Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Pangloss and his student Candide maintain that “everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” This idea is a reductively simplified version of the philosophies of a number of Enlightenment thinkers, most notably Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. To these thinkers, the existence of any evil in the world would have to be a sign that God is either not entirely good or not all-powerful, and the idea of an imperfect God is nonsensical. These philosophers took for granted that God exists, and concluded that since God must be perfect, the world he created must be perfect also. According to these philosophers, people perceive imperfections in the world only because they do not understand God’s grand plan. Because Voltaire does not accept that a perfect God (or any God) has to exist, he can afford to mock the idea that the world must be completely good, and he heaps merciless satire on this idea throughout the novel. The optimists, Pangloss and Candide, suffer and witness a wide variety of horrors—floggings, rapes, robberies, unjust executions, disease, an earthquake, betrayals, and crushing ennui. These horrors do not serve any apparent greater good, but point only to the cruelty and folly of humanity and the indifference of the natural world. Pangloss struggles to find justification for the terrible things in the world, but his arguments are simply absurd, as, for example, when he claims that syphilis needed to be transmitted from the Americas to Europe so that Europeans could enjoy New World delicacies such as chocolate. More intelligent and experienced characters, such as the old woman, Martin, and Cacambo, have all reached pessimistic conclusions about humanity and the world. By the novel’s end, even Pangloss is forced to admit that he doesn’t “believe a word of” his own previous optimistic conclusions.
One of the most glaring flaws of Pangloss’s optimism is that it is based on abstract philosophical argument rather than real-world evidence. In the chaotic world of the novel, philosophical speculation repeatedly proves to be useless and even destructive. Time and time again, it prevents characters from making realistic assessments of the world around them and from taking positive action to change adverse situations. Pangloss is the character most susceptible to this sort of folly. While Jacques drowns, Pangloss stops Candide from saving him “by proving that the bay of Lisbon had been formed expressly for this Anabaptist to drown in.” While Candide lies under rubble after the Lisbon earthquake, Pangloss ignores his requests for oil and wine and instead struggles to prove the causes of the earthquake. At the novel’s conclusion, Candide rejects Pangloss’s philosophies for an ethic of hard, practical work. With no time or leisure for idle speculation, he and the other characters find the happiness that has so long eluded them. This judgment against philosophy that pervades Candide is all the more surprising and dramatic given Voltaire’s status as a respected philosopher of the Enlightenment.
Voltaire satirizes organized religion by means of a series of corrupt, hypocritical religious leaders who appear throughout the novel. The reader encounters the daughter of a Pope, a man who as a Catholic priest should have been celibate; a hard-line Catholic Inquisitor who hypocritically keeps a mistress; and a Franciscan friar who operates as a jewel thief, despite the vow of poverty taken by members of the Franciscan order. Finally, Voltaire introduces a Jesuit colonel with marked homosexual tendencies. Religious leaders in the novel also carry out inhumane campaigns of religious oppression against those who disagree with them on even the smallest of theological matters. For example, the Inquisition persecutes Pangloss for expressing his ideas, and Candide for merely listening to them. Though Voltaire provides these numerous examples of hypocrisy and immorality in religious leaders, he does not condemn the everyday religious believer. For example, Jacques, a member of a radical Protestant sect called the Anabaptists, is arguably the most generous and humane character in the novel.
