Voltaires Candide Essays
Candide, Voltaire’s tour de force, surpasses most other famous satires. Like Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1712, 1714), it takes a swipe at the pretentiousness of the upper classes; like George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), it undercuts political systems; like Jonathan Swift’s ambitious Gulliver’s Travels (1726), it sheds sharp light on the grossness, cupidity, and stupidity of human beings, as well as on their crude and frequently cruel institutions. Voltaire’s satire goes beyond human beings and their society, however, to examine the entire world in which they find themselves. Its thesis is contrived in explicit response to the Leibnitzian optimism that this is “the best of all possible worlds.”
The existence of evil in the world has been a problem for human beings ever since they began to speculate about the nature of things. It is treated in the literature of the West at least as early as the book of Genesis, which attributes evil to human beings’ disobedient nature. St. Augustine and, later, John Milton enlarged on this theory, claiming that God limited his own interference in the world when he created people “sufficient to stand though free to fall.” The book of Job in the Bible centers more specifically on the problem of suffering. Its answer is essentially no answer, a restriction to an overwhelming (some have said obscene) demonstration of God’s power, which humbles Job into acceptance. A third century Persian philosopher, Mani, devised the theory that Earth is a field of dispute between two nearly matched powers—one of light, one of darkness—with human beings caught in the middle.
Most later explanations appear to be variations on these three approaches. The seventeenth century Frenchman Blaise Pascal believed, like the author of Job, that human vision cannot perceive the justice in God’s overall plan. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz developed this explanation further. In his Theodicée, published in 1710, he described a harmonious universe in which all events are linked into a chain of cause and effect, and in which apparent evil is compensated by some greater good that may not be evident to the limited human mind. The English poet Pope expressed similar views.
In his early life, Voltaire was generally optimistic. Beginning in 1752, however, his writings evidence growing pessimism. On November 1, 1755, an earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal, killed between thirty and forty thousand people. This catastrophe provided Voltaire with a perfect springboard for his skepticism about the basic goodness of the world. “If Pope had been at Lisbon,” he wrote, “would he have dared to say All is well?” His fellow Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau responded that human beings, not God, are to blame for evil, including earthquakes: Human beings bring misfortune upon themselves by congregating in cities instead of living naturally in the country.
Voltaire continues the debate in Candide, where he creates a young, impressionable protagonist and sets him upon an incredible string of adventures, many of which he drew from real life. Historical events include the Lisbon earthquake and subsequent auto-da-fé, the political chaos of Morocco, and the execution of an admiral (Voltaire had tried to intercede in just such a situation). Like such other wandering heroes as Gulliver and Huckleberry Finn, Candide is naïve. For a time, like a schoolboy, he reacts to such events as torture, war, and catastrophe by recalling the favorite sayings of his tutor, Pangloss, among them “Every effect has a cause” and “All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” As horror piles on horror, however, his doubts increase. Pangloss reappears periodically to soothe his pupil with further examples of illogical logic, but harsh experience begins to have its effect.
Candide’s visit to Eldorado, the famed lost city of the New World, is a high-water mark. Here all is placid and serene. People live in absolute harmony. Suffering and poverty are unknown. There is no greed, and the natives smile at Candide’s interest in the gold and jewels that lie on the ground as “clay and pebbles.” Eldorado is utopia. Because of his desire to regain his lost love, Cunegonde, Candide leaves Eldorado; having however seen a truly harmonious world, he can no longer accept cruelty, catastrophe, and suffering as necessary ingredients for a universal good.
In the final chapter, Candide and his little band, including Pangloss, his more recent friend, the pessimistic Martin, and Cunegonde, who has now grown old and ugly, settle on a small farm “till the company should meet with a more favorable destiny.” There they become almost as distressed by boredom as previously they had been by disaster until two neighbors bring enlightenment to them. A dervish, questioned about the existence of evil, responds, “What signifies it whether there be evil or good? When his highness sends a ship to Egypt does he trouble his head whether the rats in the vessel are at their ease or not?” This echo of a metaphor that Voltaire had contrived as early as 1736 briefly asserts the notion that the world may in the view of the “divine architect” be excellent indeed, but it is not designed for human beings, the “mice” in the hold. The second neighbor, a contented old farmer, advises Candide’s group of the value of labor, which “keeps off from us three great evils—idleness, vice, and want.” For once, those philosophical opposites, Pangloss and Martin, agree; the little community settles down to work in earnest, each member doing his part with good will and deriving satisfaction therefrom.
