Candide | Study Guide


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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the themes in Voltaire's novella Candide.

Candide | Themes


A stalwart opponent against bigotry and intolerance, Voltaire was a champion of equality and an outspoken critic of the Catholic Church, political institutions, and the nobility. Candide tackles themes that were important to Voltaire throughout his life.

Fall of Optimism

Voltaire's purpose for writing Candide is to disprove the notion of philosophical optimism. He does this by establishing his characters as ardent optimists at the beginning of the book. He then puts them in situations that gradually erode their beliefs that "all is for the best." Candide goes through the greatest change, becoming more and more disillusioned by Pangloss's teachings as his journey wears on. His first inkling that God isn't as benevolent, or kind, as advertised is the death of Jacques the Anabaptist. Nothing good comes of his death, and Pangloss's logic that Lisbon's harbor was built specifically so this man could die doesn't make any sense at all.

Voltaire continues to poke holes in philosophical optimism by showcasing the suffering of numerous major and minor characters, among them the black sugar mill slave in Surinam. Missing an arm and a leg, which he refers to as "the price we pay for the sugar you eat in Europe," the man has been repeatedly told by the Dutch missionaries who enslave him that "we are all children of Adam." If that's the case, he reasons, "no one could treat his relatives much more horribly than this." Candide is horrified by this encounter, and Voltaire intends the same reaction from the reader. A benevolent God would not subject any of his "children" to such a fate.

Voltaire doesn't just disprove philosophical optimism in Candide; he also shows its alternative. Humans have free will, he concludes. They can choose whether or not they want to be happy. However that happiness takes hard work; one cannot sit idly by and wait for God's intervention. For Candide this means tending his garden.

Religious Intolerance

Voltaire spent much of his life in opposition to the Catholic Church. Voltaire was a deist, and he detested how cruelly the church treated people of other religions. His empathy for those who didn't conform to the church's rigid standards is apparent throughout Candide. The most blatant example of religious intolerance is the burial of Don Issacar. He and the Grand Inquisitor are killed at the same time, yet the Grand Inquisitor is "buried in a beautiful church" while Don Issacar, a Jew, is "thrown on to the town refuse heap." He is literally treated like garbage.

The Catholic Church didn't limit itself to persecuting those who practiced Judaism. Voltaire depicts several instances in which Christians are persecuted for beliefs that simply vary from Christian doctrine. The man who marries his godparent, a violation of church law, is burned at the stake. Martin is persecuted for a religion he doesn't even practice. In all of these situations, Voltaire shows empathy for the person who defies traditional religious conventions while portraying church leaders as callous zealots eager to burn those with differences at the stake.

Class and Status

Nobles are portrayed in an unsympathetic light in Candide, particularly in regard to their snobbery and sense of entitlement. This is the case with the Young Baron, who, despite the loss of his family's wealth, still thinks that his birthright makes him better than everyone else. He overlooks Candide's repeated benevolence, refusing to approve a marriage between Candide and Cunégonde simply because Candide isn't of noble blood. The Young Baron exhibits the arrogance Voltaire feels is inherent in all aristocrats, no matter their actual wealth or life circumstance.

The characters in Candide with the biggest hearts are those who have the lowest social status. There is, of course, Candide, whose assistance to others isn't limited to a few dollars here and there. He secures a job and housing for downtrodden Pangloss, and he agrees to marry Cunégonde even though he no longer loves her. Cacambo, a glorified servant, remains loyal to Candide even after he amasses his own wealth. Conversely those with money and social status—the Marquise de Parolignac and the abbé, for example—are eager to exploit those "beneath" them for everything they're worth. Through them Voltaire points out that money and position have no impact on goodness, another jab at nobility.

Money and Misery

Money can't buy happiness, as the old saying goes, but in Candide it actually makes people more miserable than they were before. Candide is the first character to experience this phenomenon. He suffers multiple injustices throughout his worldwide journey, but none affect him as much as the false generosity and outright swindling he experiences at the hands of merchants, magistrates, and supposed friends: "The wickedness of man now revealed itself to him in all its ugliness" and plunges him into misery. Though he has more money than ever before, he is lonely and disillusioned.

The same thing happens to Paquette and Brother Girofleo. Money makes their already terrible situations even worse. Voltaire shows that money is more often the cause of sorrow than happiness. A poor man doesn't realize what he is missing, but one who experiences a temporary fortune is all the more miserable when it is gone.

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