The Importance of Being a Happy Hypocrite on Facebook

My Zombie Platoon explains the Importance of Earnestly Understanding why Max Beerbohm based a short story on one Oscar Wilde work rather than another

Tom Tordillo
7 min readApr 3, 2023

The necromancer is the creator of undead things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is necromancy’s aim. The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of digital literary zombies.
Oscar Wilde, “Picture of Dorian Gray,” Preface (egregiously paraphrased)

Any aspiring necromancer must periodically check on his zombies lest other practitioners of the dark arts wrest control over the zombie horde. Or Zombie platoon, in my case.

Necromancers should read works by living writers about dead writers — it’s like giving our zombies breath mints.

Image by Max Beerbohm? Placed in public domain by Project Gutenberg.

Some necromancers are far better than I am, and know not only how to raise up dead literary figures, but how to link them into a veritable legion of undead. Yet when I read about how they treated MY zombies, I learn a few secrets. Necromancers should read works by living writers about dead writers — it’s like giving our zombies breath mints. Polite company and civil conversation requires no less.

So take this line from Wikipedia regarding “The Happy Hypocrite”:

Beerbohm’s tale is a lighter, more humorous version of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 classic tale of moral degeneration, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

In my first piece on Beerbohm’s novella, “The Happy Hypocrite,” I claimed that Beerbohm inverted “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895). This neophyte necromancer (!) dares propose some different book!

“The Happy Hypocrite” was published in 1897, so technically, Beerbohm might have responded to either. Or both. Or neither, though that seems painfully improbable. I stand by my initial premise and my entire platoon backs me up!

Happy Hypocrite v. Dorian Gray

In both “The Happy Hypocrite” and “Dorian Gray,” the effort to hide moral corruption from public view changes a man. Yet the mechanism is entirely different:

  • For Wilde, the attempt to change a person’s nature by hiding the effects of age is futile — we are what we are, regardless of how we look. In vain, we defend our vanity. Or worse.
  • For Beerbohm, taking on a ‘saintly face’ (and perhaps adopting several ‘saintly’ lifestyle choices like paying off debts) may redeem a sinful nature. We are what we make ourselves to be.

While a theme like “appearances can deceive” could present the two stories as thematically linked, there’s only a ‘skin deep’ resemblance between ‘Dorian Gray’ and ‘Happy Hypocrite.’

Dorian Gray starts off innocent. Lord Henry introduces him to certain forms of hedonism, but the ‘transformational’ (petrificational?) incident has nothing to do with indulgence into pleasure, pain, reform, or any other course of conduct. We cannot beat time.

Contrast that with Happy Hypocrite’s first line:

None, it is said, of all who revelled with the Regent, was half so wicked as Lord George Hell.

Beerbohm, Happy Hypocrite

Beerbohm writes Lord Hell’s ‘naughtiness’ like a matador’s muleta — dangling that cape to draw an audience one way, then dodging with a flourish.

It is pleasant to record that many persons were inobnoxious to the magic of his title and disapproved of him so strongly that, whenever he entered a room where they happened to be, they would make straight for the door and watch him very severely through the key-hole.

“Inobnoxious”? So naughty people…spied on him?

They say he was rather like Caligula, with a dash of Sir John Falstaff, and that sometimes on wintry mornings in St. James’s Street young children would hush their prattle and cling in disconsolate terror to their nurses’ skirts…

Lord Hell is “presented” through hyperbole, while Dorian Gray is “represented” through the wistful longing eye of a connuiseur (like Wilde himself). Thematically distinct universes.

And in any event, in a face-to-face brawl, Dorian Gray kicks the crap out of Lord Hell (or Heaven) — and probably out of Lord Heaven + Jennie. In a tag team matchup involving Lord Heaven, Jennie, and La Gambogi against Dorian Gray, the trio might stand some chance, but nothing in the story indicates any one of them actually harmed any person (the most dangerous character in Beerbohm’s story is probably a Dwarven archer).