Candide, although it is an attack on philosophical optimism, is not a pessimistic work. Its ending, with the hero remarking that “we must cultivate our garden,” reminds the reader of the words of another realistic but hopeful man, Anton Chekhov, who was to observe more than a century later, “If everyone in the world did all he was capable of on his own plot of land, what a beautiful world it would be!”
This essay revolves around the theme that the work is a parody in different ways. That seems to be the thesis, rather than the idea in the title that the characters are somehow laden historically and socially. Make sure that the introduction reflects the true thesis of the essay. Can the different kinds of parodies be reconciled? That is, do Christianity and hagiography seem to have the same characteristics of optimism that Voltaire is against, and is there something about the happy-ending novel form that has the same characteristics?
The saint/character is named, I believe, Cunegonde. Please check the spelling.
Was Candide one of the works that got him in trouble, or were his parodies so well crafted that he escaped censure for them?
Cite the introduction to the novel, since it is mentioned in the essay.
Further comments are given below. Please make sure you understand and agree with all revisions that you accept. My suggested revision (under 1,000 words) follows below and in a separate attachment.
--- your essay ---
Voltaire's Candide: Historically- and Socially-Founded Characters
- is the argument simply about these aspects of the characters?
Voltaire, as an eighteenth century French philosopher and writer, lived in a far different society than the average American college student is accustomed to today. Though Voltaire was a champion of civil liberties, he spent most of his life in a France plagued with heavy censorship.
- ok, but check out www.thefire.org for an opposing view
While some of his works were applauded at the time, many others caused public outrage, even landing him in prison several times. Although the philosophical issues approached in Candide were timely and appropriate in eighteenth century France, the genius of Voltaire lies in the timelessness of his characters and the conclusions they force one to draw.
- ok, but give a more clear sense of the conclusions and characteristics that you mean
Voltaire's novel Candide is a parody in several senses of the word. First, it acts to parody the genre of the novel as a whole. Still a relatively new literary form at the time, the novel was subject to occasional criticism by romantic traditionalists. [moreover,] While [or because] Voltaire himself was fairly progressive, he spared no opportunity to poke fun of any available convention. In any case, the idea of genre parody was not created or even popularized solely by Voltaire. As Nelly Severin notes, parody of literary genres was so frequently practiced by French writers throughout the eighteenth century that it can on statistical authority alone be said to have constituted a literary genre itself (842). Voltaire specifically targeted hagiographic materials, the records and studies of saints.
Naming the main character Candide was by no means an accident. As explained in the introduction, the name is based upon the Latin word candidus, meaning white, and leading eventually to our modern candidate. (but not because of race) One could then easily draw the symbolic conclusion of Candide being clean, pure, and innocent. Beyond that, however, is an additional hagiographic allusion. Voltaire was familiar with not one, but two distinct saints who took the name Candide. Little is known about the first, a Roman martyr. The second, a soldier, had been attacked previously by Voltaire due to the historical improbability (Severin 843) of the myth surrounding his canonization.
Another character based off a saint is Cun[e]gonde. The historic Cunegonde, similar to Voltaire's character, had ties to Westphalia through marriage. While Saint Cungonde led a life of chastity, reportedly remaining a virgin even after marriage (Severin 844), her representation in Candide is far less pure. The novels incarnation of Cunegonde is anything but chaste, serving as an additional parody of religious history. It's likely this intentional twist served to showcase Voltaire's disapproval of society's encouragement of virginity as a virtue.
-ok, but this is also about religious parody and not just social parody, so this information blends with the next paragraph. Make sure the historical details are relevant.
Furthermore, the entirety of Candide's first few chapters could be seen as religious parody. The innocent beginning of Candide can also be seen as a caricature of the typical saint's life (Severin 844). In this way, one could view all of Candide as a satire of traditional religion, a representation in hyperbole. It is possible to mistake this religious parody for that of romance; indeed, commonalities such as shipwrecks and pirates do exist (Severin 844). However, all of these archetypes apply even more aptly to the world of hagiography, and serve as an even more powerful rebellion, especially coming out of eighteenth-century France.
-ok--see above note
Candide was written in 1759, after Voltaire had been exiled to England and [had] returned again to France. Originally taking up residence in Paris, he was forced to relocate to the rural outskirts of the country after publishing his highly critical letters on the topic of the French governmental system. This lifestyle probably had a direct impact on the shaping of Candide, the main character of this satirical piece. Much like Voltaire, Candide finds himself constantly relocated, generally not by choice.
