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By Voltaire
Translated from the German by John Butt
New York: Penguin Books, from the 1947 edition, date not given
ISBN: 0-14-044004-6
144 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2014

The novel was written in 1758 when Voltaire was 64 and famous. Earthquakes play a role in the story and they were fresh in peoples’ minds. There were two famous earthquakes of the time, in 1746 in Lima and 1755 in Lisbon.

The story centers around the philosophical notion associated with the famous German philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. He held that this is the most perfect of all possible worlds. The novel, however, is a satire in which Voltaire is not so much tweaking the philosophical theory, but the more popular (and totally incorrect) public interpretation of Leibnitz’s work.

Candide was born in Westphalia in Germany. His parentage is uncertain, but he is living with Baron Thunder-ten-trockh and his wife. They have a daughter, Cunegonde whom Candide adores as she does him. They have a tutor, Pangloss, who teachings the view of the world that this is the best possible world, the view associated with Leibnitz, and Candide subscribes to a naïve version of the theory.

The plot is sort of one catastrophe after the next, each one being understood by Candide as the best possible outcome. Voltaire follows the pattern of adventure novels that travel all over and have the main characters involved in all sorts of nearly impossible activities.

First Candide is driven out of the estate house for having been caught kissing Cunegonde, who is way above him in “station.” However, he is saved by an invading king and goes off to Bulgar with him. He is mistreated and eventually escapes to Holland.

There he ends up with James, an Anabaptist, who does not at all accept the view that this is “the best of all possible worlds.” Shockingly Candide discovers the sick and injured Pangloss and the two are united again.

Tragedy after tragedy follow, first they have to escape Holland, but are shipwrecked in Lisbon and experience the earthquake there. Pangloss is executed and Candide barely escapes and is shockingly rescued by the servant of Cunegonde, whom Candide had thought was dead. However, she is basically a prisoner of a rich Jewish businessman and the Cardinal of Lisbon. The powerful men “share” Cunegonde, who, of course, only loves Candide.

Candide kills the two of them and once again he and Cunegonde, with the old servant lady, escape and run into more wild adversity, which, of course, they understand as the best possible world. Nonetheless, they decide to escape their situation and go to the New World, ending up in Buenos Ayres, where Cunegonde is going to be forced to be the wife of the leader there. Candide escapes to Paraguay which is a Jesuit stronghold and he plans to somehow save Cunegonde. As crazy as these things go in this best of all possible worlds, the leader of the Jesuits is Cunegonde’s brother, and Candide’s dear childhood friend. However, when he discovers that Candide, a “nobody” (in the mind of this son of a nobleman) plans to marry his sister, he is going to kill Candide, but instead Candide kills him, and he is again running.

Candide and his new servant, Cacambo escape and after considerable time come to Eldorado, and its kindness and wealth. It is an actual true Utopia on earth. Eventually the king sends them of with sheep loaded with gold and precious jewels. Cacambo is sent with some of the wealth to buy back Cunegonde and then to meet Candide in Venice.

However, Candide is cheated of most of his wealth, but he does still manage to keep a fair bit and is now wealthy. He takes on a new servant, Martin who has worked for a while in publishing and utterly denounces Pangloss’ theory. They argue constantly. Martin holds

“. . . man was created by the forces of evil and not by the forces of good.”

They have a disastrous visit to Paris, but do eventually get to Venice where he meets Pacquette. She was the person who had gotten Pangloss into such trouble in Holland. She is now a prostitute and is with a monk, Brother Giroflee.

At one point Candide challenges Martin’s theory and points out he’s heard of a magnificent man, Count Pococurante, so they go to visit him. It is a wasted visit. The count is extremely learned, but a total cynic and enjoys nothing in life.

Then Cacambo shows up. He is a servant now; having lost all his portion of the wealth, and Cunegonde is a slave in Constantinople. Candide’s optimism once again rises and they hurry of to save her. She is now very ugly, but they manage to not only save her, but to discover that both her brother, whom Candide thought he had killed, is alive, but he is now a slave along with Pangloss himself, who also had survived execution in Spain.

They all continue to argue about good and evil and also: what to do. In the very end an extremely simple small and ancient old farmer tells them the secret of success: want little, work hard and be satisfied with life.

And so they do. However, this is a quite strange ending given Voltaire’s pessimism. It seems to indicate an “all’s well that ends well” attitude and that the life of simple people isn’t so bad after all. Nonetheless, the novel is certainly a delightful romp of improbability with lots of challenges and fun.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett