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Candide | Discussion Questions 41 - 50

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What does the character of Pangloss represent in Candide?

Pangloss represents the philosophical theory of optimism, which purports that everything happens for a reason and that only God has free will. Voltaire presents Pangloss as a wholly illogical character completely out of touch with the suffering of the common person, which is how Voltaire views some of his fellow Enlightenment philosophers. Pangloss reasons, for example, "Legs are clearly devised for the wearing of breeches, therefore we wear breeches." His grasp of cause and effect is loose at best, and he makes the theory of optimism seem rather idiotic. Pangloss is also an example of what happens when a person is unwilling to change his or her belief system even after witnessing its own failure. At the end of the book, while Pangloss admits that he suffered horribly all his life, he still doesn't renounce optimism because, he says, "after all, I am a philosopher, and it would not become me to retract my sentiments." He has lied to himself for so long that he can do nothing but continue with his previous beliefs despite the fact that all evidence points to the contrary. Pangloss doesn't know who he is without optimism. His unwillingness to allow his belief system to evolve parallels the discord between Enlightenment philosophers who believed in divine rule and those who took into account the ever-evolving world of science.

For what purpose does Voltaire introduce the motif of resurrection in Candide?

Voltaire uses resurrection as a recurring motif to show that sin is eternal. It cannot be ignored or ever truly forgiven. It is a part of human nature that even death cannot erase. Three characters are resurrected in Candide: Pangloss, Cunégonde, and the Young Baron. Each of them carries undesirable traits in his or her first life that seep into the next lives. Cunégonde is vain when she and Candide are together at Thunder-ten-tronckh, and she remains so after her apparent death at the hands of the Bulgar soldier. The Young Baron is arrogant and entitled both before and after his apparent death at Candide's hand. Pangloss's major fault is his unwavering devotion to philosophical optimism. Even though he doesn't believe in this doctrine at the end of the book, he still claims to be its disciple simply because he has championed it for so long.

What is the role of coincidence in Candide?

There are many apparent coincidences in Candide. After Candide is conscripted into the Bulgar army, he is later able to use this training to become a commander in the Spanish army. He hires Cacambo, who just so happens to speak the language of the Oreillons and can therefore talk them out of eating Candide for dinner. Most notably Candide happens to be in the right place at the right time to encounter Pangloss, Cunégonde, and the Young Baron after he thought they were gone from his life forever. Unlike many Enlightenment thinkers, Voltaire believes in free will. Humans choose their own paths in life; their decisions and actions can change the outcomes of many situations. The apparent coincidences in Candide are therefore not intended as matters of fate, but rather they serve convenient plot points that help Voltaire advance the action and message of the story.

What lessons about free will and the nature of evil can be learned from Candide?

Several lessons can be learned from Candide, but the most important one is that each person is in charge of his or her own destiny and happiness. Candide begins the story thinking that God has a divine plan for everyone and ends it knowing that his happiness lies in his own hands. Waiting for God to act will get one nowhere in life; people cannot rely on God or anyone else for happiness. Instead they must exercise free will, a lesson that contradicts the theories of many Enlightenment philosophers. Another important lesson is that evil exists, and it often comes from human beings. Many of the secondary characters in Candide, including the Parisian abbé, the Marquise de Parolignac, and Monsieur Vanderdendur, hurt others for their own gain. The effect of evil is also seen in the plight of the cotton mill slave who has an arm and a leg amputated as the price for there to be sugar in Europe. Voltaire does not speculate on the origins of evil, but he does hold a mirror to it through his characters.

How does Voltaire use the metaphor of a journey in Candide to disprove philosophical optimism?

Voltaire wrote Candide to disprove philosophical optimism, a popular theory of the Enlightenment. He did so by establishing the main character and his closest companions as believers, then systematically poking holes in the theory as they move through varying experiences on the journey of life, which mirrors the literal journey or world travels of the characters. Candide's journey follows the traditional hero's journey in that he leaves home, encounters mentors and helpers, and faces challenges in an effort to return home, or, in this case, to return to his love. However his journey home proves false in that the Cunégonde he seeks no longer exists. Voltaire wanted to expose the inherent danger in aligning one's life to the tenets of philosophical optimism. Some characters, like Candide, must be convinced through the experiences of his journey, while others, like Cunégonde, immediately realize that this world cannot be the best of all possible worlds. It is only when Candide realizes that he needs to take responsibility for his own journey toward happiness that he comes close to achieving it.

According to the ideas presented in Candide, in what ways was Voltaire a realist rather than an idealist?

