Biography – Voltaire

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Background Notes – Voltaire and Candide
BIOGRAPHY – Voltaire

  • Born in France in 1694; died 1778

  • Writer, essayist, deist (belief in existence of a god on the evidence of reason

and nature only; rejects supernatural revelation), philosopher

  • Voltaire is pen name for Francois-Marie Arouet

  • Considered one of the greatest satirists in literature

  • One of several Enlightenment figures

  • His work influenced important thinkers of both the American and French


  • Outspoken supporter of social reform (hence the connection to the

Enlightenment/Age of Reason)

  • His humorous verses made him a favorite in society circles. (In 1717, his sharp wit got him into trouble with the authorities. He was imprisoned in the Bastille for eleven months for writing a scathing satire of the French government.)

  • Known for his wit, philosophical sport, defense of civil liberties, including

freedom of religion

- Most famous works – Dictionary of Philosophy; L’Ingenu (1767); Zadig

(1747); and Candide (1759)

- Credited with creating/inventing the philosophical novel – minimally defined

as a genre in which characteristic elements of the novel are used as a vehicle for the exploration of philosophical questions and concepts. In its “purest” form, it perhaps most properly designates those relatively singular texts which belong to both the history of philosophy and of literature. Term is often used interchangeably with the more recent concept of the “novel of ideas.”

- Was Enlightenment’s most vigorous anti-religious polemicist (practitioner of

disputation or controversy); well-known advocate of intellectual freedom
Writing Style

  • Known for restraint (focus on primary subject/target) and simple verbal treatment

  • Candide is best example of his style (story attacks religious and

philosophical Optimism)

  • Almost all of his works (whether verse or prose) are preceded by Prefaces –

this models Voltaire’s caustic yet conversational tone

  • Works frequently contain phrases that refer to abuses of the people by

royalty or the Clergy

  • Candide features satire, irony, sarcasm and hyperbole

  • Style becomes tedious and onerous at times

  • Primary literary device as a satirist – IRONY (all types)

  • Irony is characterized by grim humor and understatement

  • Depended especially on exaggeration – also used euphemism, caricature (a

grotesque imitation or misrepresentation), parody
Candide Background

-Story is a farcical, humorous, far-fetched tale of satire (uses BOTH Horatian and


-Satirizes the philosophy of the time – Optimism (founded by Gottfried Wilhelm

Leibniz) which stated “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”

-Leibniz was a brilliant mathematician, philosopher, and thinker who contended

that Earth is the best world possible inasmuch as it was created by a benevolent, omniscient, all-powerful God. It was this idea that Voltaire mercilessly satirizes in Candide.

-Voltaire ridicules Leibniz and his philosophy as simple-minded and unrealistic –

uses the character Pangloss in the story as a parody of Leibniz.

-Reflects Voltaire’s scathing response that Leibniz’s philosophy is an easy way to

rationalize evil and suffering in the world.

-As a philosophical novel (or philosophical story), Candide features swift-moving

adventure story where characterization counts for little and the moral (or

sometimes immoral) lesson for much (i.e., picaresque novel - a genre of prose fiction which depicts the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society. Picaresque novels typically adopt a realistic style, with elements of comedy and satire; originated in 16th-century Spain and flourished throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries)

-Story is said to be influenced by the injustices against Voltaire (exiles, abuses,

imprisonments, etc.)

-Sentences are brief and sharp; original text is easy to understand; narrative moves

at lightening speed.

-Because Voltaire sustains his rapid-fire presentation of details throughout the

novel and resorts repeatedly to irony, hyperbole, and sarcasm for effect (presented in same sentence patterns); style becomes tedious at times.

-Story reflects extensive use of ‘superlative’ – the ‘most beautiful castle’, the

gentlest of characters’, etc. – used with exaggerations to prepare readers for dire events that follow (is a STRUCTURAL element)

-Story overview - is a tale of an innocent/naïve young man embarking on a series

of adventures during which he discovers much evil in the world.



  • Corrupting power of money

  • Religious hypocrisy

  • Uselessness of philosophical speculation

  • Folly of optimism


  • Resurrection; rape; political oppression

  • Greed and licentiousness

  • Arrogance and pretensions of the upper class

  • Sexual abuse/exploitation of women


Pangloss; the garden; the Lisbon earthquake (basis of Voltaire’s criticism of

Leibniz’s philosophy)
Genre: Satire; adventure novel; bildungsroman (picaresque)
Language: French
Time and Place Written: Schwetzingen, Prussia; and Geneva, Switzerland; 17581759
Date First Published: January or February, 1759
Narrator: Anonymous satirical narrator
Point of View: The narrator speaks in the third person, focusing on the perspective and experiences of Candide. Events and characters are described objectively most of the time. Occasionally, they are described as Candide sees them, but this is always done with an ironic tone.
Tone: Ironic; melodramatic
Tense: Past and present
Setting (Time): 1750s
Setting (Place): Various real and fictional locations in Europe and South America


protagonist · Candide

major conflict · Candide and Pangloss’s optimistic world view is challenged by numerous disasters; Candide’s love for Cunégonde is repeatedly thwarted.

rising action · Candide is expelled from his home for kissing Cunégonde; he wanders the world attempting to preserve his life and reunite with his beloved.

climax · Candide finds Cunégonde enslaved in Turkey; the two are married.

falling action · Candide, Cunégonde, Pangloss, and their friends struggle with boredom; they find solace in gardening.

foreshadowing · There is virtually no foreshadowing in this wildly chaotic narrative. Candide’s repeated musings about what Pangloss would think of events foreshadows Pangloss’s ‘resurrection’

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