- In “Candide, or Optimism,” Voltaire takes you on a satirical journey that challenges your beliefs and makes you rethink the world’s absurdities. Don’t miss this classic work that’s as relevant today as it was in the 18th century.
- If you’re ready for a thought-provoking adventure through the world of satire and philosophy, pick up “Candide, or Optimism” by Voltaire. It’s a quick yet profound read that will leave you questioning the concept of an optimally ordered world and pondering the absurdity of human existence.
What It’s About
Table of Contents
Humankind lives in “the best of all possible worlds.” This is the philosophy and firm belief of Pangloss, Candide’s tutor, which he passes on to his pupil. Yet the concept is severely tested as the young (and naive) hero stumbles from one (mis)adventure to the next in a quest to win the hand of his beloved Cunégonde. Candide is thrown out of his home, forced to join the army, almost burned at the stake, hunted, abused, tortured, beaten, almost killed during an earthquake and taken prisoner several times.
In the end, even overly optimistic Candide has to admit defeat, giving up on all philosophical discourse and instead turning to a life of working the land. Voltaire’s novel questions and ridicules the philosophy of optimism by juxtaposing it with the cruel realities of life and showcasing the brutality and callousness of humanity. With Candide, Voltaire created one of the darkest – albeit hilarious – satires of world literature. Candide’s relentless optimism in the face of the inhumanity of the human race, will leave you wondering whether to laugh or cry.
- Candide, Voltaire’s best-known work, is an adventure story, a picaresque novel and a satire – all rolled into one.
- The young and naive Candide stumbles from one (mis)adventure to the next, including fighting in wars, being arrested, being nearly burned at the stake, finding El Dorado and leaving it. On his journey, his belief that this world is “the best of all possible worlds” is severely tested.
- Through Candide’s unquestioning trust in his optimistic tutor’s Pangloss’s lessons, Voltaire mocks “ivory tower” philosophers.
- The 1755 earthquake that destroyed Lisbon and the Seven Years’ War dramatically changed Voltaire’s outlook on life. The former optimist became a cynical pessimist.
- Candide was originally censored for its offensive content, including religious blasphemy, political sedition and intellectual hostility.
- Candide influenced the works of contemporary black humorists such as Joseph Heller, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut and Terry Southern.
- The novel demonstrates a contrast between style and subject matter. The characters talk about the vilest deeds and human sentiments, but they do so in naive and simple terms.
- Voltaire was born François-Marie Arouet. He adopted his nom de plume in 1718.
- Voltaire became involved in Parisian high society, where his dark humor and knack for mocking authority eventually got him into trouble. He was sentenced to prison twice and was exiled to England for several years.
- “If this is the best of all possible worlds, then what must the others be like?”
The young, naive and honest Candide, the bastard son of Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh’s sister, grows up in the baron’s castle in Westphalia. The tutor at court, Pangloss, is a firm believer in the philosophy of metaphysico-theologico-cosmo-codology, and impressionable Candide soaks up Pangloss’s every word. Pangloss’s main philosophy is that everything is always for the best and everything is made (or happens) for a purpose. He claims, for example, that people have been given noses, so they can wear glasses and that stones exist to build castles. Since everything happens for a good reason, the world in which people live is “the best of all possible worlds.”
Exiled from the Castle
Candide falls in love with Cunégonde, the baron’s beautiful daughter, and he succeeds in wooing her. However, when the baron discovers them kissing behind a folding screen, he throws Candide out of the castle. Dejected and close to starvation, Candide eventually meets two men who offer him a meal. Candide, joining them and stilling his hunger, sees his belief in the goodness of the world confirmed. But then the two men sell him to the Bulgar army, where he is beaten daily until he learns the drills. One day, he goes for a walk but quickly learns that he isn’t allowed to do as he pleases. Four of the soldiers catch him, and he is made to run the gauntlet 36 times. He manages two. Half-dead, Candide asks the soldiers to bash his head in, but the king of the Bulgars passes by and decides to pardon him. Candide recovers and remains in the army. He soon finds himself in the middle of a war against the Abars. Shocked by the atrocities of battle – men bayoneted, women raped, villages burned to ashes – he decides to run away.
