|CANDIDE by Voltaire
Beginning with the expulsion of its eponymous hero from “the best of all possible castles” and the loss of his beloved Cunégonde, Candide takes the form of a classic journey story. Candide must endure a series of misfortunes and trials before he can be reunited with his beloved and regain a qualified kind of redemption. It is in the misfortunes that Candide and others suffer in the novel that Voltaire cuts through the pretensions, hypocrisies, and outright idiocies of the Age of Reason.
The philosopher Pangloss, Candide’s tutor, insists that they live in “the best of all possible worlds” and maintains that view through various sophistries, but reality tells a different story. In the course of the novel, Candide travels far and wide across Europe, South America (where he spends a pleasant month in the fabled land of Eldorado), and Asia in search of Cunégonde. Earthquakes, slavery, murder, floggings, hangings, the Spanish Inquisition, and other niceties of the era greet him on his way and serve to weaken his cherished optimism. He also encounters characters who view the world quite differently, most notably Martin, who asserts that he has “scarcely seen a town that did not desire the ruin of the next town, nor a family that did not wish to exterminate some other family” (p. 56). Early in the novel, while pondering the relationship between effects and causes, as he has been taught to do, Candide wanders into a war-ravaged village, where he sees “old men riddled with wounds . . . their wives lay dying, their throats cut, clutching their children . . . young girls in their last agonies, disemboweled after having satisfied the natural urges of various heroes . . .” . This juxtaposition of abstract conceptualizing and real brutality underscores the gulf between human beliefs and human behaviors that runs throughout the novel, and the effect is amusing, disturbing, and deflating all at once. Man is capable of clever philosophizing, yes, but savagery, superstition, and ignorance still rule the day. The phrase “natural urges of various heroes” is characteristic of Voltaire’s piercing irony. In Voltaire’s world, as in ours, soldiers are not always heroes, priests are not always godly, and philosophers are not always very helpful in guiding us away from human folly.
Indeed, much of the fun of reading Candide lies in applying Voltaire’s ironic wit to the pretensions and hypocrisies of our own age. What would Voltaire say about our current political and religious leaders? How would he view the intellectual and artistic culture of our time? In this crisp new translation by Theo Cuffe, Voltaire speaks to us more sharply and clearly than ever.
(François-Marie Arouet) was born in 1694 and educated at a Jesuit school in Paris. Determined to pursue a literary career, he won a reputation as a writer of satirical plays, poetry, philosophy, and novels that resulted in spells of imprisonment in the Bastille, some of his books being banned, and eventual exile from France for his attacks on the Regent and criticism of the French government. In addition to Candide, his works include Zadig, Micromégas and Other Short Fictions, Letters on England, and Philosophical Dictionary. Voltaire died in 1778, after a triumphal return to Paris.
Dismissed as a piece of light satirical fluff at the time of its publication, Candide has only recently been elevated to a canonical status and included on the list of the "world's greatest books." Originally presented in January 1759 under the preface "translated from the German of Dr. Ralph," it would have been largely forgotten as a work of anonymous literature were it not the more famous signature of Voltaire appended in smaller print to its title.
The enduring interest in Candide is largely due to the recognition of its literary qualities. First viewed as a rumination on the metaphysical question of good vs. evil, Candide has more recently undergone a critical re-evaluation that emphasizes the work's narrative craft and character development over its philosophical orientation. Composed in thirty relatively short and pithy chapters, it is written in a certain rhythm or "tempo," as renowned literary critic Eric Auerbach calls it, that contributes to its satirical edge.
The title of the book, close in meaning to its English counterpart "candid," derives etymologically from the Latin candidus, the primary meaning of which was "white." It dates back to Roman times when politicians were expected to present themselves in a clean, white toga; hence the word "candidate." The word subsequently drifted from its literal Latin root to acquire the more general sense of "uncorrupted" and "unbiased." The main character of the book was conceived as an embodiment of the moral valence of the word; Candide is supposed to be pure of soul and spotless of mind, an incarnation of the "optimism" espoused by German philosophy that Voltaire so pointedly satirizes. In particular, Voltaire took aim at Leibniz and his assertion that the presence of evil in the universe is a simple and relative matter of perspective rather than an intrinsic part of creation. It is important to note that the subtitle of Candide is, precisely, l'optimisme. Accordingly, Voltaire's rumination on man's free will and the philosophical tendency to rationalize even the most extreme and absurd instances of adversity via a stubborn and unwavering belief in "optimism" form the thematic undercurrent of the book.
