I first became aware of Candide in the seventh grade, from a paragraph about Voltaire in a world history textbook. Later I was reminded of this book’s importance in the ninth grade, by yet another paragraph in yet another world history textbook. And then, about ten years later, I added it to the syllabus of a World Literature class I was teaching. I included it because I knew it was “important,” in spite of the fact that I had never read it myself – I figured that two different paragraphs in world history textbooks couldn’t be wrong, could they? When I sat down to read it, maybe a week or two before we were scheduled to start discussing it in class, I read the first few chapters and said, “Uh-oh. This book is weird. Why didn’t anyone tell me this book is so weird?”
What Candide is (besides weird) is a satirical picaresque – part of the genre that includes Don Quixote and Gulliver’s Travels and even – sort of – Huck Finn. But I really think “romp” is the best word to describe this genre. Its plot resembles what happens on a kindergarten playdate when someone’s older brother is left in charge. To Voltaire, of course, the kindergartners represent the ordinary Frenchmen of his time, and the various antagonists represent people with all sorts of power and authority: priests, kings, scholars, and pirates and other lowlifes who have power because they are violent and fearless.
The protagonist, Candide, is a German youth who grows up in the castle that belongs to the Baron of Thunder-ten-Tronckh (a jab at German nomenclature, and not a very good one, in my opinion – not enough syllables). “His countenance was a true picture of his soul” (1); in other words, he is a hapless idiot – the Forrest Gump of the 18th century. Candide is in love with the Baron’s daughter, Cunegonde, who functions in this tale much as Daisy functions in The Great Gatsby: to give the protagonist something to aspire to. Cunegonde (whose name – correct me if I’m wrong – belongs quite high on the list of words that sound dirty but aren’t: right up there with “ball-peen hammer” and “spanakopita.” It sounds as if Voltaire took “cunt” and put some kind of exponent on it.) and Candide are educated together by a professor named Pangloss, who – my research tells me – is intended as a satirical portrait of Leibnitz (you know, the other guy besides Isaac Newton who invented calculus). Pangloss’ approach to problems of all kinds is to announce that “all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds.” This statement reflects a subset of Enlightenment thinking that claimed that since God is infinitely powerful and infinitely good, the world we live in must be the best of all possible worlds, and if we feel otherwise, then we just don’t understand the world the way God does. There are some problems to this line of reasoning, as you may have noticed, and Voltaire, who was more or less an atheist, shows his disdain for this theory for making Pangloss the “Wile E. Coyote” of this tale. All kinds of crazy shit happens to him.
The early chapters of Candide use the same sorts of superlatives that characterize the opening chapters of Frankenstein; in both works, the protagonist seems to have images of his own childhood and images of the Garden of Eden all jumbled up in his head together. Candide’s childhood in the castle with Cunegonde and Pangloss and whomever else was – according to him – perfect. But then Candide gets caught kissing Cunegonde and gets kicked out of the castle by the Baron and then gets kidnapped by Bulgarians and then about two pages later becomes a homeless person in the Netherlands and gets a bucket of urine dumped on his head and then gets caught up in the Protestant Reformation in all kinds of uncomfortable ways. (N.B. You know how I sometimes like to use polysyndeton for comic effect? Well, Candide is absolutely MADE for using polysyndeton for comic effect. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.) And then Candide meets “a beggar all covered with scabs, his eyes diseased, the end of his nose eaten away [author’s note: just like Voldemort!], his mouth distorted, his teeth black, choking in his throat, tormented with a violent cough, and spitting out a tooth as each effort” (6) – and this beggar turns out to be Pangloss! This moment, by the way, foreshadows all the many other times that Candide happens upon various down-on-their-luck individuals who turn out to be Pangloss.
And then Cunegonde is gang-raped and dies (but don’t worry – she’ll be back), and Pangloss tells Candide all about his syphilis symptoms (and yes, there are some syphilis jokes here and there, and PFP is already the eighth site that pops up when one googles “syphilis jokes,” so maybe this review will bump us up to sixth or seventh? Maybe?) and they head off for Portugal. These characters travel as if they were advertisements for the Eurail pass.
