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Thursday, February 22, 2007


Candide. Voltaire. I read a biography of Voltaire last month and wanted to read Candide--a novel I've always intended to read, but have never gotten around to--while the biography was still fresh on my mind. It was a good move because having recently read the biography added a great deal to the reading this satire. Candide is a quick read and reminds me of a lengthy Saturday Night Live segment--silly, serious, and satiric.

Candide, a gentle young man in love with the beautiful Cunegonde, views the world with great optimism. Both young people have been tutored by the philosopher Dr. Pangloss who espouses the belief that "since everything is made for a purpose, everything is necessarily for the best purpose."

After the first innocent kiss by the young lovers, Candide is kicked out of the castle, forcibly inducted into the Bulgarian army, witness to obscene horrors of war, discovers that Cunegonde has been raped and murdered, watches the kind James the Anabaptist drown, sees Pangloss hanged and others burned alive (note - many of these dead return in fantastic circumstances)...and more. Each of Candide's adventures leads from one appalling circumstance to the next. Despite each new disaster, Candide continues his eternal optimism in Pangloss' theory that everything happens for the best.

Only at the very end, does Candide begin to question Pangloss' philosophy, but without bitterness; he also comes to a resolution of sorts --that each "exercise his own talents" and become useful. His final response to Pangloss: "Well said," replied Candide, "but we must cultivate our garden."

Voltaire's attack on the philosophy that war, disaster, and suffering are part of a "benevolent cosmic plan" is ridiculous, funny, outrageous. He contrasts Pangloss' optimism with Martin's pessimism and suggests that the truth lies somewhere in between. He questions man's callousness and cruelty, the tragic results of natural disasters, the importance of tradition, the hypocrisy of many who are supposedly serving God, the abuses of power, and much more.

Much topical satire is quickly outdated, but because Voltaire concentrates on events and consequences rather than on individuals, this satire is fresh and applicable today. (Voltaire does throw in a few allusions to specific persons, events, publications, and religious doctrines of his day, but they are almost negligible in the overall scheme of his satire.)

Fiction. Satire. 113 pages. 2003.


  1. I once had a interesting discussion with a friend that had read one book in his life--Candide--and thought less of me for never having read it. His reaction, "And you call yourself a librarian."

    So, I'm not much of one, because I still haven't read it. ;P

  2. I have had this on my shelf for quite awhile, but haven't gotten to it yet. I'm less intimidated having read your post, but I can see how reading a biography first would help.

  3. I have never read him either, but I was looking at this at the bookstore this week because I saw you were reading him. Did you enjoy Candide?

  4. Maggie - Anyone who has read only one book in his life is so limited that I'm surprised he wasn't embarassed to admit it.

    Camille - I have to admit that one reason I never read it was that I thought it might be difficult. Uh uh. The translation I read made the reading very quick and easy; the satire isn't subtle at all! I don't rank it as the most enjoyable book I've ever read, but I did enjoy it.

    Danielle - I did. The satire was "in your face," and I can well imagine the shock it must have caused at the time, but it is also current in many ways. I'm also glad, given its classic status, I can finally say I've read it. :)