Voltaire, Candide

Max Shrem (Independent Scholar - North America)
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Candide ou l’Optimisme [Candide or Optimism] (1759) is a philosophical tale written by Voltaire. This genre, perfected by Voltaire, combines the story structure and supernatural aspects of a fairytale with the ideological reflection of a philosophical treatise. The most read and commented work by Voltaire, Candide summarizes the writer’s thought vis-à-vis religious tolerance, the hypocrisy of philosophical discourse, and major political changes gripping his century. This hybrid genre engages with a variety of writings in vogue during the 18th century, ones with which Voltaire himself experimented: the epic, tragedy, satire, epigram, the philosophical treatise, the pamphlet, and the historical chronicle. In Candide, Voltaire communicates his thoughts on a European society in crisis, creating a tale that presents a rich distillation of his philosophy. One of the main themes that Voltaire tackles in this work is religious fanaticism.

Living in Switzerland, Voltaire continued to rail against the Catholic religion which, according to his point of view, encouraged superstitions and extreme acts of violence under the pretext of religious obedience. In his Dictionnaire philosophique [Philosophical Dictionary] (1764), he refers to the Bartholomew's Day massacre (1572) to corroborate his claims, attacking the fanatics who claimed to obey God by butchering their fellowmen. Voltaire wrote passionately on the subject, sending anonymous writings to France in the form of pamphlets, tales, essays, articles, and dialogues. He advocated for the creation of a state free from all religious matters, the secularization that would characterize the post-revolutionary period. Voltaire, however, was not an atheist. In his fight against extremism, he defended his conception of deism, which recognizes the existence of a God, creator of the universe, one that has no hold on the lives of men. Voltaire believed that everyone must live their religion in an individual way. According to this belief, there is no need for priests and sacred texts.

On several occasions in Candide, Voltaire attacks the misdemeanors of religion. For instance, in Chapter 6, he criticizes the auto-da-fe of Candide and Pangloss, an event that actually took place in 1756 following the Lisbon earthquake, and which Voltaire himself recounted in Le siècle de Louis XIV et de Louis XV (1751). In Candide, when the Portuguese inquisition orders the execution of several people to prevent a new earthquake from occurring in Lisbon, Voltaire says ironically: “Les sages du pays n’avaient pas trouvé un moyen plus efficace pour prévenir une ruine totale que de donner au peuple un bel auto-da-fé” (p. 62) [“The wise men of the country had not found a more effective way to prevent total ruin than to give the people a beautiful public burning”]. While Catholicism accepts this type of crime to appease what many consider to be the mark of an angry God, Voltaire presents a more positive religion close to deism in the idyllic country of Eldorado. Indeed, there, everyone is a priest, and no one prays to God for graces, but rather to thank and adore him. This surprises the protagonist, Candide who exclaims, “Quoi! vous n’avez point de moines qui enseignent, qui disputent, qui gouvernent, qui cabalent, et qui font brûler les gens qui ne sont pas de leur avis ?” (p. 107) [“What, you have no monks who teach, who dispute, who govern, who conspire, and who burn people who are not of their opinion?”].

Candide denounces social issues beyond the excesses of religion: war, slavery, the abuse of women, and the arbitrary use of violence by rulers. The eighteenth century was ravaged by armed conflicts, such as the Seven Years’ War. Horror and the violence of the time are depicted not only with great detail but also with a certain coldness. This is the case when Candide crosses a village pillaged by the Bulgars in chapter 3. Later, when the old woman tells her story, she deplores the civil wars that oppose neighboring communities. Through her anecdotes, Voltaire highlights the countless victims of wars, most of whom are civilians. Voltaire also attacks slavery and the barbarism associated with it, particularly when Candide meets an African upon his arrival to Suriname. The slave’s left leg and right hand had been cut off by his master. His coat barely covers the injury, as “c’est l’usage” (p. 112) [“it is customary”], he says.

