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Beginning with the expulsion of its eponymous hero from “the best of all possible castles” and the loss of his beloved Cunégonde, Candide takes the form of a classic journey story. Candide must endure a series of misfortunes and trials before he can be reunited with his beloved and regain a qualified kind of redemption. It is in the misfortunes that Candide and others suffer in the novel that Voltaire cuts through the pretensions, hypocrisies, and outright idiocies of the Age of Reason.
The philosopher Pangloss, Candide’s tutor, insists that they live in “the best of all possible worlds” and maintains that view through various sophistries, but reality tells a different story. In the course of the novel, Candide travels far and wide across Europe, South America (where he spends a pleasant month in the fabled land of Eldorado), and Asia in search of Cunégonde. Earthquakes, slavery, murder, floggings, hangings, the Spanish Inquisition, and other niceties of the era greet him on his way and serve to weaken his cherished optimism. He also encounters characters who view the world quite differently, most notably Martin, who asserts that he has “scarcely seen a town that did not desire the ruin of the next town, nor a family that did not wish to exterminate some other family” (p. 56). Early in the novel, while pondering the relationship between effects and causes, as he has been taught to do, Candide wanders into a war-ravaged village, where he sees “old men riddled with wounds . . . their wives lay dying, their throats cut, clutching their children . . . young girls in their last agonies, disemboweled after having satisfied the natural urges of various heroes . . .” (p. 8). This juxtaposition of abstract conceptualizing and real brutality underscores the gulf between human beliefs and human behaviors that runs throughout the novel, and the effect is amusing, disturbing, and deflating all at once. Man is capable of clever philosophizing, yes, but savagery, superstition, and ignorance still rule the day. The phrase “natural urges of various heroes” is characteristic of Voltaire’s piercing irony. In Voltaire’s world, as in ours, soldiers are not always heroes, priests are not always godly, and philosophers are not always very helpful in guiding us away from human folly.
Indeed, much of the fun of reading Candide lies in applying Voltaire’s ironic wit to the pretensions and hypocrisies of our own age. What would Voltaire say about our current political and religious leaders? How would he view the intellectual and artistic culture of our time? In this crisp new translation by Theo Cuffe, Voltaire speaks to us more sharply and clearly than ever.
(François-Marie Arouet) was born in 1694 and educated at a Jesuit school in Paris. Determined to pursue a literary career, he won a reputation as a writer of satirical plays, poetry, philosophy, and novels that resulted in spells of imprisonment in the Bastille, some of his books being banned, and eventual exile from France for his attacks on the Regent and criticism of the French government. In addition to Candide, his works include Zadig, Micromégas and Other Short Fictions, Letters on England, and Philosophical Dictionary. Voltaire died in 1778, after a triumphal return to Paris.
Theo Cuffe was educated in Dublin and at the Sorbonne. His translations include Voltaire’s Micromégas and Other Short Fictions for Penguin Classics.
Michael Wood is Charles Barnwell Straut Class of 1923 Professor of English and Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University and the author of The Magician’s Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction, Franz Kafka, and The Road to Delphi: The Life and Afterlife of Oracles.
- In the very first chapter Candide is literally kicked out of the “most beautiful and delightful of possible castles,” expelled from an “earthly paradise” (p. 5). At the end of the novel, he says “we must cultivate our garden” (p. 94). What is Voltaire suggesting by framing his story in this way and by echoing the Biblical story of the Fall? Has Candide lost and then regained paradise?
- The eighteenth century is known as the Age of Reason. What are the major disconnects that Voltaire reveals between human beliefs and human behavior? What behaviors most undercut the idea that reason had finally triumphed over the superstition and savagery of previous eras? What are the main targets of Voltaire’s satiric wit?
- Within the context of the novel, Eldorado really is the “best of all possible worlds.” Overflowing with riches, ruled by an enlightened king, it is a land with no need of courts or prisons, where the inhabitants lack nothing and live in a state of continual gratitude. Why do Candide and Cacambo decide to leave such a paradise and return to a world riddled with greed, lust, ignorance, dishonesty, and cruelty, a world where violence both savage and civilized is the norm? What aspects of human nature is Voltaire satirizing when he writes that “our two happy wanderers resolved to be happy no longer and to seek His Majesty’s permission to depart” (p. 49)?
- Immediately upon leaving Eldorado, Candide and Cacambo encounter a slave who has had a leg and a hand cut off. He tells them, “It is the price we pay for the sugar you eat in Europe” (p. 52). What relationship is Voltaire suggesting here between happiness and suffering, between the best of all possible worlds and the worst of all possible worlds? How might Voltaire make this point if he were writing today?
- Candide is sustained throughout his many ordeals by the hope of being reunited with Cunégonde. But when he does at last find her, she has become ugly and ill-tempered. What is Voltaire suggesting about the exaltation of romantic love?
- The old woman tells Candide: “Imagine my situation, the daughter of a pope, only fifteen years old, who in the space of three months had been exposed to poverty and slavery, had been raped almost daily, had seen her mother torn to pieces, had endured war and famine, and was now dying of the plague in Algiers” (p. 29). What does this passage, and others like it, suggest about the reality of women’s lives during the Age of Reason?
- In what ways does Voltaire’s satire extend beyond his own time? What would Voltaire think of our own age, for example? What aspects of our thought and behavior might he satirize most fiercely? What kinds of political, philosophical, and religious hypocrisy are most prevalent today?
- Near the end of the book, while Pangloss was “being hanged, and dissected, and beaten, and made to row in a galley,” he still holds firm to his original views that this is the best of all possible worlds. “I am a philosopher after all. It would not do for me to recant” (p. 88). What are the dangers in holding beliefs that are impermeable to reality, that do not alter according to actual experience?
- Martin tells Candide that Paris is “a chaos, a throng in which everyone pursues pleasure and almost no one finds it” (p. 58). In what ways is this statement also true of nearly all the people we encounter in the novel? To what degree is it true of human beings generally? What are the consequences of this pursuit of pleasure?
- In the book’s introduction, Michael Wood tells us that Voltaire wrote, “Satires don’t correct anyone, irritate the foolish, and make them even more mean” (p. xxvi). Do you think this is true? Would a present-day Pangloss, or someone like him, change his way of thinking if he were to read Candide?
- Martin believes that man is equally miserable wherever he lives and that even in cities which are free from the ravages of war, “men are more devoured by envy, cares and anxiety than all the tribulations visited upon a citadel under siege. Private griefs are crueler even than public miseries” (p. 56). Is Martin’s view more accurate than Pangloss’s, or does it simply represent the other extreme? Would you agree that “private griefs are crueler even than public miseries”?
- At the end of the novel, Martin says, “Let us set to work and stop proving things, for that is the only way to make life bearable” (p. 93), echoing the Turkish farmer who says, “our work keeps at bay the three great evils: boredom, vice, and necessity” (p. 92). Do you think Voltaire is endorsing this view? Why would doing physical work be preferable to the life of a philosopher?