Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Candide, or Optimism (Voltaire)

Oh what a wonderful book! The best possible book in the best possible world!

The story revolves around the unfortunate exploits of a young, thoroughly decent chap called Candide. He lives an idyllic life in a German castle belonging to the Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh. Candide is much influenced by the teachings of a philosopher, the inimitable Pangloss, who tells him that everything in the world is perfect and happens for a reason. Unfortunately, after kissing the baron’s daughter in a fit of amorousness, Candide is booted out of the castle by the baron, and thereafter falls victim to a terribly calamitous and unfortunate series of events. He is forced into the army, whipped, lashed, beaten, and enslaved. He suffers an earthquake, a ravaging storm, and scores of malicious thugs. He sees his hero Pangloss reduced to a syphilitic invalid, and his love, the Baron’s daughter, raped and disemboweled. He travels the world, but everywhere rejects him until, finally in a turn of fate, he discovers the hidden city of El Dorado; a place that abounds in great riches and where everything really is for the best. But he foolishly decides to leave, and then promptly loses all his riches to a thief. These legion of horrors test Candide’s innate optimism, but whilst he sometimes questions himself, he never abandons his core belief - the Panglossian mantra that everything is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds.

My thoughts

I absolutely loved this book. Perhaps my mental image of 18th century people is unjustly primitive, but I also found it astonishing how open Candide is about sexuality, violence, and, well, the real world. The Victorian’s generated a fair bit of good literature, and I think that skews my impressions of the past. I tend to think of everything before the last century as repressed and puritanical. But it just isn’t so - the Victorian’s, in that regard, were an odd bunch, and many of the books of the past freely discuss ‘the facts of life’.  Candide also surprised me with its working knowledge of the globe. For a book written in the 18th century, the narrative trots around the world as much as any James Bond film - even heading to South American countries like Peru. I don’t know why that should surprise me; the Spaniards discovered/invaded/pillaged South America 250 years before, but, in my experience, simply not very much 18th century European literature references Peru, why is that?

Candide reminded me a little of Don Quixote (which I also loved. As a quick aside - I feel that reading 50 of the best books without including Don Quixote to be a little remiss. It’s long been one of my favourites). The main characters in both books are optimists who befall terrible calamities. Don Quixote and Candide both, to a certain extent, live in a world in their head. And the tone of both books is similarly sarcastic and magnificent. Of course, there are many differences too.

Candide is such a joy, and yet there is so much deep thinking in it. The book, as its subtitle suggests, is written on the theme of Optimism. Pangloss is a die-hard optimist with the slogan ‘everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’. In the beginning he clearly has this philosophy simply because everything in his world, in the castle of the Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh, is pretty perfect, so he extrapolates that everything must be. But then, things turn sour when leaves the castle, contracts syphilis, and gets hanged. Now things aren’t actually ‘best’ for him - in fact, they’re pretty terrible - so his optimism changes to accommodate his original axiomatic belief. Now, either things happen ‘for a reason’ - suffering is necessary to get you to the best place, OR it simply must be worse in all other possible worlds. I think Voltaire is trying to show that everything is not for the best. Because although optimism seems like a positive world-view, it’s actually quite pernicious. It means suffering must be ‘necessary’ or a ‘punishment’ or have some deeper purpose. When it doesn’t. Suffering is simply an unpleasant, ignoble, banality that we have to put up with, sometimes without any reason or cause. And that’s the human condition, it’s what makes us human.

The last word

The most important thing to note about Candide is that it is an absolute delight! The writing style is that of an adventure story, and the pace is incredibly fast moving. It’s a romp around the far-flung places of the globe, and its tone is sarcastic and full of fun. It is just an utterly great read. I think it’s a lot deeper than that too, but it is worth pointing out since the perception of classics is often of dusty, stuffy, tortuous tomes. Candide isn’t - it’s an adventure, a bawdy, funny, fast-moving, global, rip-roaring, dramatic roller-coaster of a book.


  1. I'm impressed with your goal of reading all these books, I sadly don't make near enough time for classics. However, I might have to make an exception for this one!

  2. This is possibly one of my all time favorites. I haven't read a classic in a while, but I did a reread of this one a year or two ago and found it just as enjoyable as the first time. I thought, this can't possibly be a classic - it's so much fun! Love your goal and hope you reach it. :)