Sliding Scale Of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Literature
A Series of Unfortunate Events is largely toward the "cynical" end of the scale; many characters seem like they would prefer to be idealistic but have had the optimism crushed out of them, and those who are consistently optimistic come across as foolish.
Animorphs starts out on the idealistic side, and ends more on the cynical side. The gist of the series is that the universe is a violent, dangerous and evil place, and things are bad all over, but we should try to do the right thing as often as we can. To quote Jake: "It was a stupid, naive, idealistic and childish decision. But I wouldn't want to live in a world where we didn't try the stupid, naive, idealistic and childish thing sometimes."
The Lord of the Rings is overall a fairly idealistic series, despite its ability to put its characters through hell first. Tolkien's Christian beliefs inform the series very strongly; making it highly idealistic despite the turns that the story takes. In his view, cynicism and despair were inherently self-destructive, self-fulfilling prophesies; and therefore inherently sinful. Characters that fall into cynicism end up dying miserably or otherwise losing everything; while those who retain their idealism and persevere, regardless of how bad things get, are eventually rewarded, even in death. The story sets up a number of clear contrasts to illustrate this: Gandalf vs. Saruman, Frodo vs. Gollum, Théoden vs. Denethor, Faramir vs. Boromir. The most interesting contrast is between Théoden and Denethor. While both die during the Battle of Pelennor Fields, Théoden's death is noble and heroic, and is accepted as the fulfillment of his life and purpose. By contrast, Denethor's despair-driven suicide is ultimately empty and meaningless; and, without Gandalf and Pippin's intervention, would have resulted in the death of Faramir and the complete destruction of Gondor.
In contrast, The Silmarillion is far on the cynical end of the scale. The Noldor know they can't win against Morgoth, but they fight anyway and are picked off one city at a time. Most of the endings are extremely depressing, and the handful of stories that aren't complete downers are bittersweet.However, it's the characters that continue to hope and believe in the Valar rather than falling to pride or despair that end up getting the happiest endings (See Beren and Lúthien), and in the end it's the against-all-odds journey of one couple (whose births were equally against the odds) that saves Beleriand.
The Children of Húrin doesn't have an idealistic bone in its body. Túrin's attempts to Screw Destiny and protect his family constantly fail and his attempts to stand up to Melkor only lead to the downfall of pretty much everyone in the story. Even Middle-Earth itself is much grungier and cut throat, as the Edain have stooped to rape and thievery due to the collapse of their kingdoms, the Elves steal the Petty Dwarves' land, leading to their extinction and causing the race's last survivor to stoop to betraying the heroes because of his bitterness.
Despite its lighter tone, The Hobbit could give Húrin a run for its money in the cynicism department. The Dwarves are motivated mostly by greed, with the exception of Gandalf and Bilbo most of the cast are greedy, self-important, or flat out ruthless like Beorn, and after vanquishing the Big Bad all the good guys turn on each other. Bilbo's attempts to avert conflict peacefully fail miserably and the only thing that prevents full on war is a mutual threat the Dwarves caused in the first place.
On the other hand, H.P. Lovecraft's stories defined a whole new genre: Cosmic Horror Story, the nethermost reach of Sucks-to-Be-You literature. It's a lot like real life, except all human accomplishment is meaningless and deluded, with Eldritch Abominations as the only beings that really matter in the universe at large, and there's many a Fate Worse than Death for humans who stumble on these truths.
George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is fantasy taken to the extreme cynical end. Backstabbing is common, a world where there are only victims and villains and brutality in an attempt to claim the throne of an Vestigial Empire as everyone suffers throughout the whole story. Within three books, the only house that is "good" is taken apart...brutally. It is a world where two sides, the North which to survive the Crapsack World must have men and women who believes in honesty above all while the South which is a Crapsaccharine World is host to a nest of intrigue clash and the disaster that is doomed to afflict every side and none are caring enough to deal with it.
Katherine Kurtz's Deryni novels are an example of literature that falls in the middle of the scale. The good guys do win in the end, and evil is punished, but 'in the end' can operate on a scale of centuries. "King Javan's Year" appears to be as cynical as anything in "A Song of Ice and Fire" what with the protagonist and all his friends being killed messily at the end of the novel, but it sets up the good guys to win in the next book. This makes it cynical by the standards of high fantasy series, which tend, as a genre, to be idealistic.
The later books are even more cynical, with protagonists employing everything from mind control to adultery to accomplish their goals.
