A Look at Hypocritical Characters in Literature

One big reason why people read fiction is to feel strong emotions -- joy, surprise, anger, etc. And when it comes to anger, few literary experiences make our blood boil more than observing the actions of hypocritical protagonists.
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One big reason why people read fiction is to feel strong emotions -- joy, surprise, anger, etc. And when it comes to anger, few literary experiences make our blood boil more than observing the actions of hypocritical protagonists.

These integrity-challenged characters are especially maddening when they become successful despite (or because of) their hypocrisy -- even as protagonists who practice what they preach might not do as well. Sure, it's immensely satisfying when fictional hypocrites get their comeuppance at the end, but that doesn't always happen.

Still, if people read partly to feel strong emotions, I suppose frustration (at seeing hypocrites succeed) can be one of those emotions. And at least it's easier to stomach fictional hypocrites than real-life cads of that ilk.

Unfortunately, fictional hypocrites can also serve as "role models" providing real-life hypocrites with "tips" for achieving hypocritical perfection. Who said literature isn't educational?

Two-faced protagonists are often (but not always) of the religious variety. One prime example is Mr. Brocklehurst in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Jane and the other unlucky girls at his Lowood school/institution are denied adequate food, heat, clothing and compassion while the "pious" Mr. Brocklehurst and his family live a life of luxury -- even as he argues the "merits" of a miserable, austere life for the poor.

Then there's minister Gabriel Grimes, in James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, who preaches about exemplary behavior even though he himself fathered a child out-of-wedlock and left the mother to fend for herself. On top of that, he treats his wife and children badly.

The evangelist title character in Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry is another full-of-vices "religious" man who's an expert at "do as I say, not as I do."

Or how about the "moral" leaders and townspeople in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter? They force Hester Prynne to wear an "A" for adultery on her clothing, conveniently ignoring that forgiveness should be part of their Christian beliefs. And few of us would be surprised if some of those holier-than-thou Puritan men engaged in adultery themselves.

Then, of course, there are the many novels in which white "pillars of the community" are racists. One example is Richard Wright's Native Son, in which real-estate executive Henry Dalton makes a show of helping African-Americans (even donating money to the NAACP) but also makes sure they're confined to living in the ghetto. And there are "good" ordinary citizens like Aunt Sally, who narrow-mindedly refuses to accept black people as part of humanity in Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Not surprisingly, literature also features countless hypocritical politicians, such as Willie Stark in Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. Stark is ostensibly a reformist, but, while he does some good, he has a corrupt side and serially cheats on his wife.

There are obviously hypocrites in law enforcement, too, with one of them being supposedly enlightened deputy sheriff Lester Burdon in Andre Dubus III's House of Sand and Fog. The married Burdon goes nastily rogue when supporting Kathy Nicolo (who he's having an affair with) against Iranian exile Massoud Behrani in an escalating dispute over a house.

Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride also features a memorable hypocrite: Zenia, who ingratiates herself into the lives of three "friends" and then wreaks emotional devastation on that trio of women.

In the area of plays, Shakespeare's Othello and Moliere's Tartuffe star the major hypocrites Iago and Tartuffe -- with the latter an unctuous con man who feigns being religious to get what he wants. Yup, another ethically challenged character playing the God card.

Who are your favorite (if the word "favorite" can be used!) hypocritical characters in literature?


Dave Astor's memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional (Xenos Press, 2012) includes a preface by Heloise; back-cover endorsements by Arianna Huffington, "The Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson and others; appearances by Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King, Martha Stewart and others; and a mix of humor and heartache. If you'd like to buy a personally inscribed copy (for less than the Amazon price), contact Dave at dastor@earthlink.net.

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