By François-Marie Arouet, Known as Voltaire (1694-1778)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010..©
The complete title of Candide is Candide, ou L’Optimisme (Candide, or Optimism). Although the title page says the book was translated from German by Doctor Ralph, it was written by Voltaire in French, and there was no Doctor Ralph. Voltaire fabricated this information in an apparent attempt to fool censors on the lookout for iconoclastic works by Voltaire.
Type of Work
Voltaire’s sentences are brief and sharp as a burr. Modern English speakers studying French will find that the original text is easy to understand (although translating it is not so easy because of the subtlety and power of Voltaire’s wit). The narrative moves at lightning speed. However, because Voltaire sustains his rapid-fire presentation of details throughout the novel and resorts again and again to irony, hyperbole, and sarcasm for effect—couched in the same sentence patterns—his style becomes tedious and onerous at times. Admirers of Voltaire—and they are legion—will fiercely dispute this viewpoint, maintaining that Candide is a masterpiece from beginning to end..
There once lived in Westphalia, in the castle of the Baron of Thunder-ten-tronck, a boy endowed with a gentle disposition. His name, Candide—meaning pure and sincere—reflected his amiability and innocence. According to the castle’s servants, he was the son of the baron’s sister and a good and honest man of the neighborhood. The baron’s sister decided not to marry the man because he could not prove that he had descended from more than 71 generations of nobility.
The baron was one of the most important lords of the district, for his castle had windows, a door, and a tapestry in a hall. Because his wife was a woman of substance, weighing 350 pounds, she was highly respected. The baron and baroness had their own son, Maximilian, and a daughter, a beautifully plump young lady named Cunégonde.
The sage of the household was Dr. Pangloss, a thinker of great thoughts who tutored the children. He instilled in them a powerful axiom: This is the best of all possible worlds. Because it is the best world, everything in it happens for the best even if it appears to be bad. Everything has a reason for its existence—a good
reason—even noses and stones and pigs. Noses support spectacles; stones build castles; the meat of pigs feeds people.
Soldiers Arrest Candide
When war breaks out between the Bulgars and Avars, Candide hides while canons, rifles, and bayonets cut down thirty thousand men. Wondering what good will come of the carnage—for this is the best of all possible worlds and everything happens for a reason—Candide steals off to think. After climbing over acres of bodies, he comes to a
burned-out village where brains strew the ground and the moans of the dying fill the air. He plods on to another burned-out village and eventually arrives in Holland. There, people scold him for begging. An orator preaching charity calls him a wretch who deserves no food. However, an Anabaptist named James takes him in, provides him beer and bread, and gives him two florins.
After Candide begs James to help Pangloss, James takes the doctor in and pays for his medical treatment. Pangloss recovers after suffering the loss of only an eye and an ear. James then hires him as a bookkeeper and takes him and Candide on a business trip to Lisbon, Portugal. During their sea voyage, James falls overboard and drowns, and the ship sinks. Candide and Pangloss ride a plank to shore. After their arrival, an earthquake strikes, leveling most of the city and killing thirty thousand residents. Inquisitionists arrest Candide and Pangloss and offer them as sacrifices in a ritual designed to prevent future natural disasters. Pangloss is hanged, and Candide is flogged.
“If this is the best of all possible worlds,” Candide wonders, “what must the other worlds be like?”
Cunégonde Still Alive
When an aftershock strikes, Candide escapes with an old woman who says, “Follow me.” In a hovel, she gives him food, treats his wounds, and lets him sleep. Two days later, she takes him to a house outside town, leaves him a gilded room uptstairs, and returns later with a woman wearing jewels and a veil. When the old woman instructs him to remove the woman’s veil, he discovers none other than Cunégonde. She had not died after all. Candide is ecstatic.
Cunégonde tells him that the Bulgars had slaughtered her father, mother, and brother and raped and stabbed her, but she managed to survive as a prisoner of war. After three months, she was sold to Don Issachar, a Jew, who conducted business in Holland and Portugal.
“It was he who established me here, in this country house,” she says.
When the leader of the Inquisition noticed her one day in town, he wanted her for himself and forced Don Issachar to share her with him on alternate days of the week.
After she concludes her story, Don Issachar arrives. It is his day to claim Cunégonde. In a rage, Candide kills him. Then, after midnight, the inquisition leader arrives and Candide kills him with the same sword. Fearing retaliation, Candide, Cunégonde, and the old woman take jewels and money, saddle three horses in the stable, and ride to Cadiz. There, a fleet prepares to sail for South America, where Jesuit priests are inciting natives to rebel against the kings of Spain and Portugal. Thanks to his military skills, Candide gets a job as a captain, and he and the two women are received aboard the ship.
On the voyage, Candide regains the optimism that Dr. Pangloss instilled in him and observes that the new world they are going to will be a good world—the best of all possible worlds. Meanwhile, the old woman tells the story of her life. It is a tale of heartbreak and suffering in which a scheming wench poisons the man she is to marry, pirates abduct and ravish her, and warfare and slavery bring her to the brink of suicide. After enduring abuse all over the world, she finally enters the service of Don Issachar and entwines her fate with Cunégonde’s.