It is interesting to compare the works of Terry Pratchett and Tom Holt, two British comic-fantasy authors who are often compared with each other. On the surface both are similarly full of wry, rather cynical deconstructions of Fantasy, but a closer look reveals the differences. Pratchett's novels are quite heavily idealistic under the makeup, full of Karmic Deaths for the villains and Happy Endings for the heroes. Holt on the other hand seems to delight in running his heroes through the wringer, especially when it comes to love.
It is interesting to note that quite often in Pratchett's books, there will be a cynic and an idealist paired together. Who is actually right about the situation also varies: in the first two books, cynic Rincewind is almost always right and idealist Twoflower is almost always wrong. In the City Watch books, Carrot is an idealist while Vimes is a cynic, but Carrot's charisma tends to make the world around him (a deeply cynical one) essentially become more idealistic, because people don't want to disappoint him. It also bears noting that Carrot has been getting considerably less idealistic while still not being cynical, whereas Vimes has been growing slightly more hopeful in human nature (although he still thinks everyone's a selfish greedy bastard). In both books he's featured in, Moist von Lipwig is a cynic who is amazed and disturbed at how idealistic those around him can get. Death and Vetinari are both functionally cynics (they do what they do because they have to do it) with highly idealistic beliefs (specifically justice and freedom - two concepts which both also believe do not actually exist except to the degree that they are invented and believed in by people). In general, the Discworld appears to be an idealistic world populated by cynics.
In a telling exchange from Guards! Guards! (the first book to prominently feature Vetinari and the Watch):
Lord Vetinari: There are not good and bad people... There are always and only the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides. Captain Vimes: Did you really mean all that, sir? About the darkness in the human soul and everything? Lord Vetinari: Indeed. It is the only logical conclusion. Captain Vimes: But you get out of bed every morning? Lord Vetinari: Hmm? Yes? What is your point? Captain Vimes: I'd just like to know why, sir. Lord Vetinari: Oh, do go away, Vimes. There's a good fellow.
Holt started out as comparatively idealistic — Flying Dutch ended with a full-on literalHappily Ever After and didn't have anyone more overtly villainous than a jackass boss. They've been sliding down the scale ever since.
The Dresden Files is definitely a mix, as is the protagonist. Good and Evil, is fairly pure forms, are at war in the Dresden Files world, in many forms, and also in Dresden's own soul. When Harry is good, he's very Good, but sometimes he's very dark, to the point of murdering an (admittedly nasty) person to gain power to save his daughter from being killed, and pondering worse. His heart is with the Light, though, to a degree he himself fails to recognize.
On the other hand, he's becoming uncomfortably aware, from painful experience, that some of the harder-boiled cynics around him that he disdained when he was younger are actually right in their views. He managed to restore some faith and hope in the deeply embittered Warden Donald Morgan, but he's also finding out the hard way that Morgan was tired and bitter for a reason.
The Age of Misrule plays around at both ends of the scale. On the one hand, the re-emergence of magic renders tech useless, leading to widespread famine when food deliveries stop to the cities, and the government are conniving bastards, and the Higher Beings have their fair share of Kick the Dog moments - but on the other hand, the heroes, who fall squarely on the idealist end of the scale, manage to overcome the baddies at every turn (and the heroes who don't count as "idealist" get their faith restored by the end of the arc). It's probably magic, or something.
Author C. J. Cherryh presents an interesting extreme. Her work is a study in the extremes of the Scale; every character either a heartless "burn the village to save it" cynic or a omni-endangering foolish idealist. Or both!
There are few fanatics so ruthless as the idealist ready to subordinate real people and real things to abstractions.
Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov seems to be a study of the Sliding Scale, as it is at heart a book about faith versus faithlessness in the face of the rampant cruelties of the modern age. Moreover, in personal outlook, the cast varies on the scale: Alyosha is the youngest brother and the idealistic messiah, Ivan is the middle brother and The Spock, falling on the cynical side, and Dmitri the oldest brother is caught inside the spectrum at an unstable equilibrium.
Andrzej Sapkowski's novels (The Witcher Saga and the Hussite Trilogy) are both set in a quasi-fantasy setting and are both taken far to the Cynical side. It's mostly compensated by (dark) humor, although there are some genuinely bright moments in there as well.
Joel Rosenberg's Guardians of the Flame series is set in a "fantasy RPG" world on the far cynical end of the scale. The protagonists - all college-student gamers - share this tendency.
Mortal Engines leans very heavily towards the cynical end, which is something in a setting involving undead cyborgs and mobile cities. The very, very few optimistic characters (Tom, Wren, possibly Oenone Zero) are shown again and again to be completely out of their depth, while the pessimists, nihilists, slave-dealers, compulsive liars, juvenile delinquents, mechanical horrors and violently depraved psychopaths are in their element.
