Candide is the protagonist of the novel, but he is bland, naïve, and highly susceptible to the influence of stronger characters. Like the other characters, Candide is less a realistic individual than the embodiment of a particular idea or folly that Voltaire wishes to illustrate.
Candide’s name is derived from the Latin word candidus, which means “white” and connotes fair-mindedness or a lack of corruption. As that name suggests, Candide begins the novel as a perfect innocent—wide-eyed in his worship of his tutor Pangloss’s wrongheaded optimistic philosophy, and completely unfamiliar with the ways of the world. Over the course of the novel, Candide acquires wealth and even some knowledge about the world, and begins to question his faith in optimism. Yet that faith remains and is frequently reactivated by any event that pleases him, from the kindness of the stranger Jacques to the death of Vanderdendur, the merchant who cheats him. At the end of the novel, Candide rejects Pangloss’s philosophizing in favor of the practical labor that is introduced to him by the old farmer. While this shift in philosophy appears on the surface to be real progress, Candide’s personality remains essentially unchanged. He is still incapable of forming his own opinions, and has simply exchanged blind faith in Pangloss’s opinions for blind faith in the opinions of the farmer. Despite his simplicity, Candide is an effective, sympathetic hero. He is fundamentally honest and good-hearted. He readily gives money to strangers like Brother Giroflée and the poorest deposed king, and he honors his commitment to marry Cunégonde even after his love for her has faded. His naïveté, though incredible, makes Candide sympathetic to readers; the world of the novel is exaggerated and fantastic, and we are likely to find the events described as unsettling and confusing as he does.
BARRON’S BOOK NOTESVOLTAIRE’SCANDIDE^^^^^^^^^^VOLTAIRE: THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMESIn 1755 the city of Lisbon, Portugal, was leveled by a tremendous earthquake. More than 30,000 people were killed. The event, which shocked Europe, had an especially profound effect on Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire. Voltaire, then nearly 61, was the leading French man of letters and one of the most influential figures of his time. His first reaction to the tragedy was the moving and angry “Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon,” written in the weeks after the earthquake. Four years later, in 1759, a second fruit of Voltaire’s reflections on this tragedy was published. It was his comic masterpiece, Candide.
Voltaire had long opposed the extreme optimism of many people of his time that was expressed in the belief that this is the “best of all possible worlds” and that all that happens is for the best. How could the loss of more than 30,000 lives in an earthquake be for the best? What place did the slaughter of the Seven Years War that ravaged Europe from 1756 to 1763 have in the best of all possible worlds? Voltaire’s discussion of these questions can be found in Candide, his satirical, witty attack on optimism.
In this fast-moving philosophical tale of the young, innocent Candide’s education in life, horror succeeds horror and catastrophe follows catastrophe until he eventually gives up his early optimistic views. To show how ridiculous he thought it was to be ever cheerful in the face of disaster, Voltaire used the technique of satire. Through exaggeration–the great number and extreme nature of the misfortunes that befall the characters–satire makes optimism seem not only preposterous, but also smug and self-righteous.
However, the optimism that Voltaire attacked was not the optimism we usually think of. When you say that people are optimistic, you mean that they have a hopeful attitude toward life and the future. In Voltaire’s time, optimism had been turned into a philosophical system that believed everything already was for the best, no matter how terrible it seemed. This was a fatalistic and complacent philosophy that denied any need for change. To a man like Voltaire who believed in working to achieve a more just and humane society, philosophical optimism was an enemy.
By the time Voltaire wrote Candide, he had already established his reputation as a writer and thinker. Most people today believe that Candide is Voltaire’s greatest work. But to the readers of his own time, Candide was merely one in a longseries of great achievements. Voltaire was celebrated as a poet and dramatist, as a philosopher, and as a commentator on the ills and hypocrisies of society. In whatever capacity he exercised his pen, he was famous throughout Europe for his wit and intelligence.
A controversial figure, Voltaire was both idolized and despised. His outspoken views on religion and politics were frequently in conflict with established opinions and caused him great difficulty with the censors. The publication of Candide followed a typical pattern for Voltaire’s works. It was published under an assumed name, to avoid prosecution. It was eagerly read by the public and sold as quickly as it could be printed. And it was condemned by the censors.
In 18th-century France, censorship, and the royal permission required to publish anything, were powerful tools used by the state to inhibit criticism of the government or the Church. And punishment took not only the form of public book burning or fines. Writers were imprisoned or exiled for their views. Voltaire himself was sentenced to the notorious Paris prison, the Bastille, twice and spent much of his adult life in exile from the Paris where he had been born in 1694.Although Voltaire’s father wanted him to study law, the young man preferred literature and began writing at an early age. His first major successes were the drama Oedipe (1718) and the epic poem La Henriade (1723). These brought him international fame as a writer of great style and wit and a reputation as a critic of contemporary society. Already present in these early works were the controversial themes that were to dominate his writing–his criticisms of religion and society, his pleas for freedom and religious tolerance.
