The setting for the entirety of Tartuffe is the house of Orgon, a prosperous middle class man who has served the King of France well in a recent war—he is currently away on a two-day business trip to the country. As the play opens his mother, Madame Pernelle, is finishing a visit with the rest of his family: his son and daughter, Damis and Mariane; their stepmother and Orgon’s second wife, Elmire; and Elmire’s brother, Cléante.
Introducing all of these characters together emphasizes their familial bonds. The absence of Orgon, the father, however, implies that something is amiss within the family unit. The early exposition about Orgon also introduces the symbol of the King and establishes that the family’s good standing depends on the King.
Madame Pernelle scolds each member of the family for what she perceives as their sinful ways. She tells Damis and Mariane that they do not respect their father enough, and upbraids Elmire for entertaining too many callers and caring too much about her appearance. She even tells Cléante that he is too worldly, and should not be allowed in the house. Each character tries in turn to reason with her, but she interrupts them all.
Madame Pernelle is an unpleasant and laughable moralizer. She loudly believes herself to be pious and pure, yet acts rudely to her own family, judging them solely (and wrongly) by their appearances. She is a hypocrite: demanding others act in a way that she herself does not follow. She is also blind, so certain of her own morality and judgment that she refuses to listen to reason.
The discussion turns to Tartuffe, a holy man whom Orgon and Madame Pernelle revere. The other characters believe him to be deceitful and hypocritical. They attempt to tell Madame Pernelle about the religious tyranny that he inflicts upon their household. Dorine is especially harsh in her criticism of him, saying that he has “usurp[ed]” Orgon’s place in the household, and even implying that Tartuffe may lust after her mistress, Elmire. Madame Pernelle, however, will not hear a word of against him; she believes Tartuffe to be truly pious, and calls her relatives sinful for ignoring his advice. She believes that their sins will ruin the family if they do not begin to heed Tartuffe’s wisdom.
Moliere turns the audience against Tartuffe before we even meet him by associating him with the loathsome Madame Pernelle. As the other characters use reasonable arguments to display Tartuffe’s hypocrisy, Madame Pernelle responds only with anger and stubbornness. She is so taken in by Tartuffe that logical arguments cannot convince her otherwise. Meanwhile, the characters that do see through Tartuffe depict a broken and distorted family unit in which the father’s place has been stolen without the father even realizing it.
The group discusses various pious people they know, particularly citing a supposedly pious neighbor who often gossips about Elmire; Madame Pernelle believes such ostentatiously moral people to be truly virtuous, while Cléante and Dorine assert that they are hypocrites like Tartuffe, using excessive shows of faith to mask their true sins, and perverting the power of the Church.
The play broadens the theme of hypocrisy to include not just Tartuffe, but society at large. Cléante and Dorine show themselves to be especially intelligent and reasonable as they point out the hypocrisy around them. Madame Pernelle, however, continues to believe in surface appearances.
Frustrated by her relatives (particularly Cléante, who is laughing at her), Madame Pernelle takes her leave—though not before slapping the long-suffering Flipote.
Madame Pernelle shows herself to be a hypocrite once again, hitting her maid although she claims to be (and demands other to be) a kind and charitable Christian.