Critical Analysis of Candide by Voltaire

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Candide was written by the French author Voltaire in 1759 in his attempt at exposing many aspects of religious and social injustices within Europe, as he saw it, through the naïve and simple protagonist Candide and his ever-optimistic mentor Pangloss. From religion to the aristocracy, Voltaire satirizes various aspects of European life throughout the period identified as the enlightenment. He also indirectly states that life in 18th-century Europe was often filled with corruption and flaws from within all levels of society.

The extract that is in focus is taken from chapter 20 of Voltaire’s Candide. Throughout this scene both Candide and his traveling companion, Martin philosophically debates the subject of evil and how it affects the world through both their own unique perspectives. The trials and tribulations of Candide and his various traveling companions are told to the reader through a narrator who speaks mostly in the omniscient third person while focusing on the perspective and experiences of Candide. Voltaire uses his writing style as an anonymous satirical narrator to give the reader a fully immersive viewpoint. Voltaire’s narrative has a satirical and ironic tone. The narration shows us a picture of the most extreme human depravity and cruelty while at the same time discussing trivialities like the weather!

In order to highlight important characteristics within a primary character, an author could include a secondary character who contrasts in important ways with the former.

The negativity that comes from Martin’s character appears to be a complete reversal to Candide’s ever-optimistic persona. We can see this strong throughout this chapter as they both attempt to pass the time while on board by having a philosophical/theological debate about good and evil that they have both witnessed in their lifetimes. Candide interestingly does not become despondent regarding all of the bad things that have happened to him so far but continues to believe that this is the best of all possible worlds, as he declares ’And yet there is some good in the world’ (Voltaire, in A230 Assessment Guide, 2018, line 35).

Part of the skill of Voltaire’s storytelling is how he manages to engage Candide’s personality with the reader. As a reluctant hero, Candide is forced to come to terms with his ever-changing search for his beloved Cunégonde, Voltaire achieves Candide’s character progression using a coming-of-age style of narrative, or Bildungsroman (OED online, 2018). Where the reader is able to see the progression of Candide’s physical and spiritual growth as he continues on his quest for his beloved. A portion of Candide’s moral growth started with Professor Pangloss, at the castle, but carries on with Martin.

Martin, however, is a pessimist, and it is through his negative perspective that allows Voltaire brings Candide’s positive outlook into a clear view. Martin is a deep thinker who provides an intellectual argument for his beliefs. Candide seeks to hear Martin’s point of view on various topics, not out of a desire to debate, but rather to learn. It is through this section of the narrative that the reader could find sympathy with either side of this debate, it is possible to emphasize with both characters as they try to relate to each other. However, Martin’s ideas could be used as a context for Voltaire’s ironic attack on the optimistic beliefs of the Enlightenment.

Candide asks Martin’s opinion ‘What is your idea of physical evil and moral evil?’ (A230 Assessment Guide, 2018, line 14) A reader would be capable of forming an opinion quite readily on this innocently sounding question that Candide poses. This clever form of a narrative by Voltaire helps to draw in and engage the reader to think about their own personal responses. Just as Martin is ready to answer with his own slightly bleak view on life, as readers, we are left to ponder the evils that could be encountered from day to day within our own modern lives.

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Martin answers Candide’s question by telling him of being accused of being a Socinian, who were a sect during the 16th century who ‘denied the divinity of Jesus’ (OED online, 2018), of which Martin quickly denies being and further declares following the beliefs of the Manicheans who believed in the ‘primeval conflict between light and darkness (OED online, 2018). Denial seems to be an inherent quality to Martin’s character as the Socinian faith didn’t believe in the absolute power of forgiveness through the divinity of Christ. Manicheans solved the problem of evil by believing in two equally powerful forces in conflict. Evil exists because God simply doesn’t have the power to eliminate it. Yet again this poses the question of denial in Martin’s world-wearied view as he too disbelieves in God yet, Voltaire brings a sense of absurdity to Martin’s argument as his convictions are obsolete due to the religion already credited as nonexistent at the time of his writing Candide (OED online, 2018).

There is almost a comical tension between the philosophy of Pangloss, where evil by definition is good, and Martin’s dualistic point of view where evil is prevalent in mankind. Ironically, Martin’s belief in a dead religion comes directly from his observed experience, whereas Candide’s belief in optimism comes from books and his mentor Pangloss. From all this understanding we are then able to see why Candide answers Martin’s dogmatic beliefs by declaring him of ‘having the devil in him’ (A230 Assessment guide, line 20). Martin doesn’t respond negatively to Candide’s accusation but carries straight on with his defense which is powerful in its convictions and brings an interlude of seriousness to the novel with its strong imagery and message.

We have to try to understand Voltaire’s character, Martin as we witness his almost confessional dialogue when he tells Candide that he had sadly been robbed by his wife and beaten by his son and deserted by his daughter at the very end of chapter 19 (Voltaire, 1998, p. 57). From this confession does the reader find sympathy for his convictions throughout the scene that is in question?

From my own understanding, I find his lengthy speech to be both relevant to Voltaire’s time and when applied to contemporary issues relevant to events that are occurring throughout the world.

A reader could consider if the voice of Martin is also Voltaire’s. As the author was using his novel to directly critique the social inequalities of his time, could we consider Voltaire’s voice being used through Martin’s? The style of his writing at this point is a first-person narrative and he uses strong metaphorical language to show the reader his pessimistic but truthful opinions. We already know that he speaks from experience and with this experience comes a conviction in the lack of faith in people. He backs up his disbelief as he recounts ‘A million assassins in a regimental formation run from one end of Europe to the other’ (A230 Assessment guide, lines 27-28). This is strong language when referring to an army as assassins, however uncomfortable it may seem there is a truth to this statement as we can draw comparisons between an army who are paid and assassins who kill for profit.

Martin’s speech carries examples of how and why he has come to view the world in the way he does. Again, we are reminded of how we live now and how similar we are in contextual comparison to his time. Martin’s quite chilling declaration ‘Everywhere the weak loathe the strong, before whom they cringe’ (A230 Assessment guide, 2018, lines 26-27) This is evident even more nowadays where we have huge class divides and social unrest. The class divisions during Voltaire’s time of writing were also immense with indulgent rich at one end of the scale and people who died from lack of food at the other. From this, a reader should be able to draw comparisons with some of the themes set out by Voltaire.

It is possible to draw a comparison with Candide’s expulsion from his home of Westphalia, at the start of his journey, with all of its apparent perfection and with the garden where he and his friends finally call home. The book ends with him seemingly denouncing his philosophical research on good and evil and finding a type of happiness simply from gardening. This need to ‘cultivate our garden’ (Voltaire, 1998, p. 100) and tend to the things that you have control over how that neither optimism nor pessimism is entirely valid in the world. Candide’s final philosophy reveals a middle ground in his newly found maturity, that excludes excessive idealism, which is a rather stoic stance on life.

Voltaire ends his novel, Candide with the titular character practically declaring a lesson that has the feel of a parable intended for all of his readers in his final realization of his coming of age. From this lesson of ‘tending to your garden’ Candide should have learned that life within the castle was as near to physical perfection as heaven but, in the end, Candide concludes that using reason and hard work could improve the world and our lives but, it took him and his friends a strenuous circumnavigation around the world to end up in their own idea of spiritual perfection, a garden which could be reminiscent of biblical Eden.

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Critical Analysis of Candide by Voltaire. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 19, 2024, from
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