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Bildungsroman Novel: Satire in Voltaire’s “Candide”

Bildungsroman is a German word/term which refers to a coming-of age novel. Coined by famous German philologist, Johann Carl Simon Morgenstern, the bildungsroman novel traverses the psychological, moral and social molding of the main, character/protagonist from childhood to adulthood. In most cases the impetus for such a journey is sparked by loss and discontent as well involves abrupt separation from family and familiar setting (Tennyson, 1968, pgs.135-146). Sarcastic and comic in tone with an erratic, fantastical, and fast-moving plot, Candide (1759), emblematic of this genre, was written by illustrious/prolific French Enlightenment writer, essayist, and philosopher Francois-Marie Arouet better known as Voltaire. Although comic and mordantly matter-of-fact, Voltaire uses historical events such as the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake and Seven Years War as a premise. Such events prompted Voltaire and others of his day to wrestle with the problem of evil in world. Congruent to the bildungsroman theory, Candide embarks upon a painstaking journey across three continents (Europe, South America, and Asia) engulfed with great hardships and disillusionment and discovers that the imperfections by far make this not the best of all possible worlds. Through allegory, Voltaire’s personal views on humanity and the world profusely permeate throughout Candide in which he conspicuously assaults armies/governments, philosophies/philosophers, and in particular hypocritical religions/ theologians via his major as well as minor characters.

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Voltaire viewed organized religion as contemptible and his disdain is best expressed in his statement “Ecrasons l’infame,” meaning “We must crush the vile thing (Hersberger, 2005).” The major and minor character which epitomizes his intense feelings is the Grand Inquisitor and Jacques, the Anabaptist. An official of the Catholic Church, the Grand Inquisitor is cruel, hypocritical, and deceitful, traits Voltaire felt were indicative of organized religion. Jacques the Anabaptist exudes kindness to Candide and his mentor Pangloss. Sailing with them to Lisbon, Jacques drowns in a shipwreck. A Protestant sect, the Anabaptists advocated adult baptism (complete immersion into water) and believed children could not discern between good and evil thereby making them ineligible for baptism. Radical and extreme in their belief, Voltaire felt such characteristics were negative of organized religion as well. Candide’s relationship with Jacques and other minor fellow travelers illustrates, however, Voltaire’s views/value concerning community, friendship, love as well as respect (Lawall, 2005). Emblematic of eighteenth century intellectual views on God, Candide poses many questions regarding not just God’s existence but how is it possible for evil and suffering to exist in lieu of such an omnipotent presence (Lawall, 2005). Voltaire believed that God created the world, but He also gave man free will – free will which he felt was stripped away by fanatical/fatalistic religious institutions that where violence ridden and corrupt. Brutality and human injustice made the so-called perfect world God created anything but perfect. In a perfect society/world governed by righteous/Godly men one man’s heaven cannot be another man’s hell. Candide’s statement when he and his other fellow traveler Cacambo encounter the maimed slave in Suriname attests to such – “I’m through, I must give up [Pangloss’] optimism after all… It is a mania for saying things are well when one is in hell (Voltaire, 1950, pg. 113.).” Candide/Voltaire arrives at the ultimate conclusion that only when one cultivates their own inner world/garden in harmony and peace will the world become a better place.

Autobiographical and historical in nature, it is Voltaire and his life the reader comes in contact with in Candide, thereby establishing a personal connection with him/his feelings. Life is a journey which involves physical and mental experiences. Candide speaks unique to this experience/journey, transcending time and cultural boundaries, personifying the human development/evolvement process (mental, spiritual, etc.) which is indelible and universal.

Works Cited

Hersberger, Eli. “Candide and Religion.” Web.

Tennyson, G. B. “The Bildungsroman in Nineteenth-Century English Literature.” Medieval Epic to the “Epic Theater” of Brecht: Essays in Comparative Literature. Ed. Rosario P. Armato and John M. Spalek. Los Angeles: U of Southern California P, 1968. 135-46.

The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Vol. 2 (8th edition). Ed. Sarah Lawall. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005 Voltaire [1759] (1959), p. 113.

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