Candide / Voltaire
Candide, penned by Voltaire, is one of the most significant literary works of the past few decades, not so much for its witty and humorous plot, as much for the way in which the author narrates the social and political issues of the eighteenth century, in a philosophical perspective. It is an excellent satiric novel that questioned many of the popular beliefs of its time and created much debate and criticism wherever it was published. The novel was so scandalous, that it was banned both by the church and secular authorities. In fact it was classified in the list of prohibited books by the Roman Catholic Church and was banned in the United States till up to 1929. But amid all this banning and indictment, this book sold at a steadier pace than any in the history and soon became one of the bestsellers of the year 1760.
The theme of the novel mostly concentrated on criticizing and mocking the philosophy of optimism which was popularized by Leibniz, a famous philosopher of that age. One of the characters in the story named Pangloss plays the role of a Leibniz philosopher, who preaches the theory of optimism throughout the novel, but with ridiculously flawed justifications for the sufferings faced by the characters of the story.
This character is used by Voltaire to explain how weak optimist theory really is and how unrealistic it is. The author, through this novel, poses very serious questions to the propagandists of this theory. Let us begin this discussion by first taking a look at the plot of the story.
The hero of the story, Candide, is a simpleton who, according to the author, has a face that reveals his mind. He is the illegitimate nephew of the Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh and was brought up in a magnificent castle. He had a teacher (Pangloss) who believed and preached the theory of optimism and proclaimed that “there is no effect without a cause; and, that in this best of all possible worlds”. Candide believed his tutor’s ideas without any misgiving and thought he could never be in any better place than the Baron’s castle. He was romantically attached to the Baron’s daughter Cunégonde and was caught by the Baron while kissing her. He is evicted out of the castle and suddenly he is out on the cold on his own. He encounters various hardships after that and so begins his gruesome, eye opening and educative journey.
On leaving the castle Candide is forcefully enlisted by the Bulgarian army and after getting a taste of the atrocities of the war, he flees away from the military. He is given shelter by a good natured Anabaptist named Jacques. There he meets his tutor Pangloss inflicted with the disease of syphilis and he helps him get cured (Pangloss loses an eye and an ear though). Candide learns that the entire Baron family got killed during the Bulgarian attack and he mourns for the demise of Cunégonde. Then Jacques takes the duo on a voyage and their ship is rocked by a storm. Jacques is thrown overboard while trying to rescue a sailor, who does not reciprocate the compassion and leaves the Anabaptist to his own fate. After surviving the storm Candide and his mentor reach Lisbon and bear witness to another fury of nature, this time an earthquake. He then meets an old woman who leads him to Cunégonde who is now a mistress of a Jewish merchant who shares her with a grand inquisitor. During this meeting the two men arrive and Candide is forced to kill them both and he flees taking Cunégonde and the old woman with him.
In Buenos Aires, Candide has to part with the ladies and he escapes with his manservant Cacambo, to Paraguay, where he meets Cunégonde’s brother. During the journey he encounters monkeys chasing naked women and shoots at them. But later Cacambo reveals that the monkeys may have been the lovers of those women. After a lot more adventures they come to the first and perhaps only optimistic part of the novel – a fictional place called El Dorado. It is a place where the streets are filled with precious stones and wealth, and the land is ruled by a good natured king. They continue their travel, this time accompanied by lot of sheep which carry huge sums of money (a gift by the king) only to have them stolen. Here Cacambo leaves Candide to wait for him in Europe and a character name Martin, who belongs to the pessimist school of philosophy, is introduced. He accompanies Candide in the rest of the journey.
They then reach England where they meet Paquette, who was the lover of Pangloss and the one who gave the syphilis disease to him. Later Cacambo returns with the news that Cunégonde is in Constantinople and that she is really an eye sore nowadays. Nonetheless Candide is not one to break a promise and he sets forth to rescue her along with Cacambo and Martin. On the way they are joined by Pangloss and Cunégonde’s brother and they meet Cunégonde and the old woman. Cunégonde has now become very unattractive and irritable. Yet, Candide marries her rather reluctantly, much out of obligation and to spite her brother, rather than for love.
At the end of the story he buys a small farm and desperately seeks an explanation for the sufferings he has undergone. He then meets a Turk, who along with his four children leads a peaceful life, by following the simple policy of putting in hard work to earn his livelihood and keeping out of the concerns of the external world. The story ends with all the main characters of the novel, set to work in Candide’s farm, with each of them doing their allocated task.
Theme of the novel
Although the novel is written with a playful humor and sarcastic wit, it addresses very serious issues of its time and questions many of the popular beliefs of mankind, such as God’s hand in the events that take place in the world. The novel which was written and published during the year 1758-59, also has references to the natural calamities that took place in that time period, namely, the Lisbon and Lima earthquakes. His characters try to find the reasons for all this human suffering and the entire novel tries to find out the elusive secret of discovering happiness and peace in life.
