Candide by Voltaire
Candide by Voltaire
Voltaire’s masterpiece of satire Candide was written between July and December 1758 and published simultaneously in Geneva, Paris and Amsterdam in January 1759. The events in the book unlike most works of fiction are astutely based on the current state of Voltaire’s contemporary world and culled from the headlines of his day. No major power center was omitted. Arbiters of social status, sex/love, money, war and religion were all lambasted within the pages of Candide.
Voltaire's satire of religion inevitably took the spotlight (in his time), his analysis of the other powers that control the world – money, rank, violence and sex – still applies. These are among the reasons Candide remains pertinent as ever. All of the players in the world of money, social rank, violence and sex are still alive and well. Like Candide we are all born “innocent” and quickly realize as we mature realize that the world is not brimming with some form of pre-ordained harmony.
Candide and his companions observe "a negro stretched out on the ground with only one half of his habit, which was a pair of blue cotton drawers; for the poor man had lost his left leg, and his right hand." They asked what happed: "When we labour in the sugar-works," the man replies, "and the mill happens to snatch hold of a finger, they instantly chop off our hand; and when we attempt to run away, they chop off a leg. Both these cases have happened to me, and it is at this expense that you eat sugar in Europe." Imagine the plight of workers in the developing world and the harsh repercussions for failure to produce finished work within the allotted time.
The characters in Candide are intentionally flat, rather like the people in a TV sitcom. Martin can only be hopeless and cynical, the opposite of Pangloss, and Pococurante can only be bored or jaded. Mayhem and violence are also ever present with the book. However, in their volume and frequency they tend to desensitize the reader. Again, think of the violence in comic strips or cartoons. Unlike cartoons however the shocking events in Candide are historically ‘real.’ The Lisbon earthquake did occur for example in 1755 and killed over 30,000 people. The Spanish Inquisition did kill countless non-Christians. Candide’s exploration of post colonial slavery in Surinam still exists to this day throughout the Atlantic and Pacific worlds.
Voltaire weaves these characters and their situations in order to illustrate ideas and to prove a philosophical point. Names that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” is simply not true. “And if I laugh at any mortal thing, 'Tis that I may not weep” said Lord Byron and the same holds true of Candide. Readers experience rapid-fire, alternating states of laughter and outrage within the book.