Sincerity is a term that is associated both with Victorian formulations of cultural and moral value and with 20th- and 21st-century formulations of “the Victorian.” It is prominent in the work of the most canonical thinkers of the 19th century, many of whom name it as the sine qua non of human or literary worth. Sincerity is the Victorian articulation of a Romantic ideology that places emphasis on individual subjectivity. Sincerity, both personal and poetic, is therefore closely related to a truth to self: to honesty, integrity, plain speaking, and earnestness, as well as expressivism, sensibility, and emotional truth. It is central to Victorian poetic theory, to the construction of character in the Victorian novel, and to the development of realism in fiction and drama. Its application is so broad, in fact, that any critical investigation of sincerity is likely to encounter contradictions. It is associated both with emotional outpouring and with emotional reserve; it is claimed as both a masculine and a feminine trait. As a result of sincerity’s overexposure, toward the end of the 19th century, artistic movements sought to break away from or reverse the aesthetics of sincerity that had dominated the period. Sincerity was loudly rejected by writers associated with Wilde and the decadent movement in favor of insincerity, style, and artifice. Nevertheless, the sincere ideal survived well into the 20th century, remaining prominent in the critical vocabulary of F. R. Leavis, I. A. Richards, and others. From the middle of the 20th century onward, Victorian sincerity was regarded with increasing skepticism, viewed as a cultural convention, conformed to or performed in ways that made it begin to resemble its opposite: hypocrisy. It is Lionel Trilling who sounds the death knell for sincerity as a critical term in 1972, when he divided it from its Romantic origins and defined it as truth to a social or public self, as opposed to a Wordsworthian “authenticity,” that does not recognize the public/private distinction on which sincerity relies. However, more recently sincerity has begun to experience a tentative renaissance in literary and cultural criticism, reevaluated via the rise of neoliberalism, developments in the study of literature and the emotions, and the revival of literary ethics.
Article. 8581 words.
Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)
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