“Candide”: Voltaire’s Satire on Optimism

From The Lecture Series: Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature

By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut

Although most of Voltaire’s most respected philosophy is seldom read outside the academy, Candide continues to be enthusiastically consumed by all kinds of people. In fact, Candide has garnered far more attention than the rest of Voltaire’s work put together. Let us explore the world of young Candide to find the reason for this novel’s immense popularity.

Stack of books, quill pen, map, compass, and spyglass.
Voltaire wrote Candide in 1759 to satirize the then-popular philosophy of optimism. (Image: Danussa/Shutterstock)

Voltaire and Optimism

Voltaire wrote mostly non-fiction and philosophy, but he wrote Candide, a very short novel, in order to satirize the then-popular philosophy of optimism.

There are so many problems in our world, as there were in 18th-century Europe. How is optimism even possible, let alone something to be lampooned?

This is a transcript from the video series
Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Main Characters in Candide

Candide, the protagonist, is a young man who lives in Germany on the estate of Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh, a relative from what we might call, in French, the wrong side of the sheets. Candide, whose name at the time meant gullible in French, is desperately in love with Cunégonde, the Baron’s daughter.

There’s a Saint Cunégonde, and she was a virgin martyr whose chastity would be in stark contrast to the worldliness of Candide’s love interest. There’s also Candide’s beloved tutor Dr. Pangloss, a philosopher who teaches “metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-nigology”.

Pangloss: The Optimist in Candide

Pangloss is a Greek compound just like utopia or Hythlodae, and means pan, “all,” and gloss, “tongue.” Here’s an example of Dr. Pangloss’s perspective on the world as recalled by Candide:

“It is proved,” he used to say, “that things cannot be other than they are, for since everything was made for a purpose, it follows that everything is made for the best purpose. Observe: our noses were made to carry spectacles, so we have spectacles.”

In some sense, the novel makes the same joke over and over again: horrible things happen to optimistic people, and yet they refuse to change their worldview to take the new information—life sucks—into account.

Learn more about Voltaire’s impact in 18th-century France.

The Tone in Candide

In the opening chapter, Cunégonde and Candide kiss in the garden, and Candide’s life will never be the same again. The Baron throws him out. He is immediately kidnapped and pressed into military service, where he is beaten to within an inch of his life before participating in a major battle. In the midst of death and destruction on a massive scale, Candide escapes.

Here is the description of over-the-top violence in a tone that’s both matter-of-fact and satirical:

When all was over and the rival kings were celebrating their victory with Te Deums in their respective camps, Candide decided to find somewhere else to pursue his reasoning into cause and effect. He picked his way over piles of dead and dying, and reached a neighbouring village on the Abar side of the border. Old men, crippled with wounds, watched helplessly the death-throes of their butchered women-folk…Girls who had satisfied the appetites of several heroes lay disemboweled in their last agonies.

Humor in Candide

As Candide experiences more than his fair share of violations, as he witnesses horrors throughout the world, he continues to miss his tutor, the great Dr. Pangloss. He is the man who knew without a doubt that this was the best world in the best of times.

So, what kind of laughter does this evoke? There’s an element of incongruity certainly, as the narrator’s matter-of-fact tone is in constant contrast to the pathos of the scenes he describes. More prominently, though, Voltaire’s novel evokes the laughter of superiority. As a reader, you can see how utterly absurd it is for Candide to maintain his optimism.

Eldorado: The Land of the Riches

Candide and Cacambo meet a maimed slave near Surinam.
Candide and Cacambo meet different people during their travels. (Image: Jean-Michel Moreau/Public domain)

Candide and his servant Cacambo travel through 13 lands in all, and Eldorado is the seventh or middle one. In each land before Eldorado, Candide expects to find a utopian society, and is sorely disappointed in each land.

Eldorado is the exception. Voltaire didn’t make up the concept of Eldorado, which was, according to legend, a place where a group of Muisca had fled after the Spanish conquest. Eldorado is full of fabulous riches, thus the name Eldorado. It’s also completely isolated, completely hidden.

Faced with unlimited gold, silver, and gems shared amongst all the people, Candide realizes something: wealth is irrelevant unless it’s compared to poverty.

Learn more about Thomas More’s Utopia.

Candide’s Journey Back Home

Having access to all the gold in the world is meaningless unless he can show it to the people back in Europe. And that’s largely why Candide and his servant leave the utopian world of Eldorado.

The two leave with 100 Eldoradan sheep, each heaped to excess with riches. Most of the sheep are lost through various misadventures, so Candide has no more proof of utopia than does any traveler who claims to have seen paradise.

But Candide returns to the world, he visits six more places—Surinam, France, England, Venice, Constantinople, and the Propontis shore—now accompanied by a really interesting character named Martin whose extreme pessimism is shown to be just as ludicrous as Pangloss’s optimism.

The Conclusion in Candide

There is an interpretive dilemma in the conclusion of the book: Candide is foolish to continue along in the world with his optimism, but in some ways he’s also right. Everyone he thought was dead reappears alive and relatively well at the novel’s end. He is reunited with Cunégonde.

And Pangloss, of course, is just as annoying to the reader as ever, but Candide is happy to see him and to find him well. The little troupe of characters settles on a farm, where everyone does work to which he or she is suited, and life goes on. Here are the final lines of the novel:

From time to time Pangloss would say to Candide: ‘There is a chain of events in this best of all possible worlds; for if you had not been turned out of a beautiful mansion at the point of a jackboot for the love of Lady Cunégonde…and had not wandered over America on foot…and lost all those sheep you brought from Eldorado, you would not be here eating candied fruit and pistachio nuts.’

Is this a form of disruption, where the laugh of superiority that has propelled us through this novel is challenged by an ending that evokes exactly the kind of utopian imaginings we find in the real-world utopian  communities of Transcendentalist America? We need to ponder over this question.

Common Questions about Candide

Q: Why do Candide and his servant leave Eldorado?

Candide and his servant leave Eldorado because he thinks having access to all the gold in the world is meaningless unless he can show it to the people back in Europe.

Q: What do Candide and his servant leave with from Eldorado?

Candide and his servant leave with 100 Eldoradan sheep, each heaped to excess with riches.

Q: Why did Voltaire write Candide?

Voltaire wrote Candide in order to satirize the then-popular philosophy of optimism.

Keep Reading
You CAN Teach an Old Brain New Tricks: Stimulate Your Brain with Humor
Thomas More: The Man and his “Utopia”
A Close Examination of Thomas More’s “Utopia”