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Sliding Scale Of Idealism Versus Cynicism / Literature

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  • The works of John Steinbeck has a realistic Rousseau Was Right portrayal of human characters but unfortunately are set during the Great Depression. The Downer Ending in his stories are like seeing a car crash about to happen. You don't want it to happen to these characters but its coming until it finally happens at the very end.
  • Warrior Cats seems to be a mix of the two, leaning towards cynicism. Most things are accomplished through war, murder, or force. Most characters who start out idealistic eventually turn cynical. However, most of the characters dislike violence, but believe it is for the greater good. One cynical character even turns idealistic. Either way, this series just about sums up Grey-and-Gray Morality.
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  • 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 Chronicles of Narnia are all the way on the idealistic side... yet, like the Lord of the Rings example below, the series puts the characters through a lot of trouble first.
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  • Harry Potter ends up firmly on the idealist side, with The Power of Friendship as its chief overarching theme. The books do go through Cerebus Syndrome, though, with more and more characters dying in the later books.
  • Harper Lee's two books are usually somewhere in the middle.
    • To Kill a Mockingbird does have a lot of harsh realism but overall it seems to be more on the idealistic end surprisingly due to the amount of its heart and human sentimentality. It also proves Rousseau Was Right.
    • Go Set a Watchman is also set in the middle but maybe a tad more towards the cynical end due to where Atticus has gone to in later years.
  • Tolkien's Legendarium
    • The Lord of the Rings is overall a fairly idealistic series, despite its ability to put its characters through hell first. Tolkien's Roman Catholic 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.
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    • In contrast, The Silmarillion is far on the cynical end of the scale. The Noldor know they can't win against the God of Evil Melkor Morgoth,note  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.
    • Even though The Hobbit is more Lighter and Softer in tone than The Lord of the Rings, it's more balanced on the scale. While Rings was a more typical good vs evil story with the Free Peoples uniting against the God of Evil Sauron (Melkor's understudy) trying to conquer everything, Hobbit has the Dwarves trying to take back their lost kingdom and riches out of greed and revenge after a dragon drove them out, with the titular hobbit as the Only Sane Man/Unlucky Everydude being foisted on their quest. When they do take it back, they come into conflict with armies of Elves and Men who want a cut of the fabled Dwarf treasure, and the Men had just gotten their homes destroyed by the dragon because of the Dwarves. What only gets them to unite is the common threat of goblins (Orcs), Sauron and Melkor's Mooks who also want the treasure.
  • 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.
  • The Reynard Cycle leans pretty heavily towards the cynical side. Seemingly to ram the point home, the first three entries in the series all feature the horrifying death of a young, idealistic, innocent character who finds out the hard way that life is really really unfair.
  • George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is fantasy taken to the extreme cynical end. Backstabbing is common, a world filled with victims, villains, and brutality in an attempt to claim the throne of a Vestigial Empire as everyone suffers throughout the whole story. Within three books, the only two houses that could be considered "good" are taken apart... brutally. It is a world where most of the competing rulers are too focused on their own power to deal with the disaster that is doomed to afflict every side. Pretty much every major character who is idealistic either dies as a result of their naivety or ends up becoming cynical:
    • The Stark family is ripped apart and separated early in the series, with its family members suffering as a result. Ned loses his head for trying to doing the right thing. His son Robb marries a girl to save her honour and is killed for it, betrayed by the house Robb had broken his alliance with in order to marry the girl. Ned's wife Catelyn is murdered alongside Robb and becomes Lady Stoneheart, willing to murder unarmed people solely for being a Frey. Ned's illegitimate son Jon is stabbed by a faction in Night's Watch for his efforts to Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right! — such as trying to save everybody at once, including the wildlings, despite many people's prejudice against them, and for his intention to march against monster Ramsay Bolton when Jon is required to be neutral to the realm's politics — even toward heinous rulers such as Ramsay. Ned's daughter Arya must flee for her life at age nine, live on the run, and is now totally obsessed with revenge against those who have killed and harmed her family. His young son Bran wargs into Hodor, possesses Hodor, and unwittingly robs him of his free will. Ned's other daughter Sansa is adopting the methods and worldview of the series' most amoral schemer Littlefinger while having to pose as Littlefinger's daughter in order to survive this series' Crapsack World.
