“Voltaire was the wittiest writer in an age of great wits, and Candide is his wittiest novel.” – John Butt
With a few notable exceptions toward the middle, this brief, influential work by Voltaire spends every chapter spinning a denser and denser web of horrors and misfortunes for its principal characters, and for everyone they meet. Wars break out, destroying lands, cities, and people; innocents are burned and lashed as heretics; lovers are repeatedly separated and brutally punished; and murders and disfigurements occur often and without warning.
Yet, through all of the horrors, I would be hard-pressed to name five books I’ve encountered and found funnier or more charming than Candide. It is rare when three pages pass in sequence without eliciting laughter. The novella is packed densely with stinging irony and sharp satire, directed almost entirely at philosophical optimists who posit that humans live in “the best of all possible worlds.”
Comedy and Tragedy in Candide:
Overbearing, tone-deaf optimism and idealism are not dated notions. One encounters daily the sort of grating optimists who would smile when you weep, and insist that your misfortune is no misfortune at all, no matter how terrible. Callous self-righteousness leads people every day to tell those who have lost loved ones that their family member is, in effect, better off dead.
This kind of thinking is ample food for dark comedy, as plucky protagonist Candide, educated in this school of vulgar optimism, sallies forth into an unforgiving world. The following is a typical passage from early in the book, from the translation by the same Mr. Butt quoted above:
Those who have never seen two well-trained armies drawn up for battle, can have no idea of the beauty and brilliance of the display. Bugles, fifes, oboes, drums, and salvoes of artillery produced such a harmony as Hell itself could not rival. The opening barrage destroyed about six thousand men on each side. Rifle-fire which followed rid this best of worlds of about nine or ten thousand villains who infested its surface. Finally, the bayonet provided ‘sufficient reason’ for the death of several thousand more. The total casualties amounted to about thirty thousand. Candide trembled like a philosopher, and hid himself as best he could during this heroic butchery. (Voltaire 25)
Here, Voltaire borrows from discourses as disparate as military poetry, hyperbolic polemics, contemporary philosophy, and wartime propaganda, and blends them into an effortless, bitter, comical paragraph. The constant turns of phrase and oxymorons in Candide are dazzling to watch, and may be unexpected to readers who assume anything written more than a hundred years ago will be a dry, laborious affair. Indeed, fans of more recent literary satirists, such as Kurt Vonnegut, Stevie Smith, and Joseph Heller, will feel right at home reading this satirical mini-masterpiece.
Another more recent group of writers who would have a natural amity with Voltaire would be the Absurdists of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Their repackaging of the everyday as the tragic or the ecstatic, and vice versa, bears many thematic similarities to Candide, despite its many methodological differences, and fans of the former would likely be fans of the latter.
Finally, there is a very real sense that Voltaire’s pessimistic realism in Candide, in a true feat of irony, is much more optimistic than the philosophy of the idealists. Rather than insisting that people grit their teeth and pretend that bad news is good news, Voltaire is offering a more realistic solution: by acknowledging that the status quo is not perfect, room is left for slow, cooperative progress and improvement toward the proverbial better tomorrow.
One should be in tune with rational emotional responses to one’s life, despairing of misfortune, celebrating fortune, and laughing at all of the absurdities along the way.
The Unexpected Joy of Despair: