepherdess, frets that conceited doctors with "their little knowledge and big Latin words" cannot cure her heart-ache: "Your idle chatter would be accepted only by an IMAGINARY INVALID." Curtain up for act I.

A slender thread ties that act to the first interlude. Almost at the end of the act, Toinette remarks she will seek the help of her suitor, Polichinelle, to take a message to Cléante about the threatened marriage between Angélique and the young doctor. In the interlude, Polichinelle, the ancestor from the commedia dell'arte (Pulcinella) of Punch, comes to the house but doesn't mention the message, and doesn't seem equipped to halt the marriage, anyway. The old fellow stands outside and chides himself for being in love with a female dragon, neglecting his business (moneylending), missing food and sleep, losing his mind. He serenades Toinette in Italian; but his beloved does not appear at her window, only an old woman who answers him mockingly with a matching Italian song, as though he had addressed his fervor to her. Polichinelle has more serenades in store but, like Lyciscas in The Princess of Elis, he is interrupted—by violinists and then by watchmen and archers, who threaten to arrest him for creating a disturbance at night. He mollifies them with bribes, and the interlude comes to an end with the bribe takers ecstatic and Polichinelle as lovelorn as the shepherdess in the second prologue. Perhaps we are meant to assume that Polichinelle did deliver the message, after all, because the next act opens with the prompt arrival of Cléante, who poses as the substitute music teacher.

If that first interlude takes place in a new setting, with the exterior of Argan's house in the background, the second interlude, which follows act II, goes on in the same setting as the play, as Béralde leads into view four gypsies in Moorish costume who dance and sing. The burden of their song compares with Feste's carpe diem advice to Olivia (Twelfth Night, II, 3): Enjoy our young years while they last, it recommends—the springtime of our life; love brings anguish but also pleasures; "beauty passes, / effaced by time, / The ice age / Takes over." The gypsies dance and display some performing monkeys they have brought with them. Once again the theme of spontaneity is sounded, the gypsies' songs reinforcing Cléante's pastoral duet with Angélique.

Does Argan heed such sentiments? As the gypsies go off and the third act takes over in the drawing room, Béralde asks his brother, "Wasn'tPage 92  |  Top of Article that as good as a laxative?" and Argan replies with a line that has become a familiar French quotation, "Hm, nothing's as good as a good laxative" (Hon, de bonne casse est bonne). Argan is incurable, even after his eyes are opened to his wife's deceits. That is why, for the last interlude, or finale, Béralde will arrange for him to believe he has locked himself into the ritualistic rigidities of medicine. The occasion for the finale, according to Béralde, is Mardi Gras, although Argan has no idea, once it is over, any more than Monsieur Jourdain does, that he has taken part in a carnival, a pretense. As the actors troop out of the drawing room in their medical robes, they leave behind an incontestable master of the house, the imaginary doctor.

Source: Albert Bermel, "The Imaginary Invalid (Le Malade imaginaire, 1673)," in Molière's Theatrical Bounty: A New View of the Plays, Southern Illinois University Press, 1990, pp. 182–92.

H. T. Barnwell

In the following essay, Barnwell examines Moliere's use of comic devices, including "repetition, duplication, [and] duplicate mimicry," to suggest automatism and rigidity in The Imaginary Invalid.

