Home > 17th Century, Feminism, French Literature, Molière, Theatre > The Learned Ladies by Molière

The Learned Ladies by Molière

Les Femmes savantes by Molière (The Learned Ladies). 1672.  

Recently, I’ve watched The Learned Ladies for the first time. As often with Molière, it was a thought-provoking comedy. In the 17th C imagery, the “Learned Lady” is the female of the Pedant.

In that play, the main family is composed of two parents and two grown-up and single daughters. The mother, Philaminte and the elder daughter, Armande are the learned ladies. They’re under the spell of a ridiculous pedant named Trissotin. He acts like a guru; they think he hung the moon and swoon over every single verse he writes. The father, Chrysale and the younger daughter, Henriette have more matter-of-fact concerns, are far from well-read and totally accept it. In between stands Clitandre, once infatuated with Armande and now in love with Henriette. The plot is centred on Clitandre and Henriette who want to get married and need to obtain her parent’s consent. Chrysale agrees with the project while Philaminte would rather marry Henriette to Trissotin.  

Several themes are quite modern in this play. In the opening scene, Armande and Henriette argue about marriage. Armande can’t understand why her sister rejoices in marrying Clitandre. She thinks she should have higher goals than taking care of a family and run a household. She preaches an interest in philosophy, that Henriette should study to improve her mind. But Henriette is perfectly satisfied with the fate of a housewife.  

Chrysale is the model for the bourgeois vision of life when Philaminte would be more the spoke-person of the Parisian literary salons. The play reflects the discussion of the time, the bourgeois being despised and the salons praised. (The spectators of Molière’s plays did come from the court and he was their protégé.)

Marriage was abundantly discussed in salons: was it an honest or a degrading situation? The question was also debated in the famous novels by Mlle de Scudéry. Philaminte and Armande want to promote a mind-over-matter attitude. Love must be ethereal, without physical contact and the mind must overcome instincts and natural desires. Armande lost Clitandre on the Map of Tenderness because she fancied a cerebral love. He gave up on her. However, she can’t help being jealous when she realizes that her former lover eventually fell in love with her down-to-earth baby sister. Molière seems to remind us that it’s not easy to shut out feelings, perceptions and act rationally all the time. I also saw in this attitude a disguised critic of Cartesianism. On the contrary, Henriette is happy with every day life routine and she doesn’t want to ignore the needs of her body. As she points out, Armande should be happy that their mother followed her desires at least twice or they wouldn’t be here to talk about it. She also states that someone needs to give birth to the future scientists and philosophers.  

The other great issue is the education of young girls. In the foreword, we are reminded that in 1672, a girl would be hardly taught how to read and would receive a religious education. Things were changing in the 17th C as scholars began to write in French instead of Latin. Their work became accessible to women who wanted to study and in fashionable salons, women became more educated. Molière mocks the Learned Ladies, not because he thinks women shouldn’t be educated but because their excesses make them ridiculous. He mocks their blindness, the way they worship Trissotin. It could be sexist but I didn’t think it was since he also makes fun of Trissotin himself. Clitandre is the most sensible character who manfully holds the middle ground: flesh and mind should live in harmony; temperance in everything is the key; learned women are respectable and even desirable. He only criticizes pedantry. Trissotin represents the old school of thought: he refers to Ancient philosophers like Aristotle; Clitandre represents modernity.

Another theme is followed all along the play: the roles of husband and wife in a marriage. Chrysale argues that the man should command but he’s not the master in his own house. Philaminte wears the trousers and he’s afraid of her. His challenge will be to gain power to impose Clitandre as his choice of a husband for Henriette. There are enjoyable scenes during which he tries to re-gain the lost ground and face his wife. He needs a lot of encouragements from his brother and his daughter to do it. 

In the foreword and afterword of my edition, it is explained that the condition of women was abundantly discussed in the 17th C. The ideas that women were doomed to ignorance and servitude, that marriage wasn’t always fair, that the education of young girls needed to be improved started to stem from these discussions. The roots of feminism were born in that century and will be developed in the 18thC.  

The Learned Ladies is a play in “alexandrins” which are to classic French theatre what iambic pentameters are to Shakespeare. I hardly noticed them when I watched the play. It is full of comical devices which are Molière’s trademark. It’s funny, witty, thought-provoking. The questions regarding the position of women in the society, their access to education and the opposition between motherhood and work still exist nowadays. This play talked to me as a woman, despite the time distance. Obviously, in our Western world, the situation of women has improved immensely since the 1970s. However, in some countries, women still have to choose between their job and motherhood. And there’s a lot to do in developing countries to promote equality.

  1. April 28, 2011 at 2:24 am

    I LOVE MOLIERE. I’ve been lucky enough to see a couple of his plays performed. The way this is written makes me think this could easily adapted to a contemporary setting.

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  2. April 28, 2011 at 6:58 am

    I had no idea what you were writing about until I realized I mixed-up Les Femmes savantes with Les Précieuses ridicules with which I am much more familar. I have read a fair amount of his plays but never really seen any apart from one that was performed in the streets in Paris (Le Misanthrope). I always thought Molière had some fairly modern elements. All the themes of the plays I know are still of interest today. I’m just reading Kat Banyard’s The Equality Illusion (I’m not even sure I will review it. It could end up being a 5000 words review. I was tempted to do a review per chapter instead) and I don’t think we have acchieved that much. It seems as if, but if you dig deeper it’s not true. Maybe it is better than in the 17th century but we are not where we should be.

