(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Candide Voltaire

(Born François-Marie Arouet) French autobiographer, essayist, historian, poet, playwright, and prose writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Voltaire's novella Candide; ou, L'optimisme (1759). See also, Voltaire Criticism.

Candide; ou, L'optimisme (1759) is one of Voltaire's later works, and is acknowledged as one of his most incisive satires on the state of the world. Voltaire composed this novella following two devastating earthquakes in Lima and Lisbon during the 1740s and 1750s, and in response to the optimistic and benevolent philosophy espoused by such intellectuals of the age as Leibniz, Bolingbroke, and Shaftesbury. In the novel, Voltaire attacks the theory of Optimism, using irony, wit, and sarcasm to arouse his readers into considering some of the most significant intellectual issues of the time, such as God's role in the world and its events, and the apparent randomness of metaphysical events.

Plot and Major Characters

Candide is considered one of Voltaire's most powerful satires. In this work, he uses the story and characters to explore the capacity of the world to suffer from disaster and the corresponding human ability to cope with misfortune. In particular, Voltaire is believed to have been eager to explore the philosophy of Optimism shared and expressed by other intellectuals of his time, including Alexander Pope, who summarized in his Essay on Man that “Whatever is, is right.” Confronted with a series of natural disasters that caused massive destruction, Voltaire took offense at this type of optimism, and used his novella to satirize this philosophy. In the stylized narrative of Candide, Voltaire created a set of simplified characters, using wit and irony to examine the tenets of Optimism via the interaction of the two main characters of the story, Candide and Dr. Pangloss. At the beginning of the story, Candide has been unjustly thrown out of his mistress's, Lady Cunégonde's, castle. Following his eviction, he is forced into service with the Bulgar army, and eventually participates in a pointless war in which thousands die and many more are injured. At this point, Candide meets his old teacher, Dr. Pangloss, a deep believer in the theory that all things happen for a reason, and that the reason is always for the best. The two characters, reunited, suffer several more catastrophes including a tempest, an earthquake, and even a shipwreck—Dr. Pangloss is eventually hanged and Candide is reunited with his beloved Cunégonde, who also has a harrowing tale of misfortunes to share. Following their reunion, Candide and Cunégonde travel around Europe and other parts of the world, witnessing several more incidents of human folly and suffering. Through it all, they maintain a sense of hope and renewal, and are even reunited with a revived Dr. Pangloss, who survived his hanging, only to spend his life as a maimed galley slave on a Turkish ship. Despite his fate, Pangloss continues to hold dear his philosophy of optimistic hope, declaring in the end that, “I still hold my original views.”

Major Themes

Although the narrative and action of Candide is often playful and full of action, the theme of human suffering, happiness, and the role of providence is a constant and consistent presence in the story. In fact, critics have remarked that in using a tale of human suffering and irony, Voltaire uses the story of Candide and his friends to jolt his readers into considering of the role of God in world events. Voltaire despised organized religion, and many of the ideas developed in Candide were expanded upon in his later works. There are many biblical and mythical allusions in the work, including several references to the Garden of Eden and the New Testament. In using these metaphors, writes Clifton Cherpak, Voltaire uses aspects of comedy to poke fun at those who use grand philosophical theories to explain human suffering.

Critical Reception

Critical studies of Candide have focused on the relationship between the structure and thematic intent of the novella. For example, I. O. Wade remarks that Voltaire uses subjects and verbs very effectively in this work to modify and expand the meaning of the text. This technique of expansion, according to Wade, creates a large horizon of time and space in which to consider the tale of Candide and his partners. In his study of the style and narrative techniques employed by Voltaire in Candide. William F. Bottiglia writes that the diction in the work is a “vehicle of sustained symbolism.” The critic notes that it is impossible to summarize clearly the stylistic and narrative technique of the novella because the entire work operates as an extended metaphor accompanied and supported by its verbal text. Bottiglia also lauds the depth and scope of the subject matter handled by Voltaire in a text the size of Candide. In his evaluation of the novella, Haydn Mason pronounces that Candide has many timeless aspects. Yet he is appreciative of the topicality of the work, which he feels rests firmly in the era in which it was created. According to Mason, it was Voltaire's concern with the world around him that prompted him to write Candide, and its grounding in the physical and political reality of Voltaire's time is part of its power and influence.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Œdipe (play) 1718

Epistle to Urania (poetry) 1722

La ligue; ou Henry le Grand [Henriade: An Epic Poem] (poetry) 1723

Essay on Civil Wars (essay) 1727

Essay on Epic Poetry (essay) 1727

Brutus (play) 1730

Histoire de Charles XII, Roi se Suede [History of Letters Concerning Charles XII, King of Sweden] (history) 1732

Letters Concerning the English Nation [Letters philosophiques] (prose) 1733

La Mort de César [The Death of Caesar] (play) 1735

Alzire; ou, Les Americains (play) 1736; translated as Alzire, 1736

Zayra [The Tragedy of Zara] (play) 1736

Oeuvres de M. de Voltaire 12 vols. (essays, plays, philosophy, poetry, prose, history, and criticism) 1738-60; translated as The Works of Voltaire, 35 vols. 1761-69

Mahomet (play) 1742; translated as Mahomet the Impostor, 1744

La merope française, avec quelques petites pieces de litterature (play and criticism) 1744; translated as Merope, 1744

Memnon: Histoire orientale (prose) 1747; also published as Zadig; ou, La destinee, 1749; translated as Zadig; or, The Book of Fate. An Oriental...