In analysing aspects of plot, structure and characterisation, I have touched upon a number of points connected with the kind of theatrically comic devices and language which feature in Le Malade imaginaire—inevitably, because they are integral to the play and not gratuitous or decorative. 'Le style est l'homme même', wrote Buffon, and certainly their style characterises the stage-figures in Molière's plays. The language of the theatre is not, however, the language of everyday life, for three reasons: first, from a purely practical standpoint, the language of ordinary conversation would simply make no more impression on the audience than would the tones of voice of such conversation; second, that language would be inappropriate to something which is itself not a representation of day-to-day reality but an artistic and imaginative transmutation of that reality; and third, if language is to contribute to the total comic effect, one must expect to find in the author, as has been said of Molière, 'la volonté d'outrer les défauts et d'accentuer les ridicules', linguistically as in other respects. Exaggeration of linguistic characteristics may seem to the reader, as opposed to the spectator, to produce crude effects, such as feature in those passages in which Argan's medical treatment is discussed. Yet even those must be seen in their context: the world of his imagination, which he treats so respectfully and, at times, so lyrically, is concerned in fact with the grossest physical realities (see Béline's account in III, 12). The language he uses, derived from the technical jargon of the doctors, is a source of comedy, not simply because it is extravagant, but because the form of the extravagance is so inappropriate to the expression of those realities and masks them in supposedly scientific verbiage. That verbiage, when used by lawyers and doctors, typifies them as members of their professions and indicates their place in society—and that applies even to the final intermède—but it is handled in such a way as to make us aware of its deceit: it is empty of real substance. Again we see the incongruity between their extravagant claims and what passes for their expert knowledge. Argan is ridiculous because we are made aware, through the comic action, of his failure to see it and of his entry into the world of extravagance. And language is inseparable from the form of the episodes and of the dramatic situations. In analysing aspects of it, I shall make no attempt to isolate it from them.

Some of the most obvious sources of comic effect are certain kinds of repetition, duplication or deliberate mimicry, all of which suggest an automatism and rigidity alien to the suppleness and adaptability of the life of normal people. The cyclic sequence of some of the episodes in Le Malade imaginaire is an important aspect of comic repetition, because it enables Molière to represent the mechanical, fixed, predictable nature of the responses of the characters, and particularly of Argan; but the fact that the repetition is never exact in form draws attention all the more clearly to that fixity.

Examples occur quite early in the play. Part of Act I, scene 5 is a second version of Toinette's provocation of Argan's anger in scene 2. Anger is established as his automatic response to contradiction. It is characteristic of the self-centred 'imaginaire', but it is comic precisely by virtue of being mechanical, and Toinette knows it. The terms of abuse addressed to her are one important factor in the automatism. In the same Act, one of the farcical episodes derived from the lazzi of commedia dell'arte—Argan, the invalid, being physically provoked (358–79)—is repeated, with variations, in the presence of Béline (432–46): on both occasions his anger enables him to exert himself in spite of his alleged weakness, just as his departure in the usual direction is so precipitate on one occasion (III, 1) that Toinette has to remind him to pick up his

Page 93  |  Top of Article

Emily Morgan, Clive Arrindell, and Daniel Massey in a scene from the 1981 stage production of The Hypochondriac, a translated version of the The Imaginary Invalid, performed at the Olivier Theatre in London. Emily Morgan, Clive Arrindell, and Daniel Massey in a scene from the 1981 stage production of The Hypochondriac, a translated version of the The Imaginary Invalid, performed at the Olivier Theatre in London.

walking-stick, itself a reminder of his asking for it earlier (I, 3), the stick having been picked up in the meantime as a weapon with which to strike her (363–64). All these things and others like them are on one level farcical and purely laughter-provoking, but they also contribute to our comic perception of Argan's behaviour and are not, as are their equivalents in the lazzi, gratuitous improvisations contrived simply to enliven a flagging action: they are integrated into the comic action because they express the character himself and arise from the attempts to dupe or to save him.

The most elaborate example occurs in the mock-doctor scenes of Act III, which are also a parody—and therefore a partial repetition—of the real-doctor episode of Act II. In spite of the sheer fun, these scenes, too, are integral to the action, moving it on from the desertion of Fleurant and Purgon towards the solution of the dramatic problem in Argan's acceptance of and involvement in the final ceremony; and they demonstrate, in the most theatrical manner, the grip on him of his imagination.

The solution of the dramatic problem, that of the marriage of Angélique, is twofold. First, Argan the 'imaginaire' being incurable, a way has to be found of using his imagination so as to make Cléante acceptable as a son-in-law and to provide a substitute for the departed doctors: the substitute is partly in Toinette's impersonation, partly in the final ceremony which will also turn Cléante, so Argan believes, as well as himself, into the much-desired doctor. Second, it is equally important both to reconcile Argan to Angélique and to make him well disposed to her marriage: her true feelings for him must be revealed, as must those of Béline, so that the work of disinheritance can be prevented or undone. Argan must be deceived with regard to the new doctors and undeceived with regard to his family. The means adopted for both processes is the same: pretence.