THEMES, MOTIFS & SYMBOLS
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Optimism and the Folly of Optimism
Pangloss and his student Candide maintain that “everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” This idea is a reductively simplified version of the philosophies of a number of Enlightenment thinkers, most notably Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. To these thinkers, the existence of any evil in the world would have to be a sign that God is either not entirely good or not all-powerful, and the idea of an imperfect God is nonsensical. These philosophers took for granted that God exists, and concluded that since God must be perfect, the world he created must be perfect also. According to these philosophers, people perceive imperfections in the world only because they do not understand God’s grand plan. Because Voltaire does not accept that a perfect God (or any God) has to exist, he can afford to mock the idea that the world must be completely good, and he heaps merciless satire on this idea throughout the novel. The optimists, Pangloss and Candide, suffer and witness a wide variety of horrors—floggings, rapes, robberies, unjust executions, disease, an earthquake, betrayals, and crushing ennui. These horrors do not serve any apparent greater good, but point only to the cruelty and folly of humanity and the indifference of the natural world. Pangloss struggles to find justification for the terrible things in the world, but his arguments are simply absurd, as, for example, when he claims that syphilis needed to be transmitted from the Americas to Europe so that Europeans could enjoy New World delicacies such as chocolate. More intelligent and experienced characters, such as the old woman, Martin, and Cacambo, have all reached pessimistic conclusions about humanity and the world. By the novel’s end, even Pangloss is forced to admit that he doesn’t “believe a word of” his own previous optimistic conclusions.
Pangloss's first lesson to Candide is that "there cannot possibly be an effect without a cause" and that "everything is made to serve an end." This encapsulates the doctrine of optimistic determinism. If an omniscient, omnipotent God made the world according to his design, then the presence of evil would imply a malice toward his own creatures. Believers in the Christian faith responded to this theological problem by applying a rational understanding to the phenomenon of evil, using an analysis of cause and effect to justify every particular instance of evil in terms of the eventual, broader good to emerge from it. "Private misfortunes make for public welfare," Pangloss concludes.
Martin cites free will as the key distinction between men and animals. The concept and possibility of social progress depend on the freedom of men to determine their own fate, both individual and collective. If men are to move beyond the barbarism to which so many of the characters bear witness, they must utilize their power of free will to "cultivate our garden," as Voltaire famously declares in the ultimate chapter. In other words, people must band together, contribute to the larger social good, and shape the future contours of civilization in a positive manner.
Is evil an intrinsic part of creation or a simple matter of perspective, an arbitrary and random quirk of fate? This ongoing philosophical debate between Candide the optimist and Martin the Manichaean is in fact never resolved in either character's favor. On the one hand, Pangloss's contention that the phenomenon of evil can be rationalized through an intricate web of cause and effect is thoroughly satirized and discredited by Voltaire; on the other, the evidence of man's unrelenting capacity for "lies, fraud, treachery, ingratitude, inconstancy, envy, ambition, and cruelty" proves incontrovertible and points to a sense of pervasive malice in the world. Evil is not exactly necessary but nor is it eliminable.
The tragedies sustained by each of the main characters could logically lead to an attitude of self-pity and resignation to the inevitability of misfortune. But the Old Woman, despite her own hardships, is the one character to renounce this attitude, instead challenging Miss Cunégonde and Candide to find someone who does not consider himself "the most wretched of mortals." Candide is in some respects a cautionary tale against the excesses of pity and the moral paralysis that it engenders, as many of its characters appear to languish in a world where adversity is an intractable rather than mutable condition.
Pleasure vs. Criticism
The enjoyment of music, painting and literature comes under attack first by the theater critic at Miss Clairon's performance and later by Senator Pococurante. Dismissed as sentimental or frivolous, art is a pleasure reserved only to those still naïve or earnest enough to appreciate it and take it at face value, such as Candide. The overarching implication is an opposition between pleasure and criticism. Voltaire seems to suggest that the faculty of judgment and discrimination has become so overly rigorous that it has destroyed the possibility of any intuitive emotional or purely aesthetic response to art. As a result, the only pleasure to be had derives paradoxically from trashing (in a critical sense) precisely that which is intended to bring the spectator pleasure.
