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8). Under such circumstances, the theme of tragic love in the seventeenth century is rife with passionate rebellion against such marital arrangements. Moreover, Arnolphe's view of wifedom is base: "And there are four things only she must know: to say her prayers, love me, spin, and sew" (I.1). Women are to remain austere peasants, obedient to their masters, and kept free from emulating flirtations wives upon threat of Hell (III.2). With such a view of women, it is not surprising he is afraid of their challenge and seeks to inoculate himself through rational schemes.
Arnolphe's tyrannical grip is broken through fate. As with all forms of tyrannical insulation, it could not last. The plight of Agnes is softened in two ways: by chance and through her own skillful rebellion against ignorance. By chance, first, and despite Arnolphe's best efforts to keep Agnes ignorant and secluded from worldly corruption, fate brings her into contact with love. A passing bow leads to full-blown love-sickness (II.5). Through the wiles of an old woman, Horace gains passage to Agnes, where she cures him in the bloom of love (II.5). There, Agnes receives an education beyond the ignorance imposed on her. Moliere's point seems to be that chance will find a way to sneak in and disrupt rational planning. Arnolphe, of course, blames himself for their meeting. His recent trip gave room for such events. In other words, he maintains his belief in free will, not realizing it as chance. Fate plays the trickster against plans.
By rebellion as well Agnes shows herself to be clever, not simple. Using obedience to Arnolphe as a pretext, she throws a brick at Horace when he returns, but attached to it is a love letter (III.4). From this point on, Agnes proves herself superior to Arnolphe. Her "education" has failed. She subverts his value system and becomes everything that the old man fears. It is chance love that awakens Agnes to knowledge. It is fateful love that transforms her against Arnolphe's plans into the sly woman he fears (V.2).
So after all his grooming of her for a wife, the play ends with her release from subjection through fate, and with the victory of chance over his plans. His attempts to hijack the young lovers meet with failure. He himself becomes the cuckold before marriage. She betrays him in spite of her ignorance, suggesting that it is not the education of women that is dangerous to the man's world, but the prohibition of education. All Arnolphe's misogyny finds expression as he prepares against fate to sequester her away for reformation (V.4). His insults summarize his belittling view of women. Even in his final attempts to whisk her away, he is defeated. Chrysalde, the believer in the blows of fate, has already tried to comfort him by saying that "cuckoldry need not be dreaded like some dire monster, fierce and many-headed; it can be lived with, if one has the wit to take it calmly, and make the best of it" (IV.8). But his words fell on deaf ears. It is Arnolphe that is the ignorant one.
Some have seen in "The School of Wives" a reflection of Moliere's own marriage. Around the same time as the play came out, he was criticized for marrying Armande Bejart, the daughter of his long time companion, Madeleine. He believed the young woman was Madeleine's sister. More likely it was her child out of wedlock. From the text itself, it is impossible to say whether Moliere intended the Agnes character to represent Armande. However, given the critical reception of his marriage to her, as well as her age (she was seventeen and he much older), many in French society thought there was a connection. Probably there is some reflection of his personal circumstances in the play. Yet at its heart, Moliere's comedy is about the futility of human actions to circumvent the more powerful force of fate. Its use of the themes of cuckoldry and education serve this larger goal, in which unpredictable chance (love) triumphs over tyrannical manipulation. The abiding lesson is that fate is more powerful than precaution and cannot be manipulated for a person's own aims.
Moliere, Jean Baptiste Poquelin. The School for Wives: Comedy in Five Acts, 1662. Translated by Richard…[continue]
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