    • Meanwhile, other characters don't fare so well either. Dany decides to embrace her "fire and blood" heritage at the end of A Dance with Dragons, Tyrion kills two unarmed people out of revenge after a trial leaves him hated by the public. However, this is inverted with Tyrion's older brother Jaime who goes on an arc of redemption and goes from major villain to one of the few good men in the seven kingdoms. And it's implied his trust will allow Brienne to lead him to Lady Stoneheart.
    • However, there are a few moments of idealism here and there. Comparing the deeply cynical Tywin Lannister to the idealistic Ned Stark, it becomes apparent that Ned will be remembered as a wise and fair ruler, most of the lords in the north are still willing to fight for Ned and his family, and that his children do their best to continue his legacy, while Tywin, despite all his preachings about "legacy", will be remembered as the guy shot by his own dwarf son while on the privvy. Ned died as a result of his idealism, while Tywin died of his cynicism.
    • Tales of Dunk and Egg, a Prequel set 90 years earlier, tends to fall on the idealistic side of things.
  • Likewise, Joe Abercrombie's The First Law series is also deeply, deeply cynical. With magic being somewhat more common (a Gandalf-like character is central to the first three books and a supporting character in the fifth) than in Martin's work, this allows Abercrombie to deconstruct tropes not present in A Song of Ice and Fire.
  • Keeping up the theme of Dark Fantasy serving as deconstruction of High Fantasy, Glen Cook's The Black Company opens on the very cynical conceit that the Black-and-White Morality so common to High Fantasy is the result of history being written by the winners.
  • 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 literal Happily 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.
    • More accurately, the stupidity and the atrocities both spring from the fact that both sides have peopled their fleets with Blood Knights, causing battles to degenerate into both sides charging head-on at each other and bludgeoning each other to bits. The hero is the only living person to have received a proper education in advanced starship tactics and military ethics.
  • The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant vary in tone from "Grumpy Bear in a land of sunshine and fluffy bunnies (threatened by Ultimate Evil)" to "Crapsack World". In the first trilogy, the "real world" is heavily on the cynical side while the Land is idealistic. However, Thomas Covenant, the Designated Hero from the "real world", has a habit of making everything he touches slide towards the cynical end of the scale... In these books both the Grumpy Bear and the Wide-Eyed Idealist will have to learn to adjust their attitude.
    • Most of Stephen R. Donaldson's books peg the scale firmly at the "cynical" end of the scale, mostly because Donaldson loves seeing his characters suffer.
      • And don't forget the whining. His characters don't suffer silently.
  • Victor Hugo originally wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame as a very cynical story. Most adaptations are considerably less so.
  • Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince is über-cynical, believing that it is safer to be feared than to be loved and advocating stopping at nothing to gain or retain power. Then again, from Machiavelli's point of view, the end justifies the means: a strong ruler means order and peace for the common people.
    • 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.
  • War and Peace is right smack-dab in the middle. Idealistic characters end up cynical, cynical characters end up idealistic, then some now-cynical characters decide they want to be idealistic again and so on ad infinitum. Depressing situations and settings always have a silver lining, happy occasions always have darkening moments of worry. To say the novel is overly idealistic or cynical is to ignore roughly half of it, which would be a lot.
  • Crime and Punishment is about the growth of Raskolnikov from a cynical to idealistic person, in what's essentially a deconstruction of the Nietzsche Wannabe mindset (and reconstruction of the Christian one).
  • The two extremes are pretty much perfectly contrasted in William Blake's poem cycle Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Innocence falling on the idealistic end and Experience on the cynical one.
  • Played With in Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen. For most of the series it is quite far to the cynical side, even though Karma Houdinis are usually avoided. However, the ninth book, Dust of Dreams, reveals many of the motivations of the major plot movers and a not insubstantial portion of those turn out to be quite idealistic. Adjunct Tavore Paran, for example, marches an army across several continents to achieve the likely fatal for all involved task of freeing the Crippled God because she considers his suffering and imprisonment unjust.
  • 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.
  • 1984. Quite cynical.
    If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human faceforever.
  • 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. However, in interviews, Blume said that she also wanted to touch on the majesties and joys in life which makes her work more in the middle ground.
  • 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's earlier works like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are more idealistic, his later works make him become 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.
  • Most of Jane Austen's novels are idealistic and romantic in the fullest sense of the terms. Then there's Mansfield Park...
