Saturday, 4 August 2012

The Classics Club: Candide

In order to avoid an almost-exclusivity of English literature in the Classics Club, I thought I would read some of the literature gems found in other countries. Case in question, Candide by Voltaire, a precious little novel that hits so many notes...

Candide tells the story of a young man, full of the optimistic teachings of Pangloss (btw, following this novel, Pangloss is an official entry in the English dictionary meaning a person who views a situation with unwarranted optimism), who sees only the best possible scenario in anything happening in the world around him.  Voltaire is using extra-ordinary circumstances to make the point that not everything is for the best in humanity. Moreover, he proves that not everything we see is real and the truth may be totally different.

Ousted in a disgraceful manner from the castle in which Candide is brought up, he enters in a series of outwordly adventures - a masterpiece of Voltaire, showcasing the experience we must gain in order to finally see the real  meaning of life. Voltaire caricatures these adventures, which makes this a nice reading for the summer - still, he takes inspiration by many real events so as to prove his points.

Candide participates in wars, sees his beloved CunĂ©gonde and her brother die, his teacher hanged, he is himself tortured and almost killed, but miraculously survives.  He goes on to travel around the world, encountering even more unbelievable encounters, such as the "burning of a few people alive by a slow fire ... to hinder the earth from quaking".  A repeat theme in Candide is the resurrection of the main characters:  in this case, CunĂ©gonde is found to be alive, taken care of, sold, having her buttock chopped off and eaten (not joking...) - still she finds that "I loved life.  This ridiculous foible is perhaps one of our most fatal characteristics".  One of the most important aspects of enjoying life, is to actually want to live a good life...
At some point, she finds a less-than-alive Candide and employs a maid to save him from this dreadful fate.  Here is the first main point in Candide expressed by the short monologue from this maid, that still applies:  never take for granted that your story is the most important / adventurous / dreadful.  Just because one does not make a fuss about themselves, does not mean that their lives are less meaningful:

"Miss, you do not know my birth; and were I to show you my backside, you would not talk in that manner, but would suspend your judgment"

And the adventure continues.  Our heros continue their travel around the world, meet with dignitaries who have at least five last names (as is often found in high society...) and come across new team-members who have passed through many types of employment in their lives (I was reminded here of Passepartout in Around the world in 80 days - I suppose this is the only way someone can prove helpful to such a trip...)

Voltaire continues to ridicule all things that are meant to be beautiful in this life by attacking the leading classes:  In Paraguay, "the Fathers possess all, and the people nothing; it is a masterpiece of reason and justice" (such a fine example of sarcasm, I read the whole passage twice to make sure...)

Moving on, Candide meets the resurrected Baron, brother of his beloved, only to save him and kill him (and save him later on...).  Strange?  not as strange as meeting couples composed of women and monkeys:

"Why should you think it so strange that in some countries there are monkeys which insinuate themselves into the good graces of the ladies; they are a fourth part human, as I am a fourth part Spaniard"
 (makes sense...)

My favourite part, however, is landing in El Dorado:  such a unbelievable rich region, that gold and precious stones are for the taking, and which will eventually help Candide realise the rest of his journey...Voltaire finishes by proving that all the great writers actually nothing special are - there is bound to be someone who disagrees for the sake of disagreement, and the fight about whose thoughts are the more important may actually take away the essence of questions:

"Plato observed a long while ago that those stomachs are not the best that reject all sorts of food"
Candide has finally come to his senses:  the world is not a big pink cloud. He has seen death, destruction, torture, in fact all the negative aspects of the human nature.  What the antidote to this is?  labour.  Simple, plain, honest labour that "preserves us from three great evils - weariness, vice and want" because even if we look in the Garden Eden, "man was put there so that he might cultivate it; which shows that man was not born to be idle".

Voltaire finishes the novel with Candide making a full circle:  he has had a world-ful of adventures from which he has come out alive; he does not need all the riches - he is content with cultivating his garden and enjoying its fruits.  Which is a beautiful lesson in our diminishing values of today: look into the essence, not the display of wealth and glory, be quiet and remain active.  Stay away from the fake and ephemeral and work towards the real and permanent...

Also read for the Back to the Classics challenge


  1. This is not a book which I would ever have thought of reading, but you're right, I should be branching out and experiencing more 'foreign' literature. I'll put it on my list! Thanks.

    1. You never know where a gem may be hiding...

  2. Great review! I like the correlation with Passapartout! I hadn't thought about that, and I think you're on to something there... I also had no idea that Pangloss is an official word with that definition!

    1. Thanks Sarah - I was also amazed with that discovery !

  3. Anonymous7/8/12

    Love your last paragraph! You review makes me wish that I included this on my list. Will have to put it on part II!

    1. Thanks Jackie - I am always surprised by the little lessons found in the classics...

  4. This is one of a select few pieces of Classic (particularly Classical*) literature that makes me laugh-out-loud. It is so funny, but also worthwhile. I think the only other writers whom I find consistently entertaining and educational are Oscar Wilde & Jane Austen.

    Love your thoughts!

    1. thanks a lot Adam! Quite agree with the other two names as well!




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