Next there is lots and lots of satire of 18th century religious authorities and some speculation about fate and free will. Then there is an earthquake and Candide is whipped by the Inquisition and Pangloss is hanged by the Inquisition and then there is another earthquake. And then Candide is reunited with Cunegonde, who didn’t really die when she was eviscerated by her Bulgarian gang-rapists. Candide and Cunegonde consider but reject the possibility that they may not actually live in the best of all possible worlds, and the evil Jewish moneylender who owns Cunegonde shows up to “enjoy his rights and explain his tender love” (19). Then Candide kills a couple of people – the slave owner and the Inquisitioner – and meets an old woman who has had one of her buttocks chopped off.
Now: quick digression. When I started my re-read of Candide – not by choice: it was a required text in a class I was teaching – the woman with the missing buttock was the only detail that I remembered from the last time I read this book in 2001. I was sure she was introduced very early in the book – possibly as early as chapter 2 or 3. But she doesn’t pop up until chapter 9, and those first eight chapters just dragged like Jacob Marley’s chains. There is nothing like a woman with a missing buttock to liven up a satirical picaresque. I’m just saying.
Back to business. Next, Candide somehow receives a commission in the Spanish army (???), and he and Cunegonde and the old woman make plans to go to South America. Every few paragraphs Cunegonde says something like “Alas! Unless you have been ravished by two Bulgarians, have received two deep wounds in your belly, have had two castles demolished, have had two mothers cut to pieces before your eyes, and two of your lovers whipped at an auto-da-fé, I do not conceive how you could be more unfortunate than I” (23).
Next, we learn more about the old woman, who was born the daughter of the pope (ha!) and has spent her entire life being beaten and enslaved and raped. While her chapter contains as much overstated cartoonish violence as the rest of the novel, there is a clear moral to her story: that it is essential for us to hear other people’s stories – to understand them and to recognize that everyone suffers. The old woman, along with Pangloss, is also one of the primary spokespeople for the novel’s subtitle, which (ironically) is “Optimism.”. The old woman says, “A hundred times I was upon the point of killing myself, but still I loved life. This ridiculous foible is perhaps one of our most fatal characteristics; for is there anything more absurd than to wish to carry continuously a burden which one can always throw down? To detest existence and yet to cling to one’s existence? In brief, to caress the serpent that devours us, till he has eaten our very heart?”
Over and over again, I couldn’t help thinking that this novel is a comic retelling of the Book of Job. Voltaire was not religious, but as an 18th century European his religious education was undoubtedly thorough. Job’s struggles are tests of his faith in God, and he is tested because God has made a wager with Satan, betting that Job would remain faithful in spite of terrible suffering. Candide’s sufferings – and those of the old woman, Pangloss, Cunegonde, and others in this novel – come from only one place: other people. This satire is full of rapists and murderers and sadistic slave owners and eviscerators, and while some of these evil people are identified as being part of a certain ethnic, religious, or national group, overall it’s the human race that gets dragged across hot coals in this satire. And the quality being tested is not faith in God, exactly – on one level, Candide and Cunegonde’s faith in Pangloss’ dictum that “all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds,” and of course this philosophy is predicated on belief in an all-knowing, beneficent God, but on another: whenever anything good happens to Candide and Cunegonde, its agent is either blind luck or – more often – another simple, powerless human being. That’s what’s being tested here: Candide and Cunegonde’s faith in other people.
