Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 729

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...

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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 printings and sales, Voltaire remained the most popular writer.

After 1850, however, as the French Republic established itself and bourgeoisie fervor for the revolution waned, so did Voltaire's influence. Lanson summed up Voltaire's influence: "In general, in countries outside of France, to the extent that historical circumstances moved further away from conditions that obtained in France when Voltaire's work first appeared, his influence is not easily discernible except among certain clear-thinking minds at odds with their social groups or in revolt against its demands and prejudices."

Critic Georg Brandes, wrote about Voltaire against the backdrop of WWI. He suggested that the mood of Candide was still relevant. This idea of relevancy remains a strong current in Voltaire criticism. In 1960, in The Art of Writing, André Maurois wrote that Candide said all that can be said on today's topic—the world is absurd. Therefore, "Candide was the high-point of Voltaire's art." Partisanship has disappeared and the focus of criticism now trains on the ideas Voltaire had. A. Owen Aldridge, in Voltaire and the Century of Light, wrote that "structural analysis does very little to explain the universal appeal of Candide. It ranks as one of the masterpieces of European literature, not primarily because of style but because of its realistic portrayal of the human condition."

That does not mean that structural analysis of Voltaire's work is not being done. In fact, it is being done more and more. William F. Bottiglia undertook an analysis entitled, "Candide's Garden." His close textual analysis of "a literary masterpiece risen out of time to timelessness" discusses the possibility of approaching the novel as internally structured or externally structured. He feels the latter is not possible as "Candide encompasses all—there is no outside. Thus, those who claim that Candide reflects or comments on the times miss the fact that the times are in the book." He also examines Candide's journey as a series of 12 gardens.

Critics like Roland Barthes and Ira O. Wade have focused on Voltaire's work in context. They often suggest, in the case of Candide, that Voltaire was very hypocritical. By critical consensus and in terms of sales, Voltaire will always be cherished and Candide will always be read.

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