Help with commentary writing
Below is a sample commentary written on an extract from Molière's Tartuffe, III, iii. It is preceded by a commentary worksheet on the same passage. Try your hand at the worksheet first, and then read the sample commentary.
1. Guided commentary writing worksheet. See also your Study Skills Handbook, pp. 13 - 14 and the departmental advice on commentary writing found at http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/french/current/ug/assessment/commentarywriting/
Extract: lines 966 – 1000
Read the passage through carefully and try to structure your commentary along the lines indicated below, paying particular attention to the questions posed:
- From where in the work is this passage taken?
- How does it fit into the development of the plot?
- How does it develop our understanding of the main character and his motivations?
- What is the general mood and tone of the passage?
- How, broadly speaking, is Tartuffe's monologue constructed?
- Does he make the same argument throughout, or can shifts and changes be detected (be explicit in identifying where these occur)?
Lines 966 - 985
- How does Tartuffe combine a display of passion for Elmire with the hypocritical mask of the clergyman that he has adopted? How does the structure of the opening line of the passage suggest this difficult balance?
- In what terms does he describe the effects of passion upon him? Look out for vocabulary clusters around a particular theme (lexical fields).
- In what terms does he describe the object of that passion, Elmire? Look out for vocabulary clusters around a particular theme (lexical fields)
- Does Tartuffe appear calm / agitated / aggressive / conciliatory? How does Molière achieve this effect? Look at sentence structure, use of punctuation, use of repetition.
- How does Tartuffe attempt to achieve the effect of sincerity in his argument? Find evidence in the text.
- How does Molière cause us to doubt Tartuffe's sincerity in this section of the passage? Look out for hyperbolic (exaggerated) language. Also look out for moments of dramatic irony. Do the words Tartuffe utters here sit uneasily with his behaviour described previously in the play? Be specific (which words / sentences convey this effect?)
- Can any progression in Tartuffe's argument be detected in this section of the passage?
Lines 987 - 994
- What thematic change of emphasis occurs at this point?
- Is this matched by a change of mood? How is this enhanced by the syntax of this section?
- In what terms does Tartuffe compare himself with 'galants' and their beloveds?
- Is his attack on the 'galants' justified, as far as you can tell? If so, how does this section of the passage continue to reflect his own hypocrisy? Be specific - which words and images in the section prompt your thoughts?
Lines 995 - 1000
- What changes at this point in terms of how Tartuffe views his 'relationship' with Elmire? Look at Tartuffe's use of personal pronouns here.
- What argument does Tartuffe make in order to justify an illicit affair with Elmire? Why might this argument be labelled casuistic?
- How does the structure of the final line of the passage enhance its meaning? Look at how the line is split. How does Molière achieve an effect of balance in the line? What is the purpose of the alliteration used in this line (what meaning does it convey?)
2. The Commentary: a sample
Please note that this sample commentary is intended first and foremost as a guide. Your approach and, indeed, your observations, may differ from what I have written here.
Introduction I: Situation of the passage
The passage occupies a roughly central position in the play as a whole, and can be viewed as pivotal, since it is at this point that the scheming nature of Tartuffe, suspected by most of the occupants of Orgon's household, begins to have tangible practical effects. It is only in the third act that Tartuffe physically sets foot on stage, having been the subject of much rumour and speculation in the other two. The reports of his deceit are immediately proved true in this scene when he attempts to seduce Elmire, wife of his 'employer', Orgon, whilst Orgon's son, Damis, secretly looks on. Irony of various kinds adds greatly to the impact of the scene: as is often the case in this play, the audience knows more than the schemer himself, who is unaware of Damis's presence and believes he is making a private confession. Greater irony is present in the fact that Tartuffe's emotions of love are apparently genuine (in III, 1, Dorine observes that Elmire 'sur l'esprit de Tartuffe […] a quelque crédit; / Il se rend complaisant à tout ce qu'elle dit, / Et pourrait bien avoir douceur de coeur pour elle.' ). He therefore finds himself in the tricky position of having to defend his own desire whilst maintaining the hypocrisy of his 'dévot' role, and the passage reveals his deft (and potentially dangerous) manipulation of language as he attempts to do this. As always, Molière achieves a fine balance in his writing in representing both the threat posed by Tartuffe's clever scheming and the preposterousness of his arguments and behaviour.
Introduction II: Overview of the passage
The passage can be broadly divided into three sections. The first (lines 965 - 986) sees Tartuffe describe the powerful spell Elmire has cast upon him, prompting a supposedly spiritual struggle that has led him to conceive of her as an indispensable means of accessing the divine. In the second (lines 987 - 994), Tartuffe compares his attentiveness to Elmire with the lax moral standards of the 'galants de cour' (line 989) and assures her he will defend her honour with loyalty. In the third (lines 995 - 1000) Tartuffe uses casuistic argument to infer that a love affair conducted in secret holds no threat to honour and propriety.