Military sci-fi is not the place to be an idealist, as a diplomat found out in John Scalzi's Old Man's War. The one attempt at diplomacy ended with the diplomat reduced to a fine paste about 30 seconds into his "negotiations". The series stays near the cynical end most of the time, but by the end of the last book, The Lost Colony, things finally seem to be looking up.
Basically the dismantling of the (well-intentioned but extremely cynical) Colonial Defense Forces' military junta means humanity can try other approaches in dealing with aliens other than a constantly-paranoid siege mentality.
Jack Campbell's The Lost Fleet seems to be dedicated to the proposition that the total war mindset makes you stupid. His hero, who is Always Right, runs rings around more ruthless military commanders with no concern for collateral damage, proper prisoner treatment and casualties on their own side.
There is, of course, the now tossed around theory that "The Prince" was the most sarcastic piece Machiavelli ever wrote. The evidence for this is pretty strong, considering, as was previously stated, all of his other pieces say exactly the opposite of what he says in The Prince, and, when you look at it, the way the damn book was written makes it sound like it is dripping in sarcasm. Imagine the most famous passages read aloud, by an incredibly sarcastic, angry man who has been flat-out told that his visions of government will not ever happen in his life time, and you are, as close as is possible, to the tone that "The Prince" was actually written in and intended to be read in.
His Discourses, of course, are on the same side of the scale as The Prince. Even though it's on the republican side, it certainly isn't idealistic by any standard. The longest chapter is about organizing coups, and several chapters of the first book describe how to use religion for political purposes.
Lady Suzette Whitehall of The General series is at the cynic end of the scale motivated by wealth and power and the need to protect her beloved husband. She will do 'Anything, anything at all.' for him - including murder, torture, bribery and even adultery. Raj Whitehall on the other hand is intensely idealistic, selflessly dedicated to the cause of Man and civilization on Bellevue - and hates the brutal means he must employ to further it. The other characters are closer to Suzette's end of the scale then Raj's but his influence definitely nudges them closer to idealism.
Sinclair Lewis's Arrowsmith, despite following a highly cynical protagonist who is treated horribly by everyone he meets and openly states that he thinks the world would be better off if half of mankind was killed in a plague, ends on an idealistic note. This is starkly contrasted with Lewis's previous novel Babbitt, which follows an optimistic lead character, but is ultimately cynical in tone.
Cormac McCarthy's The Road: A dark, dreary novel set in a post-apocalyptic world where most of humanity has degenerated into cannibalistic monsters. Those who haven't are starving to death or freezing to death under a gray sky, the sun having been long since blotted out by ash. It's idealistic.
Though George Orwell's nonfiction Homage to Catalonia manages to subvert the whole scale by being very cynical and idealistic at the same time.
Many people consider the works of Chuck Palahniuk to be overly cynical and nihilistic, but Palahniuk strongly disagrees with that statement and considers himself a Romantic.
Lord of the Flies took this concept to the absolute extreme end of cynicism—it was pretty much a rebuttal of a book on the extreme idealist side of the spectrum.
There are those who believe that the experience of The Great War shaped the mindset here.
In the world of realistic children's lit, Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume are on opposite sides of this spectrum. Cleary's books tend to be about the lighter side of childhood, even while they portray all the ups and downs that go with it. Almost like Yotsuba&! in book form, but not as wacky. Blume's books are a much harsher, unflinching look at the unhappy side of childhood, and have been banned in many places.
The Sundering is difficult to peg on a two-dimensional scale of idealism. It uses White and Grey Morality, with the "white" side winning and committing genocide against the grey side. That is depicted as a very bad thing that's nonetheless perfectly in character for the "pure" heroes. This sounds cynical, but the funny thing is that it might actually be idealistic, since the bad guys could have been redeemed if anyone had been willing to negotiate.
Mark Twain, in his later works, became an incredibly cynical author.
In his defense, however, he had good reason. Multiple deaths of loved ones combined with financial disaster tends to do that.
Contrast with Tom Sawyer- about a boy's rather happy childhood; and with Huckleberry Finn- about the friendship between a white boy and a black man during a time where it was highly unusual.
The world of P. G. Wodehouse is eternally sunny, but laced with enough cynicism to keep you laughing.
Andrew Vachss' Burke books are definitely cynical. Beneath the veneer of civilization that "citizens" see is a festering underworld with all kinds of scum. The government is at best ineffectual, at worst either willfully looking away or abetting evil. While Burke does do heroic things like saving people and bringing down criminals, he himself skims the edge of the law and is unafraid to be brutal or work with people who use violence.
