The Follies of Optimism, Voltaire Style

There is a legend about how Voltaire wrote his magnum opus, Candide, which was said to have been written in three days. Now, even with no form of advanced technology during that time, it’s quite something to have written a novella in such a short time. There looks to be indication that he wrote it for a longer time, though. Nonetheless, whether he wrote it in one sitting or several, it’s clear that Candide is one of the most remarkable pieces of literature. The wit and humour he managed to inject into it only serves to emphasize the seriousness of how he has viewed the world – a view that still holds true today.

Candide is a young philosopher and bastard son of the sister of Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh (a name that makes my tongue go upsy-daisy just pronouncing it) of Westphalia, Germany. He has a tutor named Pangloss, whose philosophy is that of utmost optimism. Candide is also in love with his cousin, Cunégonde. After being caught by the Baron kissing and fondling Cunégonde, Candide is then kicked out of the castle (literally). And so his journey of discovery, hardship, misery, and just utter mayhem begins.

I had to keep reminding myself that this was a satire, that there was a deliberate manipulation of tropes, images and metaphors to say a political or philosophical point, but I could not help but be drawn more into the story. Candide looks like this lost lamb, trying to survive through the many trip ups he’s faced since he got kicked out of the castle. However, he has managed to retain some level of his “innocence” despite the less-than-fairy-tale ending. It was both with a dry chuckle and almost a painful wince while I was reading how Candide meets all these people and takes all these experiences in.

But that’s Voltaire’s intention, I guess. Isn’t any story worth its salt supposed to get you reeled into the character’s shenanigans (and what shenanigans there are here!), yet slap you with something profound at the same time? I went from laughing at the beginning of the story to sighing in the realization that I can relate to him in the end. Painfully so.

This is one of world literature’s best works, and if you haven’t read this, you’ll definitely are missing something good to read. If you’re into something ironic, then this one’s for you.