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Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

A woman and young girl, dressed as eighteenth-century French nobility, riding in a carriage parade at Versailles. Published by Gale Cengage

The rulers of Geneva expressed their view of Candide by burning it. The idea that the authorities in one part of Europe were incensed enough to set the work ablaze was very good publicity. Smugglers, meanwhile, made sure that anyone anywhere in Europe could get a copy of the small work on the black market. In general, that is the history of Voltaire's reception—people either fervently loved him, or they wanted to burn him. Today Voltaire's works are studied as artifacts and for amusement.

Immediate reviews of Candide were often defensive. For example, an anonymous review of the work in the The Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle, in May of 1759, defended Leibnitz. The reviewer stated that no less a figure than Alexander Pope, in his An Essay on Man, expressed a belief in optimism. Furthermore, wrote the reviewer, it is not possible to disprove this philosophy, for in order to do so, one must intrinsically know every other system. Only then can judgment be passed on our system of civilization. Candide, asserted the reviewer, "is an attempt to ridicule the notion that 'all things are for the best,' by representing the calamity of life, artfully aggravated, in a strange light."

In 1791, James Boswell compared Candide to Samuel Johnson's Rasselas. In his The Life of Samuel Johnson, he wrote, "Voltaire I am afraid, meant only by wanton profaneness to obtain victory over religion, and to discredit the belief of a superintending providence …" Whereas, Samuel Johnson used satire to direct man's hope toward the "eternal" rather than to satisfaction on earth.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, "the born minister of literature," as John Morley dubbed Voltaire was posthumously winning the race against Rousseau. Gustave Lanson, in his Voltaire of 1902, covers the publication history of Voltaire during the 1800s. During a seven-year period (1817-1824), for example, of the 2,159,500 volumes of anti-clerical and anti-royalist writings in Revolutionary France 75% were written by Voltaire. "But," Lanson wrote, "where Voltaire's influence was immense, obvious, and still persisted is in the fields of journalism, pamphleteering, and all forms of polemical writing. He was the master of militant irony and murderous ridicule." In terms of total book...

(The entire section is 729 words.)