When Candide acquires a fortune in Eldorado, it looks as if the worst of his problems might be over. Arrest and bodily injury are no longer threats, since he can bribe his way out of most situations. Yet, if anything, Candide is more unhappy as a wealthy man. The experience of watching his money trickle away into the hands of unscrupulous merchants and officials tests his optimism in a way that no amount of flogging could. In fact, Candide’s optimism seems to hit an all-time low after Vanderdendur cheats him; it is at this point that he chooses to make the pessimist Martin his traveling companion. Candide’s money constantly attracts false friends. Count Pococurante’s money drives him to such world-weary boredom that he cannot appreciate great art. The cash gift that Candide gives Brother Giroflée and Paquette drives them quickly to “the last stages of misery.” As terrible as the oppression and poverty that plague the poor and powerless may be, it is clear that money—and the power that goes with it—creates at least as many problems as it solves.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
At various points, Candide believes that Cunégonde, Pangloss, and the baron are dead, only to discover later that they have actually survived the traumas that should have killed them. The function of these “resurrections” in the novel is complicated. On the one hand, they seem to suggest a strange, fantastic optimism that is out of step with the general tone of the novel. Death, the only misfortune from which one would never expect a character to recover, actually proves to be “reversible.” On the other hand, the characters who get “resurrected” are generally those whose existence does more harm than good. Each “resurrected” figure embodies a harmful aspect of human nature: Cunégonde reveals the shallowness of beauty and fickleness of love, Pangloss’s optimism represents folly, and the baron’s snobbery represents arrogance and narrow-minded social oppression. Through these characters’ miraculous resurrections, Voltaire may be trying to tell his readers that these traits never die.
Candide is full of uncommonly graphic accounts of the sexual exploitation of women. The three main female characters—Cunégonde, the old woman, and Paquette—are all raped, forced into sexual slavery, or both. Both the narrator’s and the characters’ attitudes toward these events are strikingly nonchalant and matter-of-fact. Voltaire uses these women’s stories to demonstrate the special dangers to which only women are vulnerable. Candide’s chivalric devotion to Cunégonde, whom he wrongly perceives as a paragon of female virtue, is based on willful blindness to the real situ-ation of women. The male characters in the novel value sexual chastity in women but make it impossible for women to maintain such chastity, exposing another hypocritical aspect of Voltaire’s Europe.
Candide witnesses the horrors of oppression by the authorities of numerous states and churches. Catholic authorities burn heretics alive, priests and governors extort sexual favors from their female subjects, businessmen mistreat slaves, and Candide himself is drafted into and abused in the army of the Bulgar king. Even the English government, which Voltaire admired, executes an admiral for the “crime” of fighting with insufficient audacity against the French. Powerful institutions seem to do no good—and instead, much harm—to their defenseless subjects. Voltaire himself protested loudly against political injustice throughout his life. The characters in Candide, however, choose a different route. Shortly after hearing about the politically motivated killings of several Turkish officials, they take the old farmer’s advice and decide to ignore the injustices that surround them, channeling their wealth and energy instead into the simple labors that bring them happiness.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Pangloss is less a well-rounded, realistic character than a symbol of a certain kind of philosopher. His optimism and logical fallacies are meant to represent the thought of G.W. von Leibniz and other Enlightenment thinkers. He is an open symbol of the folly both of blind optimism and of excessive abstract speculation.
At the end of the novel, Candide and his companions find happiness in raising vegetables in their garden. The symbolic resonance of the garden is rich and multifaceted. As Pangloss points out, it is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, in which Adam and Eve enjoyed perfect bliss before their fall from God’s grace. However, in Candide the garden marks the end of the characters’ trials, while for Adam and Eve it is the place where their troubles begin. Moreover, in the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve enjoyed the fruits of nature without having to work, whereas the main virtue of Candide’s garden is that it forces the characters to do hard, simple labor. In the world outside the garden, people suffer and are rewarded for no discernible cause. In the garden, however, cause and effect are easy to determine—careful planting and cultivation yield good produce. Finally, the garden represents the cultivation and propagation of life, which, despite all their misery, the characters choose to embrace.
The earthquake in Candide is based on a real earthquake that leveled the city of Lisbon in 1755. Before writing Candide, Voltaire wrote a long poem about that event, which he interpreted as a sign of God’s indifference or even cruelty toward humanity. The earthquake represents all devastating natural events for which no reasonable justification can be found, though thinkers like Pangloss might do their best to fabricate flimsy justifications in order to maintain a philosophical approach to life.