Voltaire’s wit brought him trouble as well as fame. He was sent to the Bastillein 1717, accused of writing a poem satirizing the Duke of Orleans (he in fact didn’t write the poem in question, although he had written others in a similar vein). His second term of imprisonment came in 1726, after a quarrel with a nobleman, the Chevalier de Rohan. After his second stay in prison, Voltaire was exiled to England.In England, he taught himself English well enough to write and converse. He metmany of the leading British literary and political figures of the day–the poetand satirist Alexander Pope (1688-1744); the satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745); the prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745). He admired both Swift and Pope (later, however, he was to criticize Pope’s optimistic philosophy in both the “Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon” and Candide). He read the works of the great mathematician Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), both of whom greatly influenced Voltaire’s intellectual development. But what impressed Voltaire most during his stay in England was the relative freedom to speak and write as one pleased. Throughout his life, he spoke highly of English freedoms, which had no equivalent in his own country.
After his return to France, Voltaire continued his career as a dramatist and poet. His success brought him considerable influence outside literary circles. Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-1786) was an admirer of his, as was Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-1796). Both monarchs, considering themselves “enlightened,” looked to Voltaire for guidance in their studies, since they wished to be known as “philosopher-rulers” (the term used by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato in the Republic, his description of the ideal state and ruler). As a leadingintellectual, Voltaire was courted, if not always heeded.
In France, Voltaire’s troubles with the authorities continued. Despite a brief time as historiographer of France (a court appointment), he was generally, because of his irrepressible outspokenness, “in exile,” denied permission to live in Paris. Among his many exiles, one was to have a great importance in his intellectual and emotional life, his exile at Cirey, in the province of Champagne, the home of the Marquise du Chatelet.
Voltaire’s love affair with Emilie du Chatelet lasted from 1733 until her death, in 1749. She was Voltaire’s mistress and intellectual companion. With Emilie, a noted mathematician, he studied philosophy, in particular Locke and Newton, and science. She was a follower of the optimist philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, which Voltaire later criticized harshly in Candide. But while he lived with Emilie, he entertained a less critical attitude toward optimism.
After Emilie’s death, Voltaire spent three uneasy years at the court of Frederick the Great at Potsdam, near Berlin. In 1758, after brief stays in several other cities, he settled in Ferney, on French soil, near Geneva. Not too long afterwards, Candide was published. Voltaire remained at Ferney, writing, farming, and promoting local industries, until a few months before his death, in Paris, in 1778. Shortly before he died, he was publicly honored at a performance of his drama Irene. But even his death was accompanied by controversy. In order to prevent the Church from denying the writer Christian burial, his nephew smuggled Voltaire’s body out of Paris.
Despite the author’s desire for Christian burial, he had long been in conflict with the Church. The Roman Catholic Church was, after the monarchy, the second great power in France. Voltaire’s quarrel with ecclesiastical authority was even stronger than his quarrel with the political authorities. He saw the Church as the defender of superstition, a conservative force standing in the way of rational solutions to problems. He believed that the Church promoted fanaticism and intolerance.
Voltaire’s lifetime was an age of great kings. Not all, like Frederick and Catherine, aspired to the reputation of philosopher-ruler. But all aspired to absolute power. Voltaire was born in the reign of Louis XIV, the “Sun King” (1638-1715), who established France as the strongest power in Europe and marked the splendor of his reign by building the palace of Versailles, outside of Paris. During most of Voltaire’s life, however, France was ruled by Louis XV (1710-1774), who sought unsuccessfully to increase France’s dominance. Although Voltaire did not oppose the idea of monarchy, he frequently criticized the corruption and abuses of power of the court.
Voltaire’s career was not aimed merely at destroying intolerance and injustice through satire. His work had a positive force–for the betterment of society, for the spread of knowledge as a way of fighting prejudice (“opinion without judgment”) and intolerance, whether social, religious, or racial. And Voltaire was not alone in his work. The 18th century was not only a period of great absolute monarchs but also the age of the Enlightenment.
