An inherent difficulty in evaluating Voltaire’s Candide lies in the artistry of the author. In basic terms, the novel is not so much the fictional adventures of its young and naïve hero as it is a thinly disguised assault on the optimistic ideology of the Age of Enlightenment. Voltaire was first and foremost a philosopher, and not a novelist. He had a distinct message to convey yet, as a craftsman, he understood how more effectively he could speak if he used the genre of fiction to promote his ideas. This then creates the difficulty. On one level, the author’s intent, if not agenda, is clear throughout the work; on another, the skill Voltaire exercises in moving Candide through adventure after adventure blurs the actual motivation. This is in a sense the price Voltaire pays as an artist, in that his primary objective may become diffused by the complexity and richness of the story presenting the objective.
It may be said, in fact, that Voltaire’s artistry is even more a barrier today than it was in his own era, simply because the ideologies of his time are no longer relevant as social forces. There can be no underestimating the impact of the spirit of optimism as embraced in the 18th century of Western Europe, and this is supported by how Voltaire’s Candide was received. Voltaire was a cynic in an age that regarded cynicism as unnatural; consequently, the sharp satire of Candide
became identified with the artist himself. Applauded as he was, Voltaire was universally viewed as the epitome of the cynic, and this was equated at the time with a kind of nastiness, or even perversion. As Voltaire challenged the optimism of Rousseau and the Age of Enlightenment, he himself was denounced in the same way, and it was felt that his cynicism was fueled by base forces (Branham, Goulet-Caze, 2000, p. 347). In no uncertain terms, Voltaire sets out in Candide to dispute the optimistic view he perceives as a misguided, if not dangerous, ideology.
This is accomplished, however, in complex and beautifully executed satire that gives the reader great pleasure. These characters, if symbolic, are also a great deal of fun, and it is important to note that Voltaire’s satire is not malevolent. From the beginning, Dr. Pangloss is presented almost as a Dickensian buffoon, and his logic is as captivating as it is bizarre: “Legs are visibly designed for stockings – and we have stockings” (Voltaire, 2010, p. 2). Voltaire in a sense lets Pangloss lead the charge against himself in this fashion, but it is also critical to note that this beginning reflects subtlety. Candide believes, but he believes because he desires Cunegonde, and this is an excellent device to demonstrate how ideologies may be upheld because innocent longings are validated by them. Pangloss, in other words, must be right because that truth will bring Candide what he wants. In this way, Voltaire actually adds dimension to satire and sarcasm because he invests them with underlying truth regarding human behavior.
Candide lives no ordinary life, and the episodes related reflect the very real issues that most offended Voltaire, including abuses by the Catholic church, the horrors of war, religious intolerance, and the evils of French society (Wilson, Reill, 2004, p. 90). As the hero is drawn into these matters, Voltaire is enabled to create a scaffold of argument against optimism. He perceives it as an innocence not entirely unlike Candide’s, but one far more suspect; Candide is naïve because he is truly innocent, whereas the guiding forces behind optimism, in Voltaire’s eyes, were deliberately ignoring truth. Beyond anything else evident in Candide, there is a strong and consistent current of subtle criticism of a belief in a benevolent God ensuring that all things are in accord with a divine plan for good (Porterfield, 2005, p. 72). At the same time, and importantly, neither Voltaire nor Candide is nihilistic. The author’s message is not that life is not good, but rather that goodness may be created only by effort and awareness. This is the ultimate message of Candide, and it is truly “cynical” only in that it holds humanity responsible for its own state of being, and for good or ill.
Branham, R. B., & Goulet-Caze, M. O. (2000). The Cynics: The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and Its Legacy. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Porterfield, J. (2005). Voltaire: Champion of the French Enlightenment. New York: Rosen Publishing Group.
Voltaire. (2010). Candide. New York: Cricket House Books.