So then there’s more: Candide accidentally kills Cunegonde’s brother (oops!), who has apparently become a Jesuit, and escapes to South America wearing the Jesuit’s habit. Unfortunately, Cunegonde and the old woman can’t go with them, because Cunegonde is being held captive by a Spanish governor. In South America, Candide hires a trusty valet named Cacambo, meets some monkeys that remind me quite a bit of the yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels and ends up tied to the ground by a lot of tiny people – a direct cribbing from Swift – and goes off in search of the mythical land of El Dorado. There is a river that represents both fate and free will at the same time, as rivers always do. Candide’s attitude towards the natives he meets has a lot in common with Columbus’ dismissal of the native people on Hispanola, whom he declared to be no more than beasts because they did not value gold and gems. Instead of giving the natives smallpox on purpose, though, Candide decides that he has finally found the perfect world, where people are kind to one another and never act from envy and greed, and he considers staying there forever except that – wait – he can’t stay because he misses Cunegonde so much. So his new South American friends give him a hundred red sheep loaded down with gold and gemstones and bid him goodbye. Candide, of course, is committing the sin of greed: he wants to live in Eden-like El Dorado and have as much gold as he wants, but he also wants Cunegonde, so – of course – there is more suffering to come. Very, very comic suffering.
One by one, Candide loses his red sheep laden with gold. They all end up at the bottom or the sea or some other place one would not expect to find a red sheep. By the time he gets back to Europe, he has nothing. Reflecting on his experiences with one of his many temporary friends, Candide asks, “Do you believe that men have always massacred each other as they do to-day, that they have always been liars, cheats, traitors, ingrates, brigands, idiots, thieves, scoundrels, gluttons, drunkards, misers, envious, ambitious, bloody-minded, caluminators, debauchees, fanatics, hypocrites, and fools?” (55). The friend of the moment, Martin, replies, “Do you believe that hawks have always eaten pigeons when they have found them?… Well, then, if hawks have always had the same character, why should you imagine that men have changed theirs?” (55).
Next come more atrocities and more religious hypocrisy and more discourses on fate and free will, alongside some presaging of the French Revolution. By this point in the book, it is easy to disregard the plot (which is even more inane than it was in the first half of the book) and focus on the book’s philosophical message. As you may have noticed, I am hardly a Voltaire scholar, but, as I see it, the book’s philosophical message goes like this: “Humans are both infinitely cruel and infinitely vulnerable, and a large proportion of human cruelty is hidden under crowns, regal robes, priestly vestments, and other garments denoting authority. Stay away from authority. Your safest bet is to align your own vulnerability with the vulnerability of others. Stay away from ‘systems’ – organized religions, schools, armies, governments. Cultivate connections with individuals who have suffered, and really listen when they tell you their stories.” The final sentence of the book – which is the other thing I remembered, besides the woman who gets her buttock cut off, in the years between by 2001 and 2013 readings of the book – is “cultivate your garden” (87), which at first seems to contradict an earlier suggestion that knowledge and understanding come from travel. Eden imagery abounds at the end of the book, and Pangloss (who was never really dead, silly!) presents a litany of sorts of the way European kings have been killed through the ages – sort of a reversal of all the genealogies in the Bible about who everyone begat. The lesson here, to me, is that Voltaire understood that he was living just on the outer edge of the era of kingship. He knew the French monarchy was falling. He knew that Britain was about to lose its American colonies. He sensed the power of the Church weakening. He certainly couldn’t have foreseen all the nasty things that would take the place of kingship, of course, but he was right. Absolute power dictated by hereditary descent was on its way out in 1759, when Voltaire wrote this book.
You can accuse me of having too much Paradise Lost on the brain if you like, but I couldn’t help seeing a certain irony at the end of the novel when Candide announces, twice, “We must cultivate our garden.” Feeding ourselves by the sweat of our (collective) brow is part of Adam’s punishment for original sin, yet Adam’s punishment becomes Candide’s pleasure. Human beings want meaningful work that – in spite of occasional setbacks – yields positive and predictable results. To be honest, I think we want this kind of work even more than we want to live in a paradise like Eden or El Dorado. We want to live in a simple world of our own making, where problems are surmountable.
Pangloss’s last speech makes an interesting point: “If you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron: if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts” (87). In other words, I guess, the best way to overcome suffering is to suffer. Or, as Robert Frost said, “the best way out is always through.”
Oh, and P.S. I mocked this book a lot, but I think Voltaire would have wanted me to do that. I didn’t like Candide at all when I read it in 2001, but I enjoyed it quite a bit this time, and I would love to teach a course someday on the satirical picaresque: Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, and Huck Finn. Hmmm…