(The entire section is 421 words.)

Ira O. Wade (essay date 1959)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Wade, Ira O. “On the Relationship between Structure and Meaning in Candide,” and “Thought, Too, Is A Power.” In Voltaire and Candide: A Study in the Fusion of History, Art, and Philosophy, pp. 243-80. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1959.

[In these essays, Wade focuses on the artistic organization of Candide, providing context for the creation of the work.]


Il est certain qu'il y a dans toutes les langues du monde une logique secrète qui conduit les idées des hommes sans qu'ils s'en aperçoivent, comme il y a une géométrie cachée dans tous les arts de la main, sans que le plus grand nombre des artistes s'en doute.

—Voltaire to Beauzée1

In reading Candide we become immediately conscious of its basic short sentences, which run on, someone has said, like Walt Disney's mice, each performing some trick as it passes before the reader's eyes:

8.69 Je me frottai les yeux, je regardai attentivement, je le vis pendre, je tombai en faiblesse. …

8.9 … cela me fit revenir, je repris mes sens, je criai, je me débattis, je mordis, j'égratignai, je voulais arracher les yeux à ce grand Bulgare. …

Candide is literally swarming with these little sentences: subject-verb-object, subject-verb-adverb, that have a tendency to group in clusters:

12.99 … je profitai de cette avanture; je m'enfuis, je traversai toute la Russie; je fus longtems servante de cabaret à Riga … j'ai vieilli dans la misère et dans l'opprobre. …

Each of the elements—subject, verb, object, adverb—often takes on a modifier—adjective, adverb, adverbial phrase. When this occurs, the little basic sentence has a tendency to expand, though not beyond modest proportions. The pattern then becomes subject-verb-adverb-object, or subject-adjective-verb-adverb-object, or subject-adjective-verb-adverb-adverb-object-adjective, or one of the many combinations which these patterns will offer. These various additions have the task of adding modifications, qualifications, value-judgments which the story will accumulate and coordinate into some unified meaning. At times, one of the elements will extend itself, giving the impression of a broadened horizon in time and space. In the sentence just quoted, for instance, the à Riga has been extended to “puis à Rostock, à Vismar, à Leipsick, à Cassel, à Utrecht, à Leyde, à La Haye, à Rotterdam.” This pattern has possibilities of many variations as is evident in the following sentences:

14.7 Il avait été enfant de chœur, sacristain, matelot, moine, facteur, soldat, laquais (where a whole life is recounted by a person's occupations).

17.35 Ils voguèrent quelques lieües entre des bords tantôt fleuris, tantôt arides, tantôt unis, tantôt escarpés (where a whole geographical expanse is given).

18.41 La conversation fut longue: elle roula sur la forme du gouvernement, sur les mœurs, sur les femmes, sur les spectacles publics, sur les arts (where all the elements of a civilization are presented).

Finally, the basic sentence, lengthened or unlengthened, may break into a relative clause, or a series of relative clauses, or a causal, temporal, concessive, or participial clause, or a series of subordinate clauses. The extension of these really long and sometimes complicated sentences is carried out in the terms of the sentence itself, for the purpose of contrast, balance, or buildup. Whatever the terms, a constant effort is made to keep the pattern symmetrical and the rhythm formal:

18.67 Quoi! vous n'avez point de moines qui enseignent, qui disputent, qui gouvernent, qui cabalent, et qui font bruler les gens qui ne sont pas de leur avis.

22.49 … l'un de ces gens empressés, toujours alertes, toujours serviables, effrontés, caressants, accommodans, qui guettent les étrangers à leur passage, leur content l'histoire scandaleuse de la ville, et leur offrent des plaisirs à tout prix.

The merit of the basic sentence is apparent. As long as it is kept short, it presents an opportunity for the densest sort of action, since its verbs are multiplied and varied. The effect should be one of continuous, sharp, exasperating, inevitable, variable little actions which can build up into a flood of paradoxical, ironical, contradictory, but overwhelming action.

There is danger, however, that these short sentences will become monotonous; there is further danger that the story will become more important than its meaning. The moderately expanded short sentence presents an opportunity for avoiding both of these difficulties. The modifying adjective-adverb factors take some of the continuous, exasperating sharpness out of the closely packed action, and at the same time give depth to the meaning. In addition, when one of the elements begins to expand, an explosive effect is added to the movement effect of the primary form. These explosive sentences serve as a halfway stage between that form and the enlarged, complicated sentences which go trailing off into space like oscillations of explosive sound. Thus, the rhythm is from dense, varied action, to deep, varied meaning, to all the ambiguities of density, variety, and depth which go trailing off into universal time and space and in an all-embracing judgment destroy and create simultaneously. One of these sentences of gigantic sweep will suffice:

22.186 Quiconque, ajouta-t-il, n'observe pas toutes ces règles, peut faire une ou deux tragédies aplaudies au théâtre; mais il ne sera jamais compté au rang des bons écrivains; il y a très peu de bonnes tragédies; les unes sont des idilles en dialogues bien écrits et bien rimés, les autres des raisonnements politiques qui endorment, ou des amplifications qui rebutent; les autres des rêves d'énergumène, en stile barbare; des propos interrompus, de longues apostrophes aux Dieux, parce qu'on ne sait point parler aux hommes, des maximes fausses, des lieux communs ampoulés.

