In the scope of classical literature, the writings of Francois Voltaire occupy a prominent position. Voltaire’s renowned shrewd outlook and sober judgment found reflection in his famous satire Candide, or Optimism – a book which, met with a scandal immediately after publication, has enjoyed great popularity for centuries due to the vital and burning problems discussed in it. Candide can be viewed as “a satire on systems; a discussion of the problem of evil; a comparison of Utopia and reality; a pursuit of the secret of happiness; an education…” (Pearson 110). As such, Candide is the story of education of its hero, a young and naïve man called Candide, raised in a Westphalian baron’s estate and truly believing his preacher Pangloss that all is for good in this world and things cannot be different from what they are. However, after being banished from the castle as a result of affair with the baron’s daughter, Cunegonde, Candide opens his eyes on a less perfect world than he imagined he was living in.
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Being simple-hearted by nature, Candid, exhausted by hunger and cold, easily falls victim of Bulgarian army recruiters and learns his first lessons of human cruelty during the regiment training and the battle with the Abares. Escaping from horrible pictures of wartime devastation, he faces a heartless reception by a religious Dutch couple and is rescued from his misery by a generous Anabaptist, who later on gives shelter to Pangloss as well. Pangloss tells the story of the baron’s family gory perishing but despite all their hard experiences both heroes still keep a firm belief that all that happens is unavoidable and occurs for the best:
“private misfortunes make the general good, so that the more private misfortunes there are the greater is the general good” (Voltaire 15).
However, after a shipwreck on the way to Lisbon and an earthquake there casing local authorities to conduct an auto-da-fe during which Pangloss was hanged, Candid starts to doubt the true goodness of this world: “If this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others?” (Voltaire 17). His spirits raise again when he discovers that his beloved Cunegonde is alive, but they need to flee to Cadiz for Candid kills the owners disgracing her. On the way to Buenos Ayres Cunegonde’s old servant tells her tragic story and teaches the young couple to preserve love for life despite all the distresses.
Buenos Ayres governor is so charmed by Cunegonde that he decides to marry her, thus causing Candid to conflict him and flee again. With his loyal valet Cacambo he goes to Paraguay where he meets his sweetheart’s brother, whom he kills as a result of argument over marrying Cunegonde and escapes further, finding shelter in El Dorado, a land of riches and honest people, where he learns that people should live a simple life and no religious institutions should govern them.
Loaded with gold, Candide goes back hoping to ransom Cunegonde, and meets with human cruelty, greediness and betrayal. Seeing a savagely treated black slave, he renounces his optimism which is “the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong” (Voltaire 41). Inventing ways to get his beloved back, Candide travels back to Europe, stopping in France, England and Italy, everywhere seeing the worst sides of human nature and arguing about the way of the world with his new companion, a pessimistically-minded Dutchman Martin. “All is misery and illusion” becomes his new motto (Voltaire 54).
After a long journey which brings him to Constantinople, brings him together with baron’s son and Pangloss again and opens his eyes on Cunegonde’s misery, Candide finally settles down, but life does not bring satisfaction to him and his friends. Only after an encounter with a Turk who enjoys his life does Candid realize the simple truth: “we must cultivate our garden” (Voltaire 70). By these words he means that not philosophical disputes about everything on earth but practical everyday actions are the only way to live a peaceful and fulfilling life, for only “with solidarity and tolerance man can ameliorate his condition” (Patrick).
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All in all, Candide represents a way of becoming sage and wise by a young man formerly believing in everything he was preached by his master. Many of its lessons are timely for modern youth who are starting on their own path in life.
Henry, Patrick. “Contre Barthes”. Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 249 (1987). Web.
Pearson, Roger. The Fables of Reason: A Study of Voltaire’s “Contes Philosophiques”. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.
Voltaire, Francois. Candide, or Optimism. 2nd ed. Trans. and ed. Robert M. Adams. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Incorporated, 1991.