By François-Marie Arouet, Known as Voltaire (1694-1778)
A Study Guide
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Title and Title Page
Type of Work
Main Characters
Plot Summary
Slanted Criticism
Voltaire's Religion, Education
Who Was Leibniz?
Questions, Essay Topics
Complete Free Text
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010..©
Title and Title Page

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

Candide, probably written in 1758 and published in 1759, is a novel of satire, irony, sarcasm, and hyperbole. Candide has also been identified by the French term conte philosophique, meaning philosophical novel or philosophical story, a genre Voltaire is credited with inventing. His contes philosophiques (which also include Micromégas and Zadig) are characterized by a “swift-moving adventure story in which characterization [counts] for little and the moral (or sometimes immoral) lesson for much” (Brumfitt, J.H. Voltaire: Candide. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1968, page 9.) 


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.. 


The mid-18th Century in Europe, South America, and Turkey in the city of Constantinople and its environs. Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) is partly in Europe and partly in Asia.

Main Characters
Candide A naive, gullible youth who is blind to the evils of the world. His name, derived from the Latin candidus, means pure, sincere, white. Candide is the novel's protagonist.
Dr. Pangloss A philosopher and tutor of Candide. He insists that earth is the best of all possible worlds. He represents the philosophy of Leibniz. (See Theme 1, below.)
Cunégonde A young woman loved by Candide and ill-used by others. She is shallow and featherbrained.
Cacambo Candide’s guide in South America. He is resourceful and down-to-earth in contrast to Pangloss.
Martin Pessimistic but intelligent travel companion of Candide.
Old Woman Servant of Cunégonde who accompanies Candide to South America. Although she has suffered many injustices, she is a survivor who always perseveres.
James (Jacques) Benevolent Dutch Anabaptist who helps Candide.
Paquette Pretty maid of Cunégonde’s mother. Pangloss takes advantage of her—and contracts syphilis.
Maximilian Brother of Cunégonde who believes Candide, because of his background, is unworthy to marry Cunégonde.

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2004 

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. 

One day, while strolling in woods near the castle, Cunégonde observes Pangloss conducting a scientific experiment on her mother’s pretty chambermaid, Paquette. How interesting it would be, Cunégonde thought, to have Candide experiment with her. After dinner the following day, she drops her handkerchief and Candide picks it up. Behind a screen, he kisses her hand. Their lips meet. They tremble with love for each other. But the baron discovers them and sends Candide packing. Cunégonde faints. When she comes to, the baroness slaps her. But, of course, all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Only good can come from this turn of events.

Soldiers Arrest Candide

Candide roams the countryside. When he arrives tired, hungry, and cold in the nearby town of Waldberghoff-trarb-dikdorff, two Bulgars clap him in irons, haul him off to their regiment, and teach him to march, shoot, and take beatings. One day, after he wanders off innocently, four Bulgars catch up with him, arrest him, throw him in a dungeon, and offer him this choice: Run the gauntlet thirty-six times through the regiment’s two thousand soldiers or be shot twelve times in the head. Candide chooses the gauntlet. After two passes through, he is half-dead—all the skin ripped from his back—and he requests to be shot. But before the soldiers can grant his wish, the Bulgar King happens by and pardons Candide, believing him ignorant of the ways of the world. A surgeon treats Candide, and in three weeks new skin begins to grow. 

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. 

“This is indeed the best of all possible worlds, as Dr. Pangloss said,” Candide thinks. 

The next day, Candide gives his money to a disease-ridden beggar who spits up a tooth every time he coughs. The beggar turns out to be Pangloss. After Candide takes him to the Anabaptist for food, Pangloss tells Candide that the Bulgars disemboweled Cunégonde, cracked the baron’s skull, cut the baroness to pieces, killed Maximilian and the baron’s livestock, and destroyed the castle. Candide asks how, in this best of all possible worlds, Pangloss contracted such a hideous disease. He got it, he says, from the baroness’s chambermaid, Paquette. But the disease is not without its good points, for it infected Columbus—and he brought back riches from the New World.

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. 