If the explosive quality is wrapped up in the sentence and threatens to burst from any of its elements, the energy behind the explosive quality is certainly released from verbs. We have already seen how the nature of the basic sentence itself offers the opportunity of increasing the number of verbs and therefore the quantity of energy released. The following example will demonstrate this release of energy:

2.67 Candide n'en pouvant plus demanda en grace qu'on voulût bien avoir la bonté de lui casser la tête; il obtint cette faveur; on lui bande les yeux, on le fait mettre à genoux; le Roi des Bulgares passe dans ce moment, il s'informe du crime du patient, et comme ce Roi avait un grand génie, il comprit par tout ce qu'il aprit de Candide que c'était un jeune Métaphisicien, fort ignorant des choses de ce monde, et il lui accorda sa grace avec une clémence qui sera louée dans tous les journaux et dans tous les siècles.

The terrible contradiction in the two controlling energies of the sentence is apparent: what Candide asks as a favor and what the King grants as a favor are two very contradictory things. The way Candide makes his request and the nature of the request represent two discordant energies paradoxically situated. Moreover, the energies released in the first part of the sentence all concern Candide; then suddenly a whole series of energies concern the King; the latter series unites with the first only at the end, creating thereby a third energy (mercy) which goes dancing off into eternal time and space and concerns only indirectly Candide and the King. A number of such cases might be cited. Their accumulation would build up an effect of limitless energy ill-directed and badly controlled. If this energy is the source of life, life must be a chaotic thing, contradicting itself, destroying itself, but creating itself, too, in an ironical, paradoxical, symbolic way.

This limitless energy is not so ill-directed or so badly controlled as it first seems. Thanks to the saving power of form some order is kept. A factor in this order-keeping form is the amazing ease and grace with which Voltaire shifts from present to imperfect to perfect and back again. In the case we have just cited, he even shoots the energy into the limitless future. This constant regard for timing the released energy is really a method of controlling and ordering it. But he is just as skillful in giving it direction by cleverly manipulating the infinitive, past participle, and present participle.

The classic example of the infinitive is, of course, “il faut cultiver,” which has given rise to so much discussion. Hundreds of other cases might be cited. An interesting one occurs in the last chapter where la Vieille uses the infinitive to summarize the action of the whole book:

30.45 Je voudrais savoir lequel est le pire, ou d'être violée cent fois par des pirates nègres, d'avoir une fesse coupée, de passer par les baguettes chez les Bulgares, d'être fouetté et pendu dans un Auto-da-fè, d'être disséqué, de ramer aux galères, d'éprouver enfin toutes les misères par lesquelles nous avons tous passé, ou bien de rester ici à ne rien faire?

The role played by infinitives in the release of energy is apparent in this example. They complement the action of modal verbs, and they also designate pure action, that is action in the process of developing with scant reference to time and space. In their own peculiar way, they generalize or depersonalize action. Furthermore, they give it tremendous variety. At times they occur in veritable phalanxes, for instance:

2.41 On le fait tourner à droite, à gauche, hausser la baguette, remettre la baguette, coucher en jouë, tirer, doubler le pas, et on lui donne trente coups de bâton.

Past participles are more useful still. Contrary to the infinitive which marks pure action, they note not only the action itself, but the source of the action, the recipient of the action, the actual condition and value quality that the action possesses. These four possibilities can be seen schematically: the “avoir”-plus-past participle form denotes the origin and also the time of the energy; the “être”-plus-past participle form denotes the recipient of the energy but often leaves its origin obscure; the pure past participle form, that is the ablative absolute, denotes not only the recipient but the condition imposed upon the recipient, while the perfect past participle may denote either the origin of the energy or the direction or the time, or the condition of the energy. Lastly, the past participle used as an adjective, either after “être” or in adjectival suites, may denote not only a condition but a value judgment.

These forms occur in great abundance in Candide. The active form with “avoir” is, to be sure, but one of the active forms used. The story is related with the marvelous variety of tense forms so characteristic of Voltaire. Nevertheless, the release of this active energy discloses the vital urge of his characters to live by acting. In a certain sense, it is a guarantee of the characters, since it takes its origin in them. Candide's energy, like its protagonist, is naïve. That is, in the overflow of active action, the impression produced is that of action not only in its initial stage, characterized by disorder and inexperience, but also in its more mature stage, characterized by all the youth, vigor, freshness of Candide himself. One short example of this usage will suffice:

6.11 On avait en conséquence saisi un Biscayen convaincu d'avoir épousé sa commère, et deux Portugais qui en mangeant un poulet en avaient arraché le lard; on vint lier après le diner le Docteur Pangloss, et son disciple Candide, l'un pour avoir parlé, et l'autre pour l'avoir écouté avec un air d'aprobation.

This naïve, vigorous, struggling action is counterbalanced by a tremendous flow of passive, an action of condition, an inactive action in the sense that its origin springs from outside the person concerned and very often impedes the naïve action in which he is engaged. Just a few examples will suffice: Candide “fut tant friponné” by the Jews (30.24), Cacambo “était excédé de travail” (30.30), Martin “était fermement persuadé” (30.33), la Vieille wonders which is worse, “d'être violée, d'être fouetté et pendu, d'être disséqué” (30.46-49). This action takes its origin in other people, “Cunégonde fut souflettée” (1.88); “la Baronne a été coupée en morceaux” (4.29), but it may be derived from nature, “les toits sont renversés” (5.41); “les gens sont écrasés” (5.44), or it may have some mysterious origin, “Jaques est précipité” (5.19). Finally, a good example of the active responding to the passive is in 28.86:

Eh bien, mon cher Pangloss, lui dit Candide, quand vous avez été pendu, dissequé, roué de coups, et que vous avez ramé aux galères, avez-vous toujours pensé que tout allait le mieux du monde?

