Discussion Post: Candide

May 20, 2010 at 12:10 am 9 comments

Challengers, welcome! I hope you all enjoyed Candide, and if you did, remember that commenting on this post or writing a post on your own blog qualifies you for our Penguin Clothbound Classics drawing. Next week, we’re discussing Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, but first let’s finish off Candide!

  • What do you think of the character of Candide? Is he a dolt, or is he at least somewhat sympathetic? Is there any character you either love or absolutely cannot stand? Why?

Poor Candide. I was so convinced he was an idiot at the beginning of this work, and now I’m less certain. He loses a great deal of his naivety early in the story; as early as page 29, Candide wonders how he can possibly be living in the best of worlds. Page 61 finds Candide excited about the prospect of Eldorado as a paradise, saying, “…despite what Dr. Pangloss used to say, I often noticed that everything went rather badly in Westphalia.”

Seven pages later, Candide abandons Pangloss’s philosophy entirely when faced with slavery in the new world. By the end of the tale, he’s decided that we must “cultivate our garden[s],” or that we must work to make our own lives the best they can be. Candide undergoes a profound development of character throughout the story, and any character capable of that kind of maturity and growth cannot be pathetic.

As for other characters — I loved Martin to excess, despite (or perhaps because of) his cynicism.

  • Voltaire’s intent is pretty clear: to satirize Leibnizian optimism. But do you think he is as effective as he could be? Why (or why not)?

This question is a little unfair, as I’m reading what I suspect to be a rather sloppy translation. In addition, the style of the story is characteristic of the eighteenth century; fans of Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe will know what I mean. Candide travels through countries and situations at a breakneck pace, with very little description to help the reader understand where Candide is at any given moment. “Picaresque” is the word I should probably use.

However, Voltaire is nothing if not effective. As far as persuasive tales go, this one has entirely convinced me that with all of this evil, how can we be living in the best of all possible worlds? Not a single example is overdrawn or unbelievable; women really did (and still do, sometimes) get raped and disemboweled by soliders, slavery exists, people are hanged (or otherwise killed) for crimes they may not have committed.

It’s a little contrived that all of these things happen to one man and the people he knows, but otherwise, this story is incredibly convincing.

But that’s just my opinion….what did you think? Tell us all about it in the comments!

— KT

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Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood Rereadings: The Inimitable Jeeves

9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Iris  |  May 20, 2010 at 5:59 am

    I posted my answers to your questions, or well, inserted into a review, on my blog:
    http://irisonbooks.wordpress.com/2010/05/20/candide-or-optimism-by-voltaire/

    I didn’t answer which character I liked best, but I’d have to agree with you that I liked Martin best.

    Reply
    • 2. KT  |  May 20, 2010 at 8:25 am

      Thanks, Iris! I’ll be sure to check it out :D

      Reply
  • 3. Corey  |  May 20, 2010 at 7:50 am

    I guess I’m in a minority here, but I found Voltaire himself to be extremely annoying, more so than any other character, and I remain unconvinced that pessimism is the best course simply because bad things happen every day. I fail to see why it is a good idea to spend your time expecting the worst and then, when a bad thing happens, feel validated, and when a good thing happens, you feel like it is still somehow wrong and will probably turn against you.

    I much prefer to (realistically, mind you) expect the best. Rather than hating Candide as a character, I found his tenacious desire to remain optimistic in the face of profound wretchedness rather heartening. He has his doltish moments, of course, but on the whole I appreciated his attempts to remain optimistic and I thought his personal growth by the end of the story was indeed remarkable (and his conclusion–make the world the best you can–sound).

    That said, I absolutely see Voltaire’s points and grant that he effectively illustrated that bad things happen to good people basically all the time (using very realistic examples), but I found his overall tone to be unnecessarily haughty and snide. Additionally, I very much disliked how he spent much of his time mocking those who have disagreed with him (admittedly in subtle ways which I definitely needed the end notes to know about, but I assume these references would have been much clearer to readers at the time) rather than logically arguing against them.

    I think it may be a combination of my own optimism and my dislike of satire that created my problems with this story, but I found the entire book unenjoyable and Voltaire himself extremely unpleasant for writing it. Oh, good job, bad stuff happens. Way to point that out, Voltaire. Now why dwell on it?

    Reply
    • 4. KT  |  May 20, 2010 at 8:25 am

      My copy didn’t have end notes, so I’m sure I missed a lot of the mockery. Voltaire does seem remarkably snide, though! Possibly he’s let his anger taint what could have been an interesting philosophical debate?

      This work is still a pretty convincing argument against the idea that we live in the best of all possible worlds…but I suspect, like Martin, I didn’t need too much convincing of that even before I began reading.

      Reply
      • 5. Corey  |  May 20, 2010 at 12:01 pm

        That is EXACTLY how I felt! It was like he let the anger/Dark Side take over what was a potentially interesting philosophical debate. He made a farce of something very serious—how individuals look at the world. Seems downright unhelpful in my opinion.

        Reply
    • 6. Iris  |  May 20, 2010 at 10:02 am

      While reading your comment I was reminded of his mocking of other persons that do not agree with him and I have to agree that it seemed very haughty. I forgot all about it while writing my review while I had it noted down as a thing that caught my eye. I guess a lot depends on the mood in which you read the book. I have a feeling that if I’d read it at a different time I might’ve been more annoyed by it then I was. I really tried to approach it as simple light reading. And I’ve always imagined Voltaire to be an annoying bastard (if I may say so), so for me it really didn’t come unexpected.

      I wanted to add that I’ve been thinking about Voltaire’s criticism of Leibniz’ optimism and I’m not sure if Voltaire is all that convincing in the end. Sure, he shows that the world isn’t necessarily good. But this doesn’t mean that Leibniz’ argument instantly fails, since he says we live in the best possible world, not that it’s a perfect world in itself.

      Reply
      • 7. KT  |  May 20, 2010 at 10:27 am

        Good point, Iris! Maybe it’s not possible for a perfect world to exist, and therefore this is as good as it gets. That’s rather a cynical world view, in a way. My knowledge of Leibniz is admittedly poor — is there more to his philosophy that we’re overlooking?

        Reply
      • 8. Corey  |  May 20, 2010 at 11:58 am

        It sounds like you definitely had a better mindset for this book, Iris! I completely agree with you that Voltaire is an annoying bastard and I just couldn’t get over that aspect and into the laughing out loud part. It always frustrates me when, rather than rationally debating something, authors choose to mock the opposite opinion (e.g. Samuel Johnson’s “Taxation No Tyranny” pamphlet mocking the American gripes against Britain). I just don’t find it to be an effective form of debate, if it can even be called that.

        Like KT, my knowledge of Leibniz is quite poor, but I like the sound of your distinction between the best world possible and the best world period. You articulated my problem with Voltaire’s argument perfectly, actually. Just because bad things happen does not inherently mean the world is the worst place ever nor does it disprove the idea that it is the best place possible.

        Reply
  • 9. Amusing Search Queries « Literary Transgressions  |  February 14, 2011 at 12:02 am

    […] Search term: what is voltair arguing in candide In short, he argues against the idea that we live in the best of all possible worlds (as propagated by Gottfried Leibniz). More info and some spirited LT debate here. […]

    Reply

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