It is quite a task to find common grounds upon which to base a comparison of such radically different texts as Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus"and Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest" especially given the wide amount of time separating these two works. However, one finds upon a more critical examination of these texts that the theme of hypocrisy is timeless and although is a theme in both works, is represented differently to differing aims. While both “The Importance of Being Earnest" and “Doctor Faustus"employ subtle irony to poke fun at the hypocrisy that occurs, the reasons for such satire are completely different. For instance, the pointing out of hypocrisy in “The Importance of Being Earnest" is for the purposes of examining Victorian society and how one must appear on the surface to keep a name. In “Doctor Faustus"however, the role of hypocrisy is quite different since it is used to point out the errors of religion. Certainly, as “The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde and “Doctor Faustus"by Christopher Marloweare two entirely works on many levels, the fact that hypocrisy is used as a theme points to the idea that it is a timeless social concept, both in life and literature.
In “The Importance of Being Earnest" unlike in, “Doctor Faustus" hypocrisy is exposed by the main character’s ironic statements concerning his ill-behaving and imaginary brother, Earnest, who acts as an alter ego for Jack. One can assume that this alter ego exists because of the strain of Victorian society, but nonetheless, Jack is hardly a model citizen. Even though he is guilty of several indiscretions, he is always commenting on propriety. For instance, in “The Importance of Being Earnest" when Algernon questions him about his cigarette case, he responds in one of the important quotes from “The Importance of Being Earnest” saying, “It is a very ungentlemanly thing to thing to read a private cigarette case" (Wilde 4). This statement is ironic since it points out how hypocritical Jack really is. After all, if he were so concerned about what was gentlemanly, the idea of faking a brother (and worse, a brother’s sudden death) would never cross his mind.
Strangely, most of the ironic statements that point out Jack’s hypocrisy in terms of adhering to the strict behavioral codes of the Victorian age are directed at Algernon. This could be a knowing irony, since Algernon is well aware of Jack’s hypocrisy in creating an alter ego so he can behave how he pleases, but on the other hand, one has to wonder how much Jack thinks about what he says. Take for instance, the very ironic and telling line in which Jack addresses Algernon’s own untruths, “It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn’t a dentist. It produces a false impression" (Wilde 5). This is one of the most hypocritical things he could possible say to anyone else considering the fact that he boasts his accomplishments as a gentleman, yet has the other personality that seems to have license to commit acts that wouldn’t be acceptable. Although the reader is never directly told about what sorts of activities he engages in while in his alter ego, we can be quite certain that they are likely nothing he would admit to among his society friends. In essence then, Jack, despite his admonishing of Algernon, is very much talking like a hypothetical dentists even if he isn’t one.
Perhaps the most illustrative point about Jack’s hypocritical judgment of others, again, Algernon in this case, he scolds, “Your vanity is ridiculous, your conduct an outrage, and your presence in my garden utterly absurd" (Wilde 30). This is entirely hypocritical of Jack since Algernon is doing just the same thing as he is—living a lie. Again, it is difficult to state with any certainty, but one wonders, given the lighthearted tone of the play, whether or not Jack is saying all of this “tongue in cheek" and knows full well the complete irony of what he’s just criticized. Still, even with this element of comedic irony, the fact that this hypocrisy seems necessary at all given the constraints put on the behavior of both sexes during the Victorian age is a more deep and less comical idea Wilde was trying to point out by exploring these themes in “The Importance of Being Earnest”. No matter what the case it, it seems clear that the irony used to illustrate the hypocrisy is a theme that is carried throughout the play, and is even inherent in the title. By saying “The Importance of Being Earnest" one might think initially that this is a play about the necessity of honesty. The fact is, even the title is ironically deceiving and given the happy ending of the book, it almost proves its own hypocrisy—that maybe, if all turns out well in the end, then there really is no need for being earnest (in the read sense of the word).
Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus also uses clever ironic dialogue to point out the hypocrisy of others. While this is a similarity with The Importance of Being Earnest, the overall tone and final clarity of message is much more resonant and the reader isn’t left with any suspicions about what the point of the theme of hypocrisy was meant to illustrate. In the case of Doctor Faustus, the criticism of the baseness of religion versus the “higher" form of learning, which is education and knowledge for Faustus, and is further is expounded upon when Faustus goes to visit the Pope. When he gets the Pope’s men rowdy, he begins taunting them with what he sees as their own hypocrisy. “How! Bell, book, and candle; candle book and bell, / Forward and backward, to curse Faustus to hell" (Marlowe 78). This lone alone is evidence for Faustus’/Marlowe’s view on the rituals of the Catholic religion and he uses their rituals against them to point out how meaningless he thinks they are. It seems as though Marlowe as an author inserts his views on religious hypocrisy as well, since he writes the these clergymen as saying nonsense and ironic chants to refute Faustus, “Cursed be he that struck his holiness a blow to the face. Maledictat Dominus." This ironic, satirical use of “papal" language here to illustrate the church’s petty response allows us to glimpse Marlowe’s own views of religious hypocrisy.
At the same time however, there seems to be another layer of hypocrisy at play in this text. While on the one, more surface level, we have Faustus pointing out the hypocrisy of the church, he himself is guilty of hypocrisy, since he spent a majority of the text thinking about what he would do with his new-found powers. It seemed at first that he didn’t want to be a petty magician, but we find him “performing" for both the Pope and later the Emperor. Irony and hypocrisy seem intertwined in both texts. While in The Importance of Being Earnest, it was more on the level of dialogue, in Doctor Faustus, the emphasis was more on the actions of both the main character and the author himself. Even though these texts are separated by several centuries, no matter what the literary devices and means of attaining the revelation of hypocrisy, it still seems to be a valid theme to explore in literature.
Marlowe, Christopher. Ed. Sylvan Barnett. (2001). Doctor Faustus. London: Penguin.
Wilde, Oscar. (1990). The Importance of Being Earnest. New York: Dover.