The undeceiving (III, 11–14), its counterpart, follows immediately upon the deceiving (III, 8–10), a parallel without direct repetition, and one in which the part played by Argan is reversed. In the deceiving, he is the victim of the trick played; in the undeceiving, he is its agent. In different ways, his imagination is being played upon in both episodes—the old farcical idea of 'le trompeur trompé' being turned round into 'le trompé trompeur'. The parallelPage 94  |  Top of Article is, however, more complex than that suggests, because in 'le trompé trompeur' is expressed the change from Argan's being taken in by Louison's shamming to Béline's and Angélique's (and not Louison's) being fooled by his.

Such parallels and symmetries, both aesthetically satisfying and consistent with the dramatic and comic function of the play, are also instanced in Argan's repeated outbursts of anger whenever the course of his delusion is disturbed: the intrusion of domestic reality into the world of the doctors (I, 1–2); the discovery of Angélique's love for Cléante when acquiescence in the projected marriage to Thomas Diafoirus is expected (I, 5), etc. The sudden changes from affability to anger are in their turn paralleled by that in the doctors, all sweetness and light when Argan is the compliant dupe (II, 5–6) but quite the reverse when he is not (III, 4–5).

His predictability is exploited by the other characters and our expectation of it raised when, on three successive occasions, Toinette and Béralde play the impresario: their common capacity for so doing is an important factor in their mutual understanding and their alliance. When Toinette announces the arrival of the doctors (II, 4), she enters into the spirit of Argan's exaggerated respect for them (comically contrasted—see the stage direction, 'par dérision'—with her real feelings: 868–73) and arranges a ceremonial entry, which duly takes place. Parallel to this are her announcement of her own entry as doctor (III, 7–8) and Béralde's ushering in of the dancers before the second and third intermèdes. On each occasion, but in different ways, Argan's imagination is being played upon, always with predictable—and therefore laughable—success.

Indeed, so eager is he to put himself at its service that, when Diafoirus comes on the scene, he becomes involved in a 'dialogue de sourds' in which the two men talk simultaneously. On the one hand, this is comic because they behave like mechanical toys which have been wound up and put down together and go on working each in its own independent way. On the other, each pursues relentlessly, because self-centredly, his own greeting, but at the same time, if all the little pieces of the speeches are put together in the order in which they are printed, they make a different kind of sense, though not always perfectly coherent: three lines develop simultaneously, Argan's, Diafoirus's and the combined one, of which neither is aware. A comic perception is conveyed through the laughter, of the perversion of language: it is free to go its own way in spite of the single-mindedness of the speakers, and they are not in control of it.

Immediately afterwards, Thomas delivers himself of the first of his prepared speeches: this is a different kind of automatism, the mechanical repetition of verbiage learnt by heart: Toinette's ironical comment (939; cf. 965–66, 970–71, 1181–83) draws the comic contrast between appearance and reality. The divorce between the realms of appearance (to which the doctors belong) and of reality is evident in the way in which Thomas addresses Angélique as his future mother-in-law (945–46). The actual words have no meaning for him—they are made up of distorted and disparate bits and pieces from Cicero and commonplaces of literary rhetoric—and he fails to perceive either the reality of the girl the fathers propose he should marry—although she is there, in front of him—or the incongruity of the language he has learnt by heart. The rote learning is itself rendered comic by the way in which, having delayed the entry of Béline, Molière arranges for the mechanism to start again in the following scene—when it breaks down. The mechanical nature of the greetings, emphasised by the false starts and the breakdown, is made comic by our attention being drawn to what Bergson calls the form of the social ceremonial and away from its substance. The ceremonial becomes meaningless, 'une mascarade sociale', inert, contrived, ready-made.

