Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme: Is Aristocracy Worth It?

One of the playwright’s most famous plays questions the desirability of being accepted by the aristocracy

Reading plays from centuries ago is always inevitably a culture shock: from vocabulary that sounds archaic to our contemporary ears to descriptions of societies that do not resemble ours in the slightest, interacting with such works is always an exercise in social translation. One of Molière’s most famous and lauded plays, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (English: The Would-Be Gentleman) is no exception to any of this; the tale of a bourgeois man obsessed with becoming an aristocrat is still hilarious, but one cannot avoid wondering how people were so invested in titles back then. Yes, royalty and some form of the aristocracy have not quite disappeared, but people today have certainly less concerns over joining their ranks. And yet, in spite of the radical changes the world has seen since the late seventeenth-century, there are still important lessons to be kept from this exceptional Molière play around money and status. People would theorize years later in more precise terms the connection between wealth and culture (with Karl Marx and Pierre Bourdieu as notable examples of academics who devoted energy to the subject), but for the play’s protagonist — the charming and foolish Monsieur Jourdain — the connection is crystal clear. The obsession with social approval is without a doubt an idea that continues to echo in the 21st century.

The Bourgeois gentilhomme plot is rather straight-forward: an immensely rich bourgeois man named Monsieur Jourdain hopes to be accepted by the French aristocracy, so he foolishly lets a poor duke borrow money, attempts to seduce a duchess, and forbids his daughter from marrying a man from the same social class as their own Jourdain family. The potential fiancé’s clever assistant Covielle comes up with a fantastic idea to convince Monsieur Jourdain to let him marry Monsieur Jourdain’s daughter Lucille: pretend to be a Turkish sultan with plenty of nobility titles, undoubtedly worthy of marrying Lucille. Everything goes according to plan: after an eccentric parade, Monsieur Jourdain accepts to let Lucille marry this man disguised as a Turk. The play concludes with a ballet of nations, a ballet genre popular amongst the French nobility in the late seventeenth century that displayed the attires and cultures of the nations of the world.

It’s not terribly difficult to realize what Molière is making fun of here: the shallow rich man who in his effort to belong to the higher social castes ends up looking a fool. It would seem as if Molière is opposed to social mobility, but Monsieur Jourdain’s wife Madame Jourdain explains why aspiring to marry her daughter into aristocracy is a bad idea: she would not be fully accepted by them but neither by their bourgeois neighborhood, since she betrayed them by marrying into nobility. Madame Jourdain is realistic about social ostracism: she is aware that late seventeenth-century France is not the most flexible society when it comes to bringing together people of different backgrounds. The moral is not necessarily that one shouldn’t aspire to climb the social ladder, but rather than doing so comes inevitably with some unwanted social rejection and that there really is no true benefit in doing so, since as wealthy titleless people they live a good life already.

Monsieur Jourdain will have none of this, however. He is fixed on acquiring the approval of the aristocrats no matter what. When he hears of the possibility of marrying her daughter with a Turkish royal, he does not ponder on it for too long. The camp of the exotic parade that Cléonte and Covielle put on is meant to make fun not just of Monsieur Jourdain’s provincialism, but of Western ignorance in general about countries such as Turkey. While it has been argued elsewhere by scholars that the Turkish parade (depending on the staging, it might have belly-dancers, swords and snakes) is likely related to ongoing diplomatic affairs with the Ottoman Empire at the time, I can’t help but feeling that the joke is never on the fake Turks but on French ignorance. Molière’s ability to incorporate this biting critique on an amusing play for the King is nothing short of extraordinary.

Titles might be absent from most contemporary societies in the 21st century, but that has not stopped people from caring about acceptance by the elite class. The case of Anna DelVey, a Russian teenager who successfully fooled the ultra-rich into thinking she was one of them, proves that what Molière was writing about centuries ago has not quite stopped being relevant. The idea that obtaining the approval of the elites is futile and frankly not all that would continue to pop up in French literature, notably early in the 20th century with Proust’s Le Côté de Guermantes. What Molière and others want us to understand is that just because it might be possible to obtain their approval, it does not mean it is a worthy endeavor. There is nothing inherently superior about the aristocracy, and life is just as good if you’re a well-off man with a tight-knit social circle.