I. What is Cynicism?
Cynicism (pronounced SIN-niss-ism) is a dark attitude toward the world, especially toward human beings. Cynical people (also called “cynics”) believe that human beings are basically motivated by greed and self-interest; they are distrustful of others, usually very negative, and suspicious of sentimentality.
In classical philosophy, cynicism has a completely different meaning, almost the opposite of what it means today! But this article is focused on literature rather than philosophy, so we’ll leave that older definition aside.
II. Examples of Cynicism
“I’ll try being nicer if you’ll try being smarter.”
This is a fairly common T-Shirt quote that neatly sums up the cynic’s attitude. A person wearing this shirt is clearly suspicious of the world, and not particularly interested in making friends with everyone. In addition, they take a dim view of others (in this case it’s viewing them as dumb.)
“Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes.”
“Yeah! That way, when you criticize them, you’re a mile away and you have their shoes.”
This joke is a cynical response to a common moral sentiment. The first line is somewhat sentimental and encourages compassion and empathy. The second line rejects those sentiments and responds with a biting one-liner. (Note: if the person actually did steal someone else’s shoes and run off with them, it would start too look more like nihilism than cynicism – see section 6.)
III. The Importance of Cynicism
Many of the most compelling characters in literature and life are cynics. It’s something of a mystery why this happens – why we are so drawn to watching and reading about cynical characters. Part of the reason is that they’re realistic, of course: the real world is full of all sorts of cynics, so cynical characters are very believable. But cynics are also complex, which is crucial for compelling characters. Cynics have many layers to them, and this makes them interesting and less predictable to readers.
Perhaps the deepest reason, though, is psychological: cynical characters say what we’re all thinking deep down. They give voice to negative emotions and suspicions that we try to suppress in order to function in society. And then, when we see that cynical characters can be successful, respected, and honorable, we become a little more at home with our own dark sides.
IV. Examples of Cynicism in Literature
“Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.” (Holden Caulfield, Catcher in the Rye)
Holden Caulfield is one of literature’s great cynics. The teenager seems to be a sweet boy at heart – he cares deeply about children and clearly wants to form bonds with others – but he’s suspicious of people and quick to label them as “phonies.” He also hates sentimentality and ceremony, as shown in this quote about leaving flowers on gravestones.
“All your grief hasn’t changed a thing. What you have lost will not be returned to you. It will always be lost. You’re left with only your scars to mark the void. All you can choose to do is go on or not. But if you go on, it’s knowing you carry your scars with you.” (Inman, Cold Mountain)
Inman, the main character of Cold Mountain, is a cynic who has been nearly destroyed by his experiences in the Civil War. After deserting from the Confederate army, he returns home to reflect and recover, and in one powerful scene he expresses his cynical yet life-affirming philosophy to his wife.
V. Examples of Cynicism in Pop Culture
“Well now I’m standing. Happy? We’re all standing now. Bunch of jackasses, standing in a circle.” (Rocket Raccoon, Guardians of the Galaxy)
Rocket is a great example of a cynical anti-hero. He constantly makes biting remarks about others, and rarely has anything nice to say about anyone. In this particular line, he’s making fun of the other Guardians even as he decides to join them. In addition to his cynical one-liners, Rocket also has a painful backstory, a few moments of genuine emotion (e.g. his tearful insistence that “I didn’t ask to get made”), and a single close friend, Groot, whom he trusts completely.
“Do I get bonus points if I act like I care?” (Dr. Gregory House, House)
House is another classic example of a cynic. He experiences intense physical pain from his leg as well as emotional pain stemming from his divorce and loneliness. These experiences have made him bitter and difficult to get along with, but he’s still a brilliant doctor and dedicates his life to helping others (albeit sometimes grudgingly). In some moments, House comes close to nihilism, but he never completely loses touch with his moral beliefs. He is also a talented musician, and the show often humanizes him by showing him alone at the piano.
VI. Related Terms
Whereas “cynical” describes a worldview, “sardonic” describes the tone appropriate to that worldview. A sardonic tone is hostile and grim, often with a mocking sort of humor. The examples in section 2 are all sardonic in addition to cynical, but these two terms describe different aspects of the quotes.
People sometimes confuse cynicism with nihilism, but in fact they’re quite different. Cynics reject sentimentality and superficial expressions of “niceness,” but they usually have a moral compass and are capable of real emotion (see section 4). Nihilists, on the other hand, reject all moral principles and believe that life is completely meaningless. A nihilist might kill others for sport; a cynic would never do that, but wouldn’t be too surprised if someone else did.
Cynicism is one of the most common features of the “anti-hero,” or a hero that undermines typically “heroic” attributes like nobility and optimism. Anti-heroes are often reluctant to take up the hero’s role, but at the end of the day they want their lives to be meaningful, and they take some pride in saving others (even if they don’t particularly like them).
Dark Comedy/Gallows Humor
Dark comedy is making light of things that aren’t funny, like death, disease, war, and terrorism. As human beings, we often use humor to process negative emotions and deal with unpleasant experiences. Although this can be offensive if it’s done recklessly, careful use of dark comedy can be very funny and effective. Cynics are usually masters of dark comedy.
Cynical characters are often a source of comic relief in dramas. In a drama or other “serious” story, the emotional tone is generally pretty grim. In order to give the audience some relief from those negative emotions, it’s important to throw in a few laugh lines. Often these come in the form of dark comedy from a cynical character who sees all the tragic events unfold but isn’t too emotionally affected by them.