This is the review of Voltaire’s best-known book which I wrote on my old Angelfire site probably in late 2003.
This is one of the funniest, most interesting, liveliest, most fascinating books I’ve ever read. It’s also an extremely quick read you can read in one sitting, over one day, or that you can start reading over part of one day and finish up the next day. I’ve read it at light speed the two times I’ve read it so far. It doesn’t hurt that it was written by the great Voltaire, one of my favouritest people, and the edition I have was translated by my brilliant Enlightenment professor, Daniel Gordon. He jokes in the introduction (which is also very good, and points out some of the innuendos you might not get from reading a translation) that if nothing else, this edition restores Candide’s true height to him!
The subtitle of this book is optimism, which is either ironic or funny, depending upon how you look at it. The name Candide means pure; it comes from the same root word as candidate, a word that has its origins in how candidates for the Roman senate used to wear white (pure) robes. Candide is very innocent and naïve, and remains so even through all his troubles over the course of the book. He doesn’t see or understand that he’s being lied to, robbed, or used, nor does he see his beloved Cunégonde as the whore she really is.
This whole book is a great example of Occum’s Razor. Everything goes wrong for poor Candide and his friends; they’re robbed, lose their riches, are exiled, endure a storm at sea and land in Portugal right at the time of a major earthquake, they’re taken advantage of and lied to right and left, have to constantly go on the run, get ugly and withered, catch syphilis, you name it. And Candide only goes through so many problems because he’s trying to reunite with his beloved Cunégonde, the daughter of the Baron and Baroness of Thunder-ten-tronck.
Candide lived in Westphalia with the Baron’s family, their maid Paquette, and the philosopher/tutor Pangloss, until one day the Baron caught him making out with Cunégonde and drove him out with many kicks in the ass. Thus begin all of Candide’s woes; he’s forced into the Bulgar army, endures a fierce storm at sea, and then arrives in Lisbon at the time of the great earthquake, before he finds Cunégonde again. He’s heard from Pangloss (who has since caught syphilis from Paquette, and become rather deformed on account of it) that the Bulgars invaded the Thunder-ten-troncks’ castle (which we know from the first chapter is little more than a hole in the wall!) and murdered the Baron, the Baroness, and their two children, as well as raping both Cunégonde and her brother.
Soon after this Candide and Pangloss are dragged before the Portuguese Inquisition with a few other people, some Marranos and a man who married the mother of his godchild. (Under Catholic law, people who shared a godchild were considered to be related even if they weren’t.) Pangloss is sentenced to be hanged (for his unrepentent philosophical views), but Candide gets away with only a whipping, since he only listened approvingly to what Dr. Pangloss was saying. “Candide was whipped in cadence with the chant.”
Meanwhile Cunégonde has miraculously escaped what Pangloss described, and is now living with a Jewish man named Issachar, as well as an ugly old woman who is her maid. (Voltaire was rather anti-Semitic, and this is one of the parts of the book that reflects his bad attitudes.) But an Inquisitor also loves her, and she’s come to an agreement to be with them on different days, though she claims she isn’t sleeping with them. (This claim is later contradicted by how the old woman says something to the effect that she was enjoyed sexually by both of them!) In a moment of panic, Candide kills first Issachar and then the Inquisitioner. Then Candide goes on the run with Cunégonde and the old woman, putting an entire ocean behind themselves and his crime.
They’ve gotten to South America when a local king asks Cunégonde to marry him. She decides it’ll be safest to stay there for awhile, since she isn’t wanted by the Inquisition, and makes Candide go on escaping with his new friend and valet Cacambo, whom they met in Cadiz before setting sail. Soon after this Candide is in trouble again because he’s killed a Jesuit priest who turned out to be Cunégonde’s supposedly dead brother. He gets in further trouble soon after because he kills two monkeys in the land of the Oreillons. Cacambo explains to him that the monkeys were the lovers of the two girls they were chasing naked.
They end up in Eldorado, a beautiful utopian kindgom untroubled by religious warfare, poverty, or a tyrannical despot. The banquet they’re served before meeting the humble king is truly fantastic, but their hosts explain to them that this is very poor humble food and they’ll eat much better in the king’s palace. They don’t even have to bow or kowtow to the king when they meet him. The land is littered with gold and jewels, but the locals don’t understand why these two outsiders love it so much and are picking up so much of it, since they consider these riches to be nothing more than mud. Nobody wants them to leave, but they decide they must to get Cunégonde back.
Candide’s troubles increase when he loses or is robbed of nearly all of his treasure-laden sheep on the way back to Europe. On the way there he befriends Martin, whom he picked as his travelling companion in a contest of the person on the ship who’d suffered the most. Martin’s story is far from the worst, but Candide picks him over all the others.
When they get to Europe, they undergo a whole series of adventures with many different people, but Candide never wants to stay too long even in a great place with wonderful hosts, since he must find Cunégonde, who’s somewhere in Europe. And when he finally is reunited with her and the old woman (and some other people), we know as well as he do that it was worth more trouble than it turned out to be. He should have stayed in Eldorado, or any of the nice places he was in in Europe for that matter, but is cornered into staying true to his word and marrying Cunégonde.
The main characters eventually eke out a happy life for themselves, philosophising, gardening, making pasteries, and wondering what might have happened differently if some of the things they went through hadn’t happened. But they’re reminded by Candide that all of that may be true, but “We all must cultivate our garden,” one of the most famous lines of this story. The other famous line is the one Pangloss is constantly spouting off and giving proofs for, “All events are linked together in this best of all possible worlds.”