The past participle used alone contrasts with the present participle in the same way that passive and active tenses contrast with each other. When used as an ablative absolute or even as an adjective, it serves as a passive with no great stress on the origin of the action but with great importance attributed to the receiver of the action, to the annihilation of the action, and to the past time of the action. The conte is literally filled with these past participles used in an ablative absolute sense: “Candide chassé” (2.3), “Candide tout transi” (2.8), “Candide tout stupéfait” (2.48), “Candide effrayé recule” (4.9).

But there are fully as many cases where past participles have become adjectives, adding a quality to the modified word, whether people or things. They often occur in sequences with adjectives: “… l'un de ces gens empressés, toujours alertes, toujours serviables, effrontés, caressants, accommodans …” (22.49). Often also they form sequences themselves: “… toutes nos Italiennes et ma mère déchirées, coupées, massacrées …” (11.104). Finally, there are examples where they occur in phalanxes, as in the following case:

3.22 Ici des vieillards criblés de coups regardaient mourir leurs femmes égorgées, qui tenaient leurs enfans à leurs mammelles sanglantes; là des filles éventrées, après avoir assouvi les besoins naturels de quelques héros, rendaient les derniers soupirs; d'autres à demi-brulées criaient qu'on achevât de leur donner la mort. Des cervelles étaient répanduës sur la terre, à côté de bras et de jambes coupés.

It would be difficult to give a more perfect picture of total destruction, a condition, incidentally, under which the most violent actions are driving to the annihilation of action. In one of its aspects the world of Candide is submitting to action, is really absorbing action. This action comes from so many varied, unexpected sources that it seems ill-defined, ill-directed, badly ordered. As it permeates living creatures, it does not add to their life, it tends rather to press the life out of them. It is cosmic energy which, in its uncontrolled, undirected aspects, kills life. This is anti-naïve action. Left to itself, it could easily wipe out the universe, or at least it could reduce life to unendurable torture.

It is not, of course, left to itself. All this depressing, annihilating action of the passive, past participle is counterbalanced by the struggling, naïve present participles. There is a whole array of them in Candide. The active, creative quality of these participles is obvious in 25.143: “L'être Eternel produisant le monde.” Corresponding to the ablative effect of the past participle, the present participle used as a gerund occurs very frequently either with or without “en”: “en se promenant” (1.61), “en revenant” (1.74), “en faisant la révérence” (2.23). When so used it adds a condition, a qualification, as well as a continuation of action. This usage is extended and it, too, becomes an adjective: “et étincelante dans leurs yeux” (14.119), “cadavres sanglants entassés” (11.113). But the vast majority of these present participles push the action outward, often introducing additional action. They represent the effort of the submerged universe to meet the energetic chaos of destruction with personal, willful, creative energy. Sometimes they, too, occur in sequences of adjectives: “L'un de ces gens empressés, toujours alertes, toujours serviables, effrontés, caressants, accommodans, qui. …” Often, they appear in massive sequence:

3.32 Candide toujours marchant sur des membres palpitans, ou à travers des ruïnes, arriva enfin hors du théatre de la guerre, portant quelques petites provisions dans son bissac, et n'oubliant jamais Mlle Cunégonde.

At other times, they counterbalance in the same sentence the cumulative effect of dead past participles: “Candide épouvanté, interdit, éperdu, tout sanglant, tout palpitant” (6.32). Or they add vitality to a still scene: “Il entre et voit le fessé Candide l'épée à la main, un mort étendu par terre, Cunégonde effarée, et la vieille donnant des conseils” (9.23). And there is a final case where the present participle serves to prevent life from totally disappearing:

Le lendemain en se promenant, il rencontra un gueux tout couvert de pustules, les yeux morts, le bout du nez rongé, la bouche de travers, les dents noires, et parlant de la gorge, tourmenté d'une toux violente, et crachant une dent à chaque effort.


Thus Candide's world is a world of action, varied, tense, contradictory, and paradoxical. It springs from many unknown sources and submerges those upon whom it falls; with constant pounding it beats out life. Whether it comes from forces in nature or in man-made institutions, it crushes and exasperates. Somehow one gets the impression that action produces energy and energy begets force and force is an evil thing. It must be met by another force which springs from another energy derived from counteraction. For the outside action pressing upon the individual brings forth a response which is another action. This naïve action takes its source in the will to be. It leaves behind the dead, past, traditional action, the absorbed evil action. It pushes forward, young, vigorous, eager, inexperienced, but confident that it can master by struggle, effort, and work the deadly past and the uncertain future. Creation in Candide is certainly the answer to universal destruction.

In this creative action, struggling to overcome destructive action, adverbs and adjectives also play their role. They characterize the actors, the objects involved, and the action. At the same time, they bestow value judgment on the phenomena. In their own powerful way, they bestow character, that is to say, form to Candide's struggling universe; and they give exasperated testimony that as long as the human mind can attribute value judgments to the phenomena of existence life will go on. There is in Candide an extraordinary tendency to attach adjectives to nouns as if the adjectival quality were a guarantee for the existence of the object. Many of them are colorless: “un jeune garçon” (1.5), “le petit Candide” (1.31), “le petit bois” (1.62), “ville voisine” (2.9), “un grand génie” (2.72). Others contribute a trait of character: “le charitable Jaques, le bon Jaques” (5.18), “le prudent Cacambo,” “le naïf Candide” (8.15). Still others add by their incongruity a touch of irony: “cet honnête eunuque” (12.31), “du beau château” (4.25), “cette belle cause” (4.45).

