Candide, or Optimism by Voltaire is another timeless classic. What makes a book timeless? In my opinion, it’s a book that continues to be relevant through the ages. If we took the tale of Candideand substituted some of the disasters mentioned with disasters of our time, the story still stands up. The World Trade Center bombing, tsunami in Indonesia, earthquake in Haiti and Japan, genocide in Rwanda, the Holocaust, Hurricane Katrina or Gilbert – represent the disasters in Candide such as the earthquake in Lisbon. The book deals with the evils and dangers of religious fanaticism, slavery, war, colonialism and mass atrocities.
Voltaire suffered a lot in his life, being imprisoned, forced to live in exile in England. This was a coming of age time for Voltaire who was exposed to the works of Sir Isaac Newton, John Locke, Shakespeare, and Francis Bacon. Voltaire was punished for his beliefs and ostracized for some of his writings, therefore he was very sympathetic and “identified with all victims of calamities, war, injustice, prejudice, and intolerance.” His father also wanted him to be a lawyer, but he wanted to be a man of letters (writer), so he stood up to his father and lived his life. There is a lot Voltaire in his main character Candide, although he is not that naive.
Another important point that makes Candide timeless is while the character Candide is traveling across the known world he encounters a black man that has one arm and one leg, so he wants to know what happened to the man – a slave. The man responds that he worked on a sugar plantation and if you injure a finger, they cut off your arm, and if you try to run away, they cut off one of your feet. The man further explains that both these things happened to him, and that that’s the price people like him have to pay, so that Candide and other Europeans can have sugar. Child labor and sweatshops anyone? These things have different faces and names in our times.
Although Voltaire considered Candide as a minor work, the book has never been out of print since it was first published in French in 1759. I read the Barnes & Noble Classics version and I really appreciated the biography, introduction to Candide and timeline of Voltaire’s life included in the book. It gave me context for the story. The book is a page turner, and the main characters face disaster after disaster, drama after drama and one indignity after another. Voltaire uses dark humor which prevents the reader from getting depressed. The book is a travelogue as well as a satire.
As a young man, Candide lives in Westphalia with a powerful baron. One day the baron finds Candide kissing Cunégonde, his daughter. He literally kicks Candide in the ass out the door. He is now homeless and faces one disaster after another as he travels from country to country. He is forcibly recruited into an army, is nearly hanged, and it’s just one crisis after another. While Candide lived in Westphalia, he had a tutor, Pangloss whose belief is that everything happens for the best. If there is a benevolent God then that means that it doesn’t matter what indignity one suffers, it’s always for the best. It’s the notion of optimism turned on its head.
When Candide is first reconnected with Pangloss after he is exiled from Westphalia, he doesn’t recognize his beloved teacher who now has syphilis. Pangloss traces how he got the disease to Candide, and it’s maddening that this man who is supposed to be enlightened thinks that what has happened to him is for the best. Candide is very benevolent, and when he learns of the fate of his teachers he returns to a stranger who showed him great kindness and asks if he would pay for the treatment for his teacher.
Candide is very naive, and believes what Pangloss tells him. He doesn’t take the time to question what he learns, he is unable to think independently. The beauty of the book is that you see the character growing. Candide thinks he is in love with beautiful Cunégonde, but is it possible for him to know what love is at that young age –- a teenager? And Cunégonde is the first girl he meets. Much later in the book after surviving the many disasters, and finally gets Cunégonde, he realizes that he doesn’t really like her, but he made a promise to her, so he has to keep the promise and be with her.
By that time, Cunégonde has lost her beauty, but she doesn’t realize that, and has become a mean spirited person. But can you blame her – her father was killed, she has repeatedly been raped, sold into slavery, and it goes on and on. How much is enough for one person to endure?
A big theme in the book is death and resurrection – the characters die and you mourn for them and later you realize they were figuratively resurrected. They have been badly battered and bruise, but they will survive. You also learn that it doesn’t matter how bad you think you have it in life, there is always someone who is worse off than you. In one profound scene when Candide and Cunégonde are comparing their “war stories” about the atrocities and indignities they have suffered, and looking at who has suffered the most. An old lady who is Cunégonde’s companion jumps into the conversation, and tells them if they want to hear about suffering, they should hear her story.
She tells her tale, and your heart goes out to her. After suffering so much already, the woman has to give up one of her buttocks so that she might live. Can you imagine someone cutting off one of your buttocks to cook and eat? There is this honesty about the old woman. She tells you that there were times she wanted to kill herself, but she didn’t because she is still in love with life.
Voltaire uses Candide as a statement against human rights violations, religious hypocrisy, abuse of authority and so much more. While Candide is traveling he comes across the perfect place to live, El Dorado – a Garden of Eden – but he moves on, he cannot stay there because his dear Cunégonde isn’t there.
Candide ends with “but we must cultivate our garden.” Life is not perfect, it never is, and there will never be a perfect time so we should live in the real world and make the best of our situations. If life gives us lemons, then we make lemonade.
To get the most from this SummaReview of Candide, or Optimism, after you have read the book review/summary, reflectively answer the following questions:
- What can you learn from the ideas in the SummaReview?
- What is one action that you can take as a result of reading this SummaReview?
- What are five takeaways from the SummaReview?
- What has made an impression on you while reading?
- Is there a framework that you can use in your life and work?
- How do the concepts in the SummaReview relate to what you already know?
- How can you combine key ideas from the profile to what you already know to create a new idea?
- Is this a book you’d like to read for yourself? Why? Why not?
I recommend Candide, or Optimism by Voltaire because it reminds us of things we take for granted and draws us out of our cocoon. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below. Many readers read this blog from other sites, so why don’t you pop over to The Invisible Mentor and subscribe (top on the right hand side) by email or RSS Feed.
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