Let me start off by saying that I thoroughly enjoy satires; it is the genre I appreciate most for its employment of wit and militant irony. Upon delving into Candide by Voltaire I was lured in by its display of ridiculously brutal situations that dramatized the many evils of human experience. I think Voltaire wonderfully crafted this particular satire through his conglomeration of themes and symbolisms. Seemingly swiftly Voltaire takes the reader through a manifold of episodes of extreme cruelty that prove both horrible and vividly comic.
Like other satires, this novella has many themes linked by one central philosophical theme traversing the entire work. This theme is a direct assault on the philosophy of Gottfried Leibniz, Alexander Pope and others. Leibniz held the view that the world created by God was the best possible world with perfect order and reason. Similarly, Alexander Pope, in his Essay on Man, argues that every human being is a part of a greater, rational, grand design of God. Voltaire points out the absurdity of optimism through the use of irony, hyperbole, understatement, and especially flawed logic.
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Doctor Pangloss, a follower of Leibniz, attempts to use logic to explain the existence of evil, upholding such beliefs to the point of absurdity, justifying all events through cause-and-effect relationships. One example of this is when he contends that “things cannot be otherwise than they are, for since everything is made to serve an end, everything necessarily serves the best end. Observe: our noses were made to support spectacles, hence we have spectacles. ” All of his philosophies are rife with flawed logic, portraying him as a learned fool.
Voltaire follows up by throwing dirt on Pangloss’s ideals with constant examples of human cruelty and natural disasters that apparently defy all explanation, particularly Pangloss’. For instance, the narrator reasons that the Baron is powerful because his castle has a door and some windows; the Baroness is respected because she weighs three hundred and fifty pounds. In chapter four Candide naively speculates that his departure from the castle precipitated Cunegonde’s death. Though Pangloss attributes glorious things to romantic and physical love, he identifies it as the source of his miserable condition.
Candide questions love itself, pointing out that his love for Cunegonde brought him nothing but trouble. Just as spectacles were the necessary consequence of noses, Pangloss sees his venereal disease as a necessary consequence of Europe’s acquisition of New World commodities like chocolate and cochineal. After extolling the merits of his venereal disease, Pangloss tells Candide that it has made “marvelous progress” in Europe, particularly among soldiers, not unlike those who raped and killed Cunegonde, who he calls “honest”, and “well-bred”.
Candide replies that this is “admirable”. Pangloss dishes out these flawed logics every chapter, ending the book with admitting earlier that he was always miserable and never believed in optimism. However, he offers another pathetic argument in favor of optimism. He cites the necessity of events in Candide’s life, saying they were responsible for his present happiness. But the chaotic events of Candide’s life defy any logical ordering according to his own philosophy of cause and effect.
In addition to his anti-philosophy current which runs throughout the work, Voltaire also satirically indicts religion and war. Almost from the first chapter to the last, Voltaire depicts religious men (priests, monks, etc) as hypocrites who don’t live up to the religion they profess to believe. Most importantly, Voltaire makes the Church out to be one of the most corrupt, violence-ridden institutions on the planet. This is seen both during the Inquisition scene towards the middle of the book as well as the Jesuit satire seen while Candide and Cacambo are in Paraguay.
Examples of hypocrisy are self evident in a plethora of chapters, like in chapter three where the orator tells Candide he deserves to starve because Candide does not know whether the Pope is the Antichrist. Just before, the orator had been addressing a crowd about the virtues of charity. The supposed integrity of churchmen is questioned in chapter ten where a reverend Franciscan father steals money from Cunegonde, while a Benedictine friar swindles the threesome out of a good horse.
The emphasis on philosophy relates to the debates over Christianity in the eighteenth century where thinkers were moving towards more reason-based rationale and farther from religious duties. Voltaire merges all of his satires into one, larger message-that the human world is utterly disutopian. All of the versions of utopia which Voltaire raises up and then slams down in his work demonstrate such a loss of optimism. Another interesting point to note is the extraordinary set of plot coincidences where the characters’ fates interact with each other. These worthy plots maneuver ties back to the philosophy of “everything happens for a reason”.
The spontaneity that Voltaire keeps flowing induces hilarity and a disregard for realism. William F. Bottiglia writes that the diction in the work is a “vehicle of sustained symbolism. ” The critic notes that it is impossible to summarize clearly the stylistic and narrative technique of the novella because the entire work operates as an extended metaphor accompanied and supported by its verbal text. Bottiglia also lauds the depth and scope of the subject matter handled by Voltaire in a text the size of Candide. I most profusely agree with Bottiglia in his critical acclaim. Candide is truly a worthwhile read for the learned mind.