How does Candide tie into the culture, economics, and politics of pre-revolutionary France?
The events that drive the plot of Voltaire’s Candide are heavily satirical critiques of pre-revolutionary France. Another key consideration is how Candide himself is characterized and how his supposed noble character is pitted against a strictly hierarchical culture.
At the beginning, Candide is described as “a youth endowed by nature with the gentlest of characters” (Voltaire, 17). Outside of his control, however, is his perceived status—while he begins this story by living in a wealthy baron’s castle, he is marked as “other” by the nobility he lives with, as Voltaire relates that suspicions existed that Candide “was the son of the baron’s sister by a good and honorable gentleman of the vicinity, whom this lady would never marry because he could prove only seventy-one generations of nobility” (Voltaire, 17). This immediate coupling of Candide’s personality with his (lack of) social status is telling in itself of the culture of pre-revolutionary France—and it is this lack of status that sets in motion the bulk of the story. He is immediately kicked out of the castle when found intimate with the baroness’s daughter Cunegonde, a quick and abrupt judgment that Candide is clearly not good enough for Cunegonde, no matter how good and “gentle” he is.
Further evidence of social status eclipsing Candide’s “gentle” nature and love for Cunegonde can be seen much later, in chapter XV, when Cunegonde’s brother quickly turns from praising Candide to treating him with wrath and violence, explicitly mentioning Cunegonde’s higher status. Chapter XXIX plays out a similar scene, though at this point Candide rebels against the social hierarchy more so out of anger and frustration than his love.
As Candide’s enduring love and desire for Cunegonde persists throughout the often brutal events of the story, the idea of true love pitted against a hierarchical and violent culture’s social hierarchy is worth thorough examination.
When Candide was published in 1759, thirty years before the beginning of the French Revolution, it did not create a stir: It created a political firestorm--and literal fire. Voltaire was living in Ferney, in eastern France very near the Swiss border, when Candide was published. Upon its appearance, political rulers in Switzerland, sitting as the Great Council of Geneva, condemned the work and ordered the burning of all copies. Their edict, however, did not remove the novel from the European public, as it continued to be circulated secretly. Although public officials and many citizens condemned Candide, it developed a following and some strong defenders.
The social, economic, and political climate in France was not receptive to Candide. Although the Age of Enlightenment was spreading through England, France remained under the strict control of the Catholic Church and the monarchy. The themes developed in Candide and Voltaire's satirical, bitter attacks on the government, the Church, the established social heirarchy, and the accepted philosophy in regard to man's relationship to God all represented a threat to the power structure in France.
In Candide, Voltaire identified and challenged, through satirical exaggeration and outrageous events, the cultural, political, and economic conditions in France that fueled the French Revolution soon to come. Candide did not cause the French Revolution, of course, nor does the work predict it. It does, however, through its content, publication, and reception signify that the Age of Enlightenment was on its way to France.