This use of adjectives to characterize is in fact carried to an extreme. Paquette is a “petite brune très jolie et très docile” (1.65); Cunégonde is “haute en couleur, fraîche, grasse, appétissante” (1.28); Cunégonde's brother is “un très beau jeune homme, le visage plein, assez blanc, haut en couleur, le sourcil relevé, l'œil vif, l'oreille rouge, les lèvres vermeilles, l'air fier” (14.78). There are many instances where these adjectives are massed in phalanx, as in 21.47:

Croyez-vous, dit Candide, que les hommes se soient toujours mutuellement massacrés, comme ils font aujourd'hui, qu'ils ayent toujours été menteurs, fourbes, perfides, ingrats, brigands, faibles, volages, lâches, envieux, gourmands, yvrognes, avares, ambitieux, sanguinaires, calomniateurs, débauchés, fanatiques, hypocrites et sots?

This massing very often occurs in Voltaire. One is reminded of the passage in l'Ecossaise in which Fréron is submerged under a deluge of nineteen scathing adjectives.

This massing, however, is no more impressive than the adjective's variety when singly used, and no more impressive than its contrast with opposing adjectives or its paradox with the nouns or the situation it qualifies. Surely the world of Candide is a world of chaos, a world of mutually consuming qualities, ironically and paradoxically qualified. It is not predominantly good nor bad—good in its potentialities, perhaps, bad in its actualities, certainly, and very full of strife, energy, effort.

There is a type of adjective which conveys interpretation much better than the mass of qualifying adjectives we have just mentioned. In a sense it carries a value judgment of superior proportions, it has a superlative force in itself. It attaches to its noun a quality, to be sure, but it carries a very definite intellectual judgment on the part of the speaker. And yet the judgment is partly irrational: “de terribles obstacles” (17.20), “de rochers épouvantables” (17.38), “montagnes inaccessibles” (17.45), and “l'inhumanité affreuse” (16.89). Separately, these adjectives give a tone as well as a quality to an object. Collectively they combine to give a tone to the work. It should be stressed that the judgments they convey are not one-sided, as we are prone to presume in speaking of Candide. They suggest in addition to some irritation a tension that is stretched two ways: a tension between the so-called acceptable qualities and those which are to be condemned (“effroyable,” “épouvantable,” “affreux” versus “vaste et magnifique,” “sublime,” “louable”) and a mounting tension of degree between themselves and the more banal adjectives of everyday life.

This tendency to enhance the tension value of nouns and consequently of the whole work is paralleled by a similar tendency in the use of adverbs. We find in the conte a fair number of transition adverbs used not so much to qualify the action as to keep it running smoothly: “par-devant,” “d'ordinaire,” “longtemps,” “jamais,” “seulement.” In a way they correspond to the long list of banal adjectives. In addition, there is a large number of manner adverbs which state how an action is performed: “il prouvait admirablement” (1.34), “tout est nécessairement” (1.41), “sont visiblement” (1.43), “Candide écoutait attentivement et croyait innocemment” (1.52). Corresponding to the group of superlative adjectives, they give a tone to verbs or adjectives; they add a gesture to the action also, sometimes a very startling one. They carry a judgment not at all of one order, perform their role in producing tension, and present with much variety the paradox and irony of action. At times they appear massively as in 24.144: “vous les rendrez peut-être beaucoup plus malheureux encore.”

Both adjectives and adverbs break into superlatives of the most amazing variety, as Miss McGhee has already shown in her Voltairian Narrative Devices. Candide, with “les mœurs les plus douces” (1.6) has “l'esprit le plus simple” (1.8). This world to be sure is “le meilleur des mondes possibles” (1.35). Nothing is “si beau, si leste, si brillant, si bien ordonné” (3.4) as the two armies. Candide “se cacha du mieux qu'il put” (3.14), he fled “au plus vîte (3.30); he is “infiniment plus touché” by Jaques's “extrême générosité” (3.77) than by the preacher's “dureté.”

The superlative in fact dominates the whole story. The variety with which it is achieved—“si, fort, très, encore plus, le plus, bien plus, bien”—is augmented immensely by the innumerable stylistic or semantic tricks whereby a similar effect is created: “quatre altesses Sérénissimes” (26.110), “il n'est que trop vrai” (7.54), “roide mort” (9.13). These effects in themselves build up a most violent tension, but even this tension is sometimes augmented by a massive buildup: “m'a donc bien cruellement trompée” (8.84), Don Figueroa “parlait avec le dédain le plus noble” (13.22), “portait le nez si haut” (13.23), “élévant si impitoyablement la voix, prenant un ton si imposant, affectant une démarche si altière.” An excellent case where superlative is built on superlative is the judgment of the play seen by Candide in Paris: the actress is “fort mauvaise,” the actor is “plus mauvais encor,” and the play is “encore plus mauvaise” (22.59). At times, the adverbs augment other words which are by their nature diminished: Pococurantè, who incidentally is inclined to speak in superlatives “se soucie fort peu” (25.87), he has “bien assez” (25.107); Candide confesses that he was “un peu trop vif” (28.7), he declares the incident at Venice “bien peu vraisemblable” (27.15).

