Voltaire’s Candide is the story of an innocent man’s experiences in a mad and evil world, his struggle to survive in that world, and his need to ultimately come to terms with it. All people experience the turmoil of life and must overcome obstacles, both natural and man-made, in order to eventually achieve happiness. In life, “man must find a medium between what Martin (scholar and companion to Candide) calls the “convulsions of anxiety” and the “lethargy of boredom” (Richter 137).
After a long and difficult struggle in which Candide is forced to overcome misfortune to find happiness, he concludes that all is not well (as he has previously been taught by his tutor, Dr. Pangloss), and that he must work in order to find even a small amount of pleasure in life.
Candide grows up in the Castle of Westphalia 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.
On his journey, he faces a number of misfortunes, among them being tortured during army training, yet he continues to believe that there is a “cause and effect” for everything. Candide is reunited with Cunegonde, and regains a life of prosperity, but soon all is taken away, including his beloved Cunegonde. He travels on, and years later he finds her again, but she is now fat and ugly.
His wealth is all gone and so is his love for the Baron’s daughter. Throughout Candide, we see how accepting situations and not trying to change or overcome obstacles can be damaging. Life is full of struggles, but it would be nonproductive if people passively accepted whatever fate had in store for them, shrugging off their personal responsibility. Voltaire believes that people should not allow themselves to be victims.
He sneers at naive, accepting types, informing us that people must work to reach their utopia (Bottiglia 93).
In Candide, reality and “the real world” are portrayed as being disappointing. Within the Baron’s castle, Candide is able to lead a Utopian life. After his banishment, though, he recognizes the evil of the world, seeing man’s sufferings. The only thing that keeps Candide alive is his hope that things will get better. Even though the world is filled with disaster, Candide has an optimistic attitude that he adopted from Dr. Pangloss’ teachings.
In spite of his many trials, Candide believes that all is well and everything is for the best. Only once, in frustration, does he admit that he sometimes feels that optimism is “the mania of maintaining that all is well when we are miserable” (Voltaire 41).
Candide’s enthusiastic view of life is contrasted with, and challenged by the suffering which he endures throughout the book. Voltaire wrote this book in a mocking and satirical manner in order to express his opinion that passive optimism is foolish (Richter 134). Candide eventually learns how to achieve happiness in the face of misadventure. He learns that in order to attain a state of contentment, one must be part of society where there is a collective effort and work.
Labor, Candide learns, eliminates the three curses of mankind: want, boredom, and vice. In order to create such a society, man must do the following: love his fellow man, be just, be vigilant, know how to make the best of a bad situation, and keep from theorizing. Martin expresses this last requirement for such a society succinctly when he says, “Let’s work without speculating; it’s the only way of rendering life bearable” (Voltaire 77).
One of the last people that Candide meets in his travels is an old, poor Turkish farmer who teaches Candide a lesson that allows him to come to terms with the world and to settle down happily. The revelation occurs when Candide and his friends hear of the killing of two intimate advisors of the sultan, and they ask the Turkish farmer if he could give them more details about the situation.
“I know nothing of it, said the good man, and I have never cared to know the name of a single mufti [advisor] or vizier [sultan]… I presume that in general those who meddle in public business sometimes perish miserably and that they deserve their fate; but I am satisfied with sending the fruits of my garden there.” (Voltaire 76) Upon learning that this man did not own “an enormous and splendid property” (Voltaire 76), but rather a mere twenty acres that he cultivates with his children, Candide is startled.
He sees that the man is happy with his life, and at that point, Candide decides to build his own life around the principle of being productive. He decides that all he needs to be happy is a garden to cultivate so that he, too, can keep from the three great evils. Candide’s garden symbolizes his surrender to the world and his acceptance of it. He eventually realizes that his former ambitions of finding and achieving a perfect state of happiness were fulfilled, though his successes were not as great as he had wished. Instead, he has found happiness in a simple way of life.
He also learns that everything in life is not evil, which he perceived to be the case while undergoing misfortunes. He also concludes that Dr. Pangloss was right all along, “everything is for the best.” Throughout the entire book, we observe Candide searching for happiness, sustained by his dream of achieving that happiness. He believes, in his optimistic way, that he will find Cunegonde, his true love, and Dr. Pangloss, his mentor, and all will be well. When Candide is reunited with both he realizes that he was right not to lose hope.
In essence, it was Candide’s optimism that keeps him from a state of total dejection, maintaining his sanity during troubled times. Candide eventually achieves happiness with his friends in their simple, yet full, lives. The book’s ending affirms Voltaire’s moral that one must work to attain satisfaction. Work helps Candide overcome his tragedies and enables him to live peacefully and in contentment.
The message of Candide is: “Don’t rationalize, but work; Don’t utopianize, but improve. We must cultivate our own garden, for no one is going to do it for us” (Richter 161).
Bottiglia, William. “Candide’s Garden.” Voltaire: A Collection of Critical Essays. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.
Richter, Peyton. Voltaire. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.
Tsanoff, Radoslav. Voltaire’s Candide and the Critics. California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, Inc., 1966.
Voltaire. Candide. New York: Viking Publishers, 1976.