Study Guide

Candide

by Voltaire

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What is a literary classic and why are these classic works important to the world?

A literary classic is a work of the highest excellence that has something important to say about life and/or the human condition and says it with great artistry. A classic, through its enduring presence, has withstood the test of time and is not bound by time, place, or customs. It speaks to us today as forcefully as it spoke to people one hundred or more years ago, and as forcefully as it will speak to people of future generations. For this reason, a classic is said to have universality.

François Marie Arouet (Voltaire) was born on November 21, 1694 in Paris, France. He received a Jesuit education, and after writing a satire of the French government, Voltaire was sent to the Bastille in 1717, where he spent eleven months. After his release, he was beaten for insulting a nobleman, and sent to the Bastille again for a few days. Voltaire then left France and lived as an exile in England for a few years, writing philosophical treatises and plays. There, he met Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Sir Isaac Newton, and numerous other English intellectual and literary figures.

After returning to France he wrote Philosophical Letters (1734). In it, he compared the English and French governments, and the book was banned. Voltaire left Paris again, and began a long liaison with the wife of an aristocrat, Madame du Châtelet, who lived in Lorraine, France. Through her influence, Voltaire began writing the official history of King Louis XV.

He eventually settled near Geneva, and from there he corresponded with, entertained, and debated many of Europe's greatest scholars.

Voltaire wrote Candide in 1759, the most well known and popular of his eighty works. It, too provoked outrage, and the government ordered that it should be burned. Voltaire spent most of his remaining years in Geneva, but returned to Paris once, in 1778, for a performance of one of his plays, Irene. Voltaire died shortly afterward, probably from a combination of excitement and rich food.