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Theatre / The Affected Young Ladies

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Is Monsieur le Marquis the man of their dreams or what?
The Affected Young Ladies (Les Précieuses ridicules) is a 1659 comedy play in one act by Molière poking fun at the manners of the fashionable set of his time. The play starts with two young suitors, Du Croisy and La Grange, leaving the home of Gorgibus, a bourgeois who has just moved to Paris with his daughter Magdelonnote  and niece Cathos,note  two fashionable young ladies. They are upset because the girls have treated them with scorn, for they do not meet their romanticized notion of what a suitor should be like. After some consultation, they decide to take revenge, by playing a trick on them aiming to teach them of the ways of the real world. They then take their leave of Gorgibus, who confronts Magdelon and Cathos. Upon them confirming that they had sent the suitors away, Gorgibus is incredulous, as he had commanded them to treat said young men as potential husbands. The discussion degrades into a debate over the proper manner of securing a future husband: the girls wish for men who would court them in the manner of fashion; Gorgibus has no understanding or patience for their tastes and affectations and demands that they make a proper match according to his practical considerations as soon as possible. Upon his leaving, Magdelon and Cathos receive an unexpected visit from a gentleman caller – a Marquis de Mascarille. They are delighted to have been noticed, and welcome Mascarille, an outlandishly dressed fellow who seems to display all the manners that they yearn for. Magdelon takes a liking to him, and he is shortly joined by another gentleman caller, the Vicomte de Jodelet, who attracts Cathos. Things move fast and, after making a full acquaintance, they invite some of the girls' neighbors and summon musicians and hold an impromptu dance. Just when it seems like everything is going according to the girls' imagined plan, Du Croisy and La Grange make an unexpected return, and they are Mascarille and Jodelet...but what have they done to incur the wrath of the former?

The Affected Young Ladies is a rather scathing farce about fashionable mannerisms and social pretension that, while making its point, ends without offering any kind of real resolution. It was immensely popular at its time and gave Molière a successful start on his return to Paris; not surprisingly, though, it also attracted the ire of some of those whom it satirized.

The Affected Young Ladies provides examples of:

