Candide

by: Voltaire

Absurdity

1

At the court-martial, he was asked which he preferred: to be flogged thirty-six times by the whole regiment, or to have his brains blown out with a dozen musket balls.

After being forced into the Bulgarian army, Candide wanders away for a walk one day and is arrested for desertion. The narrator describes his choice of punishment: He must choose to be either flogged or shot. Candide tries to decline both, but he must choose, so he opts for the flogging. Candide discovers that the regimen contains 2,000 men and he is bludgeoned nearly to death, reinforcing the theme of the absurdity of free will in choosing between two horrible choices.

2

“All of this was indispensably necessary,” replied the one-eyed doctor; “for private misfortunes are public benefits; so that the more private misfortunes there are the greater is the general good.”

After the Anabaptist James disagrees with Pangloss’s philosophy that things cannot possibly be better, Pangloss defends himself with this convoluted reply. Despite experiencing events that directly challenge his belief that all is as good as can possibly be, Pangloss holds fast to his philosophy.

3

. . . it having been decided by the University of Coimbra that burning a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret for preventing earthquakes.

The authorities conduct an auto-da-fé (a ritual act of faith) after an earthquake destroys three-quarters of Lisbon, a ridiculously absurd response. Readers understand that no cause-and-effect relationship exists between executions and earthquakes, but these scholars claim otherwise. Such a belief supports the theme that society’s leaders—religious, civic, and academic—are dangerous fools. In confirmation, immediately after the executions, another earthquake occurs.

4

Our men defended themselves like true pope’s soldiers; they flung themselves upon their knees, laid down their weapons, and begged the corsair to give them absolution in articulo mortis.

The old woman who helps Candide and Cunégonde escape tells her story, alive with satirical commentary. The soldiers she describes act as cowards in the face of the pirates; they surrender immediately and beg for forgiveness at the point of their death. Candide’s world presents everything and everyone, especially people in authority, upside down, behaving in ways contrary to what one would expect.

5

What can be more absurd than choosing to carry a burden that one really wants to throw to the ground? To detest, and yet to strive to preserve our existence?

The old woman who helps Candide and Cunégonde escape tells the long and horrible story of the many tribulations of her life, including a litany of masters and abusers, near-death experiences, and even the loss of a buttock—that was eaten! Here, she asks the quintessential question: Why do human beings insist on living rather than simply committing suicide? She likens the burden of living as an absurd act that most rationally would wish to avoid.

6

“Optimism,” said Cacambo, “what is that?” “Alas!” replied Candide, “it is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst.”

After Candide and Cacambo arrive in Surinam, Candide openly renounces Pangloss’s philosophy of optimism in the face of the sugar factory slave who has lost one hand and one leg. Candide feels pity for the hapless victim and enters Surinam with tears in his eyes. This moment of compassion and empathy supports the themes of hypocrisy and absurdity.

7

I find that everything goes wrong in our world. No one knows his place in society, his duty, nor what he does, nor what he should do; and except for our evenings, which are cheerful enough the rest of our time is spent in idle disputes and quarrels.

The man of letters in Bordeaux speaks to Candide, disagreeing with Pangloss’s optimistic philosophy. Readers may note that this statement rings true even in today’s world, expressing an existential angst that seems more typical of the twenty-first century than of the eighteenth. In fact, at the time, such an idea was considered heretical.