Voltaire is one of those names that conjures up all sorts of images. A favourite of Catherine the Great and seen as a philosopher that was so independently minded that he was brave enough to upset monarchs across Europe you come to his work with some trepidation.
But Candide could not be further from what you expected. Literature can throw up some real surprises and this matched Homer’s Odyssey in terms of being more enjoyable than expected. Maybe I’m not reading it in the right way and it should be a lot harder and no doubt students of literature pore over every word but for the casual reader this is easily digestible and has a point that is fairly easy to grasp.
Candide is a young man that has been influenced by his mentor Pangloss who is a philosopher that believes in optimism. Voltaire’s definition of which is explained by Candide to a fellow traveller: “’What is optimism?’ asked Cacambo.
‘It’s the passion for maintaining that all is right when all goes wrong with us,’ replied Candide.” Things certainly go wrong for Candide who starts working for a Baron and ends up getting his first piece of bad fortune after being sacked for falling in love with the Baron’s daughter Cunegonde. Candide stays faithful to the idea that they will be together but has to go through a series of escapades including being forced into a war, tortured by the inquisition, having the wealth given to him by the King of Eldorado stolen and then finally when he does meet Cunegonde she is ugly and has a temperament that he is not too keen on. But he remains optimistic throughout even after picking up a counterbalance to Pangloss in the form of the pessimist Martin.
Is it well written?
At the time of its publication it presumably had them rolling in the aisles slightly more than it does today because the style does seem dated. There is also a strong feeling that Voltaire is making numerous political points at the nobility and religious structures of various countries, which again without further study are lost on the modern reader. But in terms of the style it has a lively pace, moves the narrative on and has a limited cast that makes it fairly easy to navigate through what is a constantly changing background.
Should it be read?
One consequence of reading it is that you get an insight into a different style of writing, something not just satirical but provocative. Is Candide someone to be admired for remaining optimistic and positive in the face of such bad fortune or is he a fool? Likewise is Pangloss right or is Martin’s view the one you subscribe to? It is because of the pertinence of those questions to the modern reader that it deserves to be read. Most of the time I see the glass half empty so Martin’s cynical view of the world is closer to my own but just seeing an alternative does make you think about being more like Candide and Pangloss.
Remaining optimistic in the face of numerous twists off bad fortune Candide does end up with the love of his life even though she is ugly and he is broke
Version read – Penguin paperback