Voltaire was most definitely a realist. When he writes about idealism, it is through the eyes of Candide, a naive young man who believes everything he is told. Candide is forever hopeful that his life will have a fairy tale ending and clings to the idea that everything turns out for the best. But it doesn't. Instead of being deliriously happy with the way his life turns out, Candide is merely content. That state, according to Voltaire, is the most a person can hope for. Voltaire doesn't sugarcoat his descriptions of misery. The aftermath of the Bulgar war, for example, is grittily real: "Here old men riddled with wounds or lead shot looked on as their wives lay dying, their throats cut," he writes. The reader is also made aware of the grim realities faced by women, people of color, and followers of faiths other than Catholicism. The only ideal world shown is El Dorado, a fantasy.

How does Candide's outlook on life in the beginning compare and contrast to his views at the end of the book?

Candide's outlook on life changes dramatically from the beginning to the ending of his eponymous story. His education at "the finest of castles" is led by Pangloss, who believes that "there was no effect without cause," and that all causes are determined by God. Since God is benevolent, everything that happens is for the best. Candide "listened attentively" to his tutor "and he trusted innocently." His life does seem good. He lives in a beautiful castle with the girl he loves, and nothing bad ever happens to him. Then Cunégonde kisses him, and everything falls apart. Candide's expulsion and subsequent trek around the world tests his faith in philosophical optimism. When he and Cacambo arrive in El Dorado, Candide reflects that while El Dorado "is probably the land where all is well ... despite what Maître Pangloss may have said, I often noticed that everything went fairly badly in Westphalia." In Surinam he completely renounces philosophical optimism after meeting the cotton mill slave, but then backpedals when he tells Martin, "there is some good in the world." Candide's reunion with Cunégonde is the final nail in the coffin of philosophical optimism. His ideal life has not come to fruition, and because he has no other concrete belief system in place, he is floundering. It's his conversation with the old farmer that changes everything. Candide learns that happiness comes only as the product of hard work, a sense of purpose, and the company of others. He no longer needs philosophy; he has real life.

What are Voltaire's views about the Catholic Church as depicted in Candide?

Voltaire has very few positive things to say about the Catholic Church, particularly about its oppression of people of other religions and beliefs, whom it tortured, killed, forced to convert, exiled, and ostracized. This attitude is evident in his presentation of Pangloss's hanging at the Inquisition's auto-da-fé, where he is executed alongside two Jewish men and another man who violated church law by marrying his godmother. The Grand Inquisitor treats execution as a social event, inviting Cunégonde to watch from "an excellent seat." Don Issacar is one such outcast. His Judaism is well known in Lisbon, but, as the court banker, he is valuable to both the church and political leaders. Although he is allowed to stay in Portugal, he is treated as a second-class citizen. When the Grand Inquisitor wants something, all he has to do is threaten Don Issacar with an auto-da-fé. This abuse of power disgusts Voltaire. Voltaire's reaction to the Catholic Church's intolerance undoubtedly reflected his own religious beliefs. Like the people of El Dorado, Voltaire was a deist who believed in one immortal God; to him, Jesus was just a mortal man. His beliefs, combined with his vocal opposition to the power wielded by church officials, color the representation of the church as depicted in Candide. However his descriptions also follow historical accounts closely.

How is race addressed in Candide?

When Voltaire briefly touches on race in Candide, it is usually to show discrimination against people of color by white Europeans. Voltaire uses the cotton mill slave's story to dramatize injustices suffered by people of color. The slave tells Candide that his amputated arm and leg "are the price we pay for the sugar you eat in Europe." By "we" he means himself and other black slaves. The Dutch missionaries who enslave him say that all people are brothers under God, "whites and blacks alike," yet "no one could treat his relatives much more horribly than this." Voltaire includes the slave's story not only to make Candide reconsider his philosophical beliefs, but also to open the eyes of the reader to the terrible treatment of people of color not just in Europe, but around the world.

Who or what is the antagonist, the force that stands in the way of the hero's goal, in Candide?

The list of people who prevent Candide from living a happy life with Cunégonde is extensive, starting with Baron von Thunder-ten-tronckh and ending with Cunégonde herself. It is more accurate to say that the real antagonist in Candide is the world at large. Nothing ever goes right for Candide, and the farther he gets from his childhood home, the more the words of British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) ring true: life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." The world throws every conceivable hardship at Candide and his friends: rape, torture, hanging, drowning, stabbing, slavery, and robbery. Candide eventually prevails, but not without a fight.

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