Reunion with Pangloss
Candide escapes to Holland. Close to starvation and without any money, he begs a man who is lecturing on charity for some food. All he receives, however, are the contents of a night pot, which the speaker’s wife empties on his head. An Anabaptist called Jacques sees how Candide is treated and takes him home, gives him food and offers to train him for work in one of his factories. The next day, Candide comes across a beggar in the street who is covered with sores. When Candide gives him some money, the beggar starts weeping and then hugs him, asking if he doesn’t recognize him. The beggar is Candide’s old tutor, Pangloss!
“If this is the best of all possible worlds, what then are the others?”
Appalled, Candide learns that the Bulgars attacked the baron’s castle and killed the baron, his wife, Cunégonde and her brother. Pangloss himself managed to escape but contracted syphilis from Paquette, a pretty servant in the baron’s house. Yet even now, he is determined to see the good in the situation. After all, the disease can be traced back to one of Christopher Columbus’s companions, which means that Europe would have never known the pleasure of chocolate had Columbus not discovered America and brought back syphilis. Candide takes Pangloss to Jacques, who pays for a doctor to treat Pangloss, who recovers and starts to work as a bookkeeper for Jacques.
The Lisbon Earthquake
Jacques travels to Lisbon on business and takes Candide and Pangloss with him. They are caught in a terrible storm, and Jacques drowns while trying to save one of the crew. Candide, Pangloss and the sailor are the only survivors. They reach the shore and make their way to Lisbon. When they reach the city, the ground starts to shake, and a violent earthquake destroys Lisbon. Pangloss and Candide try to free survivors from the ruins; meanwhile, the sailor gathers all the money he can get his hands on and disappears. Pangloss and Candide stay to eat with the mourning inhabitants, and, again, Pangloss finds a way to see the positive in the situation. If the volcano that caused the earthquake had not been near Lisbon, it would have destroyed another place. An inquisitor hears of Pangloss’s philosophy and accuses him of heresy, saying that if everything was good in the world, then there would be no sin. To avoid further earthquakes, the people of Lisbon decide that a human sacrifice is in order and that the heretical Pangloss and his companion Candide are the perfect sacrifices. Pangloss is hanged and Candide beaten. However, in the evening when the earth shakes again, Candide wonders if this is really the best of all possible worlds? And why did Jacques, Cunégonde and Pangloss have to die?
The beating has left Candide severely wounded and close to death. An old woman takes him in and nurses him. A few days later, she takes him to a secluded, grand manor house, where, to Candide’s surprise and joy, Cunégonde lives. She tells him how the Bulgars killed her family and then raped and stabbed her. A Bulgar captain took her as a prisoner of war and sold her to the Jewish court banker Don Issachar. One day, the Grand Inquisitor spotted her and demanded that Don Issachar sell her to him. Issachar refused, and the two men eventually came to the agreement that the Inquisitor could have Cunégonde for four days a week and Don Issachar for three days. While she was with the Great Inquisitor, Cunégonde witnessed Pangloss’s hanging and Candide’s beating, so she sent the old woman – who used to be her servant – to find and nurse Candide. While Cunégonde is telling her story, Don Issachar returns home and, upon finding Candide with her, believes that she is having an affair. Furious, he pulls his dagger, but Candide is quicker and kills him instead. Shortly after midnight, the Grand Inquisitor appears and finds Don Issachar’s body. Before he can raise the alarm, Candide kills him, too.
The Old Woman
The old woman urges Candide and Cunégonde to flee immediately. They take horses and Cunégonde’s jewelry and set off. When they stop at a hostel in Badajoz, a Franciscan steals Cunégonde’s jewelry and money. They continue on to Cadiz, where troops are boarding a ship to Paraguay, where they are going to stop a rebellion incited by a Jesuit priest against the kings of Spain and Portugal. Candide performs a drill he learned with the Bulgars and is immediately made captain. Cunégonde, the old woman and Candide board the ship. On board, the old woman assures Candide and Cunégonde that they haven’t experienced such misfortunes as she has, and she tells them her life story.
“I had not always bleared eyes and red eyelids; neither did my nose always touch my chin; nor was I always a servant. I am the daughter of Pope Urban X, and of the Princess of Palestrina.”