These episodes follow hard on the heels of Cléante's arrival at the house and his greeting of Argan. This, too, is comic not simply because, asPage 95  |  Top of Article has been said, 'you cannot tell a hypochondriac that he is looking well', but because Cléante, too, is merely repeating conventional social formulas without being aware or without taking account of the reality of the person in front of him. Thomas Diafoirus's error may be more gross—and is the more laughable for following Cléante's—but it is of the same kind and springs also from mechanical behaviour. Cléante, however, quickly recovers (though he will appear to make another mistake later (2167–68), when he inverts the medical hierarchy) and demonstrates his adaptability and quickwittedness in the remainder of the conversation with Argan and in the singing-lesson. Unaware of it though he is, Argan is greeted by the bogus doctor in a deliberately inverted way: instead of the doctor being famous (what, in real life, one would expect), the patient is 'un illustre malade' who has a great reputation (1910–13) and is evidently worth a doctor's visit. The relationship between these parallel episodes is complex: each throws light on the other in such a way as to draw attention to empty automatism and to present, in the last case, a parody which escapes Argan's notice—except that he is flattered by it.

That automatism is comic not simply because it is mechanical and made to seem inconsistent with the flexibility of real life but because, very often, it is meaningless. When talking about his 'illness' and its treatment, Argan merely repeats the forms of words he has memorised. We actually see Thomas Diafoirus going through the process of automatically producing the theoretical answers to questions put to him in a diagnosis. He is learning his trade. In all such cases the expression bears a false relation or no relation to the reality. It is mere words.

Another type of repetition occurs, as we saw earlier, in modes of address and terms of endearment. The dialogues between Argan and Béline (I, 6–7) are the most important instance. On the one hand, Argan repeatedly utters 'mamie', 'mon coeur', 'mamour', and means what he says. On the other, Béline uses similar expressions to encourage him in the mistaken belief that she loves him. Both the deception and the error are finally dissipated when it is Argan who adopts the pretence (III, 12) and addresses his wife simply as 'Madame ma femme' (2104) while she makes no reply at all. Further aspects of the comedy of the earlier dialogues are seen in Béline's use of the expressions, 'mon fils', 'pauvre petit fils' (the maternal pose adopted by a wife much younger than her husband) and in the contrast between Argan's language of endearment addressed to the wife who is a fraud and that of abuse to the servant who is honest.

Then the scenes between husband and wife are echoed in Argan's conversation with Louison (II, 8—immediately afterwards), first in the girl's repetition of 'mon papa' with all the variations of feeling from security and affection to dismay and contrition, and then in Argan's insistent 'Hé bien?' and 'Et puis après?', the latter being repeated by his daughter. These elements, together with the similarities of rhythm and length of phrase and sentence, constitute part of what has been called the 'ballet des mots'—another connexion between the ballet sequences and the comedy proper—which puts the emphasis on theatricality rather than realism and suggests mimicry, whether conscious or not, and lessons in good manners being as carefully observed as the medical formulations. Like other aspects of the play we have studied, the repetitions and variations form a pattern. They are akin to musical counterpoint and fugue.

The most remarkable example is in Argan's altercation with Purgon (III, 5). This scene falls into two main parts, the first for three voices (Argan, Purgon, Toinette: 1762–1817), the second for two (Argan, Purgon: (1818–35). In the first, Purgon utters complete phrases and sentences, relentlessly pursued despite Argan's short attempted (and always incomplete) interuptions, while Toinette interpolates laconic comments putting the blame for the situation on Argan. The pattern is perfectly regular (as it is throughout the scene), Purgon having twice as many (and twice as long) speeches as the other speakers (voluble self-importance of the traditional doctor—and his refusal to listen), while the counterpoint, as it were, is provided alternately and in different directions by Argan and Toinette. Purgon's theme reaches its climax and Toinette withdraws (1817). Then follow the curses and Argan's repeated cries of despair and supplication: the pattern is exactly that of a litany, with variations in the petitions (here the curses) though not in their form, uniformity in the responses. This is of course entirely appropriate because Argan really does hold the doctors and their powers in religious awe, as we have already seen ('les ordonnances de la médecine', etc.) and his cries of 'Monsieur Purgon!' are the exact equivalent of the 'miserere mei'.

