I read Candide for the first time as a senior in high school at a time when I was just beginning to enjoy reading and analyzing literature. At the time I thought it was quite amusing, but this second time reading I recognized the more serious aspects that I missed my first time around.
Written in the 18th Century by Voltaire, it is more a book on philosophy than a novel. I fully confess that I’m out of my depth, so this post is likely not going to be very long, and certainly will not delve into all the layers that comprise this book. The surface story follows Candide, a young German boy, who is ejected from his life of comfort after he is caught kissing the baron’s daughter. After training in the military, he hears first that the baron’s daughter, Cunégonde, who he has come to love, has been brutally murdered in an attack. He later hears instead that she is alive, and sets out on a journey across the world to find her.
The novel is full of buffoonery and unbelievable events. People seem extremely difficult to kill, for example, and repeatedly come back to life after appearing to have died. Candide’s philosophy the entire time, which he questions constantly but insists is true because his tutor drilled it into his brain, is that we humans are living in the best possible reality, and that even though bad things happen to individuals, these tragic events are actually beneficial to others, or to society as a whole. Candide, on his mission to find and rescue Cunégonde from whatever ill has happened to befall her, struggles with this idea, for he sees many horrible things happen.
Since this is a book review and not a discussion on philosophy, I won’t get into it very much. The novel was written as a satire of the common belief of Voltaire’s time, which is that same belief professed by Candide’s tutor: that we are living in the best possible world, no matter how awful it may seem. This, obviously, was highly controversial, and Candide is just one response out of many to that way of thinking. The book can be a very fast read, for the plot moves quickly, and the chapters are short. Very little time is spent on any one event, and there is very little detail to describe setting or events. Still, it’s a very dry sort of humor–one that cannot really be understood unless the reader first knows a little bit of history of Voltaire and the time in which he lived. Often the events that would normally be horrifying are written in what is supposed to be an amusing manner. Candide himself, certainly, is humorous in his naïveté.
It was a good novel, but definitely not one I recommend reading for fun. If you’re looking for something on which to reflect, this is certainly a good book to pick up. Do not be deceived by its size–it is definitely a novel that requires time and attention.