When the ship arrives in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the governor ogles Cunégonde and announces plans to marry her. The old woman, saying Cunégonde hasn’t a penny to her name, urges the girl to accept the governor’s offer. At that moment, another ship enters the harbor. Aboard are agents of the Inquisition who have been following Candide. They plan to arrest him for the murder of their leader. Candide flees to Paraguay with a valet, Cacambo. There, they encounter Jesuit soldier priests at war with Spaniards. When Candide meets the commandant, he discovers that the priest is none other Cunégonde’s brother, Maximilian, who had not been killed by the Bulgars after all. Candide informs Maximilian that his sister, Cunégonde, is also alive.
Candide Fights Maximilian
Father Maximilian then explains how he survived and how he came to be a Jesuit priest and army colonel assigned to Paraguay. He and Candide get along well. However, when Candide says he plans to marry Cunégonde, Maximilian turns on him, saying he is not worthy to marry a woman who is the product of 72 generations of nobility. They draw swords. Candide kills Maximilian. Candide and Cacambo flee and—thanks to the quick-thinking of Cacambo, who dresses Candide in the dead Jesuit’s robes—pass out of Jesuit country unnoticed and into terra incognita inhabited by fierce people known as Oreillons, who eat Jesuits. Cacambo informs them that Candide is merely disguised as a Jesuit, and the Oreillons send emissaries to verify the story. When the emissaries return and report that Candide is indeed not a Jesuit, the Oreillons treat their visitors to food and drink and escort them out of their territory.
Heading down a river, they arrive at the land of Eldorado, where children play games with emeralds and rubies. Gold is as commonplace as pebbles and rocks. Villagers treat them to a feast consisting of a two-hundred pound condor, roast monkeys, hummingbirds, soups, stews, pastries, and liqueurs. Apologizing for the meagerness of the meal, their host tells them that this is a poor village, by Eldorado standards. They later visit the modest home of 172-year-old Eldorado man. Attesting to its humbleness are its silver door, its gold walls, and an antechamber made of emeralds and rubies. The old man then provides them transportation to the realm of the king. There they are welcomed and taken on a tour of the king’s city, where they see cloud-scraping buildings, squares paved with jewels, and fountains flowing with sweet liqueurs.
Candide and Cacambo spend a month in the king’s palace. The king wonders why his guests seem so fond of such trivialities as yellow mud (gold) and common stones (jewels) but tells them to take all they want. After three thousand engineers construct a machine that will hoist Candide and Cacambo out of the country, the two men climb on with eighty sheep weighted down with gold, gems, and provender and ride over the mountains to a new land.
On the journey, two sheep sink in a swamp, seven or eight die of hunger in a desert, and others fall off cliffs. The lesson here, Cacambo tells Candide, is that material wealth does not last; only love and other noble virtues endure. When they arrive in the Dutch possession of Surinam, a Negro tells them a sad tale of how natives are exploited as they work sugar plantations, and Candide—moved to tears—renounces Pangloss’s philosophy of optimism, at least momentarily. With some of his dwindling gems, he buys passage back to Europe and hires a scholar named Martin to accompany him. Cacambo is to go to Buenos Aires to pick up Cunégonde and then meet Candide in Venice.
Candide and Martin experience perilous adventures in France before traveling to England, where they witness the execution of an admiral for an abominable crime—he hadn’t killed enough men during a battle with the French. They then travel to Venice to rendezvous with Cacambo. During their search for him, they chance upon Paquette, the comely maid who was the subject of Pangloss’s experiments in the baron’s castle in Westphalia. She had been kicked out of the castle for promiscuous behavior shortly after Candide was forced out for his advances toward Cunégonde. After hearing her tale, they visit a Venetian nobleman and continue to search for Cacambo. Weeks pass before they finally happen upon him at an inn. Cacambo tells Candide that Cunégonde is in Constantinople.
Candide is down to two sheep—but still fabulously rich. After seeing a masquerade staged at the inn by five kings, Candide, Cacambo, and Martin leave for Constantinople. Candide regains his optimism, saying, “All is for the best.”
Upon arriving in the vicinity of Constantinople, they book passage on a galley to search for Cunégonde along the shore of the Sea of Marmara. Wonder of wonders, two of the galley slaves rowing the ship are Pangloss, who slipped out of the noose during his hanging, and Maximilian, who was cured by an apothecary of the wound inflicted by Candide. Both had ended up in Constantinople through adventures of their own.
They find Cunégonde with the old woman—the one who accompanied Candide to South America—at the house of the Prince of Transylvania. Cunégonde has grown ugly and slovenly. The old woman suggests that they purchase a farm nearby and live there while there lot in life improves. When Candide announces that
he still plans to marry Cunégonde despite her ugliness, Maximilian objects, as before, saying his sister must not marry below her station. Candide, Cacambo, Martin, and Pangloss plot against Maximilian, deciding to return him to the galley temporarily as a slave and then to Jesuits in Rome permanently. Carrying out this scheme further depletes Candide’s money; in fact, no assets
remain but the farm.