Despite some of the horrific aspects, the Green Sky Trilogy bleeds idealism. Raamo is the most powerful psychic in generations, and goes through an entire year of being feted as above and apart. However, he never believes it. His restraint attracts Neric, the closest thing the Kindar have to a cynic...but even Neric is on the side of angels. He just sees trouble, and wants to solve it. Together, they discover the society's dirty secret the first Ol-Zhaan exile dissenters beneath the Root and made up the story of the Pash-San to cover for the disappearances. The exiles could have easily succumbed to despair and violence, as the Ol-Zhaan feared...turns out they're healthier, and only marginally less peaceful, than the Kindar. Every time one of the "old guard" steps in and tries to stop the Rejoyners from integrating the societies, they're shown up in some spectacular fashion. And in what is possibly the first canonical video game sequel to a book, Snyder undoes Raamo's Heroic Sacrifice by having one of his friends rescue him.
Where Jules Verne goes on this scale depends on whether the book was overseen by his far more idealistic editor Pierre-Jules Hetzel. Most of the works he's still known for were published under Hetzel, with the notable exception of Paris in the Twentieth Century (a proto-Cyberpunk book written in the early Hetzel years, but not published until 1994), so he's typically known as an idealist. When Hetzel died, later editors gave him more free rein, and his works got steadilymore cynical.
In Diane Duane's Stealing the Elf-King's Roses, one universe discovers another and quickly realizes that the new universe is much lower on the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism...and now that the bridge is open, the cynicism is getting out. Here's the interesting part: The new universe is ours.
Another interesting comparison is between Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson, two of Australia's greatest poets. They lived around the same time, they were both city-born men who wrote about the country, but whereas Patterson was very idealistic, romanticising the bush and its inhabitants, Lawson frequently wrote about how the bush sends you crazy after a while. They would frequently write responses to each others poems and stories.
Ningen Shikkaku, or No Longer Human, chronicling the extreme woobie Osamu Dazai's life of disappointment and hatred toward the society right before his final suicide, lies firmly on the cynical end of the scale.
The amount of misanthropic and nihilist venom that drips from the pages of Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan puts them so far on the cynical end of the scale that they fall off of it. That doesn't stop those books from being among the most hilarious novels out there.
The self-help book The Secret goes far, far off the deep end of the "Idealism" side of the scale. To the point that it has been subject to mockery.
In Death series: The series seems to be located roughly in the middle of idealistic and cynical. Eve is definitely cynical, but she will put everything on the line for murder victims anyway. The books make it clear that the world is both wonderful and terrible at the same time.
Dinotopia falls firmly on the idealist side, showing that humans on the island (except for Lee Crabb) have been taught to dump their warlike ways by peaceful and wise dinosaurs.
Peter Watts' Blindsight is highly cynical. Even the protagonists are bizarre and inhuman, to say nothing about the aliens
Orphan of Asia, a novel that details a lone protagonist's failing struggle against the colonial Japanese regime in Taiwan before and during World War II before going completely insane, lies firmly on the cynical end of the scale.
The reason for this cyncism is like George Orwell, the author grew up in colonial Taiwan which helped him create this cynical piece of work. Similar to Orwell and the Spanish Civil War. The book was a semi-autobiography after all.
The detective novels of Raymond Chandler are so unrelentingly cynical about their subjects (mostly related to LA and the USA in general) that author Paul Aster said the following:
Paul Aster: Raymond Chandler invented a new way of talking about America, and America has never looked the same to us since.
The Hunger Games Trilogy is heavily Cynical.The Capitol is only brought down through the killing of thousands of innocents and implications that the peace the world has achieved will not last. Each of the books just barely manages a Bittersweet Ending.
On one hand, Jacquie's home country is rife with corruption, crooked cops, gangs warfare and extortion, and The Protagonist herself is a type IV Anti Hero because of the above.
On the other hand, corruption isn't everywhere, some police are honest, all but one of the authority figures are reasonable, and the Big Bad himself is a Well Intentioned Extremist.
Iain M. Bank's The Culture books find an odd middle ground on the scale. The Culture is a good place to live and most people are happy, but it's only so powerful thanks to it's military force and black ops units who prevent it from coming to harm. And while the Culture is as close to utopia as it could get, there are still a lot of problems, such as the fact that many people grow bored and depressed because of a life where absolutely everything is handed to them on a silver platter. You try having good self esteem when pretty much everything in your life has been done for you by beings that claim to know what's best.