Once beautiful and beloved, the old woman is the daughter of the Pope and the Princess of Palestrina. The old woman’s fiancé, a handsome prince, was poisoned by his mistress on their wedding day. After the shock, she, her mother and their female attendants boarded a ship to Rome, but on the journey, pirates kidnaped them. She and all the other women were raped and then taken to Morocco. Upon landing, a great skirmish broke out, and all the women, except herself, were torn to pieces by men trying to run off in different directions with them. The old woman was left dying upon a pile of bodies but managed to pull herself to the shade of an orange tree. A man woke her. He was an Italian castrate and, as they discovered, was also nanny to her when she was a child. He looked after her and promised to take her back to Italy. Instead, he took her to Algiers, where he sold her as a slave. She contracted the plague but survived and was sold again, this time ending up in Constantinople, which was at war with the Russians. The Russians tried to starve out the Turks, who in turn cut off one buttock of each woman, so they would have something to eat. The Russians won the war, and the old woman was sent to Moscow. She managed to escape and eventually became a servant in Don Issachar’s house.
To the New World
The party arrives in Buenos Aires and meets the Governor, an arrogant, selfish man. Smitten with Cunégonde, he sends Candide back to his company and proposes to her. Cunégonde asks for 15 minutes to consider his proposal. The old woman tries to convince her to accept the proposal, arguing that it would be beneficial for Candide as well. Meanwhile, a boat with police approaches, who are on the hunt for Candide because the Franciscan monk who stole Cunégonde’s jewelry and money had tried to sell some of the stones. Unfortunately, the merchant recognized them as belonging to the Great Inquisitor. The monk described Candide and Cunégonde, and troops were sent after them. The old woman convinces Cunégonde to stay and take advantage of the protection of the Governor. Cunégonde decides to stay, but Candide and his servant Cacambo, whom he brought with him from Cádiz, leave Buenos Aires for Paraguay.
Cacambo persuades Candide to swap sides and fight for the Jesuits instead of against them. The pair arrives at the border and asks to see the commanding officer. A group of soldiers surrounds and disarms them, escorting them to the commanding officer, but they learn that he can’t talk to them, or they to him, unless the Reverend Father Provincial is present. However, when Cacambo tells them that Candide is German, things change; apparently the rules only apply to Spaniards. They are taken to a garden, where food is served. The commanding officer joins them, and to Candide’s surprise, they find that he is actually Cunégonde’s brother, who miraculously survived the Bulgar attack. He is overjoyed to hear that Cunégonde has also survived. However, when Candide says that he is planning to marry Cunégonde, her brother is furious and strikes Candide with the flat of his sword. Candide grabs his own sword and kills him. Realizing what he has done, Candide breaks down weeping. Fortunately, Cacambo keeps a cool head. He disguises Candide as a Jesuit priest, and they flee on horseback before the murder is discovered.
Soon they arrive in a country with no roads. They stop at a meadow, where they come across two naked girls being chased by two monkeys. Candide, who believes the girls to be in danger, shoots the monkeys, only to find that they were the girls’ lovers. Cacambo and Candide sleep in the forest. When they wake, they find that they have been tied down by the Lobeiros – cannibals who live in the country. They think that Candide is a Jesuit because of his clothes and are planning to eat him. Cacambo tells them that Candide isn’t a Jesuit; in fact, he has just killed one! The Lobeiros send out some of their people to confirm the story, and when they find that it’s true, they release Cacambo and Candide and send them on their way. Cacambo tries to persuade Candide to go back to Europe. They decide to go to Cayenne, where they will find French people with whom they hope to travel back to Europe.
Candide and Cacambo only roughly know the direction to Cayenne and get lost on the way. They lose their horses and live on wild fruit for a month. Eventually, they come to a river, where they find a canoe. They take it and drift down the river, which grows ever wilder. The canoe is dashed on rocks, but Candide and Cacambo manage to get to land. The country they find themselves in is beautiful and well-cultivated, and all the people there seem to be singularly beautiful. They arrive at a village where they find children playing with rubies, gold and emeralds. The two travelers quickly pick up as many pieces as they can and continue on their way. They arrive at a pub where the waiters and waitresses are dressed in cloth of gold. Candide and Cacambo are seated and receive an extravagant meal of several courses. At the end of the meal, when they throw their gold pieces on the table to pay for the food, the owner of the pub and his wife start laughing. They explain to Candide and Cacambo that the “stones” off the road aren’t worth anything, and that pub meals are free anyway in this country. Candide is impressed; it seems that he has finally found the best of all possible worlds. The travelers are keen to find out more about this strange country and its people, and the innkeeper sends them to an old man in the village, who gives them the history of El Dorado.