Voltaire also derides the tyrannical behavior of men toward women. The characters of Cunegonde and the old woman suffer many instances of extreme physical abuse because of their gender. Cunegonde is raped and stabbed by a Bulgarian aggressor besieging the castle of Westphalia, then becomes the sex slave of an infantry captain, a Jew, an inquisitor and finally a Turkish prince. The old woman, meanwhile, has an equally tragic destiny that leads to her losing her beauty. She is the victim of physical mutilation when soldiers cut off one of her buttocks to sustain themselves. These horrors are the action of men who have no regard for women other than as objects of sexual satisfaction. Voltaire also shows violence through the absurd arbitrary rules imposed by rulers on their people. The Jesuit Paraguayan commander does not allow Spaniards to speak in his presence and only allows them to remain in his territory for three hours. The Oreillons are cannibals only when it comes to eating Jesuits.

In Candide, Voltaire sketches a solution to the misfortunes of man and of society, which, for him, could be described by one word: tolerance. By denouncing inequalities and mocking those who order them, Voltaire defends his vision of a world in which people must be tolerant, that is to say respect the opinions of others and in particular the religion of each individual, because it is precisely intolerance that leads to conflict. According to Voltaire’s philosophy, specific cases of violence lead to generalized institutionalized violence. Voltaire therefore calls for a more just humanity with a greater sense of solidarity. There are several examples of intolerance in Candide, such as the execution of two Portuguese under the pretext that they did not eat pork (Chapter 6), as well as the punishment incurred by Pangloss because he rendered a service to a Muslim even though he himself is a Christian (Chapter 28).

The richness of Candide lies in the fact that the book reveals popular eighteenth-century philosophical theories, ones which are also linked to the Enlightenment. Another central theme in the story involves the triumph of action over scholarly discourse, the latter which ultimately proves to be inept. Several characters embody the type of false savant hated by Voltaire, especially Candide’s tutor, Pangloss whose mechanical repetitions of the phrase “Tout va bien…” is directly contradicted by the accumulation of misfortunes befalling the characters. Throughout Candide, the narrator mocks characters who think they possess knowledge even though they do not understand its meaning, merely repeating ready-made sentences summarizing philosophical theories and doctrines. Between Pangloss’s optimism and Martin’s pessimism, it is only after having traveled the world and lived through trying experiences that Candide creates his own way of understanding the world. His quest could thus be understood as a search for happiness. In fact, one of the main topics of discussion in salons of the mid-18th century was the possibility of earthly happiness for every man and no longer in a heavenly paradise for a selected few after death.

There are three places in the narrative where this happiness is possible: Westphalia, Eldorado, and at the end of the tale, in Candide’s garden. Each corresponds to an ideal: ignorance of the problems of the world in the gardens of the castle of Thunder-ten-tronckh; the utopia of the Enlightenment put into practice in Eldorado; finally, the culture of one’s own happiness in the face of the problems of society. In the end, Voltaire shows that real happiness can only be achieved by working on oneself, focusing on human problems rather than metaphysical ones, and acting concretely.

The Plot

The originality of this work consists in combining real-life narratives with fantasy. The protagonist’s adventures detailed below are all linked to historical events, like the Lisbon quake and the ensuing auto-da-fe. Voltaire’s bitter social criticism throughout Candide is unexpected thanks in large part to a break in 18th-century stylistic norms. Characteristics specific to the fictional genre of the tale are adapted to his own style. The accumulation of adventures is exaggerated. Supernatural elements – the red sheep of Eldorado, the resurrections of Cunegonde, Pangloss and the baron – prove to be false. The red sheep turn out to be mere llamas, and resurrections are explained by characters who have never been officially declared dead; what initially appears to be otherworldly is indeed very much of this world. Verisimilitude is also called into question. When Pangloss tells Candide that Cunegonde has been raped “autant qu’on peut l’être” (p.55) [“as much as one can be”], the reader is convinced that the girl is dead. Similarly, Candide, who was thought to be good and fair, kills many times. Rather than elicit a sense of escapism, Candide forces the reader to confront human absurdity head-on; hence, the dual nature of the book’s twofold title “Candide” and “optimism”. Candide is both an entertaining, carefree story and a text calling for reflection.