The Uselessness of Philosophical Speculation
One of the most glaring flaws of Pangloss’s optimism is that it is based on abstract philosophical argument rather than real-world evidence. In the chaotic world of the novel, philosophical speculation repeatedly proves to be useless and even destructive. Time and time again, it prevents characters from making realistic assessments of the world around them and from taking positive action to change adverse situations. Pangloss is the character most susceptible to this sort of folly. While Jacques drowns, Pangloss stops Candide from saving him “by proving that the bay of Lisbon had been formed expressly for this Anabaptist to drown in.” While Candide lies under rubble after the Lisbon earthquake, Pangloss ignores his requests for oil and wine and instead struggles to prove the causes of the earthquake. At the novel’s conclusion, Candide rejects Pangloss’s philosophies for an ethic of hard, practical work. With no time or leisure for idle speculation, he and the other characters find the happiness that has so long eluded them. This judgment against philosophy that pervades Candide is all the more surprising and dramatic given Voltaire’s status as a respected philosopher of the Enlightenment.
The Hypocrisy of Religion
Voltaire satirizes organized religion by means of a series of corrupt, hypocritical religious leaders who appear throughout the novel. The reader encounters the daughter of a Pope, a man who as a Catholic priest should have been celibate; a hard-line Catholic Inquisitor who hypocritically keeps a mistress; and a Franciscan friar who operates as a jewel thief, despite the vow of poverty taken by members of the Franciscan order. Finally, Voltaire introduces a Jesuit colonel with marked homosexual tendencies. Religious leaders in the novel also carry out inhumane campaigns of religious oppression against those who disagree with them on even the smallest of theological matters. For example, the Inquisition persecutes Pangloss for expressing his ideas, and Candide for merely listening to them. Though Voltaire provides these numerous examples of hypocrisy and immorality in religious leaders, he does not condemn the everyday religious believer. For example, Jacques, a member of a radical Protestant sect called the Anabaptists, is arguably the most generous and humane character in the novel.
The Corrupting Power of Money
When Candide acquires a fortune in Eldorado, it looks as if the worst of his problems might be over. Arrest and bodily injury are no longer threats, since he can bribe his way out of most situations. Yet, if anything, Candide is more unhappy as a wealthy man. The experience of watching his money trickle away into the hands of unscrupulous merchants and officials tests his optimism in a way that no amount of flogging could. In fact, Candide’s optimism seems to hit an all-time low after Vanderdendur cheats him; it is at this point that he chooses to make the pessimist Martin his traveling companion. Candide’s money constantly attracts false friends. Count Pococurante’s money drives him to such world-weary boredom that he cannot appreciate great art. The cash gift that Candide gives Brother Giroflée and Paquette drives them quickly to “the last stages of misery.” As terrible as the oppression and poverty that plague the poor and powerless may be, it is clear that money—and the power that goes with it—creates at least as many problems as it solves.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
At various points, Candide believes that Cunégonde, Pangloss, and the baron are dead, only to discover later that they have actually survived the traumas that should have killed them. The function of these “resurrections” in the novel is complicated. On the one hand, they seem to suggest a strange, fantastic optimism that is out of step with the general tone of the novel. Death, the only misfortune from which one would never expect a character to recover, actually proves to be “reversible.” On the other hand, the characters who get “resurrected” are generally those whose existence does more harm than good. Each “resurrected” figure embodies a harmful aspect of human nature: Cunégonde reveals the shallowness of beauty and fickleness of love, Pangloss’s optimism represents folly, and the baron’s snobbery represents arrogance and narrow-minded social oppression. Through these characters’ miraculous resurrections, Voltaire may be trying to tell his readers that these traits never die.
Rape and Sexual Exploitation
Candide is full of uncommonly graphic accounts of the sexual exploitation of women. The three main female characters—Cunégonde, the old woman, and Paquette—are all raped, forced into sexual slavery, or both. Both the narrator’s and the characters’ attitudes toward these events are strikingly nonchalant and matter-of-fact. Voltaire uses these women’s stories to demonstrate the special dangers to which only women are vulnerable. Candide’s chivalric devotion to Cunégonde, whom he wrongly perceives as a paragon of female virtue, is based on willful blindness to the real situ-ation of women. The male characters in the novel value sexual chastity in women but make it impossible for women to maintain such chastity, exposing another hypocritical aspect of Voltaire’s Europe.
Political and Religious Oppression
Candide witnesses the horrors of oppression by the authorities of numerous states and churches. Catholic authorities burn heretics alive, priests and governors extort sexual favors from their female subjects, businessmen mistreat slaves, and Candide himself is drafted into and abused in the army of the Bulgar king. Even the English government, which Voltaire admired, executes an admiral for the “crime” of fighting with insufficient audacity against the French. Powerful institutions seem to do no good—and instead, much harm—to their defenseless subjects. Voltaire himself protested loudly against political injustice throughout his life. The characters in Candide, however, choose a different route. Shortly after hearing about the politically motivated killings of several Turkish officials, they take the old farmer’s advice and decide to ignore the injustices that surround them, channeling their wealth and energy instead into the simple labors that bring them happiness.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Pangloss is less a well-rounded, realistic character than a symbol of a certain kind of philosopher. His optimism and logical fallacies are meant to represent the thought of G.W. von Leibniz and other Enlightenment thinkers. He is an open symbol of the folly both of blind optimism and of excessive abstract speculation.