“The kingdom we now inhabit is the ancient country of the Incas, who quitted it very imprudently to conquer another part of the world and were at length destroyed by the Spaniards.” (on El Dorado)
Candide is astounded to find that the people worship one God despite there being no monks or priests or other religious authorities. Instead, the king and the head of each family give thanks to God every morning because he has given them everything they need.
Meeting the King
The old man sends Cacambo and Candide to meet the king, who receives them graciously. He shows them around the city and tells them more about the customs of the country. They learn that there are no courts of law and no prisons. They look around the Palace of Science, which is fully dedicated to mathematics and physics. They spend a month in El Dorado in the company of the king. Yet despite being convinced that there is no better place on Earth, Candide wants to leave. He argues that, in El Dorado, he and Cacambo are just the same as everyone else, but if they return to Europe with treasures from the country, they will be richer than all the kings of Europe put together. He is also keen to find and free Cunégonde.
Candide and Cacambo tell the king that they want to leave. The king thinks they are making a mistake but agrees to help them. He gives them a flock of El Dorado’s unique red sheep, food, precious stones and gold for their journey. Candide and Cacambo set off, with the intention of returning to Cayenne to offer the Governor a ransom of diamonds to buy backCunégonde. However, their journey quickly goes wrong: All the sheep except two die. In Surinam, they try to find a ship to Buenos Aires. They talk to a skipper, and Candide tells him about Cunégonde and his plans to reunite with her. The skipper refuses to take him to Buenos Aires as he fears that he will be executed if he is seen in the company of Candide; After all, Cunégonde has become the Governor’s favorite mistress.
“‘What is this optimism?’ said Cacambo. ‘Alas!’ said Candide, ‘it is the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong.’”
Cacambo and Candide decide to separate: Cacambo will go to Buenos Aires to buy Cunégonde’s freedom, as he is the more cunning of the two, and Candide will go to Venice in Italy where he is to wait for Cacambo and Cunégonde. Candide finds the Dutch master of a ship, who agrees to take him to Venice. Unfortunately, Candide shows too clearly that he has got a lot of money to spend, and the shipmaster tricks him. He charges him three times the initial amount, demands to be paid in advance, loads the sheep and all of Candide’s other possessions onto the ship, and then sets sail – without Candide on board.
A New Traveling Companion
Candide is distraught to have again been subjected to the wicked and corrupt nature of men. He decides to take a ship to Bordeaux and promises to pay the passage of the person who can prove that he is the unhappiest person in the province. There are lots of applicants and, in the end, Candide decides to take a poor scholar, Martin, who had been betrayed by his whole family and was being persecuted by the preachers of Surinam. Martin holds the exact opposite view of the world as Pangloss. Martin believes that God has abandoned the world and that evil is everywhere. Nonetheless, Martin promises to follow Candide to Venice and, in fact, anywhere he may go.
“Prevail upon each passenger to tell his story; and if there be one of them all, that has not cursed his life many a time, that has not frequently looked upon himself as the unhappiest of mortals, I give you leave to throw me headforemost into the sea.” (Martin to Candide)
Candide still argues that there is good in the world – in particular when they come across two ships engaged in a fight. One ship blasts a cannon ball directly into the lower part of the other ship, which immediately sinks, drowning 100 men. Soon after, Candide spies something red swimming in the water – one of his sheep! What perished was the Dutch ship and its skipper who stole Candide’s sheep and treasures. Candide uses this event as proof that the world is good, but Martin isn’t convinced. The two continue their journey, arguing about morals and philosophy.
False Friends in Paris
When they arrive in Paris, Candide falls ill. It’s nothing serious, but because he is wearing a large diamond on his finger, he suddenly finds himself surrounded by doctors and well-wishers who won’t leave his side. With all the bloodletting and potions, Candide eventually becomes seriously ill. A parson arrives and asks for a “bill for the other world payable to the bearer.” Candide refuses, and Martin throws the priest and the other false friends out. Candide begins to recover and, during that time, starts gambling for high stakes with an Abbé and his friends, losing heavily. The Abbé introduces Candide and Martin to the Marchioness de Parolignac. She seduces Candide after supper and talks him out of the two diamond rings he has on his fingers. When he returns home, the Abbé asks him lots of questions about Cunégonde, and the next day, Candide receives a letter, apparently from Cunégonde, telling him that she is ill in a hotel in Paris. Candide and Martin rush there, and a maid leads them into a darkened room. In bed, lay a woman who is unable to speak. Candide weeps into her hand, then fills it with diamonds. Suddenly, police appear and arrest Candide and Martin. The woman wasn’t Cunégonde; the Abbé cheated him. Candide bribes the police, and the men are released. One of the officers offers them passage on a ship to Portsmouth. It’s not Venice, but England is safer than Paris. The men depart.
