Voltaire's Candide is a philosophical tale of one man's search
for true happiness and his ultimate acceptance of life's
disappointments. Candide grows up in the Castle of Westfalia and
is taught by the learned philosopher Dr. Pangloss. Candide is
abruptly exiled from the castle when found kissing the Baron's
daughter, Cunegonde. Devastated by the separation from Cunegonde,
his true love, Candide sets out to different places in the hope of
finding her and achieving total happiness. The theme of Candide is
that one must strive to overcome adversity and not passively accept
it in the belief that all is for the best.
Candide's misfortune begins when he is kicked out of the
castle and experiences a series of horrible events. Candide is
unable to see anything positive in his ordeals, contrary to Dr.
Pangloss' teachings that there is a cause for all effects and that,
though we might not understand it, everything is all for the good.
Candide's endless trials begin when he is forced into the army
simply because he is the right height, five feet five inches. In
the army he is subjected to endless drills and humiliations and is
almost beaten to death. Candide escapes and, after being degraded
by good Christians for being an anti-Christ, meets a diseased
beggar who turns out to be Dr. Pangloss. Dr. Pangloss informs him
that Bulgarian soldiers attacked the castle of Westfalia and killed
Cunegonde - more misery!
A charitable Anabaptist gives both Candide and Dr. Pangloss
money and assistance. Dr. Pangloss is cured of his disease, losing
one of his eyes and one of his ears. The Anabaptist takes them
with him on a journey to Lisbon. While aboard the ship, the
Anabaptist falls overboard in the process of rescuing a crew
member. Candide finds it more and more difficult to accept Dr.
Pangloss' principle that all is for the best.
In Lisbon there is an earthquake which kills thousands of
people, throwing the city into ruins. Later, Dr. Pangloss is hung
as part of an auto-de-fe. Candide is miraculously taken in by an
old woman and is brought to his love, Cunegonde. She tells him of
the torture she suffered and how she barely survived. She further
explains that she was "shared" by a Jew named Don Issachar and the
Grand Inquisitor. Candide kills the two men and escapes with
Cunegonde and the old woman.
At this point we begin to see Candide struggling and fighting
to make his existence worthwhile, in the hope that he and Cunegonde
would marry and live happily ever after. We saw Candide taking
matters into his own hands, instead of accepting his fate, when he
killed Cunegonde's two lovers. At this point one begins to see his
maturity from a naive young man into a realist.
Candide's travels take him to "the new world" where he hopes
that Dr. Pangloss' theory might be justified. Candide finds people
of wealth who are bored and still unhappy. When he finds a nation
of happy people he learns that they must be secluded from the rest
of the world to preserve their happiness. Cunegonde leaves Candide
for a man of wealth but that turns out to be the beginning of her
ruin. Candide is robbed of great wealth and, when he tries to help
others, he finds that they are not appreciative of his efforts.
Candide's doubts about Dr. Pangloss' theory continue to grow. He
learns to make his own happiness, battling hardships.
At the end of the book, Candide is reunited with Dr. Pangloss
who gave Candide details of how he survived his hanging. They go
off in search of formerly beautiful Cunegonde who had become fat,
ugly and bitter. Nevertheless, he had vowed to marry her and so he
does. The reader might expect that now Candide would be happy,
having realized his dream of marrying his own true love, Cunegonde
and being reunited with his teacher and mentor, Dr. Pangloss.
Candide is not happy! He no longer loves Cunegonde and no longer
believes in the principles of his teacher.
Throughout Voltaire's Candide we see how accepting a situation
and not trying to change or overcome obstacles is damaging. What
comes to mind, for me, is the attitude of many Jews during the
Holocaust. While there was mass murder and torture of innocent
people the world's countries did nothing. Even the victims
themselves rarely fought against the tyranny. If only people
accepted that they have the power, in many instances, to influence
their fate, not accept reality, waiting for things to change,
history might have turned out differently. We learn that in life
there will be many obstacles which can and should be overcome.
Life has its struggles but it would be a miserable place if people
passively accepted that everything was for the best, shrugging off
responsibility. We see, in contrast to Dr. Pangloss, Odysseus in
Homer's The Odyssey, is a man of great courage who masters all
situations and even searches for new adventures and challenges.
Voltaire believes that people should not allow themselves to
be victims. He sneers at naive, accepting types, informing us that
people must work (be active) to make their happiness.
January 30, 1992
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