All across Europe, such writers and thinkers as Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean La Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783) in France, Cesare Beccaria (1735?-1794) in Italy, and Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) in Germany were speaking out about the need for rational solutions to problems and for freedom of thought and speech. While the Enlightenment meant different things in each country, certain general beliefs united these apostles of reason who called themselves philosophes. They believed in the need for scientific inquiry free from religious prejudices. The Enlightenment was a secular movement–that is, it opposed the efforts of religion tolimit man’s inquiries in science, in politics, and in the law. Today, science is rarely limited by the need to justify itself in religious terms. But in the 18th century, any thought that might call into doubt biblical authority or Church dogma was suspect. The French philosophes (philosophers) sought to free mankind from such confines.
The philosophes were defenders of freedom–freedom of thought, of speech, of religious choice, even of taste. They believed in the power of the human mind. As their general beliefs became more widely accepted, they also turned to specific reforms–legal and prison reform, economic improvement, political liberalization. Today, these goals may seem modest, but in the 18th century they represented a revolution in thought.
Voltaire was regarded by many as the leading philosophe. In Candide, he may be seen at his wittiest. Candide can be read with as great enjoyment today as it was in the author’s own time. Some references may be obscure to contemporary readers, but the humor and the liveliness of Voltaire’s style make this story a genuine treat. The abuses he exposes may take different forms today, but religious intolerance and denial of freedom are not problems exclusive to Voltaire’s time. And everyone, like Candide, must make his own journey from youth to maturity, from naivete to wisdom. In Candide, Voltaire has given the reader a portrait of his own age and a timeless story, both entertaining and enlightening
.Candide, a young man educated by the optimist philosopher Pangloss, believes that he is living in “the best of all possible worlds.” This world is Westphalia–more specifically, the castle of the Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh. (Voltaire here is making fun of the pompous names of many German petty nobles of the time.) The other members of the baron’s household are his wife, his son, and his beautiful daughter, Cunegonde. Candide’s happy world is disrupted when he is booted out the door for having the nerve to kiss Cunegonde.
Alone, penniless, and hungry, Candide is aided by two strangers who proceed to enroll him in the Bulgar army. After many troubles, Candide deserts and makes his way to Holland. Here, he is again aided, this time sincerely, by an honest merchant named Jacques.Walking through town one day, Candide meets his old teacher, Pangloss. Panglosstells Candide that the castle of Thunder-ten-tronckh has been destroyed and itsinhabitants have been savagely murdered. The philosopher himself is afflicted with the pox (syphilis) and has no money for a doctor. Jacques has Pangloss cured and gives him and Candide jobs.
Two months later, Pangloss, Jacques, and Candide set sail for Lisbon on business. Unfortunately, they are shipwrecked and Jacques is killed. Pangloss and Candide reach land just in time to experience the disastrous Lisbon earthquake. At a dinner for the survivors, Pangloss is questioned about his philosophical beliefs. His responses cause Pangloss and Candide to be arrested by the Inquisition. Pangloss’s beliefs smack of heresy, and it was the Inquisition’s job to stamp out heresy.
The Inquisition has planned a public execution of heretics to prevent further earthquakes. Candide and Pangloss are selected to be among the victims. Pangloss is hanged, but Candide, who only listened to heresy, is merely beaten and set free. As he leaves, Candide is stopped by an old woman, who first heals his woundsand then brings him to her mistress, Cunegonde.
Cunegonde tells the story of her escape from death and the adventures that brought her to Lisbon. Her tale is interrupted by the arrival of one of her patrons,Don Issachar, a Jewish merchant. Don Issachar lunges at Candide, who stabs and kills him. Barely has Candide had time to wipe his sword than Cunegonde’s second patron, the Grand Inquisitor, arrives. Candide kills him, too, and on the advice of the old woman he, she, and Cunegonde take flight to Cadiz, Spain, where Candide is made a captain in the army being sent to fight the Jesuits in Paraguay. All three depart for the New World.
During the long voyage to Buenos Aires, the old woman tells her story. Like Cunegonde, she had once been a beautiful and desirable woman, betrothed to an Italian prince. After the murder of her fiance, she was captured by pirates, raped, and passed from one man to another across northern Africa. Finally, as her beauty faded, she became a servant, ending up in the household of Don Issachar.
When they arrive in Buenos Aires, the trio discover that they are being followed by the Spanish police, who are searching for the murderer of the Grand Inquisitor. Candide and his servant, Cacambo, leave Buenos Aires, hoping to find work as soldiers for the Jesuits this time. Cunegonde and the old woman remain in the city with the governor, who has taken a fancy to Cunegonde.
At the Jesuit camp, Candide meets the commander of the Jesuits, who is none other than Cunegonde’s brother, the young baron. The happy reunion is ended when the baron refuses to allow Candide to marry his sister. Candide promptly stabs him, puts on the Jesuit’s robe, and again takes flight with his faithful servant.