A Brief View of England
The ship arrives in Portsmouth harbor and, still on board, Candide and Martin witness the public execution of an Admiral by firing squad. They find out the man was executed because he didn’t kill enough French in battle. In England, it seems, they like to occasionally kill an Admiral as a form of encouragement to the others. Candide, disgusted by what he has witnessed, immediately bribes the ship’s captain to take them to Venice. Two days later, they are on their way.
Venice at Last
Candide and Martin finally reach Venice. One day, as the men are arguing over whether there is still goodness in the world, they see what looks like a happy, young couple. The travelers make a bet: Candide says the pair are very happy, Martin says not. They invite the couple to dinner and discover that the woman is none other than Paquette – the servant who Pangloss claimed gave him syphilis. After being kicked out of the castle and several other cruel blows of fate, she began working as a prostitute. She is miserable. Martin notes he has thus far won half of the bet. Candide appeals to the man and tells him that he looks very happy. Not true, the man, Friar Giroflée, says. He goes home to his monastery each night ready to smash his head against the dormitory wall. Candide has lost the bet. He gives Paquette 2,000 piastres and Friar Giroflée 1,000, believing it will make them happier. Martin says it will only make them unhappier. Only later does Candide realize that the two never thanked him. Candide has almost come around to Martin’s pessimistic view of the world: Things aren’t well. During the carnival, Candide and Martin meet six kings who have all lost their thrones. To Martin’s and Candide’s surprise, one of them has a slave: Cacambo. He tells Candide and Martin that Cunégonde is in Constantinople. They travel east with Cacambo and his master, and Cacambo recounts how pirates kidnapped him, Cunégonde and the old woman and then sold them as slaves. Cunégonde is now washing dishes for an impoverished prince and has lost all her beauty. Candide buys Cacambo’s freedom, and they board a galley towards Constantinople.
“The tender, loving Candide, seeing his beautiful Cunégonde embrowned, with bloodshot eyes, withered neck, wrinkled cheeks, and rough, red arms, recoiled three paces, seized with horror and then advanced out of good manners.”
On board the ship, they come across Candide’s old teacher Pangloss and Cunégonde’s brother the Baron. Both had survived their near deaths. The Baron was saved by a surgeon but later arrested for bathing naked with a handsome, young Ichoglan. Pangloss lived because the executioner who intended to burn him alive was instructed to hang him instead, on account of the rain. Hanging wasn’t this executioner’s specialty, and the man did a poor job. Pangloss could still breathe, and when the surgeon tasked with dissecting him afterwards attempted his first incision, Pangloss awoke, giving the poor doctor a terrible fright. Pangloss eventually entered the service of a Venetian merchant but was arrested for lingering while returning a fallen bouquet to a beautiful, topless devotee of an Iman. Upon landing in the port, Candide purchases Pangloss’s and the Baron’s freedom.
They arrive in Constantinople, where they buy Cunégonde and the old woman. Cunégonde is now quite ugly, and although Candide no longer wishes to marry her, he still promises to do so. Again, her brother refuses to give his consent, so the group bribes the captain to take the Baron back to the General Father of the Order at Rome. Candide, Cunégonde, the old woman, Martin and Pangloss move to a little farm, but they are all unhappy. What is left of their fortunes dwindles away. One day, Paquette and Friar Giroflée arrive at the farm, in misery. They have lost all the money Candide gave them. They soon meet a Dervish, who diligently looks after his garden and sells its fruit. They realize only the work of their hands will make them happy.
“‘What signifies it,’ said the Dervish, ‘whether there be evil or good? When his highness sends a ship to Egypt, does he trouble his head whether the mice on board are at their ease or not?’”
And little talents develop – pastry making, embroidery, linen, joinery and growing crops. The farm flourishes – completely without philosophy.