Attack at the optimistic philosophy: The author through this novel has explored the capacity of humankind to endure suffering and hardship. In particular, the plot of the novel strongly opposes the theory of optimism which was preached by the popular philosophers of the age such as Alexander Pope and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. The attack was more towards Leibniz’s teaching than at Pope’s. The popular quote of Leibniz - “everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”, is often repeated by Pangloss, Candide’s mentor, all through the novel.
The hero of the story too seems to blindly believe the philosophy at the beginning of the story, when he is living in the Baron’s castle. But once he is thrown out of the castle, he encounters numerous sufferings and misfortune all through his journey. At the end of the novel he becomes a non-believer and is desperately searching for some explanation for the sequence of events that took place.
There are three particular incidents which directly poses questions on the optimistic philosophy.
- Pangloss, who undoubtedly believed the optimistic way of life, was left homeless and became a beggar with syphilis and eventually loses an eye and an ear to get cured. What could be the best possible explanation for his suffering? The answer he offers is very lame (written intentionally so by the author) - it was a thing unavoidable, a necessary ingredient in the best of worlds; for if Columbus had not caught in an island in America this disease, we should have had neither chocolate nor cochineal.
- Second the kind Anabaptist, who offered shelter to Candide, was thrown overboard when he tried to help a drowning sailor. But the sailor did not show any effort to save the Anabaptist and he was left to his fate. His act of kindness was his own undoing and no superior force intervened in his fate and he died.
- And after all the adventures when he finally reunites with Cunégonde, for whom he undertook all this trouble in the first place, he neither had the love nor the compassion, required for a successful marriage.
In the chaotic plot of the story the optimistic argument seems ineffectual and even disparaging. Candide offers a more practical philosophy whereby the hero ends the story by uttering "we must cultivate our garden".
Take on religion: Candide blatantly denounces all the hypocrisies that are practiced in the name of religion. It ridicules theologians and subsequently Voltaire was condemned by the church for an act of heresy. The novel features many corrupted individuals who are religious leaders but lead a very tarnished life. The following characters of the novel are examples for Voltaire’s direct attack on religious leaders
- Candide meets a girl born to a Pope (Catholic laws require celibacy from the men of cloth)
- A Catholic inquisitor who secretly has a mistress
- A Jesuit colonel with homosexual inclinations
- A Franciscan Friar who is also a thief
- Jacques, an Anabaptist, is portrayed as a kind and sensible man.
In fact the inquisition punishes Pangloss for openly stating his views and Candide for merely listening to them. So clearly Voltaire paints a very dark and gloomy picture of the religious establishments through his novel. No wonder, the novel was banned by the Catholic Church.
Natural Calamities: Lisbon earthquake is used by Voltaire to question the hand of God in such disasters. This earthquake portrayed in the novel is based on the real calamity that rocked Lisbon in the year 1755. It questions why such natural events devastate people from time to time with no proper justification. Pangloss(who represents the optimistic scholars in the novel) gives a flimsy justification which is "the city of Lima in South America experienced the same last year; the same cause, the same effects; there is certainly a train of sulphur all the way underground from Lima to Lisbon."
Though these lines were obviously humor soaked and are meant to make the reader laugh, Voltaire clearly thinks that Leibniz philosophy is not based on real world facts.
Garden: The garden, portrayed at the end of the story, purchased by Candide has a symbolical meaning to it. It draws parallel to the Garden of Eden and conveys that a man must cultivate his own garden’ in other words, one must make his own fate.
Misuse of Power: The novel powerfully captures the atrocities committed by men in power. The war atrocities, sexual harassment of women, church authorities burning heretics, killing of a military Admiral just because he killed insufficiently and other such events are skillfully captured by the narrator. He discusses such events in a matter of fact tone and in a very nonchalant manner, thus presenting the reader a picture of the hypocritical society of Europe that existed in that century. The three main female characters of the novel are either raped or repeatedly sexually exploited by various men all through the story. By portraying these events (some of them like the execution of an English Admiral are real incidents), Voltaire strongly voices his protests against political and social injustice committed by politicians, government and religious leaders.
Some novels are meant just to entertain the readers and some are meant to be informative. But only a few works aim at inspiring the reader and bring about a social change. Candide, by Voltaire, is one such novel and it really is a literary treasure with so much to offer for any reader. Whatever is it that a reader might be expecting out of the novel– be it entertainment, information or inspiration, he would not be disappointed.
Candide. The Online Literature Library. http://www.literature.org/authors/voltaire/candide/. Web. April 12, 2013
Candide. The Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Candide#Optimism. April 6, 2013. Web. April 12, 2013.