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    • April 28, 2011 at 12:43 pm

      It’s a pity you haven’t seen the plays on stage, they’re fantastic. (Perhaps you can see some in Mulhouse)
      I haven’t read or seen Les Précieuses Ridicules. I’d like to read or watch L’Ecole des femmes too.

      I hope you’ll review The Equality Illusion, I’ve never heard of it before but the title sounds interesting.
      I have Le Conflit. La Femme, la Mère by Elisabeth Badinter at home. I’d like to get to it soon.

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  3. April 28, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    I’ve read a few Badinter books and think they are very interesting but there are many interesting young feminists now, like Banyard and Cordelia Fine whose Delusions of Gender is said to be outstanding.

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    • April 28, 2011 at 9:15 pm

      In France, I don’t hear young feminists. With so many babies and children everywhere, it’s fashionable to praise motherhood. Plus the government started to cut kindergarden classes which is more than stupid on many levels.
      There’s a dangerous tendency to go backward but at the same time, fatherhood is also fashionable. Young executive take their paternity leave now (14 days), something they didn’t do 10 years ago.
      For me, what’s important is to have a choice. Stay at home or work, whatever, as long as it is chosen.

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      • April 29, 2011 at 6:41 am

        What these young feminists question is that there is such a thing as a “typical” woman or man. It isn’t in a woman’s nature to like pink. Boys are not by nature more aggressive. Especially Fine did a lot of reasearch and the data is convincing.
        I don’t understand the cutting of the kindergarden classes.

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        • April 30, 2011 at 8:34 am

          I don’t understand that we still have to discuss the idea that there isn’t any such thing as a “typical” woman or man. It seems so obvious.

          About pink. Have you ever looked at the children section of a newsagent? There aren’t many magazines marketed for boys (first cliché: boys don’t read) and there are many marketed for girls -I’m not talking about teenagers here- and those magazines are pink and purple, talk about clothes, boys, make-up and witches, fairies or whatever and include silly psycho-tests like in women magazines. Frightening and infuriating. Fortunately, the best magazines are mixed.

          They cut kindergarden because they cut state expenses. Since school isn’t mandatory before six, the teachers’ positions are first for grammar school classes and then for kindergarden. It’s stupid because teachers argue that children with poor language can catch up in school if they go to class at 2 or 3. (and of course, if children aren’t in school, mothers with low-wage or part-time jobs tend to stay home because nanny costs overcome their income)

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  4. April 28, 2011 at 8:54 pm

    I’ve seen several productions of Tartuffe and The Misanthrope. All in English.I’ve read other plays too.

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    • April 28, 2011 at 9:07 pm

      Tartuffe and Le Misanthrope are among my favourite. They are still up-to-date too. Americans with their TV preachers should really read Tartuffe and I like Alceste, the Misanthrope. I tend to be like him, I find it often hard to disguise what I really think to comply to political correctness.

      Too bad you couldn’t see them in French, you missed the music of the alexandrins. Last year I saw Macbeth in English with subtitles. It was fantastic. It’s definitely better to hear Shakespeare in the original with British actors but it’s not often possible.

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  5. leroyhunter
    April 29, 2011 at 10:08 am

    “they think he hung the moon” – great line!

    I’ve also seen an English language production of Tartuffe, many years ago, it was fantastic. One of my first classes in university was on Phédre, we studied it for a whole term (as part of my French degree) and it was tough going but incredibly rewarding. I’d love to see a production, also of course to compare whoever was playing the role with La Berma.

    I loved the lit I did for French in college but grammar was always my weak point (and I never applied myself to correct that). I’ve lost 90% of my French now I think, a big regret.

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    • April 29, 2011 at 11:24 pm

      You studied Phèdre in French?! Whoa! I’m really impressed, it’s difficult even for a native. I didn’t know you had a degree in French, I’m sure you underestimate what’s left of your French. And don’t be self conscious about your French grammar: according to the powerpoints I review and the ones I receive, French grammar is also a weak point for French people. Some universities have started to teach grammar and spelling classes because students can’t write properly. I think we should just give up some of the complicated rules (like the rules to make participe passé agree with être/avoir)

      I prefer Molière and Shakespeare to Racine and Corneille. I’ve tried to see the plays instead of reading them but I got bored each time. I’m not sure we would enjoy to watch the version of Phèdre played by La Berma, if it had been recorded at the time. They used to declaim texts in a way that has been abandoned now. In Les Femmes Savantes, the actors spoke alexandrins as if it was their natural way of speaking. You don’t hear the verses, you just hear their music. Beautiful. The actors were talented but so was Molière whose verses don’t age.

      The two moments about La Berma are great passages of A la recherche du temps perdu. It’s so true to life, this disappointment you feel when you’ve waited for an event for a long time. It’s never as good as expected and sometimes you’re like watching yourself attending the event and thinking “this is it” instead of fully living the moment.

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  6. March 9, 2013 at 7:08 pm
  1. April 26, 2013 at 11:45 pm
  2. May 30, 2013 at 9:45 pm
  3. April 27, 2014 at 6:38 am
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