If you read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Pride and Prejudice, you will at least be familiar with the styles that Voltaire used when he composed this novella: picaresque and satire. And what a combination in one book! To have adventures and laughs in one sitting is such a rare treat.
The story begins when Candide, a close relative of a respected and powerful Baron in Westphalia (region in Germany), was kicked out figuratively by the Baron. His crime: kissing the Baron’s daughter, Candide’s love interest, Cunegond. So Candide leaves Westphalia and tours all over Europe and the Americas in a series of misadventures and misfortunes.
The pace with which the plot unravels is very quick: one paragraph, Candide would be sitting comfortably, usually in conversation with a stranger or a companion, and in the same or next paragraph, he would either be defending his life or running for it.
Another thing you should notice is that despite Candide’s sufferings, he doesn’t complain much. He’s very simple, trusting, and naive. And this is what makes him a ridiculous hero: his doggedness in his mission to recover Cunegond from her captors, coupled with his belief in his mentor, Pangloss’ theory on optimism that all is for the best.
Of course, early in the novella you’ll know that all is NOT for the best. That was Voltaire’s message.
I can’t say though that I like knowing about the violence and pain that people suffered from during the Inquisition, the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and tsunami, and the Seven Years’ War that Voltaire used as inspiration to torture Candide and his friends. But in mocking men and the institutions they created, it was clear that Voltaire wants his readers to see how the powerful treat those who are poor and weak in the 18th century.
Despite Voltaire’s choice of subject here, I’m entangled with Candide’s life just the same (will he ever save Cunegond?). It’s hard to stop when you’re caught in one breathless adventure after another.
But more than a romantic hero, Candide is a philosopher, one who tightly holds on to his belief on optimism,the recurring theme, but is beginning to think differently in the end. After meeting Martin, who is the opposite of Pangloss in his pessimism, Candide asks him a question that summarizes the events:
Do you believe that men have always massacred each other as they do today, that they have always been liars, cheats, traitors, ingrates, brigands, idiots, thieves, scoundrels, gluttons, drunkards, misers, envious, ambitious, bloody-minded, calumniators, debauchees, fanatics, hypocrites, and fools?
When Martin answered with a question that removed all doubt about the true nature of men, Candide still refused to believe, until he found a little farm where he would face the prospect of living an uneventful life.
I was delighted with the ending, which was unexpected. Candide redeemed himself by making a realization and decision that was best for him and his companions. And for that alone, Voltaire’s Candide is a compelling mini-classic, read. The scene in El Dorado with the Incas was particularly interesting and fresh considering all other events.