The plot begins in Westphalia, in the castle of Candide’s uncle the Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh. In English “candide” means “innocent” and “naïve”. Candide is a young man, and as his names indicates, he is simple and honest. He was raised in the company of the Baron's daughter, Cunegonde, under the precepts of the philosopher Pangloss, for whom everything is for the best in the best of all worlds. One day, after discovering their teacher of philosophy sexually engaged with the chambermaid Paquette, Cunegonde begins to imitate what she saw with Candide, but the baron surprises them and drives the young man out of the castle. The next day he is forced into the army, serving the King of the Bulgars. As the war against the Avars explodes, Candide, frightened by the thousands of dead who pile up before his eyes, flees the battlefield.

After arriving in Holland, Candide meets Jacques, an Anabaptist, who takes him in. The next day, Candide meets a physically repulsive beggar, who turns out to be Pangloss, deformed by syphilis. He tells Candide how the Bulgarians killed the Baron, the Baroness and Cunegonde. Candide is angry at the loss of his friend and convinces Jacques to look after Pangloss. Two months later, the three men embark for Lisbon where Jacques must do business. As they arrive at the port, a storm breaks out during which Jacques dies. To make matters worse, an earthquake occurs upon their arrival. To prevent another natural disaster, the Lisbon Inquisition organizes a public burning. Candide is beaten and Pangloss hanged for contradicting a member of the Inquisition.

The young man is then picked up by an old woman who cares for him before taking him to an isolated house in the countryside where he finds, to his great surprise, Cunegonde. She recounts her misfortunes to her beloved: after being raped and wounded by a Bulgarian soldier in her father’s castle, she was sold to a Jew who took her to his house in Lisbon where he shares her with the grand inquisitor. The old woman turns out to be Cunegonde’s servant. In the meantime, the Jew appears, and throws himself on Candide to stab him, but the latter pierces him with his sword. Then comes the inquisitor who suffers the same fate. The old woman proposes that the lovers flee with her towards Cadiz, in Spain, with the help of the inquisitor’s horses. In Cadiz, Candide is promoted to the rank of captain of a boat that is departing for Latin America. During the crossing, the old woman tells them about her tragic fate, from her birth as a princess and daughter of Pope Urban X (a classic example of Voltairean irony) to her endless physical abuses.

The ship is moored in Buenos Aires, where Candide, Cunegonde and the old woman are received by the governor, who falls in love with Cunegonde. After leaving Candide, he asks the young woman to marry him. At the same time, a ship sent by the inquisition to find the killer of the grand inquisitor lands at the port. The old woman advises Cunegonde to remain in Buenos Aires and to get engaged with the governor, and tells Candide to flee. Candide and Cacambo, a Spaniard who became his valet at the moment of his escape to Cadiz, leave for Paraguay. When they arrive there, they are welcomed by a reverend Jesuit father who is none other than the brother of Cunegonde. Candide confesses his desire to marry Cunegonde, which offends the baron and provokes him to draw his sword to attack. Once again, Candide turns out to be faster and ends up killing Cunegonde’s brother. Cacambo then takes the clothes of the priest, gives them to Candide and both flee on horseback to the border of the next country.

Candide and Cacambo then find themselves in an unknown land where they are tied up by the Oreillons, the inhabitants of the locality, the Jesuit eaters. Cacambo, thanks to his speech, convinces them of their innocence. They liberate them and lead them to the neighboring border. But Candide and Cacambo are lost again. Mounted on a boat, the current leads them to the entrance of a cave that they cross in the darkness. Past the cavern, Candide and Cacambo enter a marvelous country, where pebbles are precious stones and gold. The inhabitants speak Peruvian, and Cacambo serves as Candide’s interpreter. They learn that the name of the country is Eldorado and that there is no dispute on any subject whatsoever. The old man who has just met them leads them to the King in a coach pulled by red sheep. The two men visit the capital and marvel at its perfections. In the evening, they are invited to the king’s meal, where they learn more about this utopia.

