It was published early in 1759 as Candide, ou l’optimisme, purportedly “translated from the German of Dr. Ralph, with additions found in the pocket of the Doctor when he died at Minden.” The Great Council of Geneva almost at once (March 5) ordered it to be burned. Of course Voltaire denied his authorship; “people must have lost their senses,” he wrote to a friendly pastor in Geneva, “to attribute to me that pack of nonsense. I have, thank God, better occupations.”31 But France was unanimous: no other man could have written Candide. Here was that deceptively simple, smoothly flowing, lightly prancing, impishly ironic prose that only he could write; here and there a little obscenity, a little scatology; everywhere a playful, darting, lethal irreverence; if the style is the man, this had to be Voltaire.
It begins innocently, but soon betrays the master’s twinkling eye:
In the country of Westphalia, in the castle of the most noble Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh, lived a youth whom nature had endowed with a most sweet disposition.… He had a solid judgment joined to the most unaffected simplicity; and for that reason, I believe, he was named Candide. The old servants of the house suspected him to have been the son of the Baron’s sister, by a good and honorable gentleman of the neighborhood, whom that demoiselle refused to marry, because he could produce no more than seventy-one quarterings;
he was inadmissible in marriage, though adequate in bed. The handsome young bastard is tutored by Professor Pangloss (All-tongue), who
could prove to admiration that there is no effect without a cause, and that in this best of all possible worlds the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and Milady the best of possible baronesses [despite her 350 pounds]. It is demonstrable, said he, that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for, as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily have been created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings; accordingly we wear stockings.… They who assert that everything is right do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best.
Candide “listened attentively, and believed implicitly,” for Mlle. Cunégonde, the Baron’s daughter, was obviously the best and most beautiful creature that could possibly have been created. She invites him to fall in love with her; he falls; the Baron gives him several“grands coups de pied dans le derrière,” and puts him out of the castle.
Candide wanders, and is captured by recruiters who impress him into the Bulgarian (with Voltairean reminiscences of the Prussian) army. “There he was made to wheel about to the right, to the left, to draw his rammer, to return his rammer, to present, to fire, to march, and they gave him thirty blows with a cane.” He sees battle, deserts, and comes upon Pangloss, who is now minus the end of his nose, and will soon lose an eye and an ear, as the result of excessive propinquity with the pretty wench Pacquette, “who was infected with an ailment which she had received from a learned Cordelier [Franciscan friar], who … had it from an old countess, who had received it from a captain of cavalry, who owed it to a marquise, who had it from a page, who had it from a Jesuit, who had received it from one of the companions of Christopher Columbus.”32
Candide and Pangloss are shipwrecked near Lisbon, and reach shore just in time for the earthquake. They survive, but are arrested as heretics by the Inquisition; Pangloss is hanged; Candide escapes through the aid of Cunégonde, who, having been raped by soldiers, and then sold to a Jew, had recently been sold to a leading Inquisitor. Candide and Cunégonde flee with the help of an old lady, who silences their complaints by telling how she came near being eaten at the siege of Azor by the starving Turks among whom she had fallen; but, by the mercy of half-blind fate, they began by merely cutting off one buttock of each available woman; the siege ended before any further samplings; “now,” concludes the old woman, “stop bemoaning your misery, and rejoice that you can sit on two buttocks.”
They cross the Atlantic in hopes that the New World will be less cruel than the Old. In Buenos Aires the commandant appropriates Cunégonde to himself. Candide is banished; he enters the Jesuit colony in Paraguay, finds there Cunégonde’s brother, who attacks him for daring to think of marrying her; Candide kills him, and resumes his desolate wandering. In a secluded Peruvian valley he comes upon El Dorado, a land where gold is so abundant that no one values it; a land without money or prisons, or lawyers, or priests, or economic strife; its happy people live to two hundred years, and have no religion except a simple worship of one God. Candide picks up some gold and moves on, still hungering for Cunégonde. He sails back to Europe, and reaches Portsmouth in time to see Admiral Byng shot for losing a battle; in this country, says Candide’s new friend Martin, it is considered wise to kill an admiral now and then, “pour en-courager les autres”— to encourage the others.33
Learning that Cunégonde is in Venice, Candide takes ship to Italy. In Venice he is depressed by learning about the miseries of the prostitutes. He hears gondoliers singing, and concludes that he has found some happy men, but Martin checks him:
“You do not see them at home with their wives and their brats [marmots d’enfants]. The doge has his griefs, the gondoliers have theirs. It is true that, all in all, the lot of a gondolier is preferable to that of a doge; but I believe the difference is so trifling that it is not worth the trouble of examining it.”34
Cunégonde is not in Venice, she is in Constantinople. Candide hurries there, finds that she is now an old and ugly slave; nevertheless he frees her and marries her. Pangloss, having been insufficiently hanged by the Inquisition, rejoins his pupil and resumes his defense of optimism. They meet an almost happy man, who entertains them with home-grown fruits and nuts. “You must have a large estate,” Candide inquires. “I have only twenty acres,” replies the Turk; “I cultivate them with my children; our labor keeps away three great evils—boredom, vice, and need.”35 Candide decides to do likewise; he, Cunégonde, and their friends till a plot of ground and grow their own food; the one-buttock woman, a reformed prostitute, and her friend the friar put their hands to various tasks; they labor, are tired, eat, are a bit bored, but moderately content. Pangloss argues that this must be the best of all possible worlds, since their sufferings have brought them to this peace. That was well said, replies Candide, “mais il faut cultiver notre jardin”—we must cultivate our garden. The little novel ends.
Voltaire had managed to put into small compass, within the frame of a story of adventure and love, a telling satire of Leibniz’ theodicy, Pope’s optimism, religious abuses, monastic amours, class prejudices, political corruption, legal chicanery, judicial venality, the barbarity of the penal code, the injustice of slavery, and the destructiveness of war; Candide was composed while the Seven Years’ War dragged through its hither and thither of victory, devastation, and death. Flaubert called Voltaire’s masterpiece “le”résumé de toutes ses oeuvres,” the summary of all his works.36 It had the defect of most satires, absurd exaggeration; but Voltaire knew quite well that few men ever encounter so bitter a concatenation of catastrophes as Candide’s. He must have known, too, that though it is good to cultivate one’s garden, to do well one’s individual and immediate task, it is also good to have larger interests than one’s field. He cultivated well his garden at Ferney, but he cried out to all Europe against the execution of Calas.