At the end of the novel, Candide and his companions find happiness in raising vegetables in their garden. The symbolic resonance of the garden is rich and multifaceted. As Pangloss points out, it is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, in which Adam and Eve enjoyed perfect bliss before their fall from God’s grace. However, in Candide the garden marks the end of the characters’ trials, while for Adam and Eve it is the place where their troubles begin. Moreover, in the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve enjoyed the fruits of nature without having to work, whereas the main virtue of Candide’s garden is that it forces the characters to do hard, simple labor. In the world outside the garden, people suffer and are rewarded for no discernible cause. In the garden, however, cause and effect are easy to determine—careful planting and cultivation yield good produce. Finally, the garden represents the cultivation and propagation of life, which, despite all their misery, the characters choose to embrace.
The Lisbon Earthquake
The earthquake in Candide is based on a real earthquake that leveled the city of Lisbon in 1755. Before writing Candide, Voltaire wrote a long poem about that event, which he interpreted as a sign of God’s indifference or even cruelty toward humanity. The earthquake represents all devastating natural events for which no reasonable justification can be found, though thinkers like Pangloss might do their best to fabricate flimsy justifications in order to maintain a philosophical approach to life.
Baron - the proprietor of the castle of Westphalia and father of Miss Cunégonde
Candide - protagonist and illegitimate son of the Baron's sister
Miss Cunégonde - daughter of the Baron of Westphalia
Pangloss - tutor and oracle of the household
Old woman - benefactor to Candide after his separation from Pangloss, formerly a princess who has suffered unspeakable tragedies
Jacques the Anabaptist - benefactor to Candide killed during a shipwreck
Paquette - maidservant to the Baroness, one-time lover of Pangloss who re-appears toward the end of the story in Venice with Friar Giroflee
Don Issachar - Jewish merchant to whom Miss Cunégonde is sold, later killed by Candide in a confrontation over Miss Cunégonde
The Grand Inquisitor - lover to Miss Cunégonde whom Candide kills in cold blood
Franciscan priest - steals Miss Cunégonde's jewels at the tavern near Cadiz, later executed by the Grand Inquisitor
Don Fernando - Buenos Ayres governor who aggressively pursues Miss Cunégonde and keeps her as a mistress
Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh / Reverend Father Commandant - Miss Cunégonde's brother who twice refuses to consent to the marriage between his sister and Candide
Cacambo - Candide's trusted travel guide and companion sent to liberate Miss Cunégonde from Governor Don Fernando's custody
Sultan Achmet - second slavemaster of Cacambo whom Candide pays to secure Cacambo's liberty
Mynheer Vanderdendur - a Dutch trader who steals Candide's fortune and later dies; slavemaster whose brutality causes Candide to lose faith in the doctrine of optimism espoused by Pangloss
Abbé of Périgord - host to Candide in Paris who brings him to a theatrical performance
Miss Clairon - lead actress in the theatrical performance, a ravishing beauty who closely resembles Miss Cunégonde
Marchioness of Parolignac - guest at Miss Clairon's party who seduces Candide
Man of Letters - dubbed a "second Pangloss," anonymous guest at Miss Clairon's party who dazzles Candide with his intellectual brilliance
Martin - poor German philosopher whom Candide hires to keep him company on his travels in the latter half of the story
Friar Giroflee - lover to Paquette in Venice whose parents have forced him to lead a miserable life in a monastery
Senator Pococurante - a wealthy man who dislikes everything he possesses and lambastes the great geniuses of Western literature
Ragotsky - Transylvanian prince and slavemaster of Miss Cunégonde in Constantinople
In the very first chapter Candide is literally kicked out of the “most beautiful and delightful of possible castles,” expelled from an “earthly paradise.” At the end of the novel, he says “we must cultivate our garden.” What is Voltaire suggesting by framing his story in this way and by echoing the Biblical story of the Fall? Has Candide lost and then regained paradise?
Through the adventures of Candide and his friends, Voltaire illustrates the supposed ridiculousness of the philosophy that "all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds." Does he achieve this? Is Candide an effective satire?
