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Tragic Humor: Realism and Comedy as Satirical Tools in Voltaire’s Candide
There are few chapters in Voltaire’s classic satire Candide that are wholly comedic; in truth, it seems there are fewer still that do not throw light on the tragic degradation, destruction, and immorality of a humanity fed on others misery. An optimist, the character of Candide should contrast directly the pessimism and unhappiness of the world around him. However, even his interactions and experiences do little, in reality, to combat an image of a cold and cruel world. This is, of course, at the root of Voltaire’s satirical genius. Candide is captured into the service of the Bulgarians, finds that his love, Mademoiselle Cunegonde’s family has been torn apart, she herself raped and almost killed, sold from one man to another until she can maintain her fortunes as a mistress to powerful men. Voltaire’s Candide experiences a reality that is chaotic in its duality, with not one faction of his life seeming safe or unalterable. Through the people he encounters and the ways in which they cope and shoulder the tragedy and gifts of their lives with equal aplomb, Candide’s struggle is edged with a wry humor. This humor works with the harshness of the reality to lend a human perspective to the political and social issues Voltaire seeks to satirize.
It is difficult to pinpoint any one large instance of humor in Candide, quite simply because the humor is of a smaller nature. Instead it works to compliment the adventures of Candide, as he crisscrosses the world while drawing on and underlining the inequalities and tragedies of society’s institutions. At the beginning of his travels, Candide still believes naively in the philosophy of his old teacher, Pangloss. This philosophy believes that, “since everything is made for an end, everything is necessarily for the best end” (Voltaire 521). Candide and Pangloss’s other pupils are soon confronted by the atrocities of the world – death, destruction, rape, and deception – and yet seem to largely still cling fondly to the memory and philosophy of their naively optimistic teacher. It is only after losing everything and hearing the tales of the others that Candide begins to see the folly in this philosophy. Through the humor laced encounters and near and absolute tragedy, Voltaire illustrates the resilience of humanity through such characters as the old woman who cares for Candide after he has been flogged by the Inquisition.
The old woman has been through combinations of terror degradation that should have reduced her humanity but instead have created. The optimism inherent to Pangloss’s version of fate undermines the truth of life and glosses over pain and tragedy as part of a larger universal plan. However, the humor which peppers the old woman’s story, the Princess of Palestrina, shows the hypocrisy of the systems of society which propagates this ideal. A prime example of this humor is the woman’s description of her abduction by Morocco pirates. “Our soldiers defended themselves as papal troops usually do; falling on their knees and throwing down their arms, they begged of the corsair absolution”. (535). The image presented is meant to be both humorous and illustrative of the illusion of religion and social position. Though the family of the Pope, the old woman and the other women aboard are abandoned to the whim of the pirates. Neither their religious affiliation, social rank, money nor beauty are able to protect them from being murdered, and in the case of the old woman sold from broker to broker – having in one instance one buttock sliced off to prevent herself from being cannibalized.
While the woman has in some ways accepted her lot in life, showing complicity that is at the root of such institutionalized systems that promote obedience and blind acceptance, her humor lends to Voltaire overall satire on the notion of happiness as an abstracted ideal. Having suffered innumerable tragedies throughout her long life, the old woman notes, “a hundred times I wanted to kill myself, but always I loved life more”(538). “This ridiculous weakness is perhaps the most disastrous of our inclinations; for is their anything sillier than to desire to bear continually a burden one always wishes to throw on the ground” (538). While it is supportive, in her expression of it here, of Candide’s own optimism it still belies a realism that there is little in her tragedy that can or has been justified by man or God. She has suffered and in her suffering has sought to hold onto the brief victories and happiness that she has attained. Her point is later echoed by Candide when in explaining the idea of optimism to Cacambo he shows that his own blind belief in the abstract of happiness preached by Pangloss is more madness than reality. In viewing the upset of Candide’s very notion of life through a harsh and dramatized realism, Voltaire leads the reader to Candide’s own conclusions. Humor works with this realism to act as a springboard for insinuations against the institutions and conventions that have created and prolonged some of the greatest miseries in the world.
Voltaire, Francois-Marie Aronet de. Candide. The Norton Anthology of World Literature: 1650 to 1800. Ed. Sarah Lawall, et al. 2nd ed. Vol. D. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001. 520-582.
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