Servitude in Moliere’s Dom Juan

Throughout his lifetime, Moliere wrote many plays that depict the life of the French aristocrats. In these plays, he makes use of the character of the servant, whose presence is put in juxtaposition with their masters. The combination of the two characters usually causes social clash, thus providing the play a satirical tone. Particularly, in “Dom Juan ou le Festin de Pierre,” Moliere introduces an unforgettable servant character in the name of Sganarelle.
Unlike the servants that appear in Moliere’s other plays, Sganarelle breaks the tradition of having servants take a minute role as he shares the position of his master in the lead role. This makes him the most important character among all servants Moliere ever created. The character of Sganarelle uniquely stands out among all servant characters in Moliere’s plays because of the large part he plays in “Dom Juan…”. By assigning one of the main roles to a servant, Moliere attempts to expound on the subject of slavery in a different view.
Through Sganarelle, Moliere makes clear his message regarding social division and the flaws of the upper class. Analysis of this character can therefore give a better understanding of the play, and of Moliere’s intention for writing plays of the hypocrite. Moliere’s plays of the hypocrite employ a common pattern with the use of loyal servants to care for their masters and be their guide in times of confusion. However, “Dom Juan ou le Festin de Pierre” provides a more in-depth characterization as it highlights the importance of a servant character in the life of a master.

