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The mid 17th and 18th Centuries' "Enlightenment Period," rightfully named because of the light that was being shed on politics, religion, war, and other social matters, brought about a major shift in the way writers began to express themselves and the way human beings began to perceive themselves and the world around them. The fairy-tales, so-to speak, that belonged to past literature, were now becoming more real and as with any true dose of reality, some found it hard to swallow. Yet, despite facing imprisonment, banishment from society, or worse, the famous writers of the Enlightenment Period continued to use this realism, satire, and whatever other literary devices necessary to best get their point across, as well as entertain their audiences. With the oppression of war and religion settled in, the need for newfound freedom and ideas was the major expression of writers, while some, subtly made fun of the quirks of their modern-day world.
Perhaps one of the most heart-felt and at the same time, humorous pieces of the era is one written by Francois-Marie Arout De Voltaire. His controversial work, "Candide," offers this strong dose of reality, with a sense of humor, as it touches on many hardships that people are enduring during this time. While it may seem unsettling to some, Voltaire's light-hearted approach with which he masters the story gives him the opportunity to draw out many wrong-doings placed on society.
The writer starts out with two main characters-Candide, who is a naÃ¯ve victum of circumstance, and Pangloss-his philosophy teacher and endless optimist, who has more or less made Candide who he is. Pangloss believes in the scientific law of cause and effect and that everything happens for a reason and works out for the best. Together the two represent; on one hand the extremes of philosophical beliefs at the time and on the other hand those willing to follow this theory or find a better explanation. When Candide is lodged from the shelter of his castle as a young man, he is forced to endure just about all the tragedies in life that there are to offer and begins to question the validation of all he has learned from his all-knowing Pangloss. As the writer does this with Candide he is able to eploit some absurdities of actual every-day life at the time.
Some of these harsh extremes begin when Candide wonders straight into "two men dressed in blue," who willingly accept him as one of their own, beat him repeatedly, and prepare him for war. After escaping from this situation, he runs into Pangloss, who is half eaten up with the Plague and together they become shipwrecked, run into the great Libson earthquakes, where Pangloss is hanged, Candide is flogged again, finds out that soldiers have raped and killed the love of his life, and as Candide is lying amid the wounded and dead bodies of the earthquake, wounded himself from it, Pangloss is able to ratify the events by explaining that, "This earthquake is nothing novel," and that "the city of Lima, in South America, underwent much of the same sort of tremor last year, same causes, same effects; there is surely a vein of sulphur under the earth's surface reaching from Lima to Libson." When Pangloss is hanged Candide finds himself asking, "If this is the best of all possible worlds," (the philosophy of his philosopher-especially after he is found alive again in the story), "what are the others like?" Candide, who tries to keep in mind what his teacher has taught him, but is being broken and brought to his knees through the many trials and tribulations he is put through, is starting to shows a more humanistic point of view. How would any human being react under such dire conditions?
Another example of treacherous cruelty brought on by war and the evils of the time is illuminated through the creation of a character called "the Old woman." She, like the other characters, whom she has also been put in the story to help and inspire, had been born well-to-do, in a castle, surrounded by love and protection, when she is forced to face the horrors of war and greed. Through witnessing the rape and murder of her own mother, being raped herself, enslaved, plagued, and even having part of her body cut off to provide a meal for starving soldiers, she is an excellent tool for Voltaire's black humor, and through it all, a rock for the other characters.
As Candide is fated again and loses touch with the Old Woman and his love, Miss Cunegonde, whom he has just found once more, he befriends Cacambo, who provides stability for all that is to happen to Candide next. Their adventures give the writer yet another chance to try and strike a chord of awareness to what is flawed in the world. As Candide is falling apart over such things as losing the woman he is in love with and witnessing human intermingling with beasts in an ungodly way, Cacambo's way of thinking comes through with such statements as "women can always find something to do with themselves; God sees to it; let get going," and "My dear master, you're always astonished by everything," These two characters provide two clear-cut contradictions between belief systems- one that God is in control of everything and that the evils of the world must be - and the other wondering if maybe reasoning applied to circumstances could prevent a lot of mishaps. Cacambo has accepted the fact that man is evil and is mature in this way of thinking, whereas Candide is still trying to decipher whether things happen through cause and effect-like his friend Pangloss believes or if there is a way to stop these evils from being bestowed on innocents.
Caught between what he has learned from the philosopher and a desire to change things, Candide is never able to do anything but accept what has been done to him and the others around him and is never able to come up with any better explanation than that of Pangloss' or Cacambo's; however this piece of literature gives a foreshadowing and hope for real change to come into the world and its messed up society. If it seemed at the time that God had forsaken the world -as some saw it- with all the wars and brutality, there could still be imposed on human-kind the idea of using their heads to think about the end results of their actions. This was after all what the Enlightenment Period was all about-that humans were given a brain and should be given the liberty to use it and that the notion that all hardships in life man must encounter are simply imposed on him at birth is not completely the truth. Whether literature was changing society or society was changing literature, Voltaire's work, ''Candide" stands out in the Enlightenment Period and in time as making a transitional statement that almost compares to the transitions
between the Old and New testaments of The Holy Bible. He very constructively uses his characters' misfortunes to create a broad spectrum of how cruel and sinister people are being at that moment in history and implies that how a person thinks can improve their outcome. Pangloss, the philosopher, still trying to prove cause and effect, and keeping his positive attitude, Candide, still trying to prove the philosopher's theory, and the others, simply willing to accept, all in the end had to settle on the advice of a neighbor, which was to keep away from boredom, vice, and poverty. It wouldn't take a genius to figure out that this is a very good place to start thinking.