Cynicism in the Fin de Siècle
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Cynicism is one of the most frequently used, but most polysemic, words in the modern lexicon. This dissertation attempts to shed some light on a dark subject by tracing the idea of cynicism from the late eighteenth century to the late nineteenth century and early twentieth in order to construct a multi-faceted theory of modern cynicism which is in turn applied to, and modified by, the writings of H. G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, and George Bernard Shaw. The genealogy of cynicism that I construct in the first chapter draws upon existing research in the area as well as original research from a range of books and articles published from 1790 to 1895. This genealogy shows that the idea of cynicism takes shape largely in relation to the nineteenth century’s anxieties about the social and subjective consequences of modern culture. In the remaining chapters, I examine each writer’s understanding of and engagement with cynicism and explore the ways that each participates in, modifies, or rejects the pessimistic form of modern cynicism associated with the fin de siècle. I suggest that in rejecting the pessimistic form of realism typical of the period, Shaw comes closer than other authors to recovering a salutary neo-Cynicism; I also argue that he perceived, but was not able to overcome, the subjective barriers to political change that more recent theorists have associated with twentieth-century cynicism.