Writing Center
Fall 2008 Edition

Setting the Stage for Satire in Voltaire’s Candide

Wes Stephenson
Argumentative 2010 1st Place
Professor: Eric Morrow

Voltaire’s Candide carries its namesake protagonist across the world to make rendezvous with some of the most notorious events of the 18th century. Candide himself is not dissimilar to the film character of Forrest Gump in the sense that he is a hapless and innocent voyager through times and places of great significance, though Candide, unlike the dim-witted Gump, searches for meaning in the events and people he encounters in his journey. Through Candide’s many ports-of-call, Voltaire employs the element of setting as a gateway to provide his satirical narrative enhanced proximity to and increased relevance toward the distorted societal values, self-absorbed and clueless philosophers, hypocritical religious leaders, and oppressive political systems of the Enlightenment Age.

Voltaire chose Westphalia (Germany), famed for its castled landscape and titled nobility, as the setting for Candide’s childhood home. In this setting, Voltaire’s attacks on the warped values relating to social status are enhanced through the common perception of arrogance on the part of the Barons and Baronesses of that region. The opening explanation of Candide’s genealogy is a humorous poke at class consciousness, as Candide’s mother chose to have a bastard son rather than to marry the father, a “…good, honest gentleman of the neighborhood, whom that young lady would never marry because he had been able to prove only seventy-one quarterings,” of his family tree (1). Though this view is absurd to most societies, these aristocrats-on-the-Rhine were portrayed by Voltaire as preferring bastardy to an insufficiently proven line of nobility. Thus, Voltaire’s tour of European societal targets begins at the same place as does Candide’s journey through the lands under European control.

Upon his removal from the land of his nativity, Candide encountered the armies of the Bulgarians (Prussians) and the Abares (French) during the Twelve Year War. This setting opened the door for Voltaire’s critique on the absurdity of “civilized” warfare as he sarcastically describes the “heroic butchery” endured by the innocents of both countries at the hands of, as Voltaire put it, “Bulgarian heroes” and “Abarian heroes” (5). Misguided societal values that justify, and even honor, dastardly deeds when perpetrated upon the enemy by a society’s own soldiers were part of the “laws of war” that Voltaire effectively brought forward for illumination (5). This insane acceptance of barbarism committed in the name of one’s own country is shown in all its absurdity when Cunegonde describes to Candide the rape and slashing she endured during that same battle: “…I cried, I struggled, I bit, I scratched, I wanted to tear out the tall Bulgarian’s eyes – not knowing that what happened at my father’s house was the usual practice of war” (17). How ridiculous it would be for a young lady to find solace in the thought that her rapist was only following accepted customs as he committed his brutality yet, in the eyes of the brute’s sponsoring country, only the enemy is unjustified in barbarism.

The earthquake that destroyed Lisbon sets the stage for Voltaire to demonstrate the uselessness of the philosopher’s arguments at times when words are no substitute for action. Pangloss, Candide’s perennially optimistic teacher, finds the young man badly injured and covered with stones from the earthquake. (Voltaire is believed to have created the name Pangloss, derived from two Greek words meaning all and tongue or “all talk,” another sly comment on philosophers). Rather than render physical assistance to Candide, Pangloss merely offers scientific speculation:

“Alas!” said [Candide] to Pangloss, “get me a little wine and oil; I am dying.”
“This concussion of the earth is no new thing,” answered Pangloss. “The city of Lima, in America, experienced the same convulsions last year; the same cause, the same effects; there is certainly a train of sulphur under ground from Lima to Lisbon.”

“Nothing more probable,” said Candide; “but for the love of God a little oil and wine.” (10-11)

The assistance was only provided after Candide fainted away in agony.

In Voltaire’s world among the learned in France, there were many who were anxious to debate the causes of great calamities but very few who were willing to take personal action to relieve the suffering. These were Voltaire’s targets as Pangloss considered the catastrophe in Lisbon in a detached and valueless manner, similar to how Voltaire’s associates treated the very real earthquake of 1755.

France, then, was an appropriate setting for Voltaire’s caricature of the sophisticates who dispensed their philosophies and judgments for their own aggrandizement. Here, Candide listened in on the “great” wits and the critics of France, one of whom, a theater critic, is described by Voltaire as one who “…gains his livelihood by saying evil of all plays and of all books. He hates whatever succeeds, as the eunuchs hate those who enjoy…” (58). The comparison of these social commentators to the emasculated was a harsh slam against those who were Voltaire’s own literary colleagues.

Religious hypocrisy is a recurring theme for Voltaire, and he chose Holland as the setting for a destitute Candide who comes across a “…man who had been haranguing a large assembly for a whole hour on the subject of charity” (6). Holland was center stage for the protestant movement during Voltaire’s day and the hypocrisy shown in the exchange between this man and Candide was a sharp criticism aimed at those religionists. After learning that the needy Candide was undecided in his religious persuasion, the preacher casts the hungry man out of his presence (6). The orator had proclaimed the need for Christian charity only to fail the test to his own virtue when met with a needy man not clearly of the orator’s faith.

Voltaire did not believe that the Protestants owned the market on hypocrisy, and he took advantage of Candide’s journeys to Portugal at the time of the Inquisition to showcase religious opportunism within Catholicism. Voltaire created the character of the Grand Inquisitor to illustrate the duplicity of the religious elite. The Grand Inquisitor lusted after Cunegonde during the celebration of the Holy Mass and then bargained to obtain her as a sex slave. Ironically, the Grand Inquisitor and his cronies also sponsor a traditional pagan rite involving a human sacrifice in an effort to appease God. Voltaire sarcastically explains that they “…gave the people a beautiful auto-de-fe’” and “the ladies were served with refreshments between the Mass and the execution” (12). Voltaire’s depiction of piety within the priesthood shows that its substance is primarily pretentiousness.

The described scenes of the idealistic El Dorado served to challenge the political customs of the day. The Church and the State were so intertwined in Europe during the 18th century that offense was easily taken by Voltaire’s description of a people without need for the civic governance of popes or priests:

“We are all priests”, said an old inhabitant of El Dorado.

Candide replied, “What! Have you no monks who teach, who dispute, who govern, who cabal, and who burn people that are not of their opinion?” “We must be mad, indeed, if that were the case,” said the old man. (43)

While the political world of Europe featured strict protocols regarding the treatment of royalty, Voltaire spoke of a king who was familiar to his subjects and who could be greeted with an embrace and a kiss (44-45). The incongruency between the political norms Voltaire created for El Dorado and the status quo within the various kingdoms of Europe brought needed circumspection to long-held traditions and assumptions regarding the relationship between the governors and the governed.

The story of Candide is a journey of discovery where, it could be said, the true ports-of-call are the distorted societal values, self-absorbed and clueless philosophers, hypocritical religious leaders, and oppressive political systems of the Enlightenment Age. Voltaire brought his central character to those locations and historical events that begged for rational criticism and thereby gained greater relevance and clarity for his treatise. Voltaire was wise enough to understand that, when it comes to providing valued criticism, timing and setting are everything.