Candide, by Voltaire

1candideCandide is a satire from mid-1700s France. It’s one that’s always intimidated me. I thought it would be dense and difficult to read. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This book was hysterical. Candide is a young student in a beautiful castle. He’s booted out after he kisses the fair young lady who lives there and sets off on a series of misadventures around the world. His philosophy teacher always maintained that all is exactly as it should be, for better or for worse, and Candide carries that optimism with him despite being beaten, tortured, and more.

Much of the book is set up a lot like Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, except perhaps not so cynical and serious. Swift sounds miserable even as he’s joking and satirical. Voltaire, on the other hand, sounds like he’s giggling the whole time you’re reading. The book is full of innuendo. Nearly every chapter has something to make a reader laugh. He never says what he’s implying, and I love it. For example, in the first chapter the fair young lady from the castle, Lady Cunegonde, is walking outdoors:

One day as Cunegonde was walking near the castle in the little wood known as “the park,” she saw Dr. Pangloss in the bushes, giving a lesson in experimental physics to her mother’s chambermaid, a very pretty and docile little brunette. Since Lady Cunegonde was deeply interested in the sciences, she breathlessly observed the repeated experiments that were performed before her eyes. She clearly saw the doctor’s sufficient reason, and the operation of cause and effect. She then returned home, agitated and thoughtful, reflecting that she might be young Candide’s sufficient reason, and he hers.

I have to say, that was not what I was expecting from this book at all! The whole book was like that! Not always the same type of joke, but always these little asides that don’t really say what it’s actually saying. Voltaire pokes at his enemies, at the journals that frequently attack him, and more, while still making satire of certain philosophies that he disagrees with.

Frankly, I don’t know enough about philosophy to really understand all that Voltaire was trying to do here. I’ll be studying this book a lot more over the next month until my book club discusses it, because while none of the innuendos went over my head, the jabs at philosophy sure did. It’s not that they weren’t easy to see or understand – it’s not like the Russian tomes that spend a million pages discussing philosophy – but when Voltaire would crack a joke about a religious group or philosophy that I didn’t know, I just didn’t know exactly what he meant. The book was never confusing, though. It existed on many levels of humor so that you could just pass up the ones that didn’t appeal to you or make sense to you.

I do know that over time, Candide’s eternal optimism is dampened. He keeps trying to hold it up, but some of his fellow travelers have a much more realistic view of the world and he encounters several pessimistic philosophers along the way. But pessimism doesn’t seem to do any better than optimism. Keep in mind, of course, that I’m no philosopher myself, but it seems that the lesson to be learned from this book is that philosophy and philosophical thinking in general is the root of discontentment. It doesn’t matter if you’re positive or negative; if you’re just thinking and not working, you’re going to be miserable. Either you’ll go out and get into a bunch of scrapes, or you’ll stay at home bored. But if you fill your life with work, your life won’t be empty and you won’t get hurt. I don’t know that I agree with that either, plus it’s likely I’m interpreting the book all wrong, but that’s what I got out of it.

I’m very much looking forward to studying Candide, particularly the significance of the “perfect world” society of Eldorado (similar to Swift’s Houyhnhnms, or intelligent horse race). I wanted to write up this review with my initial thoughts, though, no matter how wrong I might be, before I did any studying. I very much enjoyed the book for the humor alone, and I’m sure, once I study it, I’ll enjoy it for its significance too. I’m glad I finally overcame my fear to read Candide!

About Amanda

Writing. Family. Books. Crochet. Fitness. Fashion. Fun. Not necessarily in that order. Note: agender (she/her).
This entry was posted in 2010, Adult, Prose and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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