- this is a new topic--on the relationship between the author and the protagonist. Use a stronger transition.
It should be noted that while Candide explores the philosophy of optimism, and the subtitle of the novel is in fact "or Optimism," the word optimism can only first be found in print some 22 years earlier [in French?]. In the grand scheme of philosophy, the analysis of optimism was still a very new thought at the time Voltaire wrote Candide. Perhaps that explains the incessant (yet delicate) mocking of Pangloss, the eternally optimistic pseudo-philosopher. Voltaire felt optimism, as it was understood at the time, was simply irrational. The school of thought required the position that life as it currently exists is as good as it gets, and any seemingly negative situation is facilitated by God and will eventually lead to some greater good.
-ok, so this is also a philosophical parody
While Voltaire's criticism of optimism may seem fairly obvious, he subtly attacks several other conjectures at the same time: that we can totally transcend our selfishness or provincialism; that a final accounting of the balance of good and evil in the world is achievable; [and] that human philosophies bear some sort of direct relevance to human behavior (Wood 192). All of these theories require optimism for validation (are you sure? this point seems arguable), and yet, in Candide, the only shows of optimism are ridiculous and obviously satirical representations.
- this material goes with the previous paragraph.
Another social quandary often grappled with in the eighteenth century that found its way in to Candide is the idea of a utopian society. Of course this representation can be found in Eldorado. A paradox is discovered when, after several months of living in this relative paradise, Candide and Cacambo decide they are not happy and will leave. But if Eldorado is a utopia, the happiest of all places that provides for its denizens all they need, how could anybody be unhappy? Voltaire seems to suggest that what Candide experienced there was not true happiness, because a happy life is a life full of risks and adventure (Wood 198).
- true; this point supports optimism, though, in the suggestion that the world of struggle really is the best world for human happiness
In an extension of the question of contentment, Voltaire convinces the reader throughout Candide not to trust his basic descriptions of characters such as good, worthy, and faithful. While the story began with a number of these perfect images, the characters described in such glowing terms continually manage to disappoint.
- this seems to be part of the parody of the novel?
One disaster after another seems to befall poor Candide while his friends come up morally short. After he and Cacambo resolve to leave Eldorado, the reader is already well aware of Voltaire's deceptive character descriptions. So when Candide asks Cacambo to take half his wealth and search for Cunegonde, and Voltaire's narration expresses surefire faith in his abilities, it is to be expected that Cacambo will find a way to fail. Naturally the only way he could act in a manner surprising to the reader would be to follow through on his promise to find Cunegonde and bring her to Candide, and sure enough, that is exactly what he does (Wood 198).
- what is the point, though, of the surprise? We do not know until the next paragraph.
Voltaire manages to influence the reader's beliefs several times over the course of Candide. In the beginning, through Candide's innocent good faith, we are likely to give optimism a chance. Of course the idea of optimism is continually whittled away throughout the story, until eventually the reader has no choice but to abandon it and expect the worst from seemingly good-natured characters. It is at that moment when Cacambo comes through, living up to all optimistic expectations. If the reader expresses disbelief at this turnaround and accomplishment, then Voltaire has succeeded. The one time that an optimistic philosophy is fulfilled, it is unbelievable. Voltaire has managed to destroy any stock the reader had put in optimism.
- good! Or is this also Wood's point?
While Voltaire's characters seem to make sense on their own, they take on a far deeper meaning when the history and reasoning behind them is understood. These characters are the method by which Voltaire attempts to present philosophical matters in an entertaining fashion, and end up being quite effective, especially if fully understood.
- ok; again return to the points about parody in Voltaire's achievement of this purpose. Of course it is more than entertainment and understanding but also a social and religious commentary.
Severin, Nelly H. "Hagiographic Parody in Candide." French Review 50 (1977): 842-849.
Michael Wood. Notes on Candide. New England Review 26 (2005): 192-204.
--- my revision ---
Parodies in Voltaire's Candide
Voltaire, an eighteenth-century French philosopher and writer who was a champion of civil liberties, lived in a country plagued with heavy censorship. While some of his works were applauded at the time, many others caused public outrage, and his writings even led him to prison and exile. After publishing letters highly critical of the French governmental system, he was forced to relocate once again, moving to the rural outskirts of the country. This frequent moving probably had a direct impact on Candide (1759), whose title character travels the world, generally not by choice. Because Voltaire was fairly progressive, he spared no opportunity to poke fun of convention. Readers of the novel had many reasons to bristle, since the novel is a parody in several senses of the word. Candide parodies the genre of the novel, the hagiographic tradition, social norms, and the philosophy of optimism. While these topics were timely for Voltaire, the genius of the work lies in its timelessness, since these parodies continue to provide humor today.