Purgon's curses take the form of a sequence of names of illnesses, all Greek in origin and all ending in -ie, but the climax falls into bathos (1834–35)Page 96  |  Top of Article when the last words are no longer learned compounds but simple words of everyday speech with the same ending, vie and folie, which return Argan from fantasy to reality—and terrify him. Still, however, 'la privation de la vie' is a circumlocution for 'la mort' (the verbosity persists), and the irony is that if Argan were to die it would certainly be thanks to his 'folie' (madness of the 'imaginaire' as well as simple foolishness)—but not, as Purgon thinks, the folly of refusing medical treatment, rather that of accepting its surfeit. Highly farcical though the episode is in concept, it is also a most complex and sophisticated piece of writing, marking an important development in the action and putting the behaviour of both doctor and patient in a comic perspective.

Pascal's remark—'Deux visages semblables, dont aucun ne fait rite en particulier, font rire ensemble par leur ressemblance'—applies not only to faces but to acts and words and suggests the mechanism that is at work in such examples as this. But resemblances run in families, and Thomas Diafoirus is very much a younger version of his father, showing what the father was like in his own student days, and the father showing what the son will eventually become. Angélique is also a younger version of her father in her persistence and outspokenness, but he does not show us what she will become because she is without his mania. Resemblances run in professions, too, and Purgon's jargon (III, 5) echoes that of Fleurant (his bill in I, 1), but with violence, and that of Diafoirus (II, 6). Such resemblances are comic (and in the case of the doctors are accentuated by their garb) because they reveal habit which has become unthinking and mechanical.

The middle scenes of Act II are important in this respect. The two fathers resemble each other in their unheeding pursuit of their own greetings, as we have seen, as well as in their determination to marry their children off and their anxiety to put them on show. But the children's behaviour is strongly contrasted. Thomas can only mouth what he has learnt by heart and, in direct dialogue with Angélique, import into his would-be wooing the syllogistic and formulaic rhetoric of his studies. She, on the other hand, is straightforward and direct, and speaks her own mind in her own language. This immediately follows the scene in which she and Cléante have improvised their musical duet: that it expresses something spontaneous and natural beneath the appearance of artificiality is evident even to Argan (1124–25—he speaks truer than he knows—and 1160–62). We are allowed to perceive the comedy of the contrast between the mechanical, empty use of convention and its adaptable, significant use. Closely allied to it is of course the use of jargon: the love-duet is couched in conventional, stylised language (the jargon of préciosité, with its 'appas', 'transports', 'supplices', etc.) but is made to express an authentic emotion, whereas the ready-made formulas of the doctors—another convention—, whether those of their profession or, in the case of Thomas, those of courtship, are mere words acquired at second hand and signifying nothing; but they are sufficiently impressive to dupe Argan, as Béralde clearly sees (1614–45). The difference is that between the mask deliberately donned to communicate something real in secret and the mask unconsciously worn to say openly something without substance.

We are made aware, through this kind of contrast, of the gap between artificial verbiage and real experience which was particularly perceptible and comic to the 'honnêtes gens' whose rejection of jargon of any kind had been expressed in the doctrines of Malherbe and Vaugelas. But so much an 'imaginaire' is Argan that he accepts literally what Béralde, having drawn the distinction between 'les discours' and 'les choses' (1675–79), finally says: 'L'on n'a qu'à parler; avec une robe et un bonnet, tout galimatias devient savant, et toute sottise devient raison' (2188–89). It is no wonder that Argan is taken in by the verbal fantasies of Fleurant (I, 1) or by their parody by Toinette (III, 8, 10). In the same way, the comic view is suggested by contradictions between general principles (mental constructs) and particular instances (living realities), especially when Angélique and Argan or Toinette and Argan (I, 5), for instance, or Argan and Béralde (III, 3), agree on the first and differ on the second. In such cases, the argument develops to establish agreement on the general principle and, when it stumbles against a particular reality which does not fit, goes into reverse in the direction of dissension.

