Candide is Voltaire’s signature work. Voltaire was a French writer who even when very young scandalized and amused the French people by turns. He was in the vanguard of the Enlightenment movement; but he satirized the movement also as it was not without failings. Voltaire was frequently banished from France for his writings that mocked the state, the aristocracy and the church.  Voltaire died in 1778, six years before the French Revolution broke out. In Candide, Voltaire mocks the aristocracy, Christianity, the philosophy of optimism and the Enlightenment, as a movement.

Relevance of the Title

The title of the story is Candide; Candide is the protagonist of the story. The story deals with his life and its vicissitudes. Voltaire also had an alternative title for the story; Optimism. That is a tongue-in-cheek take on Pangloss’s favorite philosophy. Pangloss had suffered much in life but steadfastly hung on to his philosophy.

Main Themes

The Philosophy of Optimism – Does it Make Sense?

Candide and his teacher Dr. Pangloss believe in a perfect world that has been created by a perfect God. To think that the world was less than perfect was to suggest that God had created an imperfect world. That was a blasphemous idea to many of the Enlightenment thinkers. Voltaire did not believe in a perfect God so he could afford to take the line that the world was far from perfect. The main exponent of the ‘perfect world’ philosophy is Dr. Pangloss who is dogged by misfortune. It is only at the end that he concedes that his philosophy has been nonsense.

The Hypocrisy of Religion

Most of the religious figures in Candide are hypocrites; they preach things they do not practice. The Pope who is the head of the Catholic Church and professes strict celibacy has a daughter, the jewel thief is a friar and a homosexual who figures in a story is a Jesuit. Some of the worst incidents of cruelty are practiced by religious characters who preach mercy and compassion.

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The Corrupting Power of Money

Candide was never concerned about money until he became rich in Eldorado. The stress of keeping his money safe tests his cheerful outlook. People around him seem to waste no opportunity to cheat him. Candide also learns to bribe his way through using his easy made money. Money is important to the poor and hungry who long for it all the time but the really rich don’t seem to have an easy time with money.

Characters

Candide

He is a good natured fellow but everything that he has learned from his mentor has made him ill equipped for the corrupt world in which he lives. His mentor Dr. Pangloss believes that the world in which they live is the best place to be. Candide too believes in that theory but both mentor and protégé are severely tested once they leave the safety of the palace. Candide faces brutal punishment and other privations aplenty but he hangs on to the optimistic outlook till the time comes when he realizes that the world is a harsh and unfair place.

Pangloss

Pangloss is an over optimistic character. Even he though he suffers great privations in the story, he believes that everything happens for the better and all is right with the world. Voltaire mocks the philosophy of optimism that was popular during the eighteenth century.

Cunegonde

She is Candide’s girl. It is love for her that gets Candide driven out of the palace where he had spent his life till then. Later the palace is attacked by enemies who capture and keep her as a slave. Through all these horrors, she does not stop loving Candide. But much later when the governor of the land proposes marriage to her, she gives Candide up choosing financial security instead.

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Summary

Candide is the illegitimate nephew of a German baron in whose castle he lives. He is tutored by Dr. Pangloss who believes that the world is perfect. Candide, who shares this view gets his first share of trouble when the baron catches Candide and his daughter Cunegonde, kissing. When the baron expels Candide from the castle he wanders about looking for a livelihood and gets conscripted into the Bulgar army. Being unfamiliar with military rules, Candide goes off on a walk. He is declared a deserter and flogged when he returns. Realizing that the army life was not for him, he escapes at first chance and travels to Holland.

In Holland, he makes friends with Jacques, an Anabaptist who offers him shelter. While wandering about the city, Candide meets a deformed beggar who turns out to be his old tutor, Dr. Pangloss. Pangloss is now sick and in need of help. Jacques agrees to shelter Pangloss as well. He tells Candide that after Candide left the castle, it was attacked by the Bulgars who had killed the baron and his family. Candide is saddened to hear of Cunegonde’s death. The three friends decide to travel to Lisbon by ship. During the voyage, the ship is caught in a storm and Jacques is drowned. When they arrive in Lisbon, they see the city has been destroyed by an earthquake. The Inquisition, which is control, arrests Jacques as a heretic and he is burned at stake and Candide is beaten till he falls unconscious. An old woman rescues him and attends to his wounds. When he gets better, she takes him to a girl who turns out to be Cunegonde. Her story is that while the rest of the family was killed, she was taken prisoner and kept as a sex slave by the army officers. She is now jointly owned by two of them. When Candide and she are talking, the two men turn up unexpectedly. Candide kills both of them and he and Cunegonde escape along with the old woman to South America. During the journey, the old woman reveals that she is the daughter of the Pope; a man who has sworn to observe celibacy!

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The arrival at Buenos Aires sours things for Candide as Cunegonde receives a proposal of marriage from the Governor. She thinks that marriage with a nobleman will serve to safeguard her future, so she accepts. Candide is heartbroken but does not give up. Meanwhile, the authorities want to arrest him for the killings of the two men in Lisbon. Candide escapes again, this time joining up with rebels who are revolting against the Spanish government. As luck would have it, he meets Cunegonde’s brother who too had escaped with her from the Bulgars. After many more adventures, Candide buys Cunegonde from the Governor but she has grown ugly by then. But he does not bother with that.