The idea of genre parody was not initiated or even popularized solely by Voltaire. As Nelly Severin notes, parodies of literary genres were so frequently published by French writers throughout the eighteenth century that, on statistical authority alone, parody can be said to have constituted its own literary genre (842). Still a relatively new literary form in Voltaire's time, the novel had already been subject to occasional criticism by romantic traditionalists. Voltaire's parody makes use of romantic elements such as shipwrecks and pirates (Severin 844). This parody is memorable for simultaneously targeting other aspects of French culture and religion such as hagiographic materials, the records and studies of saints. Voltaire's rebellious novel shook the religious sensibilities of many believers in eighteenth-century France
For example, the protagonist Candide is named for two saints with the same name, an obscure Roman martyr and a soldier whom Voltaire had attacked previously due to the historical improbability of the myth surrounding his canonization (Severin 843). Moreover, as the introduction explains, the name draws on the Latin word candidus, meaning white. The character Candide thus represents being clean, spiritually pure, and innocent. The innocent beginning of Candide is in part a caricature of the typical saint's life (Severin 844). Cunegonde, Candide's great love, also is named after a saint. The historic Cunegonde, similar to Voltaire's character, had ties to Westphalia through marriage. But while Saint Cungonde led a life of chastity, reportedly remaining a virgin even after marriage (Severin 844), her representation in Candide is far less pure, being anything but chaste. Voltaire serves up his parodies of the saints at the same time that he shows disapproval of society's encouragement of virginity as a virtue.
In addition to religion, Candide parodies the philosophy of optimism. The subtitle of the novel is "or Optimism." Optimism, which required the position that the world is as good as it could be, defined any seemingly negative situation as something chosen by God that would eventually lead to some greater good. Voltaire thought this position was irrational. It was a new, fashionable option when Voltaire wrote Candide, which incessantly yet delicately mocks Pangloss, the eternally optimistic pseudo-philosopher. In Candide, the only shows of optimism are ridiculous and obviously satirical. While Voltaire's criticism of optimism overall may seem fairly obvious to readers, he also subtly attacks several other conjectures that depend on optimism for validation. These include the ideas that we can totally transcend our selfishness or provincialism, that a final accounting of the balance of good and evil in the world is achievable, and that human philosophies bear some sort of direct relevance to human behavior (Wood 192).
A similar idea with adherents in the eighteenth century, the utopian society, is parodied in Candide's Eldorado. A paradox emerges there when, after several months of living in this relative paradise, Candide and Cacambo decide they are unhappy. But if Eldorado is a utopia, the happiest of all places where all needs are met, how could anyone be unhappy? The suggestion in Candide is that a happy life is full of risks and adventure rather than complacency (Wood 198).
Extending his parody of good character and the means of happiness, Voltaire teaches readers not to trust idealistic descriptions of characters as good, worthy, or faithful. While the story begins with a number of such perfect images of characters, they continually disappoint. One disaster after another befalls poor Candide, while his friends come up morally short. By the time he and Cacambo resolve to leave Eldorado, readers are well aware of the negative aspects of these characters. Thus, when Candide asks Cacambo to search for Cunegonde, readers can expect that Cacambo will fail again, despite the expression of surefire faith in his abilities. The real surprise would be Cacambo's success in bringing Cunegonde to Candide, and that is exactly what he does (Wood 198).
This calculated surprise further undermines optimism. In the beginning, through Candide's innocent good faith, optimism seemed to have a chance. After its prospects are continually whittled away, the reader is encouraged to abandon it and expect the worst from the good-natured characters. When Cacambo finally comes through and lives up to optimistic expectations, the success rings false. If one disbelieves this turnaround and accomplishment, then Voltaire has succeeded. The one time that an optimistic philosophy is fulfilled, it is unbelievable. This event finally destroys any stock the reader might have put in optimism.
Such parodies powerfully move readers to revisit their ideas about character and many aspects of French culture. Voltaire uses the odd travels of his characters to present philosophical and religious matters in an entertaining fashion. Since optimism, utopianism, and overblown characterizations of people as good remain common today, readers today can understand the genius of Voltaire not just in historic terms but also in today's.
Severin, Nelly H. "Hagiographic Parody in Candide." French Review 50 (1977): 842-849.
Wood, Michael. "Notes on Candide." New England Review 26 (2005): 192-204.