The similarity between Molière and Dickens illuminates what is essential to the power of each: the insight into self-deception that co-exists alongside deception, the fear of hypocrisy that, to serve ends and ideals quite apart from those of society, can insinuate itself within it, draw off its life, and threaten disorder. There is no comedic author in English so like Dickens as is Molière.
But that similarity is also helpful in delineating the particular nature of each; the differences between them reveal was is no less essential to their powers.
For Molière, the ideological anchor of the world is “l’honnête homme” (Cléante in Tartuffe for instance); for Dickens, it is “the gentleman.” For both, the world is most threatened by the hypocrisy, social climbing, fraudulence, and deception that can corrode that ideal; much of the comedy in both arises from attempts to ape, mimic, or seduce (erotically or otherwise) the gentleman/l’honnête homme. But in Dickens, the potential—and realization—of tragedy is greater; in Molière it is safely absorbed.
That is because, for Dickens, the gentleman is sacred as, for Molière, “l’honnête homme” is not, even if it is socially necessary. For Dickens, it is sacred both because it is necessary and because it is a rare thing, not easily attained; among the petty decencies, the common acts of kindness that fill the novel, it stands as a central presence, drawing them together in a common order against cruelty, neglect, ignorance, stupidity. There is a great deal of gray space in Dickens; but it is defined by the distinct light of the gentleman. For Molière, “l’honnête homme” is a baggier, more porous category of person: not a gentleman of the aristocracy, it is a member of the upper bourgeois and ideological heir to the courtier of the 16th century; in behavior, it is a style of speech, a relation to labor and (as Erich Auerbach notes) to specialization of labor and knowledge (better not to be specialized or one looks grotesque); it is also an ideal that is amenable to compromise.
In Molière’s hands, the category’s internal definition and rules are less strict than those that govern the behavior and identity of the “gentleman” in Dickens. It might be thought that such relative laxness within the category of “l’honnête homme” makes Molière a laxer moralist than Dickens; but it might also be said that Molière was too skeptical to trust to any ossified ideal, to any grasping after moral purity that is bound to deceive itself. And the supposed laxness of his moralism must be set against the immense control of his language that accords to a strict standard of what distinguishes “l’honnête homme,” a standard of decorum but also of judgment more broadly.
At the same time, for Dickens, whatever the over-determination of the bourgeois gentleman, the presence of that necessary and valuable ore to the wellbeing of the social order means that, when it is brought under duress, or undermined, by mimicry, hypocrisy, ambition, lust, or violence, the consequences are tragic (Steerforth is as good an example as any). The greatest comedy of Dickens owes not to the characters who falsely pass as gentleman, but to those minor characters who, accepting their distance from true gentlemanly status, ape the accoutrements and habits that accompany it. In later Dickens, these minor characters are often complicit in tragedy; but they might also be redeemed. Most often, though, admirers of Dickens would argue for his greatness in those moments of tragedy when the gentleman falls, when his ideals are betrayed, or when a character is warped by failed ambition to become a gentleman; it might be thought that in Little Dorrit, the father’s humiliation is a critique of the ideal by which he has been humiliated, but Arthur Clennam represents its vindication.
In the later novels, however, Dickens registers the terrible consequences, the humiliations, degradations, and hurt, as well as material suffering, that are paid for a society so dependent on a gentleman so purely construed. In Molière’s world, the purity of an ideal is a danger that cannot do tragic damage, since the ideal is itself so loosely construed, so un-idealistic; those who are taken in by deception, ambition, and hypocrisy are merely ridiculous fools, and those who deceive can be shunned or whimsically ostracized. That does not in itself lessen what Molière does; the intensity of his insight, the extremes of his characterization, are not mitigated by his having a genuinely comedic imagination.
It is easy to suspect the difference owes to biography: to Dickens’ being born something other than a gentleman, to his being on the outside of what he felt it was his to properly be…on his thralldom to the gentlemanly ideology. That is probably too passive an account of a very active mind, too reductive a summary of a subtle moral calculus (that he is easily denied). Nonetheless, it smacks of enough truth to open a question of whether Thackeray’s comedic imagination is not, in its relation to the “ideal” gentleman, more akin to Molière’s than Dickens’ in some respects, and whether considering Thackeray and Dickens both in relation to Molière might not clarify further their relation to one another.