The moment that he enters, Orgon shows Mariane her marriage contract, and essentially commands her to be happy about the match. In response, Mariane falls to her knees and begs her father not to force her to marry Tartuffe. She says that if she cannot marry Valère, then she may need to consider more “desperate” options.
The family simply cannot stand against Orgon, despite his foolishness. He, as a father, has too much power. He can make the family members do whatever he wants.
Orgon is almost swayed, but when Mariane says that she would rather become a nun than marry Tartuffe, her father grows angry again, telling his daughter that the more she loathes Tartuffe, the more “ennobling” it will be for her to marry him. He becomes even more harsh, ordering her, “Marry Tartuffe, and mortify your flesh!”
Orgon is moved by Mariane’s genuine emotions, but reacts angrily to any criticisms of Tartuffe. One might argue that any criticism of Tartuffe is also a criticism of Orgon, since Orgon has stated his belief in Tartuffe so completely. Meanwhile, Orgon has gone from oblivious to cruel, essentially telling his daughter that he wants her to be miserable. He seems to believe that misery and piety are the same thing—or even that misery leads to piety—a completely warped understanding of the Church’s teachings. This is also a view of Christianity that Tartuffe plays on to manipulate Orgon.
Dorine and Cléante each try to intervene, but Orgon will not even let them speak.
Orgon’s alienation from his family reaches its height as he stops them even from trying to communicate with him.
When Elmire reminds him of Tartuffe’s attempted seduction of her this morning, Orgon asserts that she is doing so merely to back up Damis. He goes on to say that, if Tartuffe had really done as she said, then she would have been angry, instead of calm and reasonable. Elmire responds that she feels no need to get angry over such offers—unlike some women, she feels no need to humiliate men “for the slightest cause.”
This discussion reveals the core of Orgon’s blindness: he thinks that drama and emotion are equivalent to sincerity; he does not understand the difference between appearances and reality. This is why he trusts Tartuffe. Elmire’s response is more nuanced, an argument that appearance is not reality and goodness does not always have to be display. Rather, here, she argues that one can be kind to others by not exposing certain things, by recognizing and accepting and keeping hidden flaws (with the implication that this is acceptable only so long as you do so without sinning yourself).
When Orgon tells Elmire that nothing anyone says will shake his faith in Tartuffe, his wife asks him if she can instead show him the truth. He responds with skepticism, but Elmire persists. At last Orgon says that he will take her “challenge,” although he remains positive that he is right
At last, Elmire discovers a way to free her husband from Tartuffe’s spell: rather than telling him about Tartuffe’s hypocrisy, she will instead show him, thus using Orgon’s faith in appearances in order to discredit Tartuffe.
Elmire asks Dorine to bring in Tartuffe, while sending away Cléante and Mariane. Although Dorine warns her mistress that Tartuffe is devious, Elmire is not worried. She knows that “amorous men are gullible,” and plans to use Tartuffe’s feelings for her against him.
The reasonable Elmire knows that she can manipulate Tartuffe with emotion (just as Tartuffe has manipulated her husband), using his lust for her in order to unmask him as a hypocrite.