After a month spent in this magical kingdom, Candide wishes to return to Cunegonde and live again at home with some sheep and just enough gold to live peacefully. Despite his reluctance, the king has them build a machine to leave Eldorado and offers them some riches. Candide and his valet are transported to the top of the mountains with flying sheep and then proceed to Cayenne. At the entrance of the city, the sight of an African slave plunges Candide into a state of sadness so profound that he begins to question Pangloss’s theory that “all is for the best” in the “best of all possible worlds”. Candide then decides on a new plan. Cacambo will alone recover Cunegonde with the old woman, because unlike himself, he is not wanted by the authorities. They plan to meet again in Venice. Candide, after being the victim of a shady ship captain, posts an ad to find a travel companion. This is how he meets the knowledgeable Martin. Together, they embark for Bordeaux and throughout the journey discuss their differing views about divine justice and earthly happiness.

Once they arrive in Bordeaux, Candide decides to make a detour to Paris a city about which everyone is talking. In Paris, a priest, who has just remarked on the two travelers’ riches, leads them to the theater, where Candide discovers tragedy. After being cheated out of his money by this priest and a cunning socialite named the Marquise of Parolignac, Candide and Martin make the decision to leave the capital. At Dieppe, they embark for Portsmouth in England. As soon as he reaches his destination, Candide wants to leave, disgusted by an unjust execution he has just witnessed. Two days later, he leaves for Venice where he receives no news from Cacambo and sinks into melancholy. Downcast by Martin’s pessimistic philosophy, one evening, Candide receives a message from Cacambo who has become a slave. He then orders him to embark the next day on his boat to find Cunegonde.

On board the ship, Candide learns that Cunegonde has become, with the old woman, the slave of a prince, and that she has lost all her beauty. He buys Cacambo, giving him back his freedom, and the two of them go to Turkey where Cunegonde is now located. On the ship, he recognizes in two slaves Pangloss and the brother of Cunegonde, whom he thought were dead, and buys them from the captain. All together, they finally arrive at the prince’s house where Cunegonde is held. When he sees her, Candide is seized with horror, but he agrees all the same to buy her and the old woman. Candide, compelled by his promise, asks for Cunegonde’s hand. The daily life very quickly becomes morose, and everyone is unhappy, except Martin who knows he is happy nowhere. One day, Candide and Martin come across an old fruit vendor. He tells them that he is interested in nothing but his garden, his toil. Returning home moved by the vendor, Candide modestly takes up the work of his garden and forgets the philosophical reasoning of Pangloss and Martin so as to make life more bearable. He concludes, “We have to cultivate our garden.”

Stylistic Features

To expose the vices of his society Voltaire mixes irony with both parody and absurdity, at times creating comedy that to the modern reader would seem to be slapstick. This comes across through antiphrasis, and through direct quotes from characters that he mocks. In Chapter 3, for example, the narrator describes the army as something splendid even though the reader already knows Voltaire’s own contempt for war. At other times, he calls into question the undying support of ideas of certain philosophers, as when Candide asks Pangloss if he still believes in his philosophy after having been “pendu, disséqué, roué de coups” [“hanged, dissected, and beaten”], and the latter replies: “Je suis toujours de mon premier sentiment […] car enfin je suis philosophe: il ne me convient pas de me dédire, Leibniz ne pouvant pas avoir tort, et l’harmonie péétablie étant d’ailleurs la plus belle chose du monde, aussi bien que le plein et la matière subtile” (p. 160) [“I am always of my first feeling [...] because at last I am a philosopher: it does not suit me to deduce, Leibniz cannot be wrong, and the preestablished harmony being, moreover, the most beautiful thing in the world, as well as the full and subtle matter”]. The only metaphysician mentioned by name in the text, Leibniz and his so-called optimism are privileged targets of Voltaire’s ridicule.

To further emphasize this irony, Voltaire uses many figures of speech, alternating between euphemism, hyperbole, enumeration, accumulation, repetition, understatement, and parataxis. Candide receives “quatre mille coups de baguette” (p. 51) [“four thousand beatings with a stick”]. Pangloss is still alive after being dissected. The old woman is sold from merchant to merchant. All of the aforementioned figures of speech increase the terrifying realities described in the story, accentuate the horror of the situations and thus denounce them more effectively. They also provide a distancing effect without which the reader would likely be unable to continue reading the numerous misfortunes.