Of all the words creating intensity tout is perhaps the most important. It takes its origin in the “tout est bien” (1.50) and the “tout est au mieux” (1.51) which occur at the very start and continue at intervals throughout the story (2.28, 3.76, 4.110, etc.). But it is used also in every conceivable way to embrace the whole universe as well as to intensify every phenomenon: “toute la bonne foi” (1.31), “tout étant fait …” (1.40), “toute agitée, toute pensive, toute remplie” (1.70), “tout stupéfait” (2.48).

If one insists upon a logical explanation of these numerous adjectives and adverbs, he could find it, I daresay, in the two expressions “le meilleur des mondes possibles,” and “tout est au mieux,” just as he could find a plausible origin of all the action in Candide in some such cataclysmic event as an earthquake. He would be closer to the truth if he saw in this phenomenon the shattering effect which uncontrolled energy has upon the rational mind, particularly when mind has accepted responsibility for the nature of things. He would be still closer to the truth if he saw in the superlative buildup the explosive possibilities of naïve critical judgment which will assert itself. However, logical consequence is not of importance here. When struck by an earthquake we can hardly be concerned with the question whether we respond with our minds (our entelechie) or our being (our ens). It can be affirmed that a constant effort is made in Candide to keep judgments rational or at any rate rationally oriented. Since many of the acts are irrational, however, many of the responses are irrational, too; consequently, many of the judgments are ironical, sarcastic, paradoxical, and absurd—just as life is. The superlative is an excellent plane for effecting these tones. The important thing to grasp, however, is not the value of a particular act, but the value of the critical act itself. Seen as a by-product of the struggle between the blind cosmic act and the naïve, willful, creative act, it is the energizing force which nurtures the creative act and keeps it merging into the new cosmic act.

Thus there is in the implications of the work itself an inner structure—a vital soul—which is its meaning. Candide states simply and naïvely that life is quality, manner, degree. It is phenomena, criticism, judgment. In all areas in which life becomes—philosophical, aesthetic, moral, social, religious—it becomes through the saving grace of creative criticism. That is the structural meaning of Candide, it is the meaning of Voltaire. I suspect it is the meaning of the eighteenth century, too, particularly in its “unfinished business.”


We have examined Candide as the result of a philosophical system, a series of historical events, and a temperament, taking care to show that these are active agents, creative forces which contribute to the molding of the work. We have analyzed its structure from the point of view of composition, style, and themes to see if there is harmony between that structure and the forces controlling it. It is now our purpose to penetrate the “idea” of Candide in an attempt to discover what informs it. It is quite as difficult to find an effective method of penetrating ideas as to discover a method of analyzing style and at this point in research, we usually succumb to the temptation of describing what the author thought instead of striving to penetrate his thought and grasp the spirit which informs the work. Even in describing his ideas we are inclined to take short-cuts, since a man can do a lot of thinking in sixty-five years and, if he is a Voltaire, he can put an inordinate number of his thoughts on paper. Our problem then becomes how to select, in Voltaire's complex of ideas, the ones that controlled Candide.

There are, to our knowledge, only three ways of approaching this problem. The first is to seek in explicit statements of the author the “idea” or “ideas” entering into his work. For a Flaubert with his marvelous correspondence this procedure produces results; for a Voltaire, despite his tremendous volume of correspondence, the result is practically nil. Besides, Candide is first and foremost a clandestine work; it conceals its thoughts as it conceals itself. Or we set out to discover the conte's ideas in Candide's thoughts, and since every work of the imagination implies its thoughts, we seek the implications in its “situations,” or “conditions.” This procedure gives results in certain instances: in Kafka's Trial, an accurate analysis of the “situation,” or in Dostoyevski's Idiot, the grasping of the “condition” will do much to bring out the “implications,” particularly since in each novel the author himself has devoted a chapter (“In the Cathedral” for Kafka; “The Creative Moment” for Dostoyevski) to clarifying either “situation” or “conditions.” Voltaire cannot do this, because, as we have shown, neither “situation” nor “conditions” are clear to him. Strange to say, Candide is as clandestine for Voltaire as for us.

The third way of approaching the problem is to seek in Voltaire's production up to 1759 the dominating ideas of Candide. This is the approach which for the time being we consider the most proper when used with the controls of other methods, because in a peculiar way, the conte is an implicit summary of all his previous work and draws from its own conclusion the reason for its “act.” Indeed, it is Candide which puts form into that unformed mass of thoughts and opens up the way first for coherent, organic thinking and later (i.e. after Candide) for coherent, organic action.

Fortunately, it is not our task at this point to deal with the complex problem of how thought led to the artistic organization of Candide, and how Candide led to a program of action. It is sufficiently difficult to concern ourselves here with the first part of the problem only. What we wish to examine is how thought content organized itself at the moment of Candide, how Candide became at that moment the total organic and aesthetic expression of that thought. The simplest way of attacking the problem is to select from Voltaire's writings down to 1759 those items having significant bearing upon the making of Candide, to choose works containing ideas which could not fail to enter into its making.

