As Elmire enters, Tartuffe attempts to overwhelm her with flattery, telling her that he has been praying ceaselessly for her to recover from her recent illness. Elmire responds graciously, thanking him for his prayers and saying that she doesn’t deserve them. She tells him that they must discuss a “private matter.”
Elmire, like Dorine, can see through Tartuffe’s hypocrisy. She, however, is polite to him, maintaining the appearance of goodwill, and even attempts to use his obvious feelings for her for the good of her stepdaughter Mariane.
Tartuffe takes this opportunity to tell Elmire that he wishes to bare his “inmost heart and soul” to her. He goes on to say that the emotion he feels for her is pure and holy—all while grabbing her hand and touching her knee. He goes on to compliment her clothes while essentially groping her.
Tartuffe may speak pious words, but his actions tell a different story. He is violating Elmire’s personal space and taking advantage of her politeness in order to satisfy his own lust.
Despite being uncomfortable, Elmire stays focused on her goal: to keep Tartuffe from marrying Mariane. When she asks Tartuffe about the match, he replies that he looks “elsewhere” for “bliss.” Although he clearly means Elmire, she continues to be tactful, asking if he means that he looks for bliss from heaven. Tartuffe, however, explains to her that he can love beauty on both heaven and earth, and tells her that her own beauty is the work of God, and therefore holy. He says that although he used to think his love for her was a trap from Hell, he now believes that it was sent from Heaven, and begs her to accept it.
At last Tartuffe unmasks himself as not pious and as lusting after a married woman, although he does so in the most slippery and hypocritical way possible. Although he claims that his love for Elmire is holy, he is essentially asking her to violate the holy bonds of marriage. Once again, Tartuffe’s words say one thing, but the meaning beneath them is entirely different.
Elmire responds graciously to Tartuffe’s declaration of love, telling him that he should attempt to restrain his emotion. Tartuffe, however, asserts that all men must give way to emotion, and that her beauty has made her the queen of his soul. He goes on to say that, if she will love him in return, she will become his new god, and he will pray to her. He ends by insinuating that, should they begin an affair, Elmire need not worry about gossip, because of his piety.
Tartuffe has left piety so far behind that his declaration of love borders on Christian blasphemy. He worships Elmire’s beauty as if she herself were divine—he essentially tries to seduce her by saying he would abandon Christ for her, and then says she can trust him because he is so pious! He is both in thrall to his emotions and lust for her, and completely without morals in pursuing her.
Still reasonable and polite, Elmire asks Tartuffe if he is worried that she will tell Orgon about his feelings for her. Tartuffe replies that he knows her to be so charitable and kind that she will forgive him and remain silent. Elmire, in turn, tells him that she will remain silent only if he refuses to marry Mariane and advocates for Valère instead.
Practical and rational, Elmire again attempts to use Tartuffe’s emotion against him. Although he has insulted her honor by attempting to seduce her into an affair, she will remain silent for the good of her stepdaughter. Here Elmire is trying to use appearances—pretending everything is normal—to trap Tartuffe.