Personal Response to Voltaire’s Candide

Candide, possibly French writer Voltaire’s most famous work, is a satirical novel that follows the adventures of the titular character and a revolving door of companions as he embarks on a worldwide journey to find his one true love/cousin and prove that the world doesn’t totally suck.

I went into Candide completely blind, but although I have a mild interest in classical literature, I didn’t expect any surprises from it. This is probably why I was completely caught off guard by the book’s hilarious wit, brisk pacing, and rather progressive themes considering the time in which it was written. All of this made it a thoroughly enjoyable read. However, something I enjoyed considerably less was the story’s consistent cynicism, a worldview I personally find exceptionally grating. Fortunately, the humor and absurdity of the situations Candide and his companions constantly found themselves in counterbalanced this to a degree.

Easily the most interesting thing about the work, in my opinion, was it’s ending. Upon initial reading, it struck me as rather bittersweet. However, after a reread and further consideration, I suspect it was intended to be a happy ending for all the major characters. The reason for my initial interpretation, I think, was because the pace of the ending was so much slower than the rest of the book, and considerably lacking in humor. The bulk of the book, despite depicting the genuinely awful suffering of the protagonist and his friends, is often so absurd (especially to a modern audience), and filled with so many witticisms, that the audience perceives it instead as an epic adventure rather than Candide being unceremoniously jerked around by the string of fate. By the time we reach the conclusion, which is peaceful by comparison, we, the audience, don’t find it as entertaining as what came before, and therefore register it as bittersweet, despite the characters arguably being happier.

Although the story was likely intended with a message, I believe how that message is received by the audience is highly dependent on the individual reader. For example, I interpreted it as “Life won’t always be good, and suffering is inevitable, but one always has the power to make it better,” but I can easily see how someone else could come away from it thinking the message was “Life is unfair, so the best one can do is to keep their head down and work.” Neither of these messages are objectively wrong, but I doubt either are what Voltaire himself intended.

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