Once Upon a Time, a Cuckoo Tried to Marry a Lamb
What is an education? How does it differ from brainwashing, inculcation, or propaganda peddling? In our current “Information Age”, we are for the most part, more enlightened than our predecessors about rules of knowledge generation, evidence handling, and content validity. We are experts of data or “facts”. But very few of us would confuse this with wisdom, or the empowerment of goodness. How do we know whether an education has actually occurred, if the life of the student has not been changed in some important way, and presumably for the better? Though I doubt Molière intended to use his comic masterpiece, School for Wives, as case material for such a question, once the laughter subsides, it is among the deeper substance that lingers.
Agnes (name means “lamb”) is an innocent and naïve girl, at the mercy of fate. As a child her care is transferred from her mother, to a nurse, to Arnolphe, to a convent of nuns, then back to Arnolphe. She is portrayed as a passive recipient of the shepherding of others. She is the pre-modern woman – “a non-entity” without the identities imparted to her by her man-constructed world. Fraught with possessive anxiety, Arnolphe denies Agnes a formal education. As a helpless child, he sends her to a convent (an anti-school) where she is to be kept a “perfect void”. She will do and be as he instructs. This is Arnolphe’s scheme for the creation of his 17th century Stepford wife. Her ignorance will yield her content with a simple life, render her easy to control, and make her unattractive to other men. However, Agnes, the lamb of fate, has a fateful encounter with a young man (Horace) and the education that ensues changes everything. She falls in love. And through her love, comes to know and transform herself. As Horace witnesses her metamorphosis, he offers Molière’s beautiful centerpiece line:
Love is indeed a wondrous master, Sir,
Whose teaching makes us what we never were,
And under whose miraculous tuition
One suddenly can change one’s disposition.
It overturns our settled inclinations,
Causing the most astounding transformations:
The miser’s made a spendthrift overnight,
The coward valiant, and the boor polite;
Love spurs the sluggard on to high endeavor,
And moves the artless maiden to be clever.
Love educates. It frees, it ennobles, it graces, it empowers. Agnes, the possessed object, through love discovers herself, and so, becomes a subject. While Arnolphe’s possessive jealousy attempts to “void” (cancel out) Agnes’ growth, her own unschooled love actualizes an innate self-birthing. Her education is natural and intuitive – far beyond the control of Arnolphe or anyone.
Cuckholdry is understood to be the consequence of a wife’s infidelity. Her unwitting husband is lead to invest his resources in the care of another man’s offspring. The term was derived from the cuckoo bird which is know to lay it’s eggs in the nests of other bird species – duping them into taking on the expensive care of their young. Small birds are known to actually push their own eggs from their nests to accommodate the larger parasitic egg of the cuckoo.
Arnolphe’s anticipatory fear of being made a cuckhold is the very source of his scheme to raise Agnes. Arnolphe does not adopt her, in the sense of providing loving parental support for her eventual individuation. Instead, he acquires her as a nest egg, an embryonic trophy wife. Fate exploits Arnolphe’s possessiveness by laying the “egg” of Agnes in Arnolphe’s nest, essentially using Arnolphe’s manipulative scheme to secure aide to a destitute child. Since Arnolphe’s “investment” in Agnes does not ultimately yield the fruit he planned, he may be seen as having been cuckholded by Fate.
Duplicity is a common target in Molière’s theatre, and Arnolphe is a prime example. His two names offer a concretization of his double life. Throughout the play, he presents himself authentically – “unfaithful” to the truth. Chrysalde’s view of Arnolphe offers a reference from which Arnolphe’s duplicity toward everyone else is made clear. Perhaps in his wish to distance himself from St. Arnolphe, patron saint of cuckholds, Arnolphe claims a new identity of status, Monsieur de la Souch. This is a revealing choice. Souch is an ancient Gaul word (predating French), a tribal totem meaning: “tree stump”. Ironically, Arnolphe’s bourgeois claim of prestige through this name change exposes his unconscious undertow – a fear of truncated masculinity, the looming shadow of anticipatory castration. Moreover, like the play’s hapless cat, he is a mortal, nearing the moment he can expect to be cut down. One need not look too far to see the double crisis of Arnolphe: an aging gent painfully watching the flicker of his dying candle.
Yes, School for Wives is a fairy tale. The motif of love vanquishing evil is as transparently wishful as it is common. No one appreciates smart-alecky observations of how the world is filled with “facts” to the contrary. At best, we know the perennial motif to be a half-truth. Ah, but when love is given a fair shake, it is indeed a wondrous master.
The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.