First and foremost, Candide serves as a critique of the Enlightenment’s optimistic philosophies about good, evil, and human happiness. Voltaire satirizes Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s assertion that, because God created the world, humanity must exist in the best world possible, and he ultimately suggests that such beliefs ignore the reality of man’s capacity for wrongdoing. Candie, who becomes sheltered and naïve as a result of Dr. Pangloss’s optimistic teachings, represents the absurdity of idealistic worldviews as he endures one hardship after another without ever achieving the happiness he seeks. Even though Candide’s journey is full of over-dramatic and unrealistic moments, the fact that Voltaire draws inspiration from real world events such as the Seven Years War, the Inquisition, and the Lisbon earthquake emphasizes the idea that the narrative’s main ideas have real-world implications, especially for readers of the Enlightenment era. He uses a particularly blunt tone throughout in order to mock the idea that anyone could witness such acts of violence and maintain their belief in an ideal world. While Candide’s unwavering and irrational pursuit of Cunégonde may seem to be the novel’s primary source of tension, the broader disconnect between his optimistic worldview and the harsh realities he experiences during his travels ultimately serves as the central conflict.  

Voltaire wastes no time in establishing the satirical nature of the novel as he emphasizes the unrealistic nature of Candide’s idealized upbringing from the very first chapter. By opening with a description of the Baron’s grand castle and exaggerating the honor of those who live there, Voltaire creates a fairytale-like scenario which he will thoroughly dismantle in later chapters. The over-the-top language that he uses throughout this first chapter, including a description of Dr. Pangloss as a “professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology,” hints at the ridiculousness of Candide’s seemingly perfect world before he even ventures beyond the walls of the castle. All of these unrealistic qualities appear within the surface-level romance between Candide and Cunégonde as well, and this dynamic sets the stage for the doomed quest for happiness about to unfold. Cunégonde, at least in Candide’s imagination, serves as a symbol of the ideal world that he believes in, so when the Baron forces him out of the castle after he discovers them kissing, Candide believes that reuniting with her will restore his sense of happiness. As the inciting incident of the novel, Candide’s departure from Westphalia marks the beginning of his struggle against the harsh realities of the world.

Resolved to find and marry Cunégonde, Candide sets off on an international journey which inevitably exposes him to violence, greed, and suffering and contradicts his belief that God created the best possible world for mankind. Each major event in the novel’s rising action is more extreme and unbelievable than the last, demonstrating to the reader the folly of Candide’s continued optimism. Even when he begins to doubt Dr. Pangloss’s teachings, he clings to the idealized image he has of Cunégonde and believes that seeing her will bring him happiness. The matter-of-fact tone that Voltaire uses as he describes the horrors that Candide witnesses throughout his journey comes across as deeply ironic, and this approach invites the reader to acknowledge the gravity of the events that occur. Candide experiences torture at the hands of the brutal Bulgarian army, survives the Lisbon earthquake, watches Pangloss die as part of the Inquisition, and loses Cunégonde, who he initially believed was dead after an attack on the Baron’s castle, to the wealthy governor of Buenos Aires. Candide’s arrival in El Dorado is perhaps the brightest spot in his quest, although his choice to leave and the impossibility of returning suggests that such an ideal world is unattainable for mankind even if it does exist. As the rising action continues, Voltaire ensures that every possible misfortune falls upon Candide in order to mock his optimism.  

After enduring trial after trial, the climax of the novel, which is ironically anticlimactic, finally occurs as Candide reunites with his love, Cunégonde. In this moment, Voltaire finalizes his bold critique of Leibnizian optimism by revealing that years of suffering have caused Cunégonde to become ugly and irritable. The ideal woman whom Candide spent an overwhelming amount time and energy pursuing simply does not exist, a revelation which emphasizes the pointlessness of his quest. Candide no longer wishes to marry her, and although he eventually does, it feels more like an obligation rather than an achievement of the happiness he sought. While Candide’s struggle against the world’s hardships does not lead him to an ideal life, the novel’s falling action offers insight into how he, and mankind more generally, can find relief from suffering. Candide and his companions meet an elderly Turkish farmer who explains that, by distancing himself from the world’s unforgiving chaos and diligently working on his family’s farm, he has found contentment. Taking this advice to heart, Candide finds purpose through “cultivating [their] garden” and avoids engaging with the outside world. Although this ending does not offer a solution to dealing with the evils that plague mankind as a whole, Voltaire seems to suggest that hard work and a down-to-earth perspective can alleviate suffering on an individual level.