Voltaire’s Candide describes a brutal and harsh world of human societies in both the Old and New World. Despite the text being introduced with an optimistic sentiment that the world is good by the character Pangloss, the characters of Candide encounter and experience a world of torture, sexual and physical violence, arrogance, and enslavement. Voltaire’s criticism of traditional European society is demonstrated by the events of the story and experiences of the characters; the alternative society that Voltaire suggests is an idea that favors elements of Enlightenment but also the progress of man: a focus on the individual, rather than the society one lives in.
Candide’s interpretation of European society is unpleasant; many of the characters who are not a perfect model of a proper European experience great cruelty. Pangloss is supposedly hanged because of his philosophy supposedly being heresy, and Candide is beaten only because he had listened to Pangloss. Cunégonde is raped and sexually enslaved; the old woman that serves Cunégonde is the child of a Pope, thus a symbol of the betrayal of his vow of celibacy and is raped, beaten, enslaved, and even partially eaten by the different people she encounters in her life. These instances are few of many that the characters go through, and demonstrate the evil that is present within the civilization and humanity of traditional Europe.
Despite all the atrocities that the characters must endure, Pangloss still laments with the belief that the world is ‘“the best of all possible worlds.’” Pangloss’s optimistic view of the world is Voltaire’s way of criticizing European society — it is a sentiment that is more and more difficult to believe by Candide as more events take place that reflect the European way of life and behavior; eventually, the statement becomes a false statement as proven by the events of the text.
Voltaire criticizes specific elements of European society. Christianity, for one, is a prominent example within Candide, and demonstrates skepticism of religion — which is also an element of Enlightenment. Christianity, as well as morality, do not benefit the characters very much in the text. James’s death is an example of this, as James — a kindhearted and moral man — dies by trying to help the sailor, who is the opposite of James. This scene is significant, as James’s good-hearted actions ended up causing his death, whereas the sailor benefitted and lived because of his selfish and evil actions. Thus, being morally bad ended up helping the sailor, and being morally good ended up killing James.
Non-Christians are also treated harshly in Candide; not only do we see Pangloss and Candide being punished for Pangloss’s philosophy, but we also see other people treated harshly when they demonstrate traits that are not Christian; along with Pangloss and Candide, two men are taken and then burned to death because they refused bacon, thus “outing” themselves as Jews, and thus were killed to prevent another earthquake. Voltaire demonstrates that those who do not follow Christianity, as European society demands to be followed, will be punished by individuals of authority; and even the individuals that do follow Christianity will still experience hardships and cruel outcomes, as being morally right and faithful to God does not protect anyone in Candide.
The text criticizes figures of power and authority as well, whether noble, Christian, or wealthy. Cunégonde is sexually enslaved by a wealthy Jewish man, Don Issachar, who purchased her, as well as the Inquisitor, who is a man of authority and the man who punished people on the basis of whether they are practicing Christianity or not. Even in this instance, Don Issachar has financial and sexual authority over Cunégonde, but he is still not as respected in society as the Grand Inquisitor — Don Issachar has less days with Cunégonde, and his body is discarded disrespectfully, whereas the Grand Inquisitor is given a respectful funeral. The comparison between Don Issachar’s and the Grand Inquisitor’s funerals show that the more identities you possess, the more respect and authority you obtain.
Nobility’s authority is also explored; it is revealed that the baron survived and is happy to see Candide, but refuses to allow a marriage between Candide and Cunégonde because Candide is not a noble. Despite the fact that Candide loves Cunégonde and has helped her, his identity as a non-noble cannot change because of his birth, and thus is not seen as worthy to marry Cunégonde. The baron’s arrogance and view of Candide stems from the idea of Absolutism, as your birth determines your class for life, determining all aspects, such as who one can marry. The baron’s character is correlation with the belief of political criticism, which is also an Enlightenment component. Voltaire shows the negative consequences of the wealthy individuals, the Christians, and the nobles’ authority on the people of Candide as a reflection of the reality of European society.
Voltaire does not only offer criticism of certain aspects of traditional European society, but also provides an alternative; one that displays some elements of Enlightenment, but also ideas that do not align with Enlightenment. Candide and company’s farm represents this alternate idea. The group try to consult with a dervis, who refuses to talk to them, about their lack of satisfaction with life on their farmland; Voltaire is presenting the idea that religion cannot help them, thus the Enlightenment belief of skepticism in religion. Candide and Cunégonde end up together, despite their birth rank differences, and thus presents political criticism of noble versus common birth.
However, the group eventually meet with a farmer, and realize that the farmer is content with focusing on his farm work and his family. This idea that Candide presents does not necessarily reflect Enlightenment; the group decide to try to make progress, but for themselves as individuals, and no longer focus on their society as something to help and progress. In essence, Candide and company believe in progress, but specifically individual progress; this ending sentiment opposes the Enlightenment belief of progress of mankind.
Voltaire’s Candide is extremely critical of financial, religious, and noble authority that is present within traditional European society, and demonstrates the consequences of such authority through Candide and his party’s struggles within the story. Voltaire’s solution is to be skeptical of religion and political authority, but also strays from Enlightenment by suggesting that man is better off with a simple life, focusing on themselves rather than society or bigger ideas then oneself.