The writings in this category are well known, for they have been analyzed time and time again since Voltaire's day. They are: L'Epître à Uranie, Le Traité de métaphysique, Les Lettres philosophiques, Le Mondain, Les Discours en vers sur l'homme, Les Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, Le Poème sur la loi naturelle, Le Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne (the ideological content), and L'Essai sur les mœurs. One might, of course, add his entire production until 1758, theatre, contes, poésies mêlées, and we shall do so at the proper moment, but for the time being it is well to keep to this more restricted list. In these works we shall endeavor to distinguish between the “idea” (that is to say, the core around which all Voltaire's ideas, opinions, and experiences gravitate) and the ideas themselves (the intellectual flashes of insight contributing to or derived from the “idea”); the opinions (personal conclusions drawn by the author either from these flashes or from his experiences), and the facts (these experiences seen rationally or shared rationally with others). These distinctions we shall make silently, trying in each case to disengage the core, not the facts, nor the opinions, nor even the ideas except as they serve to bring the “idea” to the fore.

The central idea of the Epître à Uranie is the existence of a God more universal in scope and power than any anthropomorphic, denominational, or private Deity. From this assertion is derived a series of private opinions both destructive and constructive: the falsity of every organized cult, the superstition of every dogma, the treachery and intolerance of every priesthood, but also the universality of God, the immediacy in the relationship of Creator and created, and the autonomy of moral law. In its inner reality the Epître destroys something; it creates something in its place, and tries to give the impression that its creation is greater, or in any case more real, than the Creation.

The Traité de métaphysique attempts to answer five basic questions concerning (1) the existence of God, (2) the immortality of the Soul, (3) the origin of thought, (4) free will, and (5) the nature of good and evil. Voltaire's answer to each is a succession of constructive and destructive opinions (private ones, of course), confined not solely to the religious field, but operating also in the metaphysical, physical, and moral fields. He had hardly begun his intellectual career before he became overwhelmed with difficulties that he attempts to minimize by insisting upon a deistic providentialism, which, in a way, offers total security. As long as he believes in this providentialism, he does not have to insist too much upon solving subsequent difficulties: there are more arguments against the immortality of the soul than in its favor, but he refuses to worry about it. Arguments against the freedom of man are many—thanks particularly to Frederick, who assumes the role of diabolus advocatus in the dispute—but this is no matter for concern. True, indeed, there are more arguments in favor of God's existence than against it. The foundations of morality become very shaky in his Chapters viii and ix, but again Voltaire refuses to be disturbed, for God has given man fundamental moral laws.

He feels so secure that he decides that all man needs to do is to find ways of enjoying himself. The Lettres philosophiques has as its central idea the concept that freedom of being is possible in this world, provided one lives in the right place, at the right time, with the right manners and customs, with the right culture. Ideas proliferate in every direction from this central theme. Foremost among them is the notion of man's making his freedom by judicious adjustments in all categories of living: religious, political, economic, philosophical, aesthetic. But just as important is the thought that by studying man in his various vital categories one can understand what his reality is. Most important is the idea that man can make the “conditions” which guarantee his freedom. The human creature can do little to influence Providence in his favor, but if he assumes that Providence is on his side or at least neutral he can do much in shaping his own destiny. Thus happiness is humanly...

(The entire section is 15402 words.)

William F. Bottiglia (essay date 1964)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Bottiglia, William F. “Style” and “Evaluation.” In Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century: Voltaire's Candide: Analysis of a Classic, edited by Theodore Besterman, pp. 243-97. Geneva, Switzerland: Institut et Musée Voltaire, 1964.

[In the following essays, Bottiglia analyses the style and themes of Candide and offers a detailed examination of the text.]


Style is language which expresses and communicates a literary inspiration; it is diction organized toward beauty. The style of Candide is not naturally separable from its other component elements—which is why some attention has already been...

(The entire section is 21399 words.)

I. O. Wade (essay date 1966)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Wade, I. O. “Voltaire and Candide.1” In Voltaire: Candide, or Optimism: A New Translation, Backgrounds, Criticism, edited by Robert M. Adams, pp. 142-51. New York: W. W. Norton, 1966.

[In the essay below, Wade offers a brief critical history of Candide.]

The Journal encyclopédique2 was far from favorable in its review of Candide. Indeed, it was so severe that Voltaire felt constrained to take its editors to task for what he deemed their ineptitude. Their article, however, certainly merits attention, since it contains the type of ambiguous evaluation characteristic of all criticism of Candide down to...

(The entire section is 4455 words.)

Donna Isaacs Dalnekoff (essay date 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Dalnekoff, Donna Isaacs. “Eldorado as an ‘Impossible Dream.’” In Readings on Candide, edited by Thomas Walsh, pp. 64-71. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 2001.

[In the essay below, originally published in 1974, Dalnekoff identifies Eldorado as an ideal society that is satirized by Voltaire in Candide.]

The meaning of the Eldorado episode in Candide has been the subject of extensive critical debate. Does it represent the author's ideal, his vision of the perfect society, or does it represent a false paradise, to be rejected by the perspicacious reader as it is by the protagonist? If Eldorado is the perfect society as far as Voltaire is...

(The entire section is 3338 words.)

Peter Kivy (essay date fall 1979)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Kivy, Peter. “Voltaire, Hume, and the Problem of Evil.” Philosophy and Literature 3, no. 2 (fall 1979): 211-24.

[In the following essay, Kivy argues for the restoration of Candide's status as a text of philosophical significance.]


Voltaire's Candide is subtitled Optimism. It is about an impossibly naive young man who suffers incredible misfortune, while counselled by his teacher, Pangloss, to perceive the hidden benefits that this merely “apparent” misfortune and misery produce. Pangloss' speeches in this regard are well-larded with phrases and terms coined or made famous by Leibniz, and, so as not to...

(The entire section is 6137 words.)

