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Honest Literature
The Importance of Being Honest

Honest Literature
  • Joseph Andrews (by )
  • Shakespeare's King Henry V (by )
  • The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling (by )
  • The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (by )
  • Selections from Addison and Steele (by )
  • Three Novels (by )
  • The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker: Now... (by )
  • Pamela; Or, Virtue Rewarded (by )
  • The Importance of Being Earnest (by )
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Literature around the world incorporates common themes that run true throughout the ages: acceptance, preparedness, courage, kindness, cooperation, resourcefulness, compassion, perseverance, friendship, and honesty. Classic literature extols the virtue of honesty, which preoccupies writers even today, and especially in times of political and corporate corruption.
Miroslav Beker states in his paper, “The Theme of Plain Honest in English Literature: From the Renaissance to Jane Austen,” that “the most outspoken mention of plain honesty occurs in [Shakespeare’s] Henry V” when King Henry is introduced to the French court and begins to court Princess Katharine. The plot of Thomas Dekker’s The Honest Whore focuses on a courtesan’s thwarted attempts to restore her dignity.

Authors often present honesty as the purview of plain, unassuming, gruff, and outspoken people. Honesty’s virtue trumps any unpleasant consequences, which sophisticated hypocrites assiduously avoid. English literature, says Beker, holds this “plain honesty” as a puritanical shield against the sophistication and corruption of Italy and France. Honesty, they purport, arises from the desired virtues of “hard work, seriousness, and simplicity.” 
Works by Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele emphasize the moral preference of the simple and plainspoken man, including criticisms of the elaborate fashions and “false ceremonies and conceits of the Italian opera.” Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle by Thomas George Smollett further illustrate the British delight in plain honesty triumphing over noble hypocrisy and decadence, especially foreign noble hypocrisy and decadence. Needless to say, the aristocracy from the Renaissance to Regency England did not wholly adhere to such unadorned virtues.

Honesty appears most often as a theme in children’s books and fairy tales. For example, a boy’s honesty reveals an emperor’s vanity and greed when he exposes the naked emperor’s foolishness. President George Washington has long been held as an example to children for his honesty in admitting to having chopped down a cherry tree. 

The theme of honestyand its consequences—continue through modern times. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, no one is who he or she seems and duplicity appears to be the standing order. However, it caused Oscar Wilde to overturn the entrenched concept of the honest man in his social satire, The Importance of Being Earnest. The title character, Earnest, is pursued by the love of his life to whom he had offered a lie about his very identity.

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