Sunday, May 15, 2011

Quick Summary of CANDIDE by Voltaire ; optimism


Cultural Dictionary
Candide  [(kan- deed , kahnn- deed ) (1759)]

A novel of satire by Voltaire, in which a long series of calamities happens to the title character, an extremely naive and innocent young man, and his teacher, Doctor Pangloss. Pangloss, who reflects the optimistic philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, nevertheless insists that, despite the calamities, “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”

This is basically the gist of the novel, I thought it would be just perfect to quote 'dictionary.com' and save myself the time to explain the novel's story plot.  I want to get into some of the deeper themes of the writing.


Candide lives in a castle in the country of Westphalia, in the castle of noble baron 'Thunder-ten-tronckh' and one day he gets thrown out of the castle for kissing the baron's daughter, Miss Cunegonde.  He leaves the castle with one piece of knowledge that Master Pangloss has taught him, 'that things cannot be otherwise than they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end.'  He leaves the castle and all sorts of things happen to him which lead him to question the nature of what he had learned from Master Pangloss, all the while wondering, if in fact, all things are for the best.  He starves, he encounters terrible horrors (killings, rapes, people being cut into pieces, diseases, burnings, hangings), and he even ends up killing three people.  He encounters so many calamities that at some point he breaks down completely at the addition of even one more unfortunate occurance: 'The treatment completed Candide's despair.  It is true he had suffered misfortunes a thousand times more grivous; but the cool insolence of the judge and the villainy of the skipper raised his anger and threw him into a deep melancholy.  The villany of mankind presented itself to his mind in all its deformity, and his mind dwelt only on gloomy thoughts.'   Against all this, in general, throughout most of the book, Candide holds very strongly to the belief that all things are for the better, even if he finds himself questioning it. There is a deviation between what he has learned from Master Pangloss (and which he firmly believes himself) and what is actually happening to him in reality.  This discrepancy between thought and reality causes him to question his own belief and wisdom, as well as questioning himself and humanity.

He begins to question his own belief system because of how he is affected by all that's happening to him.  One moment he's encountering compassionate people who are willing to feed him, give him a place to stay, help him find his way and the next he's being consumed by horror, being publicly whipped, tortured, threatened to be killed, and hearing of horrific killings.  The battle between compassion and horror leads him to loose himself and to no longer be himself. 'I am the best man in the world, and yet I have already killed three men; and of these three two were priests.'  

There's an old woman who helps him find Miss Cunegonde.  She appears to him right after he is publicly whipped.  This old woman tells him the story of her life, and I find what she says to be ultimate universal truth. 'I have been a hundred times on the point of killing myself, but still was fond of life.  This ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our worst instincts.  What can be more absurd than choosing to carry a burden that one really wants to throw to the ground?  To detest, and yet to strive to preserve our existence?  To caress the serpent that devours us, and hug him close to our bosoms til he has gnawed into our hearts?' Every character in the book, including Candide, has been pushed back and forth, thrown left and right at the hands of compassion and horror, so much so that it becomes such a confused state of being to lead them to question their own existence.  The old woman says that there isn't one person who hasn't felt this way, everyone has lived tumultuous lives, but some to a greater extent than others.  She's trying to point out to Miss Cunegonde that even though her life is tumultuous, the old woman's life is far more tumultuous in pain and suffering.   'Imagine, if you will, the distressed situation of the daughter of the pope, only fifteen years old, and who in less than three months had felt the miseries of poverty and slavery; had been ravished almost every day; had beheld her mother cut into four quarters; had experienced the scourges of famine and war, and now dying of the plague at Algiers. I did not, however die of it.'   

These are all personal griefs, but part of this book is also public calamities (external forces like war, earthquakes). Certainly, many of the characters experience personal sufferings as a result of the public calamities they encounter.  What about those places where everything is calmer? As in the place where Candide thought was the better of the worlds, the Country of Elderado? And Voltaire goes on to teach us, 'even in those cities which seem to enjoy the blessings of peace, and where the arts flourish, the inhabitants are devoured by envy, cares and anxieties, which are greater plagues than any experienced in a town when it is under siege.  Private griefs are still more dreadful than public calamities.'  Why would that be so?  That's something to ponder on.....        

So what happens to Candide's optimism in the end?  Does he realize that, in the end, all things happen for the better?  ........  All life is a cause and effect to lead us to a point where we have something to cultivate.    






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