Alceste, whose wholesale rejection of his culture''s polite social conventions make him tremendously unpopular. In the first act of the play, he states: “…Mankind has grown so base, / I mean to break with the whole human race”. However, this conviction manifests itself in the primary conflict of the play, which consists of Alceste''s intense love for Célimène, a flirtatious young woman who pays great attention to social appearances and conventions. Alceste''s determination to reject society and its supposed dishonesty is countered by his desire to share a life with Célimène, whose actions oppose all that he stands for. Alceste has other women pining for him, such as the moralistic Arsinoé and the honest Eliante. Yet his preference lies in Célimène. His deep feelings for the latter primarily serve to counter his negative expressions about mankind, since the fact that he has such feelings includes him amongst those he so fiercely criticizes. Judging by his bold assertions, the reader may initially take him for a strong, deliberate man who will let nothing stand in his way of implementing his decision. But his reaction to Celimene’s treatment of him reveals his inherent frailty, and the reader learns that he may wish to leave mankind behind, but mankind will not leave him so easily. The plot then thickens to involve a court justice that results from Alceste''s refusal to praise Oronte''s paltry love poem. Alceste typically refuses to dole out false compliments, and this practice lands him in court. Some of the most memorable parts of the play are the constant plays on words and the extremely humorous jibes at society and its rules.
Philinte represents a foil for Alceste''s moral extremism, and speaks throughout the first act of the play on the necessity of self-censorship and polite flattery to smooth over the rougher textures of a complex society. Alceste, on the other hand, believes that people should be completely honest and should not put on pretenses just to be considered polite in society. Eventually, Alceste''s inability to cope with society and its inescapable affectations causes him to forsake Célimène, who ultimately agrees to marry him, and retreat to a deserted land where he will no longer have to deal with other people. Philinte, for his part, marries Eliante and the pair receives Alceste''s blessing.