Throughout the play, Sganarelle’s role in Dom Juan’s life is highly emphasized. In fact, its emphasis could make the audience perceive the two characters as one. In their exchange of dialogues, Sganarelle somewhat serves as an extension of his master’s character, for he often agrees with Dom Juan despite the other’s illogical reasoning. He does this in order to put an end to his master’s prodding or mainly to show sign of respect. Nevertheless, this gesture does not affect the roundness of his character, but makes it all the more interesting.
The two main characters in the play are placed in juxtaposition. Dom Juan embodies the upper class or the rich, while Sganarelle embodies the lower class or the common people. In putting them together, Moliere creates a balance between the good and evil, with Dom Juan as the evil character and Sganarelle as the good. In Sganarelle’s own words, he describes his master as “the greatest scoundrel that ever walked on earth, a madman, a dog, a devil, a Turk…a heretic who believes in neither Heaven nor saint, not God, nor bogeyman. (34-35). In Freudian psychology, we can refer to these two characters as the id and the ego, where Dom Juan is the id and Sganarelle is the ego. The two characters are contrasted in the play, with Sganarelle on the positive side opposite to that of his master. The contrast is mainly established with the way they behave and view things. Dom Juan is a typical Casanova whose life revolves around fooling his love interests. His main concern in life is to attract women and make them feel miserably in love.
First, he woos them until they fall for him and agree for marriage but after that, he leaves them for the sake of another girl, much to the dismay of his servant. Sganarelle constantly warns Dom Juan of the retribution his acts may bring, but Dom Juan would often sway the argument to justify his actions, forcing Sganarelle to give up his point. Likewise, his stature prohibits the servant to condemn his master’s deeds. Though he is allowed to express his views, in the end he also allows his master to win, for he does not have a choice. He admits thus: … I must be faithful to him however I feel. Fear makes me his accomplice. It stifles my feeling; and I often find applauding what I loathe with my very soul. ” (35) As society declares, Sganarelle complies with his master’s orders. Due to fear of losing his job, he does what Dom Juan asks him to do, although it is against his will. He tells lies, swears things he does not mean, and covers up for his master’s shortcomings in the way the society expects a servant to behave. In complete contrast to his master’s character, Sganarelle is a man of faith.
He embodies the common people who are weak and powerless yet are full of faith in God and religion. He exemplifies a believer whose only hope lies in God to save him from his unfortunate situation. With a strong faith, he declares that “one day the wrath of Heaven will strike him that’s for certain. ” (35) His values are more in tact than that of his master; but he is not free to exercise his faith. Nevertheless, Dom Juan gives him the privilege to express himself, and when he does, he speaks his thoughts with some sarcasm: “Your heart is the greatest nomad that ever was.
It likes to be always on the move. It hates to stay in one place for long together. ” (36) Because he consents to the wrongdoings of Dom Juan, Sganarelle shares the sins of his master. This means that Sganarelle may be blamed for consenting to his master’s disloyalty to his love affairs. His awareness of this responsibility alone makes him feel uncomfortable; that is why he wishes God to punish his master in order to end up his spiritual agony. Similar to other servant characters in Moliere’s plays, Sganarelle serves as Dom Juan’s close companion.
He follows his master wherever he goes, and obeys his will regardless of its consequences. He remains true to him despite the fact that he despises what the master does. The only good thing about Dom Juan is that he allows Sganarelle to speak his mind. In this sense, he shares similarity with the female servant Dorine in “Tartuffe,” (2000), who freely expresses her opinions on even the most sensitive matters regarding the family. However, unlike the female counterpart who speaks without reproach, Sganarelle is allowed to express his opinions only to a certain extent and upon summons by his master.
Since it is very unlikely for Dom Juan to get confused by the deliberate decisions he makes, his effort to elicit opinion from Sganarelle is not because he needs advice on his affairs, but because it pleases him to argue with someone weaker such as his servant. He knows that Sganarelle will have no choice but to agree with him in the end, thus he takes advantage of his servant by winning every argument they have. Although Sganarelle looks weak in Dom Juan’s eyes, looking closely into his character, one may see the strength in him. Amid the struggles he bears in living with Dom Juan, he remains faithful to his faith.
Even though he obeys his master, this does not eradicate his faith in God. In fact, it even makes it more intense. As Sganarelle struggles for freedom, his faith grows more each day, and the hope that he will soon be free from his master’s ill doings grows even more. He serves as the conscience that tells Dom Juan what is fair and just, appealing to him to repent and change his ways. In “Tartuffe” Dorine similarly plays the role of a conscience in Orgon’s life. When the master decides for his daughter to marry the hypocrite, Dorine tries to stop him, saying thus: “…he who weds his child against her will
Owes heaven account for it, if she do ill. Think then what perils wait on your design. ” (Act 2 S. 2) To a large extent, the similarity between Sganarelle and Dorine is their religious wisdom. Unlike other people who cannot distinguish between truth and hypocrisy, both of them see what lies beneath people’s acts of goodwill. In “Dom Juan.. ” other people are fooled by Dom Juan’s appearance and his kind words except for Sganarelle who knows his master like the palm of his hand. (36) Dorine, on the other, sees the real intention of Tartuffe towards Orgon’s daughter, Mariane.
She judges that his regular attendance at church is a sign of hypocrisy. Though Orgon refuses to believe her, she still insists on making him listen to her views because of her concern over Mariane’s future. Another servant character who speaks her mind freely is Nicole in “Middle-Class Gentleman” (2001). In this play, Nicole plays the servant in Monsieur Jourdain’s home. Finding fault in her master’s rather awkward and delayed interest in the ways of the rich (such as dancing, fencing, poetic speech, etc. ), she openly comments and laughs at Jourdain, much to his disappointment.
However unlike Sganarelle or Dorine, Nicole finds support from her master’s wife, who despises her husband’s social climbing. This puts Nicole in a better position to be more outspoken of her opinions. In addition, compared to the other servants, Nicole contributes greatly to the comic elements in the play. Although the audience can find some humor in Sganarelle, it is only in the end that he could truly make the audience laugh while he cries over his lost wages. In contrast, Nicole’s appearance throughout the play is well-noted in her colourful dialogues that employ sarcasm and irony.
Like Nicole, Dubois in “Le Misanthrope” (2000) also helps induce laughter from the audience with his farcical mistakes. The servants in Moliere’s plays serve different purposes. They take the role of a loyal companion, a critique, an advisor, and sometimes a fool. All these characteristics can be found in Sganarelle, making him an interesting servant in Moliere’s plays. This exposition triggers the question, Why did Moliere use a servant character instead of a friend whose status may be similar to that of Dom Juan?
Indeed, assigning the role to a friend will make a different story, but one cannot help wonder about this issue. On the one hand, a best friend could likewise serve as a loyal companion and advisor, similar to the role played by Sganarelle. On the other hand, the role of the servant creates a more interesting story. First, it illustrates the conflict between the values of the rich and the poor. Compared to a friend, the servant who comes from a different background has a different set of values acquired from his own social orientation.
Sganarelle’s social status affords him views about God and salvation, which are in conflict with his master. Just imagine, if the two characters come from the same background, they will probably connive to disillusion every girl they meet, thus limiting the conflict in the plot. Second, Sganarelle’s social status restricts him to speak his views blatantly. Hence, this causes more conflict towards himself than to his master. With a friend as the critique, the conflict will be between the two main characters, and this could make the plot very ordinary.
However with a servant as the critique, the conflict resides only with the servant due to some limitations he has in expressing his thoughts. In the end, he builds a different conflict apart form his master’s, that is, how he could escape his master to avoid all the troubles. Third, with the servant character, the master falls into a pit that serves as his tragic flaw. Without its comic elements, the play would have been a complete tragedy, since Dom Juan maintains pride as his tragic flaw. He refuses to change his ways, believing that he is too powerful to have a need for God.
Despite reminders from his servant, he continues with his evil ways, because as expected, he will never listen to a mere servant. As such, the servant character contributes to the master’s tragic flaw, which later leads him to his end. Considering this, one can sense a social commentary Moliere wants to impart through the play. By using the character of a servant, the playwright presents the reality that sometimes those in the lower class who lack proper education and possessions have better religious wisdom and piety than the rich.
Through the role of the servant, the juxtaposition between the rich and the poor becomes more visible and effective. Finally, the use of the servant in the play gives it a humorous tone. Specifically, Sganarelle’s lousy effort to cover up for his master’s faults, together with his inner monologues, makes the play interesting and funny. At the end, those who watch it will find themselves pondering on the message of the play at the same time laughing at Sganarelle crying, “My wages! My wages! My wages! ” (47)

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