Connected with this is the importance of set rules. Thomas Diafoirus observes them in his encomia—and they fail; and in his diagnosis—and it is at variance with that of an experienced doctor. Béralde argues that rules have no bearing on real life (1634–36, 1676–79), while Toinette-as-doctor produces a parody (III, 10) of a diagnosis carried out according to the rules (II, 6) in a parody of Argan's ill-fated dialogue with Purgon: here it is the doctor's repeated phrases which reply to the patient's remarks, and the exclamations ('Ignorant!') are anythingPage 97  |  Top of Article but helpless appeals. The pattern of the dialogue closely follows that between Argan and Purgon, but the roles and meaning are turned upside down. At the end, Toinette follows logic to its ridiculous conclusion in her prescription for amputation: at that point Argan does in fact awake to reality—'Oui, mais j'ai besoin de mon bras' (2001)—though only fleetingly. In L'Amour médecin (1665), Bahis had said: 'Il vaut mieux mourir scion les règles que de réchapper contre les règles' (II, 5).

The contradiction between truth and illusion is evident even in the names given to some of the characters. While Fleurant and Purgon are aptly named for what seem to be their principal functions, Bonnefoy's character is suggested by ironical antiphrasis. Béline's activities and Argan's blindness to their real nature are also indicated by her name: 'béline', meaning in Old French 'sheep', came to be used as a term of endearment, the equivalent of Argan's 'mamour', etc. But it surely also gives a clue to her real character and behaviour: the wolf in sheep's clothing. Diafoirus is usually held to suggest 'diarrhoea'. But why not 'diagnosis', since the play features two? Molière may however have derived the name from the Greek 'diaphotos', meaning both 'different' (at variance) and 'excellent', and particularly appropriate to the controversies between the doctors in the play and to their (and Argan's) estimate of their worth. Alternatively, the name could be of mixed and more fanciful derivation: Greek 'dia' ('throughout') and French 'foi' ('faith'—on the part of Argan) and Latin suffix (appropriate to the Latinised jargon of the pedant). All these possibilities suggest contradictions between appearance and reality.

The episodes, the language adopted by the characters, their behaviour, all are in themselves theatrical and have to do with disguise, pretence, illusion, deception. Dressing-up (shepherds, actors of the commedia dell'arte, doctors real and unreal), deliberate play-acting within the play (Béline and Bonnefoy, Cléante and Angélique, Louison, Toinette, Argan himself), advancement of false arguments (Béralde), use of empty jargon (the doctors, imitated by Argan) combine to make Le Malade imaginaire not only a highly theatrical play but to suggest its theme: the 'imaginaire' duped by deceitful appearance. And it is that theme to which every episode, every dialogue, every word makes an indispensable contribution.

Source: H. T. Barnwell, "Comic Devices and Comic Language," in Moliere: "Le Malade Imaginaire," Grant & Cutler Ltd, 1982, pp. 58–68.


Hubert, J. D., "The Doctor's Curse," in Molière: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Jacques Guicharnaud, Prentice Hall, 1964, pp. 134, 160–69.

Molière, The Hypochondriac, in The Miser and Other Plays: A New Selection, Penguin Classics, 2000, pp. 217–99.


Calder, Andrew, Molière: The Theory and Practice of Comedy, Athlone Press, 1993.

Calder's clear and useful analysis of Molière's comedies discusses the dramatist's works in terms of overarching themes.

Fernandez, Ramon, Molière: The Man Seen through the Plays, translated by W. Follet, Hill and Wang, 1958.

This slightly dated biography nevertheless provides an interesting psychological approach to the dramatist.

Hall, H. Gaston, Comedy in Context: Essays on Molière, University Press of Mississippi, 1984.

This collection of essays explores Molière's comedies in terms of their literary context.

Hubert, Judd D., Molière and the Comedy of Intellect, University of California Press, 1962.

Hubert's book approaches each play from the standpoint of its intellectual themes.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3420400016