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Literary Analysis of Candide by Voltaire
Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759) is one of the renown works and later works by Voltaire. The literary piece is acknowledged as one of the author’s most insightful spoofs on the world’s state. The composition of this novel took place after two earth quakes which hit Lisbon and Lima in the 1940s and 1950s, and is in a way a response to the optimistic and compassionate philosophy championed by such scholars of the age of Shaftesbury, Leibniz and the likes. The novel is basically a story of a young naive man who travels the world and in the process runs into a number of characters holding different philosophies concerning life. One of the most prominent character in the novel is Professor Pangloss who holds supreme faith in God’s plan and believes that there is “the best of all possible worlds” The novel is literary rich and is full of literary elements such as tones, plot, style, symbolism, motifs, characterization, themes and much more. For the purpose of this paper, the literary analysis will explore the various themes and motifs in the novel. Themes such as the theme of human suffering, love and happiness, optimism, hypocrisy of religion, and money and its corrupting power of greed will be discussed together with the motifs of rape and sexual exploitation and religious and political oppression.
One of the major themes in the novel is the theme of human suffering or human condition. Apart from being one of the themes in the novel, this theme materializes as the grand theme of the story. Candide marvels on what is the best way to approach life. From the story a reader can identify that Candide has been educated in a system that encourages optimism and it appears that this is all he knows. However, he doubts the philosophy of optimism and ultimately rejects it. His quest focuses on whether the dogma of optimism as taught by the Dr. Pangloss holds any truth. If it is true, Candide experiences must then be reconciled with optimism. However this is not possible without some illogical suppositions. For instance, Dr. Pangloss argues that syphilis “is an indispensable elements in the best of worlds—a necessary ingredient” (Moliere).
The theme of human condition and optimism cannot be separated in the story as they go hand in hand. The very first lesson that Candide learns is that it is impossible to have effect without having a cause, and that everything in the world is made to serve a specific end. This summarizes the dogma of optimistic determinism. If an invincible, omniscient God created the world in accordance to his design, then evil’s presence would mean malevolence towards the creatures he created. The believers in this story holding to the Christian faith react to this religious predicament by applying a cogent understanding to the occurrence of evil by using the examination of cause and effect to rationalize every particular incident of evil in expression of the greater good to come out of the predicament. For instance, Dr. Panglass concludes, “private misfortunes make for public welfare” (Moliere). In addition both Candide and Pangloss hold true that all things are for the best in all possible worlds. This thought is a reductively shortened version of the philosophies held by quite a number of Enlightenment thinkers.
Another theme lucid in the novel is the theme of love and happiness. All through the novel, Candide is in pursuance of the love of his life: Cunegonde. However, he is turned away by this woman at least twice by being denied his love’s hand in marriage. Even though, Cunegonde, has herself accepted to marry Candide since they both have a mutual love between themselves, the objections seem to come from Cunegonde’s relatives: Cunegonde’s father and brother. Cunegonde’s father, the King “chased Cunegonde from the Castle with great kicks” (Voltaire 2) when he sees the two kissing. Later on, Cunegonde’s brother states that he will “never be reproached by this scandalous marriage” (82). Instead of the two being happy for the two and appreciating the mutual love the two share, they prefer to see her married to a baron.
Hypocrisy of religion is also clear in the novel. This is witnessed in the onset of the novel when Candide is kicked from his Castle and escapes from the armies attacking to where Candide meets an orator. The orator was giving a speech on charity and addresses Candide as “My friend.” However, after realizing that Candide does not share his believe that the Pope is the Antichrist, his attitude towards Candide changes. Accordingly, he departs from his teachings and insults Candide calling him a “wretch” and “rogue.” The orator also says that Candide “does not deserve to eat” (6). The orator’s wife also empties her Chamber-pot onto Candide—“to what excess does religious zeal carry the ladies!” (6). Candide was hoping to find compassion and generosity from the believers but instead, he is turned away by this orator who was preaching charity just because of his differing religious beliefs. This goes on to show the intolerance and hypocrisy of religion.
Finally, among other themes, the theme of money and its corrupting power of greed is also prevalent in this novel. When Candide, obtains a fortune in Eldorado, it seems that some of his worst problems could be over. Physical injuries and arrest do not pose as threats anymore owing to the fact that he can corrupt and bribe his way out of many situations. Nonetheless, he is more discontented as a wealthy man. Experiencing his money seep away into the devious merchants’ hands and the officials, tests his belief of optimism to a greater extent. As a matter of fact, his optimism seems to be at the lowest after he is cheated by a Vanderdendur; it is after this incident that he chooses to make Martin, a pessimist, his travelling companion. His wealth and money seems to attract false friends. Greed and jealousy seems to be the only resultants of money. In one occasion, the King warns Candide and his friend that they are very “foolish to leave” (46) the castle where the are well protected and provided for. From the story, the theme of money and the associated problems of power, greed, and corruption is brought out and it is clear that money and the power that comes with it creates as many problems as it strives to solve.
One of the prevalent motif in the story is the motif of rape and sexual exploitation. The novel is full of exceptionally detailed accounts of how women are sexually exploited. Cunegonde, Paquette, and the old woman who are the main female characters in the story are all forced to sexual slavery, raped, or both. The views of the narrator and characters’ stances to these incidents are indifferent. Voltaire makes use of these characters in the novel to demonstrate the dangers that women face and their vulnerability to such issues. This is also hypocritical since the men in this Voltaire’s Europe seem to value women’s chastity, but they make it impossible for the women to maintain the same.
The other prevalent motif is the motif of religious and political oppression. In the novel, a reader can see the repulsion of oppression the authorities uphold in both the churches and the states. Catholics authorities are portrayed burning heretics alive and governors and priests are depicted as individuals who extort sexual favors from the women. In addition, businessmen mistreat their servants and slaves. Candide himself is abused by the army of the Bulgar King after he is drafted. From the story, it is clear that powerful institutions and individuals use their power to cause harm to the helpless individuals in the society.
In review, the story aims at bringing out through its themes the various social ills that exist in the society. The themes of human suffering, love and happiness, optimism, hypocrisy of religion, and money and its corrupting power of greed and the motifs of rape and sexual exploitation and religious and political oppression serve this purpose very well. At the end, Candide, chooses to ignore all the philosophies and mores held by the society since they only serve to oppress and decides to “cultivate” his own philosophies starting from scratch. This is demonstrated when he says to his companions, “all that is very well, but let us cultivate our garden” (87) after they admire the efforts of a man who lives off his own piece of land.
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