  • Acceptable Targets: Slaves to fashion who, through adopting affected mannerisms and a romanticized outlook, attempt to surpass their station in life and get ahead in society.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: Magdelon and Cathos are right in opposing Gorgibus' attempt to marry them off without getting to know their suitors or develop affection for them. But Gorgibus also has a point in that the girls' expectations for their future husbands are somewhat unrealistic.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: When debating Gorgibus, Magdelon and Cathos take liberties that would likely have been considered a shocking way for a 17th-century girl to talk to her parents, bluntly criticizing his opinions and even putting him down for them at times.
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": The girls use unnatural affected phrases to "elevate" their language, calling a footman a "necessary evil" and a mirror a "Counsellor of the Graces".
  • Changeling Fantasy: Immediately following their altercation with Gorgibus, the following transaction transpires between the two cousins:
    Cathos: Good Heavens, my dear, how deeply is your father still immersed in material things! how dense is his understanding, and what gloom overcasts his soul!
    Magdelon: What can I do, my dear? I am ashamed of him. I can hardly persuade myself I am indeed his daughter; I believe that an accident, some time or other, will discover me to be of a more illustrious descent.
    Cathos: I believe it; really, it is very likely; as for me, when I consider myself…
    (her thought is cut short by the arrival of their maidservant, Marotte).
  • Child Marriage Veto: Les Précieuses ridicules starts with the protagonists, two fashionable young ladies, rejecting the offer of marriage made to them by two young men that Gorgibus, their father and uncle, had chosen for them, and that are more or less unknown to them, because they don't like the notion of their relationship beginning with marriage as opposed to a protracted courtship.
  • Corporal Punishment: Mascarille and Jodelet end up beaten by their masters for impersonating nobility and taking their clothes (the beating is for real – they are at the same time being punished for their real-life pretensions – though they did what their masters told them to, they did it just too well for the taste of the latter). In some stagings, Gorgibus also directs physical force at the girls as he chases them away at the end.
  • Cosmetic Horror: When Gorgibus is told that Magdelon and Cathos have been making lip salve, he grumbles: "These hussies with their salves have, I think, a mind to ruin me. Everywhere in the house I see nothing but whites of eggs, lac virginal, and a thousand other fooleries I am not acquainted with. Since we have been here they have employed the lard of a dozen hogs at least, and four servants might live every day on the sheep's trotters they use." Evidently, though, his complaint is more financial than aesthetic.
  • The Dandy: Mascarille and Jodelet are played for laughs as two period fops. They are actually the rejected suitors' valets, sent by their masters to fool the young ladies who rejected the latter into thinking they are suitors more to their taste.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Possibly. "Magdelon" and "Cathos" are diminutives of "Madeleine" and "Catherine". The fact that their guardian, and the text, insists to call them this, is clearly annoying to them, hence their Meaningful Rename. It would be like a character named Robert looking to build a classy reputation, but everyone around him insists on calling him Bobby.
  • Expy: Some of the characters are evidently inspired by stock characters from Commedia dell'Arte: the stingy and crotchety Gorgibus is essentially a Pantaloon; Mascarille and Jodelet are similar to "zanni" like Pierrot and Harlequin, and in fact were, respectively: a character already devised (and played) by Molière, and Julien Bedeau, a comedian going by that name. Magdelon and Cathos, however, stand on their own as parodies of young women wishing to emulate the manners of fashionable Parisian women.
  • False Dichotomy: When Magdelon explains to Gorgibus that she and Cathos had spurned Du Croisy and La Grange because "They began with proposing marriage by us", he incredulously retorts: "What would you have them begin with – with a proposal to keep you as mistresses?" The option that the suitors should court the girls, giving them a chance to get to know them and to win their affections, is completely off Gorgibus' radar.
  • Foil: The dull, practical and cheap Gorgibus to the fashionable, fun-loving, yet flighty Magdelon and Cathos.
  • Left Hanging: The ending of the play leaves the protagonists' situation unresolved. Gorgibus furiously chases Magdelon and Cathos away with the injunction: "Out of my sight and hide yourselves, you jades; go and hide yourselves forever." Will he kick his daughter and niece out of the house? Force them into a convent like he had threatened earlier? Or will he calm down and will everything go back to normal? Have Magdelon and Cathos changed their opinion about the fashionable manners that informed their behavior throughout the play? It's anyone's guess.
  • Meaningful Rename: Magdelon and Cathos have taken the more exalted-sounding names of Polixène and Aminthe, respectively, and ask Gorgibus not to use their birth names. Predictably, he is taken aback by this idea and tells them that they are not to use names other than those given to them by their godfathers and godmothers.
  • Miles Gloriosus: Mascarille and Jodelet make exaggerated boasts to the girls about their supposed military careers and proudly show off their scars to them.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Magdelon and Cathos browbeat the maidservant Marotte for using plain language when speaking to them instead of using the fancy phrases that they have affected. Marotte defends herself: "I do not understand Latin, and have not learned philosophy out of Cyrus,note  as you have done." The beating that Mascarille and Jodelet receive from Du Croisy and La Grange in the end would seem like a case of not being nice to the waiter to us, as we do not beat our servants today and as they were only following their masters’ orders by posing as fashionable noblemen; however, Du Croisy and La Grange would have meant it as punishment for the servants' own pretensions to elevate themselves; the logic would be that they had carried out the imposture a little too well.
  • Taking the Veil: After listening to their ideas of how they would like to be courted by their future husbands, Gorgibus puts his foot down and threatens Magdelon and Cathos that if they are not married soon, "you shall be nuns", I.E. he will dispose of his daughter and niece in a convent.
  • Thinks Like a Romance Novel: Magdelon and Cathos imagine that their courtship with their future husbands should play out according to a formula lifted from romance novels. This is diametrically opposite to their father/uncle's resolve that they accept what amounts to an Arranged Marriage as the right and proper thing to do.
  • Trope Codifier: This play is responsible for forming the stereotype of a 17th-century précieuse in the French collective subconscious, giving the very term currency.
  • Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: Magdelon and Cathos are two superficial girls who think highly of themselves for having adopted stylized, fashionable manners; they look down upon and browbeat those who do not affect the same mannerisms. Then again, given their youth and the wish of their father/uncle Gorgibus to get them married off as soon as possible, it is hard not to see their adoption of such tastes from their point of view as well.