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Introduction

(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...

(The entire section is 110,958 words.)