About the Text
Structure and Style
Candide follows the structure and style of a picaro (picaresque) novel – picaro in Spanish means rascal or scallywag – in which the young naive hero of the story becomes embroiled in various adventures. However, it is also a philosophical novel that deals with different world views and philosophies, as well as a satire par excellence that acts as a biting commentary on human nature. There is marked contrast between style and subject matter: The characters talk about the vilest deeds and human sentiments, including revenge, greed, theft, rape, mutilation, massacres and murder, but they do so in naive and simple terms. This technique often results in a humor so dark that it’s difficult to know whether to laugh or to cry. Candide’s physical journey reflects his journey of enlightenment. Initially, his quest for happiness takes him west, to the New World and its pinnacle, El Dorado. Once there, Candide turns back and eventually ends up in Constantinople – where he finally finds happiness by following the advice of a Dervish, a practitioner of the mystical branch of Islam Sufism who accepts material poverty and focuses on love and service.
- The name “Candide” comes from the Latin candidus and basically means “innocent, naive” or “honest.” It characterizes Voltaire’s hero perfectly. Candide applies his naive belief in Pangloss’s teachings that everything happens for a good reason.
- Through Candide’s unquestioning trust in Pangloss’s teachings, Voltaire criticizes – and mocks – “ivory tower” philosophers such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Pangloss’s teachings about “the best of all possible worlds” is taken ad absurdum via the trials and tribulations Candide and his friends endure.
- The novel has autobiographical tendencies. Candide is taken prisoner even though he is innocent (as was Voltaire), and Candide is humiliated by the authorities (as was Voltaire by the Chevalier de Rohan) and banned from the country (Voltaire was exiled to Britain).
- El Dorado is presented as a social utopia: The country’s wealth is unimportant; it takes second place to the harmony between people and the establishment of a perfect society. This is the best of all possible worlds. Candide’s decision to leave this perfect world is telling: He chooses wealth in an imperfect world over poverty in a perfect one.
- The conclusion to the novel is ambivalent. On the one hand, it proposes that going back to the land is the way to leave philosophy and the world’s evil behind. On the other hand, withdrawal from the world also implies that there is no hope of improving it.
Enlightenment and Theodicy
Voltaire is one of the main representatives of the French Enlightenment. Most proponents of the Enlightenment found themselves in conflict with the church, whose dogmatism and abuse of power they criticized. However, it wasn’t that they rejected religion or the idea of a creator God. Enlightenment went back to deism – the belief that God created the world but, after creation, was no longer involved in it. The French Enlightenment also promoted new ideas in the areas of politics and society. Voltaire himself wrote several political essays dealing with tolerance, freedom of belief and political equality.
Candide takes a particular stab at the theories of the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), who was born half a century before Voltaire. Leibniz argued that the universe was the best possible one God could have created. He argued that everything in the world must have a reason or a cause – the “principle of sufficient reason” – and that the first reason (or cause) was God. He also proposed that the universe is made up of an infinite number of substances, which work together to create a harmonious whole – two ideas that Voltaire mocked and satirized in Candide. Leibniz’s argument is essentially a theodicy: a justification for God. For if the world isn’t the best it can be, why didn’t God create a better one? Clearly, Voltaire disagreed with this reasoning.
In November 1755, Voltaire received some terrible news: An earthquake had destroyed Lisbon and killed more than 60,000 people. One year later, the Seven Years’ War broke out. In the light of these catastrophes, Voltaire’s outlook on life changed dramatically and the former optimist turned cynical pessimist. Candide is testimony to this change. The novel followed from an argument between Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Voltaire penned a poem about the destruction of Lisbon and through it, rejected Leibniz’s theory of a pre-established harmony. Rousseau wrote a public letter, defending optimism and criticizing Voltaire’s worldview. The public waited with bated breath for Voltaire’s reply – which came in the form of Candide, a novel, which at Voltaire’s time occupied the lowest rung among all literary forms. Voltaire defended his choice, claiming that public opinion couldn’t be won through long and learned discourse. If one wanted to reach a wide audience, it had to be done through a medium that would allow for the widest possible distribution: the novel.