Frederick M. Keener (essay date 1979)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Keener, Frederick M. “Candide: Structure and Motivation.” In The Chain of Becoming: The Philosophical Tale, the Novel, and a Neglected Realism of the Enlightenment: Swift, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Johnson, and Austen, pp. 194-216. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

[In this essay, originally published in 1979, Keener focuses on the characterization of Candide, contending that despite Voltaire's use of him as a marionette in the work, he deserves consideration as a character.]

Enlightenment is man's leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one's intelligence without the guidance of another. … I...

(The entire section is 10516 words.)

Gail S. Reed (essay date 1983)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Reed, Gail S. “Playing on His Readers' Desires.” In Readings on Candide, edited by Thomas Walsh, pp. 121-27. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 2001.

[In this essay, originally published in 1983, Reed postulates that there is a pattern of cause and effect in Voltaire's exploration of evil in Candide, and that he uses the actions of his characters to mirror the desires of his readers.]

Several of Voltaire's best known tales are similar in shape and plot, apparent variations on an inner theme. Zadig (1741), Candide (1759), and L'Ingénu (1767) all involve a naïve or idealistic protagonist wandering the world in search of a woman...

(The entire section is 2734 words.)

Josephine Grieder (essay date March 1984)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Grieder, Josephine. “Orthodox and Paradox: The Structure of Candide.French Review 57, no. 4 (March 1984): 485-92.

[In the essay that follows, Grieder studies the structure of Candide with respect to the technique of literary paradox.]

That critics should still continue to argue about Candide is scarcely surprising. To summarize it is well-nigh impossible; to isolate one idea is often to find that idea contradicted or betrayed further on. Underlying the apparent chaos, I would suggest, is in fact a venerable literary genre: that of paradox. In the epilogue to her distinguished study Paradoxia Epidemica: The Renaissance Tradition of...

(The entire section is 3836 words.)

Haydn Mason (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Mason, Haydn. “The Context,” “The Importance of Candide,” “Critical Reception,” “History,” and “Philosophy and Meaning.” In Candide: Optimism Demolished, pp. 3-17; 21-57. New York: Twayne, 1992.

[In the excerpts below, Mason provides a detailed analysis of Candide, including discussions of its origin, context, philosophical, and literary background, as well as its connections to Voltaire's other works.]


The problem of evil, which is at the heart of Candide (1759), had long troubled Voltaire. Why is there suffering in the world? Why are human beings malicious toward one another? Why...

(The entire section is 20918 words.)

Arthur Scherr (essay date spring 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Scherr, Arthur. “Voltaire's Candide: A Tale of Women's Equality.” Midwest Quarterly 34, no. 3 (spring 1993): 261-82.

[In the following essay, Scherr lauds Candide as a classic and perennially popular work of literature, and examines its exploration of gender relationships, arguing that the play makes a case for the interdependent nature of male-female relationships.]

Candide, Voltaire's great philosophical conte, is undoubtedly among the most popular and perennial of literary works; as such it has received an enormous share of frequently esoteric critical attention. Invariably stressing the climactic final chapter, concluding...

(The entire section is 6695 words.)

Bettina L. Knapp (essay date 2000)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Knapp, Bettina L. “Art and Inquiry in the Philosophical Tale.” In Voltaire Revisited, pp. 144-200. New York: Twayne, 2000.

[In this excerpt, Knapp places Candide in the context of Voltaire's literary career, noting that the author never abandons his belief in relativism and moderation.]


By 1755, Voltaire's years of wandering had concluded with the purchase of Les Délices, a property in Geneva. His dream of owning a garden, of enjoying country living, and of having the leisure to pursue his writings had been finally fulfilled. Or had it? As for finding a beloved to warm his old age, he...

(The entire section is 7042 words.)

Theodore E. D. Braun (essay date 2001)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Braun, Theodore E. D. “Chaos, Contingency, and Candide.” In 1650-1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era, vol. 6, edited by Kevin L. Cope, pp. 199-209. New York: AMS Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Braun examines the themes of disorder and chaos in Voltaire's Candide.]

Voltaire has proven to be a formidable obstacle to many modern critical approaches; not impervious, but a kind of unmovable object successfully resisting an irresistible force. Few indeed have been the scholars who have applied to his works the methods of recent approaches such as structuralism, deconstruction, or chaos theory (of course, with the latter...

(The entire section is 4382 words.)

Thomas Walsh (essay date 2001)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Walsh, Thomas. “Characters and Plot.” In Readings on Candide, edited by Thomas Walsh, pp. 25-31. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Walsh provides a brief summary of the plot and characters in Candide.]

Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh. The master of the castle who kicks out Candide. He is soon killed when the Bulgarians invade.

Cacambo. Candide's valet and eventual traveling companion and friend. Cacambo's knowledge of South America and its people helps Candide in many ways during his travels there.

Candide. The main character, whose origin is unknown and irrelevant. His...

(The entire section is 2540 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Black, Moishe. “The Place of the Human Body in Candide.Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, no. 278 (1990): 173-85.

Analyzes Voltaire's use of nouns describing the human body in Candide.

Bonhomme, Denise. “Candide.” In The Esoteric Substance of Voltarian Thought, pp. 226-342. New York: Philosophical Library, 1974.

Critical analysis of Candide.

Feder, Helena. “The Critical Relevance of the Critique of Rationalism: Postmodernism, Ecofeminism, and Voltaire's Candide.Women's Studies 31, no. 2 (March-April 2002): 199-219.


(The entire section is 277 words.)