The Misanthrope, Alceste, impersonated by the author himself, was a character wholly new to the stage, and, unlike the central figure in other plays from the same pen, is intended to enjoy at least our respect, and even a certain measure of sympathy. He is no vulgar hater of mankind, no churlish or brutal cynic. High and noble in nature, he is alienated from the world by its want of heart, its insincerities, its more or less veiled falsehood, its hypocrisies of complaisance, its thousand petty foibles. He regards it as nothing less than a crime that men should exchange civilities simply as a matter of form, should breathe a syllable against those whom they call their friends, or should gloss over their opinion of execrable verses when the author asks for it. His practice is at least equal to his theory; contempt for the harmless hypocrisies of every-day life, however, does not prevent him from becoming the slave of a woman in whom they are fully represented, the sprightly, accomplished, heartless coquette Célimène. He is conscious of his folly even as he gives way to it the most, and it is upon the conflict in his case between head and heart, terminating in the predominance of the former, that the interest of the play chiefly depends.
As a critic well observes, "The skill with which Célimène alternately plays with his patience, evades his reproaches, preserves her own independence while lessening his, elicits fresh proofs of his affection while only affording such glimpses of her own as shall serve to keep him from breaking his chains, and eventually making him more angrily in love than ever, is a triumph of delineation such as has rarely, if ever, been equalled." The figure of Alceste gains much by contrast with that of Philinte, the personification of worldly wisdom. The latter genially yields to the habits and customs of society, not because he wholly approves them, but on the principle that it is wise to make the best of circumstances, to take the world very much as one finds it. In this character the moral of the play may be discerned. Molière enforces the necessity of social toleration, though in doing so he casts no ridicule upon Alceste, whose misanthropy is simply the outcome of virtue in excess. Excellent, also, of their kind are the gentle Eliante, the poetaster Oronte, and the prude Arsinöe. From a strictly dramatic point of view Le Misanthrope is not without defects, but it occupies a place by the side of Don Juan and Tartuffe in right of its beauty and style, its felicitous delineations, and its refined pungency as a satire against more than one fashionable false pretence. Its purely literary merit was so high that Boileau hailed it as his friend's masterpiece.