The eighteenth century is known as the Age of Reason. What are the major disconnects that Voltaire reveals between human beliefs and human behavior? What behaviors most undercut the idea that reason had finally triumphed over the superstition and savagery of previous eras? What are the main targets of Voltaire’s satiric wit?
Pangloss uses the philosophy of the Optimists to account for events and happenings (usually disastrous) to himself, to those around him, and to the world. In one instance he shows that without the loss of his nose to syphilis, Columbus would never have discovered America. Is Pangloss's philosophy logical? How does this philosophy serve the story?
Within the context of the novel, Eldorado really is the “best of all possible worlds.” Overflowing with riches, ruled by an enlightened king, it is a land with no need of courts or prisons, where the inhabitants lack nothing and live in a state of continual gratitude. Why do Candide and Cacambo decide to leave such a paradise and return to a world riddled with greed, lust, ignorance, dishonesty, and cruelty, a world where violence both savage and civilized is the norm? What aspects of human nature is Voltaire satirizing when he writes that “our two happy wanderers resolved to be happy no longer and to seek His Majesty’s permission to depart”?
Immediately upon leaving Eldorado, Candide and Cacambo encounter a slave who has had a leg and a hand cut off. He tells them, “It is the price we pay for the sugar you eat in Europe.” What relationship is Voltaire suggesting here between happiness and suffering, between the best of all possible worlds and the worst of all possible worlds? How might Voltaire make this point if he were writing today?
Even in his naoveti, Candide knows that nothing in his world can be obtained without money, and so he takes jewels with him when he leaves Eldorado. In what instances does Voltaire show that greed is an intricate part of human nature? Is Candide greedy for taking the jewels with him? Do you agree with Voltaire that greed is one of the main causes of evil in the world?
Do you think Voltaire believed there is only evil in the world or are there redeeming qualities to the characters in Candide?
Candide is sustained throughout his many ordeals by the hope of being reunited with Cunégonde. But when he does at last find her, she has become ugly and ill-tempered. What is Voltaire suggesting about the exaltation of romantic love?
The old woman tells Candide: “Imagine my situation, the daughter of a pope, only fifteen years old, who in the space of three months had been exposed to poverty and slavery, had been raped almost daily, had seen her mother torn to pieces, had endured war and famine, and was now dying of the plague in Algiers.” What does this passage, and others like it, suggest about the reality of women’s lives during the Age of Reason?
In what ways does Voltaire’s satire extend beyond his own time? What would Voltaire think of our own age, for example? What aspects of our thought and behavior might he satirize most fiercely? What kinds of political, philosophical, and religious hypocrisy are most prevalent today?
Near the end of the book, while Pangloss was “being hanged, and dissected, and beaten, and made to row in a galley,” he still holds firm to his original views that this is the best of all possible worlds. “I am a philosopher after all. It would not do for me to recant.” What are the dangers in holding beliefs that are impermeable to reality, that do not alter according to actual experience?
Martin tells Candide that Paris is “a chaos, a throng in which everyone pursues pleasure and almost no one finds it.” In what ways is this statement also true of nearly all the people we encounter in the novel? To what degree is it true of human beings generally? What are the consequences of this pursuit of pleasure?
Would a present-day Pangloss, or someone like him, change his way of thinking if he were to read Candide?
Martin believes that man is equally miserable wherever he lives and that even in cities which are free from the ravages of war, “men are more devoured by envy, cares and anxiety than all the tribulations visited upon a citadel under siege. Private griefs are crueler even than public miseries.” Is Martin’s view more accurate than Pangloss’s, or does it simply represent the other extreme? Would you agree that “private griefs are crueler even than public miseries”?
At the end of the novel, Martin says, “Let us set to work and stop proving things, for that is the only way to make life bearable”, echoing the Turkish farmer who says, “our work keeps at bay the three great evils: boredom, vice, and necessity”. Do you think Voltaire is endorsing this view? Why would doing physical work be preferable to the life of a philosopher?
Is Pangloss still Candide's teacher and mentor at the end of the story, or have their roles evolved into something else? Is Candide wiser at the end of the story?
The Anabaptist James makes this statement to Candide and Pangloss: "Man must have somewhat altered the course of nature; for they were not born wolves, yet they have become wolves. God did not give them twenty-four-pounders or bayonets, yet they have made themselves bayonets and guns to destroy each other." Do you agree with Voltaire's assessment of human nature?
What does the cultivation of Candide's garden symbolize? What message is Voltaire sending to the reader?
Why do many of the characters, including Miss Cunigonde and Pangloss, presumably die and then reappear? Is there a significance to their being "brought back to life"? Why is the Anabaptist James the only major character who dies and does not reappear?