Cunégonde Changes

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.

Over time, Cunégonde and the old woman turn peevish and overbearing. Cacambo withers under his work load, and Pangloss pines for the glory of teaching in a German university. Martin realizes that life is the same everywhere—miserable—and he bides his time. Then Paquette arrives with a cleric, Brother Geroflée, with whom she had been keeping company. They, too, are disillusioned with life. They all decide to call upon a dervish to ask him why there is so much misery and evil in the world and what they should do to improve their lives. After the dervish tells them simply to “remain quiet,” Pangloss says he would like to discuss philosophy with him, including the essence of the soul, the origin of evil, and the idea that the world they live in is the best of all possible worlds. The dervish slams his door on them. 

On their way back to their farm, an old man who grows fruit with the help of two daughters and two sons invites them into his home for beverages and oranges, limes, lemons, apples, and coffee. He tells them that working the land prevents him and his family from falling into poverty, crime, and boredom.

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.

Candide agrees, saying, “We need to cultivate our garden.”



Naive Optimism

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 philosophy. 

In Candide, Dr. Pangloss is the mouthpiece of Leibniz and Wolff, maintaining that every event occurs for a good reason as part of a divine plan. Voltaire attacks this view as balderdash. For example, in Chapter 3, Voltaire's narration presents the following scene of the aftermath of a battle as a refutation of Pangloss's view:

He [Candide] passed over heaps of dead and dying, and first reached a neighbouring village; it was in cinders, it was an Abare village which the Bulgarians had burnt according to the laws of war. Here, old men covered with wounds, beheld their wives, hugging their children to their bloody breasts, massacred before their faces; there, their daughters, disembowelled and breathing their last after having satisfied the natural wants of Bulgarian heroes; while others, half burnt in the flames, begged to be despatched. The earth was strewed with brains, arms, and legs.
In Chapter 5, the narration cites an earthquake as an event that has no apparent redeeming value. The account is an allusion to the powerful earthquake that occurred in Lisbon, Portugal, at 9:40 a.m. on Nov. 1, 1755. It killed 60,000 people, according to some estimates, and caused fires that burned for nearly a week. 

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. 

Slanted Criticism

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
Voltaire received an excellent education in Paris at the College of Louis le Grand, operated by the Jesuits—the same Roman Catholic priests he ridiculed in Candide. Voltaire later renounced Roman Catholicism in favor of deism, a religion that posited the existence of a God who created the universe but remained detached from it. Deists believed that knowledge of God was inborn and could be summoned through the application of reason. They therefore rejected revealed religion and Christian churches. Although atheists admire and frequently quote the works of Voltaire, Voltaire himself was never an atheist. He once remarked, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” (Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.)

Who Was Leibniz?

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. 
Study Questions and Essay Topics

  • Pangloss, who represents the German philosopher Leibniz, persistently maintains that "this is the best of all possible worlds." Write a short, satirical essay about a public figure in your community who is overly optimistic.
  • To what extent does an optimistic outlook improve or impair society? To what extent does a pessimistic outlook improve or impair society?
  • Which television news organizations in America and Britain (for example, NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, BBC, CNN) tend to present a Panglossian view of the world? Which news organizations tend to present a pessimistic view of the world? Which news organization tend to present an objective, balanced view of the world?
  • With whom would you rather spend an afternoon, Voltaire or Leibniz. Explain your answer.
  • Voltaire became a deist. In a comparison/contrast essay, explain the difference between the deistic view of God and the traditional Catholic or Protestant view of God.
  • On his adventures, Candide visits a place in South America called El Dorado, whose streets are paved with gold. Spanish explorers actually searched for such a place in South America. Research the legend of El Dorado, then write an informative essay about it.
  • Are there any characters in Candide who reject the view of Pangloss and see life as it is?
  • If you were to write a book like Candide, which attitudes, customs, political views, and religious beliefs in today's world would you satirize?

Free Texts

Complete Text of Candide: Online Library of Literature
Complete Text of Candide: Online Books
Complete Text of The Monadology, by Leibniz: Online Books