Happy Hypocrite v. Being Earnest

Where “Dorian Gray” plays straight with its title, puns and wit start at the title of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Is “being earnest” actually important, or is it being NAMED ‘Ernest’? Why is this important anyway? As Gwendolen says:

…my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.
Oscar Wilde (for real this time), “The Importance of Being Earnest” (from Project Gutenberg)

“Jack” questions if Gwendolen would love him if his name wasn’t ‘Ernest,’ drawing the following:

[Glibly.] Ah! that is clearly a metaphysical speculation, and like most metaphysical speculations has very little reference at all to the actual facts of real life, as we know them.
Oscar Wilde, “Being Earnest”

Is she mad? Seriously, WTF? What’s up with “Algernon” — is that Oscar Wilde playing at another famous poet, “Algernon Charles Swinburne…” (whom Wilde knew, at one point loved, and later on may have regarded as a sort of fraud…)

What if she isn’t mad, but rather, the pun is mocking Victorian “gentlemen” and their typical condescension toward “wage earners.” What if the applicable pun renders “earnest” as “earn-ist” — that is, men who “earn” something, the same way an “art-ist” makes a living creating art, a “scient-ist” makes “science,” and a “dent-ist” makes…dentures.

Yet “happy hypocrite” subverts every pun in Oscar Wilde’s title. Hypocrisy opposes earnestness. The metaphysical possibility of a “happy hypocrite” undermines any claim that “being earnest” is important. Even a social class pun, Lord George Hell inherited wealth and privilege…how can he be “happy”?

Beerbohm follows the model from Wilde, but starts at the opposite judgment as Jennie (Guinevere?) rejects Lord George Hell.

“I can never be the wife of any man whose face is not saintly. Your face, my Lord, mirrors, it may be, true love for me, but it is even as a mirror long tarnished by the reflexion of this world’s vanity. It is even as a tarnished mirror...That man, whose face is wonderful as are the faces of the saints, to him I will give my true love.”
Max Beerbohm, “The Happy Hypocrite”

Where Jacks pursuit of Gwendolen is nearly foiled by fraud, the ridiculous fortuitous discovery that he was actually born with the first name, “Ernest” but got mixed up as a child makes everything proper once more.

By contrast, Lord George Hell buys himself a mask, listens to a story about Apollo, and then, once the mask is properly affixed, he stumbles across the object of his desire in the park and she tells him at one glance:

“Surely,” she said, “you are that good man for whom I have waited. Therefore do not kneel to me, but rise and suffer me to kiss your hand. For my love of you is lowly, and my heart is all yours.”
Max Beerbohm, “The Happy Hypocrite”

The Importance of Being a Happy Hypocrite on Facebook

In Oscar Wilde’s universe, women might be attracted to men who dress a certain way. If a man discovers a woman does not care for his hat, he might just as well change that hat if he wishes to win her affection. If a man discovers a woman does not care for his name, he might look into changing that too — there are limits on what we can change, but most things are arbitrary, and our attachments to things as they have been comes from stories we’ve told ourselves.

In Max Beerbohm’s universe, a “happy hypocrite” may dominate social media — Facebook, Insta, Medium, and every other system. Sure, a nasty troll will get attention — but that nasty troll has to pretend to be enthusiastic about something while building their following. Donald Trump pretends to love America. Lord George Hell pretends to be interested in theater.

How does one acquire power? Donning a mask of whatever people wish to see.

And that’s probably the danger Max Beerbohm spent decades exploring, both in his writing and in his drawing of caricatures. The ‘masks’ that he drew could be fun, funny, or fiercely critical. He represented himself as an overgrown baby dwarf. He was less kind to some other subjects.

Once Beerbohm started to discern that it is simply not possible to be a “happy hypocrite” for very long without getting other people to pay costs to maintain the façade, he explored aspects of the process, probably growing just a bit more uncomfortable the more he saw.

He dallied with Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism, found it increasingly distasteful, and perhaps even terrifying. Yet who else had the will to try to become the face behind the mask?

Which brings us to Facebook — and the illusion that we are “our face” and the stream of events we choose to post. Where Beerbohm thought there was a possibility a ‘sinner’ could become a saint through love for the face that he showed the world, Facebook raises this possibility for billions of people, and then shows how utterly ineffective it is at actually meeting our needs.

We become “Happy Hypocrites,” displaying masks to the world, hoping someone will love us in turn. Yet whether we post once a year or several times an hour, no matter what we do, our masks still do not transform us into saints.



Tom Tordillo

Necromancer unleashing zombie hordes from Project Gutenberg to work literary atrocities. Also father/lawyer/commentator/ironic.