The absurd also plays an important role in the story, stemming largely from the fact that the extraordinary is told as ordinary. The combination of ordinary and extraordinary, absurd and logical has the effect of reinforcing horror and tragedy and the omniscience of catastrophe recalls the complexity of the world.

Candide epitomizes the transgressive nature of Voltaire’s work. On the one hand, it defies all literary genres, and by the impossibility of its own categorization, reveals itself to be a literary amalgam. On a purely philosophical level, the work condemns the excesses of religion, as well as other sociopolitical issues. Understanding Voltaire’s defiance is key to appreciating Candide’s cultural significance both during its inception and in the 21st century.  

Publication History and Reception in Voltaire’s Time and Beyond

After an eventful life that included multiple imprisonments and exiles in conjunction with the publication of subversive texts, Voltaire published Candide under the pseudonym of Dr. Ralph, to avoid censorship and condemnation in France, as well as abroad (Geneva, London, Amsterdam). Although it was quickly banned by local authorities in France, it was nevertheless met with great success. In 1759, the year of its first publication, about 20,000 copies were printed, considerable for the time. The success was such that it was reprinted 15 times that same year and another 40 times between 1759 and 1778, the story being reworked by Voltaire until 1761. Candide was also quickly translated, imitated and parodied.

Despite this success, Voltaire did not claim authorship. He did however comment on the work, above all insisting on the comedic style with which he refused to be associated: “Il faut avoir perdu le sens pour m’attribuer cette coïonnerie. J’ai, Dieu merci, de meilleures occupations” [“One has to have lost one’s senses to attribute this foolishness to me. I have, thank God, better things to occupy my attention”] (Cronk and Ferrand, p. 166). He attributed the work to an intelligent man who wrote it with the aim at poking fun at fools. Readers quickly guessed, however, that Voltaire was the author. And, as early as the eighteenth century, sequels of Candide were written, two of which shared the same goal: to add an ending that provided a greater sense of closure. Voltaire’s ending was considered too abrupt and sudden by many readers.

Candide or Optimism. Translated from the German by Dr. Ralph. Second Part (1760), was likely written by the abbé Dulaurens (1719-1793), a famous imitator of Voltaire. It follows the adventures of Candide in Norway and Denmark where he tries to create an aristocratic lineage for himself. To do this, he changes his name and becomes Canutson. The death of Cunegonde gives him the opportunity to marry the noble Zenoide. Their love is hindered for a moment, but they still end up uniting at the end. This sequel clearly contradicts the moral of the typical Voltairean tale. The second, Candide in Denmark, or the Optimism of Honest People, was published in 1767, anonymously. The story recounts the story told in the first sequel, but chooses to develop more deeply the life of Candide among the nobility and his meetings with the philosophers Martin and Jean-Jacques, which refers directly to Rousseau.

As far as the imitations were concerned, authors at the time exploited Voltaire’s success, taking as they went themes or places, characters or episodes, choosing or not to soften the horrors. For instance, Candide, ou l'Élève du philosophe chrétien (1787) was a Christian version of the original. As early as 1780s, theater also captured the story, like in Giovanni Paisiello’s King Theodore in Venice (1786) which expanded upon the whimsical and supernatural aspects of the fiction. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries new adaptations continued to appear, such as Leonard Bernstein's operetta published in 1956. The story was also rendered on screen by filmmaker Norbert Carbonnnaux in 1960. In this film entitled Candide, or the Optimist of the Twentieth Century, the protagonist’s adventures around Europe begin after working as a guard in a prison camp; the conclusion of the film remains faithful to that of the book. Candide has also been taken up and retold by graphic novelists of the twenty-first century. Joann Sfar’s rendition was published in 2003, and Belgian journalist Gorian Delpâture and Michel Dufranne published a series between 2008 and 2013. Candide’s success is due in large part to the universalism of the story and the themes tackled by the author through his unique irony and sharp sense of humor.  


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Citation: Shrem, Max. "Candide". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 08 February 2018 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=6091, accessed 03 June 2023.]

6091 Candide 3 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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