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Candide | Study Guide


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Voltaire | Biography


Born on November 21, 1694, to a middle-class family in Paris, François-Marie Arouet was heavily impacted by his Jesuit schooling, which set the themes of his long life: a love of literature and theater and a skepticism of the church. He changed his name to Voltaire after the success of his first tragedy, Oedipe (1718). Several other plays followed, most not very well received, and his dreams of becoming France's first epic poet were never fully realized. Today, however, he is widely recognized as one of France's greatest writers.

When the author wasn't writing, he was getting into ugly spats with various members of the French nobility. In 1717 he insulted the duc d'Orleans, which earned him a year in the Bastille prison. In 1726 he was exiled for fighting with the Chevalier de Rohan. Voltaire spent two years exiled in London, where he fell in love with Britain's tolerance for freedom of thought. He wrote a fictionalized account of his experiences, the Philosophical Letters, which resulted in a warrant for his arrest in France due to its critique of French institutions.

Voltaire published dozens of plays, books, and essays, but his best-known work is Candide, or, Optimism, published under the pseudonym M. Le Docteur Ralph in 1759. Candide represents Voltaire's writing at its best: witty satire embedded within an innovative and rapid-paced plot. Knowing authorities would have a problem with the book's content (due to its rebellious nature against religion and politics), Voltaire simultaneously released editions in Geneva and London. Censors tried to stop the proliferation of the work, but Voltaire continued publishing further editions with minor tweaks.

Voltaire was a deist who believed in natural laws and reason's role in right action. However he deplored Christianity for its intolerance and mocked religious leaders along with political ones. To avoid arrest for his radical ideas, Voltaire spent the latter part of his life away from Paris. He returned to Paris for the first time in 28 years in February 1778 to direct a production of one of his plays. He was welcomed with open arms, but the excitement was too much for him. He died from kidney issues on May 30, 1778.

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