Reviews and legacy
Voltaire published Candide simultaneously in five countries in January 1759, and the novel soon became known all across Europe. The public authorities were unprepared for its sweeping success, and it took two months before the city council in Geneva banned the book for its offensive content, citing its religious blasphemy, political sedition and intellectual hostility. The novel was blacklisted in Paris, and it made its way on the Vatican’s List of Prohibited Books in 1762. But the censure did nothing to stop the novel’s success. By the end of 1759, more than 20,000 copies had been sold, many of them illegally. Until the beginning of the French Revolution, the book went through almost 50 reprints, and several versions exist. Candide is recognized as Voltaire’s most influential work and is certainly his most widely read. The British poet and literary critic Martin Seymour-Smith listed Candide as one of the 100 most influential books ever written. Its influence can be seen in the works of contemporary black humorists such as Joseph Heller, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut and Terry Southern.
About the Author
Voltaire was born François-Marie Arouet in Paris on November 21, 1694. His father was a solicitor, and his mother was of noble birth, but died early. On the advice of a friend, his father sent him to a Jesuit college when Voltaire was ten. By the time he left the college, Voltaire had decided that he wanted to be a writer – against his father’s wishes, who sent him to Caen to study law. However, Voltaire continued to write and published his first work, the tragedy Oedipe, in 1718. Voltaire became involved in Parisian high society, where his dark humor and knack for mocking authority eventually got him into trouble. He was sentenced to prison twice. In 1718, after his 11-month imprisonment in the Bastille, Voltaire adopted his nom de plume. In 1726, he found himself again in the Bastille after an altercation with the French nobleman Chevalier de Rohan. He managed to cut short his imprisonment by agreeing to an exile to England, where he soon joined high society. He returned to France in 1728 and caused renewed uproar with the publication of his Lettres philosophiques, in which he wrote about his views of the British government, literature, science and religion – views he considered superior to those of the French. The Lettres were publicly banned and burned, and Voltaire fled to the Château de Cirey in Lothringia. A decade later though, Voltaire was back in favor. Thanks to the recommendations of the Marquise de Pompadour, he became Louis XV’s chamberlain in 1746. In 1749, he responded to an invitation from Prussia’s King Friedrich II. However, the posting didn’t last long – again, due to various altercations – and in 1758, Voltaire bought Ferney, a manor house close to Geneva, where he lived and wrote for 20 years. He died on May 30, 1778 in Paris.
Satire, Philosophical Fiction, Adventure, Bildungsroman, Historical Fiction, Absurdist Literature, Comedy, Social Critique
“Candide, or Optimism” is a satirical novella written by the French philosopher and author Voltaire, first published in 1759. The story follows the adventures of a young man named Candide, who is indoctrinated with the philosophy of Pangloss, his tutor. Pangloss, a firm believer in Leibnizian optimism, teaches Candide that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” However, Candide’s journey is one of misadventures, filled with extreme hardships, disasters, and cruel ironies.
The novella takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of Europe, South America, and beyond, as Candide encounters numerous characters who represent various social classes and philosophies. Throughout his journey, he experiences war, natural disasters, greed, hypocrisy, and absurdity, all of which directly challenge the notion of an inherently perfect world.
Voltaire uses sharp wit and biting satire to criticize the prevailing optimism of his time and to question the existence of divine providence. He masterfully employs humor and irony to expose the follies of humanity and the shortcomings of philosophical optimism. While on the surface, the novella may appear to be a comedic adventure, it serves as a powerful critique of the societal norms and beliefs of the 18th century.
“Candide, or Optimism” is a literary masterpiece that seamlessly blends philosophy, humor, and biting satire. Voltaire’s writing is as relevant today as it was in the 18th century, as he questions the prevailing optimism and unwavering faith in a benevolent creator. The character of Candide, a naive and well-intentioned young man, serves as the perfect vehicle for exploring the flaws in this philosophy.
The novella’s real strength lies in its ability to make readers question their own beliefs and the world around them. It does so with clever and often absurd situations that challenge the very core of Leibnizian optimism. Voltaire’s characters are not just caricatures; they represent the various facets of human nature and society, and their actions serve as a mirror reflecting the absurdity and cruelty of the world.
Voltaire’s prose is sharp, concise, and engaging, making “Candide” a page-turner despite its philosophical depth. The novella’s brevity is a testament to Voltaire’s ability to convey powerful ideas with economy.
In conclusion, “Candide, or Optimism” is a thought-provoking and highly entertaining work of literature. It remains a timeless classic that invites readers to question blind optimism, embrace critical thinking, and recognize the absurdities in the world around us.