Hey Classics Challengers: It’s time for a little optimism

It was the packaging that drew me to “Candide.”

This picture's terrible, but it's just something I just stole off the Internet, so I guess I can't complain too much.

The cover of this Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition is made to look like a comic book. On the back: “The satirical scourge of 1759 — Now in paperback!” It points out that this translation by Theo Cuffe is “invaluable for the English-speaking readers who cannot understand French, and the introduction by Michael Wood should prove indispensable to all schoolchildren who haven’t read the book and are cramming in homeroom before the test.” That’s cute. The author quotes include praise from Flaubert and Updike and a pan from Wordsworth and this quote, “They must have lost their minds if they think that I wrote this trash,” attributed to Voltaire.

With this much wit on the cover, there’s bound to be quite a bit inside. There is.

“Candide” or “Optimism” is as silly a story as can be, all the while skewering (it’s interesting that this word is always used in discussing parody) society, royalty, philosophy, noblemen, the poor, intellectuals, men, women, adventurers, love stories, and just about every nationality you can think of.

The plot is as wide-ranging as are Voltaire’s subjects of disdain: Candide (whose name means purity or gullibility, according to one of the book’s many pre-text sections) lives in a castle where he is taught by the great philosopher Dr. Pangloss, who says the world they live in is the best of all possible worlds and, therefore, everything that happens is for the best. Candide loves Cunegonde, who also lives in the castle and may be his cousin, but I’m not entirely certain. Anyway, when Candide declares his love for Cunegonde, he is kicked out of the castle because he is not of the same rank as she. That’s when the adventures begin.

In picaresque form, Candide travels the world, meeting good and evil people, having adventures that don’t make any sense (and don’t even try to figure out how long this book lasts in real time), but all the while adhering to Pangloss’ theory that everything that happens is all for the best. These things that are all for the best include Pangloss’ hanging, arrests, beatings, raping, enslavement and any other things that man does to man. Loved ones come and go and though they all seem to die at one time or another, they all reappear later in the story to challenge or support Candide’s optimism.

In one particularly funny scene, Cunegonde bemoans her fate to an old lady who tells her to quit complaining, “you have suffered nothing like my misfortunes.” To which Cunegonde replies “Unless you have been raped by two Bulgars, been stabbed twice in the stomach, had two castles demolished, had the throats of two mothers and two fathers slit before your very eyes, and watched two lovers being flogged…I really cannot see that you have the advantage over me; to which I might add that I was born a baroness … and have been put to work in a scullery.” The old lady then tells her story and puts Cunegonde to shame.

Voltaire originally published “Candide” while in exile in Switzerland and did not return to France for nearly 28 years. His work made him an enemy of a state without much of a sense of humor. Several versions of the work exist, as he tinkered and tweaked over decades. Read it, but find yourself a well-annotated edition, as it’s nice to know details of the events that inspired this novel. It’s still a lot of fun even if you don’t know every reference.

Candide ends up learning — maybe, it’s all up to interpretation — that the world is what it is, you can’t make it good by believing it’s good, and that the best thing a person can do to make this world bearable is to tend his or her own metaphorical garden. Because when individuals are happy, the world becomes, if not the best of all possible worlds, at least a little closer to it.


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