Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Candide, by Voltaire

A cynical satire of "the best of all possible worlds."


First published in 1759, approximately 35,000 words. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.

Brought up in the household of a powerful Baron, Candide is an open-minded young man, whose tutor, Pangloss, has instilled in him the belief that 'all is for the best'. But when his love for the Baron's rosy-cheeked daughter is discovered, Candide is cast out to make his own way in the world.

And so he and his various companions begin a breathless tour of Europe, South America and Asia, as an outrageous series of disasters befall them - earthquakes, syphilis, a brush with the Inquisition, murder - sorely testing the young hero's optimism.

Voltaire supposedly wrote his famous satire Candide in three days. I believe it. This picaresque tale somewhat resembles Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels as a fantastic travelogue loaded with satirical points, but it's not nearly as imaginative, nor as humorous, except in the most farcical way.

"If this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others?"

Candide, or Optimism was Voltaire's satiric refutation of Leibniz's Theodicy. A common misapprehension about the story (and Voltaire's point) is that Candide refers to "optimism" in the sense of being optimistic - i.e., seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. "Optimism" actually refers to an optimal world - Leibniz's theory, very briefly, was that given the existence of a benevolent, all-powerful deity, this world must necessarily be the best (or most optimal) of all possible worlds, as if it were possible for there to be a better one, God would have made that one instead.

Voltaire's refutation of this point is basically to put his characters through a series of horrific adventures and a catalog of torments worthy of the Marquis de Sade,

Candide is a nice young man whose mentor, Doctor Pangloss, persists in believing in this best of all possible worlds even after they are whipped, enslaved, beaten, tortured, and in Doctor Pangloss's case, seemingly executed. Candide spends much of the novel trying to recover his beloved Cunégonde (if you think that sounds like a crude French pun, you're right), who likewise gets repeatedly enslaved, raped, and tortured over the course of the story. They travel across the world, to Peru and back, and encounter the same brutal treatment pretty much everywhere they go.

"We had a very pious and humane Iman, who preached an excellent sermon, exhorting them not to kill us all at once.

"'Only cut off a buttock of each of those ladies,' said he, 'and you'll fare extremely well; if you must go to it again, there will be the same entertainment a few days hence; heaven will accept of so charitable an action, and send you relief.'

"He had great eloquence; he persuaded them; we underwent this terrible operation. The Iman applied the same balsam to us, as he does to children after circumcision; and we all nearly died.

"Scarcely had the Janissaries finished the repast with which we had furnished them, than the Russians came in flat-bottomed boats; not a Janissary escaped. The Russians paid no attention to the condition we were in. There are French surgeons in all parts of the world; one of them who was very clever took us under his care—he cured us; and as long as I live I shall remember that as soon as my wounds were healed he made proposals to me. He bid us all be of good cheer, telling us that the like had happened in many sieges, and that it was according to the laws of war.

Christian theologians and atheists alike have wrestled with the Problem of Evil for as long as there has been a belief in a benevolent, all-powerful deity. Voltaire's version of the age-old question, "If God is good, why do bad things happen to good people?" is delivered with over-the-top satire. As a story, it is funny at times (how can a story in which every character one-ups the next in their tale of woe and misery, from being burned by the Inquisition to having a buttock cut off and eaten?), but the characters aren't meant to in any way behave like real people, nor are the events meant to be taken seriously.

Candide is of historical importance because Voltaire was one of the first writers who did ask that question publicly, and it was condemned at the time for its ridicule of secular and religious authority.

Poll #1981892 Candide

Have you read Candide?

Yes, and I liked it.
Yes, it was okay.
Yes, and I didn't like it.
No, and I don't want to.
No, but now I want to.

Verdict: As an important, ground-breaking work, Candide had its moment, but it's now a very dated polemic that's too absurd to be read as a serious philosophical argument. The story itself is entertaining in its comical cavalcade of grotesqueries, but this is one to read for its historical significance (and a few choice witty passages), as the humor wears thin quickly.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, reviews

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