Line 996 neatly encapsulates the struggle that Tartuffe is faced with in professing his desire for Elmire whilst protecting his churchman exterior, a struggle of which the audience, via dramatic irony, is fully aware. The emphasis on 'dévot' at the hemistich, and 'homme' at the line end draws attention to these two aspects of Tartuffe's persona, which he attempts to reconcile when he is forced to admit to feelings of desire in what follows. A similar parallel follows in the 'étrange / ange' rhyme of lines 696 - 970, when he stresses again his own mortality, which flies in the face of expectations that might usually be placed upon churchmen to avoid human drives and urges. Like many a passionate poet, Tartuffe blames his confusion upon his beloved. The vocabulary he uses to describe Elmire at this point oscillates between that of witchcraft ('charmant', 972; 'charmes', 978; 'suave merveille', 985) and less occult heavenly properties ('regards divins', 975; 'ineffables douceurs', 975; 'splendeur plus qu'humaine', 973; 'célestes appas', 967; 'bontés, 983). By presenting himself as a weakened victim having to contend with powers beyond his control (note the reference to 'mon néant' in line 984, and to himself as 'votre esclave indigne', 982), Tartuffe is able to define his own role in terms of spiritual struggle, and to give that language appropriately religious overtones.Thus in line 977 Tartuffe lists hypocritically the strategies he has employed to fight temptation: 'jeûnes, prières, larmes'. The audience of course takes these with a pinch of salt. In acts I and II Dorine recounts how, far from being abstemious, Tartuffe has shown every sign of being greedy and easily succumbing to the temptations of food (lines 192 and 238). In his description of Tartuffe at prayer, Orgon himself gives Cléante a picture of an individual so excessive in his devotions that he is clearly not to be trusted (I, 5).
Having established that the spiritual fight he has put up is useless, Tartuffe infers that he is well placed to assert that love for Elmire must constitute a different kind of divine calling (he recalibrates his religious vows to focus firmly on her, 978). She can act as a divine emissary, through her 'bontés' (983), to assuage his suffering. The urgency of this appeal can be felt in Tartuffe's repetition of the pronoun 'vous' as he addresses Elmire, the fricative [v] sound giving his speech a sense of passionate desperation. The onus on Elmire to act is strongly articulated at the end of this section in two hypothetical 'si' clauses (983 - 986) that constitute the longest sentence of this section, ending in a typically hyperbolic assertion of Tartuffe's own 'dévotion'.
Having sought to validate his love and prompt a response, the second and third sections of the passage see Tartuffe begin to imagine a reciprocal relationship and to explain the form this would take. He is more expansive in section 2 in contrasting his own decorum with the 'femmes […] folles and 'galants' of the court (989). An indulgent description of their frailties is given in a lengthy, relatively unpunctuated, sentence that lasts a full 6 lines, thereby slowing the pace of the speech. This allows the audience to reflect upon the irony of the parallel drawn here with individuals who display many of the hypocritical weaknesses of which Tartuffe is guilty. They are boastful in love (991) just as Tartuffe is in matters spiritual (see I, 5, when Orgon describes Tartuffe's spiritual attributes to Cléante). The repeated references to the unreliability of their language (990, 993) are supposed to contrast with the sincerity of the 'voix' that Tartuffe dares to use to make his confession of love (979), but for the audience and Elmire they resonate with previous accounts by other characters of Tartuffe's insincerity. Nevertheless, Tartuffe, emboldened by his previous argument asserting the religious dimension of desire, seeks to represent their behaviour as sacrilege (note the return to a religious vocabulary in 994).
The final section sees Tartuffe assert a kind of complicity between himself and Elmire (evidenced in the use of 'nous' and 'notre' from this point). The emphasis is less on passion here than on a new kind of self control that is not based upon denial of illicit love, but upon an appropriate channelling of desire. The subtle casuistry employed, in which Tartuffe conflates moral honour (alluded to in line 987) with 'renommée' and suggests that secrecy is the means of achieving a kind of virtuous love, is underscored by alliteration of the sibilant [s] sound ('sûr', 'secret', 'soin', 'c'est', 'personne', 'acceptant'), which echoes the slippery nature of his argument. This becomes more flagrant in the final line of the passage, which exploits the alexandrine form beautifully to parallel 'amour sans scandale' and 'plaisir sans peur' on either side of the caesura. The alliterative sibilance of 'sans', 'scandale' and 'plaisir' contrasts with the plosives of 'plaisir' and 'peur' to suggest both the raw passion that underpins Tartuffe's argument and his conviction in the powers of his own silver tongue to make this appear benign.
This passage demonstrates clearly the skill Molière exhibits in creating a ruthless scoundrel who is nevertheless prey to human frailty. His assertion, in the Premier Placet du Roi, that the 'peinture' of his rogue contains 'des couleurs expresses et des traits essentiels qui font reconnaître d'abord un véritable et franc hypocrite' is borne out in the passage in question when Elmire immediately identifies Tartuffe's speech as 'rhétorique'. The audience has already been moved to identify it as such because of its ironic incongruity, and because it echoes character traits in Tartuffe that have been previously alluded to in acts I and II. Of course the passion that Tartuffe is ironically indiscreet enough to voice here proves, in part at least, his undoing in act IV, when Elmire is able to lure Tartuffe into a trap and remove the scales from her husband's eyes. It is also the case, however, that Tartuffe's talent for language and for making an argument, demonstrated in this passgage, has seduced Orgon, leaving the latter in a powerless position at the end of the play, and requiring the intervention of the King himself to secure his own future.
- Nurse, P (ed), The Art of Criticism: Essays in French Literary Analysis (Edinburgh, 1969). This will provide you with further sample literary commentaries.
- Biard, J. D., Lexique pour l'explication de texte (Exeter, 1980)
- Bénac, H., Vocabulaire de la dissertation (Paris, 1949) (This provides lists of technical terms used in close analysis of a literary text in French, and give explanations and examples of usage)