In Voltaire’s Candide, we see an incredibly prescient bit of satire, as the titular character, Candide, experiences an episodic, darkly comedic, eerily satirical breakdown of all the things he thinks he knows about the world. Over the course of the book, everything from war to love to polite society itself is lampooned, broken down and exposed for the farce that it is. Candide comes to understand that, contrary to what he believed in the beginning, he is not living in “the best of all possible worlds.”
Candide has a lot of fun lampooning the tenets of polite European society, including, most notably, the upper class who are completely ignorant of the problems of the world, and are not taught otherwise. This comes in the form of Candide and his teacher, Pangloss, who is the one to tell him that this world is the greatest one that could possibly exist. In fact, the book itself is likely meant to lampoon the kind of society that would read these romanticized novels, as it features intentionally stock and two-dimensional characters, Candide included. Instead of the hero’s journey that leads him to ultimate prosperity, the journey itself is arduous and full of dangers, eventually leading him into military service.
While in Candide’s (and polite society’s) eyes, military service is romanticized, he is forced to go through a great many terrible things while conscripted into service. His entry into service is not voluntary, instead being forced into it; he is always reticent and unsure of what he is supposed to be doing, which leads him to be nearly executed by the end of it. This section of the book is meant to further satirize the romantic novels of the time that idealized military service, depicting service as cruel, harsh, and full of corporal punishment.
Candide’s experiences lead him to lose the optimism that he had at the beginning of the book (in which he assumed that the aristocracy had every right to enjoy the liberties that they do), instead opting for a more measured, cynical, yet democratic view of the world and how it should be – “we must cultivate our garden” are the last words of the book, expressing the need for the people living in that world to make the best of it and shape it into something that works out the best for everyone.
The book contains a great many sendups and moments of satire of nobility in the Enlightenment era, lampooning state officials, nobles, and even clergy. For example, the character of the Grand Inquisitor is clearly meant to be a parody of the superstitious nature of these officials, which was meant to keep the populace fearful and docile, less prone to rebellion. The Inquisitor’s declaration of an auto-da-fe, which was used in the context of the book to prevent earthquakes from happening, is an example of this sort of ridiculous religious superstition that is abused to prevent the common man from losing their faith in the monarchy.
In many ways, the philosophies and ideas presented in Candide are a precursor to the ideals that led to the French Revolution. In that time, France was ruled by a religious monarchy, and aristocrats carried a lot of the political power and influence, leaving the proletariat without much recourse to rectify their bleak situation. Enlightenment ideals were beginning to make themselves more popular, beginning to usurp the prevailing doctrine of the time, which was very much based on religion and superstition. At the core of the Enlightenment is the questioning of the pervading wisdom of the time, instead finding truth for oneself as opposed to just accepting whatever people in position of power tell them.
These ideas that are at the core of the Enlightenment are also present in Candide. Candide himself is turned into an Enlightenment figure throughout the course of the novel; while he is at first a willing participant in the aristocratic system that he finds himself on the lower end of, his experiences in the book allow him to see the holes in that logic, as well as the ability to recognize problems that are inherent in the world. At the same time, he sees that there is change that he can make to the world to make it more livable for himself and those close to him, by ‘cultivating his own garden.’ These ideas in and of themselves were surely very powerful ones for the audience that read this book, as it showed them, in greater detail, the problems that were present in this aristocratic, religious society, and how changes needed to be made.
Voltaire was very much espousing his own ideals and points of view within this book, which may have helped lead to the political upheaval that Europe was experiencing in that era. The brutality of war, which was being waged by many countries including France at the time, was lampooned in the depiction of the battle that Candide must participate in (though unwillingly) between the Abares and Bulgars. This satire is always presented through a thick layer of sarcasm, calling the victory of his side “heroic butchery” that Candide had to hide from, nonetheless. He also takes a pass at the Spanish Inquisition through characters like the Inquisitor, who performs unequivocally barbaric acts (such as the aforementioned auto-da-fe) in the name of the Church, as well as to fend off what amounts to bad luck. The sort of aristocratic ignorance of the problems of the rest of the world is the basis for the journey of the novel, Candide arguably becoming a very cathartic figure for a proletariat reader of the time, as they would be able to see a member of the bourgeoisie go through the kinds of trials that a person of their standing might endure, showing them that there are serious evils to the world that must be acted upon, or at least acknowledged.
Candide is as much a journey of the reader at the time as it is the tale of an optimist meeting a harsh, cruel world and finding it not what he expected. It explores realistic and contemporary ideas of corruption, cynicism, naivete and despotism that a person reading the book at the time would very much be experiencing. The absolute monarchy present in 18th century France was all powerful and subjected the lower classes to subjugation and economic persecution, an authoritarian rule that led the people to revolt and eventually create a democratic government. In this book, Candide experiences all the things that a revolutionary in France would have noticed and experienced; punishment at the hands of superstitious and zealous leaders (the auto-da-fe), rejection from members of the upper class (when he is first exiled from Castle Thunder-ten-tronckh at the start of the book), and the brutality of war.
As a result of the Enlightenment ideals that Candide becomes a proponent of by the end of the book, Voltaire’s novel becomes a symbol for the state of affairs in 18th century Europe, exposing a deeply-entrenched society of fear, persecution and inequality in the guise of light satire. This made it possible for publication at the time (though not without controversy), but a discerning reader of the era would have picked up on the philosophies espoused by Voltaire and seen how something like the French Revolution might have been a necessary action.
Voltaire, and Robert Martin Adams. Candide, Or, Optimism: a New Translation, Backgrounds, Criticism. New York: Norton, 1966. Print