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Why is this short 18th-Century comedic novel not only an important work of literature but also one of the top-10 banned books of all time? Explore the wacky characters and shocking story line that is one of France's most recognizable contributions to world culture.
Voltaire's Candide, a controversial work counted among the greatest books of European literature, is both accessible to the average reader and certain to make you laugh. Candide is all the more remarkable in that its comedy is derived from some of the most tragic characters and situations imaginable.
Candide begins as a naive and innocent young German, the son of a noblewoman who is the sister of a baron. Even though Candide was a product of a relationship outside his mother's legal marriage, he was permitted to grow up in the castle of the baron. Once outside the castle, however, he quickly starts to learn about the harsh and violent realities of the world. In spite of his terrible experiences, he never loses his resolve to continue on and to do the right thing, even after making foolish decisions. One way to remember this protagonist's name is to think of 'candy,' which is related to his sweet and child-like nature.
Cunégonde is the baron's daughter and the object of Candide's affection. While she does not reject Candide's love, she is a fundamentally practical person who tries to watch out for her own best interests. Although she has moments of feeling sorry for herself, she is also remarkably strong and sturdy. She survives rape, slavery and disembowelment. Her appearance at the beginning of the story is the picture of youth and beauty; by the end, however, she has become quite unattractive. One way to remember her name is that, through much of the story, she is 'gone' (from Candide).
Pangloss was Candide's tutor in the beautiful castle where Candide spent his childhood. Throughout the novel, he represents optimism: the belief that everything that happens is for the best, and that everything will end well, as it should. Much of the humor in the book comes from watching Pangloss's optimism be challenged by horrifying natural events and cruel human behavior. If you remember that 'pan' means 'everything,' Pangloss's name will remind you that he's the one who glosses over everything with positive thinking. Because candy is often shiny or glossy, that may help you remember that this character is also Candide's closest friend - that they mostly stick together, like the gloss on candy.
We never actually learn the name of The Old Woman. She is to Cunégonde what Pangloss is to Candide: a beloved older companion who stays near the central character through much, but not all, of the story. Like Candide, she was born outside of marriage. Her father was a Pope. To comfort Cunégonde during a time of sadness, the Old Woman tells the story of how one of her buttocks had been cut off and eaten by Russian army officers in Algiers.
Jacques is a religious, good-Samaritan type of character who gives shelter to Candide and Pangloss while in Holland. He accompanies them to Portugal but is soon drowned in a flood.
Cacambo, who may represent the connection between 'old' and 'new' worlds in the novel, is half European and half South American. He fills the role of loyal servant, guide and companion to Candide overseas during a period when Pangloss is not present.
Cunégonde's brother seems to live and die, literally, solely to prevent Cunégonde from marrying their cousin Candide. He fails. In addition to being Cunégonde's brother, this character is also the second Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh and, briefly, a Jesuit priest in Paraguay.
Martin is often described as the novel's philosophical counterpart to Pangloss. Martin is every bit as pessimistic and negative about life as Pangloss is positive. Like Cacambo, Martin appears and acts as companion for Candide at a time when Pangloss is not around. Candide chooses Martin from a group of potential companions after sending Cacambo on a mission to find Cunégonde.
Paquette is most notorious for being the one to have passed syphilis along to Pangloss. Her life as a prostitute is not improved much by her subsequently unhappy marriage to a priest. One of the most miserable characters in the novel, Paquette nevertheless survives long enough to join Candide and several lucky others in a place where they can all peacefully retire at the story's end.
The story begins at the Thunder-ten-Tronckh castle in Germany, from which Candide flees after being caught making out with Cunégonde. After witnessing the atrocities of war, Candide and Pangloss are both taken in by kindly Jacques in Holland. The three find their way to Lisbon, Portugal just in time for the great earthquake and tsunami that actually occurred there in 1755. Pangloss and Candide must run away once more, this time with Cunégonde after Candide murders her two powerful slavers. Only Candide, Cunégonde and the Old Woman make it out of Lisbon and end up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Cunégonde decides it best to marry someone rich. A disappointed Candide then meets Cacambo in nearby Paraguay, and the pair makes their way to the famous El Dorado, where everything is constructed with gold and jewels and life presents no problems except for one: no Cunégonde.
Now rich and headed for many more mini-adventures along the way, Candide and Cacumbo leave El Dorado all the more determined to reunite with Cunégonde. Cacumbo's assignment to fetch Cunégonde gives Candide a chance to sail from Suriname (on South America's northeastern coast) back to Europe and discuss the value of life and humanity with Martin all the way to England. Their experiences travelling from England to Venice, Italy give Voltaire a chance to make fun of an array of European places and peoples along the way. Finally, Candide gets word that his beloved Cunégonde is being kept in slavery once again, which is the impetus for a trip to the Middle East. A major reunion of surviving characters, major and minor, ensues. Near a coast in the land which we now know of as Turkey, the now-married Candide and Cunégonde are joined by Pangloss, the Old Woman, and four others on a farm. While this final resting place for Voltaire's story is no El Dorado, it is a relative paradise for these eight bedraggled persons who now appear to be ready to live out their lives growing vegetables in humble, communal harmony.
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Candide has aspects of various types of stories that were familiar to Voltaire and his readers. It is at the same time a Homeric adventure-odyssey tale and an example of 'picaresque' comedy, which typically portrays a clown-like innocent exposing the hypocrisy of society. Candide also fits the description of a roman à clef, which criticizes real people and events under the safe cover of fiction. Voltaire did not even publicly admit to having written Candide until nine years after its publication. Candide has also been described as a bildungsroman, or 'coming-of-age' story. In a coming-of-age story, the reader is meant to recognize and relate to the progress of the main character as he or she matures and comes to terms with life's realities.
As with all great books, Candide's critics run a wide gamut of speculation in attributing possible intended audiences or reasons for its creation. We do know that Voltaire offered at least one brief explanation: 'to bring amusement to a small number of men of wit.' It is certainly obvious that Voltaire had a great many things to say about the people, places and events surrounding him, and he says those things in such a way that they have not been forgotten for hundreds of years. In the tradition of the roman à clef, however, his critiques maintain a measure of anonymity and fictionalization enough to avoid too much backlash from his contemporaries. He also uses satire, or sarcasm, along with a very dry humor, to great effect toward that goal. Most observant readers of Voltaire realize that the serious-sounding philosophies and matter-of-fact descriptions of horrific events in Candide are just a mask for some of the funniest, most scathing material ever written.
Was Voltaire really trying to tell us something, even centuries after his death, or just having fun? Most serious critics find something serious in Voltaire's comic work. The philosophies of optimism and pessimism espoused by Pangloss and Martin sound exaggerated and even ridiculous coming from their mouths, but those same theories were also coming from the mouths and pens of other highly educated, respected men and women of Voltaire's time. There's not much doubt that Voltaire was using a playful format as a battleground for real philosophical questions, but there is wide disagreement about which side Voltaire himself might have taken, if any.
Candide is a delightful and wickedly shocking work of satiric comedy written by Voltaire, an 18th-Century French intellectual. The wide cast of zany characters often seem two-dimensional and silly, and the situations Candide gets into come across as exaggerated and dryly tragic-comic. The plot is a playful exploration and send-up of many kinds of popular reading available to Voltaire and others in his day. Voltaire also uses his comedy to make serious comment on foolish, serious and truly frightening persons, historic events and philosophies. The lasting popularity of the book may lie in its masterful combination of pure entertainment value with an added invitation to reflect on the fragility of life, the temporality of passion, and the nature of true happiness.