Candide and Pangloss conclude that man was born to labor gainfully. They all then work the farm, cook, embroider, build, and bring in bumper crops. Pangloss observes that all the events leading up to their success with the farm prove that this is the best of all possible worlds after all.
It is naive to be eternally optimistic, like Dr. Pangloss, in a cruel, corrupt, and bellicose world. In developing this theme, Voltaire satirizes the philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716) and his disciple, Christian Wolff (1679-1754), the philosopher and mathematician who popularized this
The Prevalence of Evil and Folly
Bigotry, war, superstition, tyranny, intolerance, ignorance, suppression of the truth and other evils, defects, and follies are prevalent throughout the world. Of course, the naive Candide thinks otherwise. Just before arriving at Bordeaux, France, he converses with his traveling companion--Martin, a realist--about seemingly widespread, ever-present evil. Here is the conversation, in part:
"Do you believe," said Candide, "that men have always massacred each other as they do to-day, that they have always been liars, cheats, traitors, ingrates, brigands, idiots, thieves, scoundrels, gluttons, drunkards, misers, envious, ambitious, bloody-minded, calumniators, debauchees, fanatics, hypocrites, and fools?"
"Do you believe," said Martin, "that hawks have always eaten pigeons when they have found them?"
"Yes, without doubt," said Candide.
"Well, then," said Martin, "if hawks have always had the same character why should you imagine that men may have changed theirs?"
Abuse of Women
Although men claim to respect and honor women, they ill use them at every opportunity. All of the major female characters in Candide are raped and treated cruelly by male overseers. The first paragraph of Chapter 8 calls attention to the treatment of women. Cunégonde, informing Candide of what had happened to her during a war, tells him,I was in bed and fast asleep when it pleased God to send the Bulgarians to our delightful castle of Thunder-ten-Tronckh; they slew my father and brother, and cut my mother in pieces. A tall Bulgarian, six feet high, perceiving that I had fainted away at this sight, began to ravish me; this made me recover; I regained my senses, I cried, I struggled, I bit, I scratched, I wanted to tear out the tall Bulgarian's eyes--not knowing that what happened at my father's house was the usual practice of war. The brute gave me a cut in the left side with his hanger, and the mark is still upon me.When Candide, Cunégonde, and an old woman they had met arrive at Cadiz, Spain, the old woman tells them about herself. In one passage, she says, "Imagine to yourself the distressed situation of the daughter of a Pope, only fifteen years old, who, in less than three months, had felt the miseries of poverty and slavery, had been ravished almost every day, [and] had beheld her mother drawn in quarters. . . ."
Unremitting pessimism is as bad as unremitting optimism. Both positions have no effect on the status quo. It is the status quo that Voltaire attacks in Candide.
“We must cultivate our garden.” (Il faut cultiver notre jardin.) These final words of the novel express the moral of Voltaire’s novel: Human beings must work diligently to survive in this world and improve the status quo.
Although Voltaire stresses the importance of the truth in the novel, he himself, ironically, suppresses the truth in his derision of the clergy. For example, while deriding abuses of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits)—an order of Roman Catholic priests—he selectively manipulates the facts, depicting every Jesuit as a reprobate. In truth, many Jesuits died horrible deaths in noble causes. For example, Isaac Jogues (1607-1646), a French Jesuit missionary who ministered to North American Indians, was captured and murdered by Mohawk Indians, who displayed his head on a pole, after he attempted to end hostilities between the French and the Indians. Francis Xavier (1506-1552), a Spanish Jesuit who spread Christianity in the Malay Archipelago, the Spice Islands, India, and Japan, was considered a selfless man, dedicated to serving the poor. Rather than imposing his ways on native populations, he adopted their ways.
Voltaire’s Education and Religion
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) was a brilliant mathematician, philosopher, and all-around thinker who received a law degree at the University of Leipzig. A devout Lutheran, Leibniz 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 satirized in Candide. Leibniz also contended that nothing happens without a good reason. Voltaire ridicules Leibniz and his philosophy as simple-minded and unrealistic, refusing to recognize any logic—there was much—in the position of Leibniz. In Candide, Dr. Pangloss represents Leibniz, observing, “Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possible.”
("All is for the best in the best of possible worlds.”) The reputation of Leibniz continues to suffer under the crush of Voltaire’s wit even though Leibniz was an original thinker who was a more versatile scholar than Voltaire. Besides making his mark in philosophy, Leibniz pioneered the development of integral and differential calculus and greatly furthered the science of dynamics, which focuses
on motion and its causes: force, energy, mass, and momentum. Leibniz also promoted the development of academies and made significant contributions in theology, politics, diplomacy, law, history, and philology.
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