After Candide is evicted from idyllic Westphalia for embracing Cunegonde, the Baron’s daughter, the constitutionally naive young man is beset by one misfortune after another. Conscripted by the Bulgars to fight the Abares, he escapes and arrives in Lisbon, in time for the catastrophic earthquake and to be flogged and hanged by the Inquisition. Rescued by Cunegonde, who had been raped and stabbed by the Bulgars, he kills the Inquisitor and the Jew who have been keeping her on alternate days.
Candide and Cunegonde flee to South America, where she is immediately appropriated by the governor of Buenos Aires. Candide escapes inland, where the native Biglugs almost devour him before discovering that he is not a Jesuit. After leaving them, he finds himself in the remote and happy land of Eldorado. Yet Candide soon becomes bored in this Utopia and returns to the world of catastrophes and villainy.
Cheated of a fortune during his voyage back to Europe and imprisoned in France, Candide eventually makes his way to Venice, to be reunited with his beloved Cunegonde. Now a slave to a Turk, she has been rendered hideously ugly by disease. Candide is reunited with her and with his odd tutor, the fatuously complacent Pangloss, and they settle on a small farm near Constantinople.
Through the wild implausibility of its events and the overt artifice of its structure, the book mocks the pretensions of rational control. Voltaire cynically depicts human beings as both obtuse and vile, perversely pursuing actions that are counter to their own best interests.
Voltaire is more interested in examining general questions about happiness and human nature than in providing rounded, individualized characterizations. He rejects intolerance and fanaticism, holding blind allegiance to abstract systems responsible for most of the troubles that beset the world. The book’s famous closing line, “We must cultivate our garden,” urges that we accept our imperfections and labor with what we have.
Aldridge, Alfred Owen. Voltaire and the Century of Light. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975. A thoughtful study that describes Voltaire’s extraordinarily diverse literary career. Compares Voltaire’s 1759 “philosophical tale” Candide with Jonathan Swift’s masterful satire Gulliver’s Travels.
Besterman, Theodore. Voltaire. 3d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. An admirable and reliable biography of Voltaire that focuses on his development as a writer. In the discussion of Candide, Besterman explains the moral and emotional transformation of the protagonist from an immature and selfish adolescent into a sensitive, responsible adult.
Mason, Haydn. Voltaire: A Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981. The chapter on Candide describes the philosophical and ethical motivation for Voltaire’s criticism of excessive optimism.
Pearson, Roger. The Fables of Reason: A Study of Voltaire’s “Contes philosophiques.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. An insightful literary study of Voltaire’s use of satire, irony, and understatement in his many philosophical tales. The lengthy chapter on Candide includes an explanation for the appropriateness of viewing Candide as a tale on moral education and on the search for human honesty.
Richter, Peyton, and Ilona Ricardo. Voltaire. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Excellent general study on Voltaire’s life and career. Describes several different levels of satire in Candide and Voltaire’s other major philosophical tales, including Zadig (1748) and Micromégas (1752). Also includes a well-annotated bibliography of significant critical studies on his work.