Candide and Madame Bovary
In Voltaire’s Candide, the title character, Candide, is a young, naïve man who knows little about the world, and who is thrust into dangerous situation after dangerous situation that gradually undoes his perception of his world being “the best of all possible worlds.” (Candide, p. 2) Emma Bovary of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, on the other hand, is weary of her own empty life and seeks out excitement in the form of dangerous liaisons and money deals. In both of these works, the characters start out sheltered and then gain a greater understanding of the world around them. However, their perceptions change in somewhat different ways; Candide learns the harsh realities of life and learns to be more practical, while Emma feels alive in her risk-taking, only for all of her indiscretions to drive her to suicide. In this paper, we will examine the similarities and differences between the two characters. Both Candide and Madame Bovary show the changing of a naïve, sheltered character into a stronger, more cynical person, for better or worse for their eventual fate.
Candide, at the beginning of the book, is instructed to believe that the world is kind and just, and that there is no real suffering in the world; his only real want is for the lovely Cunegonde, the daughter of the Baron who owns the castle he lives in. When he is caught by the Baron fooling around with her, he is kicked out and sent on a dizzying array of misadventures. These tales, from being forced into military service to nearly being ritualistically sacrificed, among other situations, change him. He has less faith in the idea of the world being naturally beautiful, and instead believes that we must “cultivate our garden.” (p. 167) Candide realizes that the world will not be naturally great; people must make it as good as it can be.
Emma Bovary starts out the novel in a similar way; she believes that life can be amazing, and that romance could simply happen with whoever she liked. When she saw her husband-to-be Charles for the first time, “she wanted to make herself in love with him.” (Flaubert, p. 42) Emma has a specific idea of how the high life should be lived, and she takes steps to put herself on top of the world in that way. Unlike Candide, she takes her idealized world with her, regardless of how many things go wrong or who it may hurt. She is completely self-centered, her journey being all about her own vanity, as opposed to Candide’s genuine attempts to help people getting him in trouble. They both end up in hot water over the course of their respective works, but for different reasons.
The experiences change them in different ways. Candide becomes a more responsible person, whereas Emma retreats further into her own selfishness, turning her naivete into despair. Her emotional highs and lows and constant need for attention are a direct contrast to Candide’s ongoing optimism and selflessness in his actions. Candide’s journey shows a character whose virtue is changed, if not undone, by the terrible things the outside world has to offer. Emma’s journey, on the other hand, is merely about how self-delusion can blind you to you responsibilities or life’s dangers. Candide learns from his experience and becomes a better person; Emma takes her own life when it doesn’t work out the way she wants it to.