  • 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 steadily more 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 the series ends with implications that the peace the world has achieved will not last. Each of the books just barely manages a Bittersweet Ending.
  • The Exile's Violin: Square in the middle.
    • 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.
  • The Beyonders is an interesting case: Although it takes place in a Crapsack World and features many, many character deaths and seemingly hopeless situations, it is actually strongly idealist, in a traditional sense. It isn't about the world being a perfect place, or even a fair one, but that good things only come about because people try to bring them about, and that a chance to make things better is always worth striving for, no matter how difficult the road there is.
  • Idlewild is extremely cynical.
    • While idealists are working on a cure for Black Ep, Gedaechtnis is assuming everyone's going to die and preparing accordingly.
    • Dr. Hyoguchi loves Malachi as the son he never had and allows him to continue to live in IVR. Malachi's resentment of the students (the reason for his torturous labor testing all the other programs) bleeds into Maestro and Mercutio.
    • When confronted with their future and responsibilities, Fantasia decides she's better off working completely alone and Halloween completely eschews the mission.
  • Tom Kratman's Countdown series is incredibly cynical, with civilization falling apart around the protagonist's ears and barbarism running rampant.
  • Brandon Sanderson deliberately wrote The Stormlight Archive to fall heavily on the idealist side of this scale. Most of the plot arcs are battles between those who do the wrong thing for the right reasons, and those who don't believe there can be a right reason to do the wrong thing.
  • Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt is notorious for his cynicsm and Black Comedy. More often than not, The Bad Guy Wins in a disastrous Downer Ending. Generally there is always a nihilistic component in his works proclaiming that Humans Are Bastards, often using characters who appear as Straw Nihilists but no one in his plays or novels can bring a good argument against them.
  • Awake in the Night Land has stories in the extremes of the scale. In "Silence of the Night" things get From Bad to Worse with the hero only being able to delay the inevitable end of mankind, while "The Last of all Suns" has the evil powers defeated once for all. The other stories fall somewhere between.
  • A Clockwork Orange is very, VERY far on the cynical side. Utterly sociopathic protagonist (who exhibits zero character development throughout the book)? Check. Black-and-Gray Morality? Check. Corrupt doctors, scientists, you name it? Check. Really, you'd be pretty hard pressed to find a more cynical novel than this.
  • The Catcher in the Rye seems like a very cynical novel at first glance, but closer reading reveals that it's actually very firmly in the middle. Main character Holden Caulfield is extremely cynical, but this cynicism is what often leads him into the perilous situations he finds himself in while trekking through New York City. And, towards the end of the novel, his realization of how much he loves his sister Phoebe makes him a bit more hopeful and optimistic.
  • I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is cynical in its depressing ending and just how hopeless the situation is, but does have a small silver lining of idealism to it. The protagonist ends up making a move of pure altruism and self-sacrifice, driving the computer even further into madness as it is faced with undeniable proof that humans are better than he believed.
  • Das Nibelungenlied is about as far to the cynical side as any work ever written. The body count and lack of a "good" protagonist is enough to make George RR Martin blush. If A Song of Ice and Fire ends as cynically as Das Nibelungenlied does, fans will likely riot in the street. It's considered the German national epic.
  • Lolita is quite cynical, as befitting for a book about a girl's lost innocence from the decidedly unreliable perspective of a pedophile.
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid is surprisingly cynical for a popular book series aimed at kids. The main character, Greg, is a lazy, selfish, self-absorbed Jerkass with almost no redeeming qualities. Almost all the other child characters are Jerkasses & bullies as well. All authority figures are incompetent, and the school itself is a Sucky School. The only truly nice character in the main cast, Rowley, is coddled by his parents and abused by Greg (who doesn't seem to like him despite calling him his best friend). Greg's family is quite dysfunctional, and his father and older brother seem to actively hate him. Almost everyone who does something bad is a Karma Houdini.

    A good example of the cynical attitude in the books is the Hero Points story in Hard Luck. The teachers start giving Hero Points to kids whenever they catch them going good deeds, and the points can be exchanged for rewards like extra recess time. Not even this manages to make them nicer: most decide to fake good deeds when teachers are around, or just buy counterfeit Hero Points. After the program is shut down due to the rampant counterfeiting, Greg remarks that "now that extra recess is off the table nobody's willing to do anything nice".
  • The Killing Star is full-on cynical. First contact with aliens involves them shooting rockets travelling at 92% the speed of light at every inhabited planet in the solar system and then proceeding to hunt down the last remnants of mankind...because they were afraid mankind would one day do the same to them. It later goes on to compare the Universe to Central Park at night. When all the criminals come out, it's hard to distinguish them from good people and you can't read minds. You might want to find a policeman, but the last thing you'd want to do is draw attention to yourself by moving. Your best bet would be to hunker down and wait for daylight, then safely walk out.
  • The works of Ira Tabankin, focusing as they do on the end of the world or a US civil war from a survivalist perspective, tend to be very bleak. Some standouts:
    • 37 Miles features a man walking the titular distance to rescue his wife after a nuclear strike. Though he encounters several friendly and helpful people, it is clear that social order is breaking down inside of two days.
    • The Shelter has mobs of law-breakers, immigrants and terrorists roaming the countryside and killing people for their last bites of food, and an unrestricted civil war with assassination and perfidy as the norm.
    • America on Fire has the US crippled by raging firestorms.
    • By the Light of the Moon has the moon rain debris over the world, an authoritarian government that is only mildly better than the Satanists who begin practicing human sacrifice.
  • Victoria features an autocratic federal government that bans smoking and barter during a hyperinflation crisis, sides with criminal gangs over its own citizens and such. Along with rampant opportunism by various domestic interest groups, and foreign forces. It would be entirely, blackly cynical except... there are still heroes willing to fight for "Western Civilization" by any means necessary. Whether this is a ''good'' thing may come down to the reader.
  • Worm occupies an odd place; on one hand the heroes can be incompetent and or corrupt and harsh actions are needed; on the other hand it's shown that an over reliance on an ends justifies the means mentality is precisely why the world's a complete mess (the evil conspiracy's only accomplishments were during their more benevolent phase, with their actions in the malevolent phase either not accomplishing shit or making the world worse.)
  • The Bible: The Books of Kings are more cynical (they don't hide that otherwise good people like Salomon did mistakes, and they end when Jerusalem is destroyed and most Jews are captives), while The Chronicles are more idealistic (they just ignore those less flattering stories about David and Salomon, and they end when the Jews are allowed to return to their homeland).
  • The works of the Marquis de Sade are some of the most viciously cynical works in all of Western literature. They are set in a cold and brutal world where good is actively punished and/or made out to be a hypocritical lie, fundamental human decency does not seem to exist at all, and the only way to get ahead is to be some flavor of libertine amoral bastard. The biggest example of this worldview comes from Justine, where its title character recounts how, at the age of twelve, she asked for shelter in a man's house and was told that she could only stay if she had sex with the guy. The person she's recounting this to screams at her for being a "parasite" who wanted something for nothing, never mind that she would most likely have done most anything else this guy could have asked of her and simply did not want to subject herself to that. And this is the high point of the story in general — it does not get better for her.
  • The Dear America series varies a bit from book to book, since each of them is from the point of view of a different protagonist, but generally tends to come down on the side of idealism; while there may be (sometimes many) moments of despair along the way, and some of them are living through truly horrific times (up to and including slavery and the Holocaust), most of the stories end with the writer in a relatively good place and/or looking towards the future with optimism, and all but one (So Far From Home) indicate that the protagonists go on to lead generally happy and fulfilling lives, often based on the dreams and passions they'd expressed in their diaries.
  • Despite being 2 books revolving around Speculative Evolution with pretty horrific content, All Tomorrows and Man After Man end up on different ends of the spectrum. The former is idealistic and takes an Anti-Nihilist approach, emphasizing that the lesson that should be taken away from all the book's disturbing content is that blind pursuit of nonexistent ideals and dogmas leads to destruction of both the self and other species, as was the case with both humanity and the Qu, and that the important, immortal evidence of these species' existences are ultimately the individual daily lives of each of its members. The latter is much more cynical in contrast, depicting humanity as devolving into simple creatures or A Horde Of Alien Locusts and lacking any of the emphasis on the importance of human accomplishments or lives, making it feel much closer to a Cosmic Horror Story. This is in spite of the fact that Humanity is gone by the end of All Tomorrows and still (barely) exists at the end of Man After Man, albeit in a form utterly unrecognizable to us.


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