Summary: Chapter 1

. . . those who say everything is well are uttering mere stupidities; they should say everything is for the best.

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Candide lives in the castle of the baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh in Westphalia. Candide is the illegitimate son of the baron’s sister. His mother refused to marry his father because his father’s family tree could only be traced through “seventy-one quarterings.” The castle’s tutor, Pangloss, teaches “metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-nigology” and believes that this world is the “best of all possible worlds.” Candide listens to Pangloss with great attention and faith. Miss Cunégonde, the baron’s daughter, spies Pangloss and a maid, Paquette, engaged in a lesson in “experimental physics.” Seized with the desire for knowledge, she hurries to find Candide. They flirt and steal a kiss behind a screen. The baron catches them and banishes Candide.

Summary: Chapter 2

Candide wanders to the next town, where two men find him half-dead with hunger and fatigue. They give him money, feed him, and ask him to drink to the health of the king of the Bulgars. They then conscript him to serve in the Bulgar army, where Candide suffers abuse and hardship as he is indoctrinated into military life. When he decides to go for a walk one morning, four soldiers capture him and he is court-martialed as a deserter. He is given a choice between execution and running the gauntlet (being made to run between two lines of men who will strike him with weapons) thirty-six times. Candide tries to choose neither option by arguing that “the human will is free,” but his argument is unsuccessful. He finally chooses to run the gauntlet.

After running the gauntlet twice, Candide’s skin is nearly flayed from his body. The king of the Bulgars happens to pass by. Discovering that Candide is a metaphysician and “ignorant of the world,” the king pardons him. Candide’s wounds heal in time for him to serve in a war between the Bulgars and the Abares.

Summary: Chapter 3

The war results in unbelievable carnage, and Candide deserts at the first opportunity. In both kingdoms he sees burning villages full of butchered and dying civilians.

Candide escapes to Holland, where he comes upon a Protestant orator explaining the value of charity to a crowd of listeners. The orator asks Candide whether he supports “the good cause.” Remembering Pangloss’s teachings, Candide replies that “[t]here is no effect without a cause.” The orator asks if Candide believes that the Pope is the Antichrist. Candide explains that he does not know, but that in any case he is hungry and must eat. The orator curses Candide and the orator’s wife dumps human waste over Candide’s head. A kind Anabaptist, Jacques, takes Candide into his home and employs Candide in his rug factory. Jacques’s kindness revives Candide’s faith in Pangloss’s theory that everything is for the best in this world.

Summary: Chapter 4

Candide finds a deformed beggar in the street. The beggar is Pangloss. Pangloss tells Candide that the Bulgars attacked the baron’s castle and killed the baron, his wife, and his son, and raped and murdered Cunégonde. Pangloss explains that syphilis, which he contracted from Paquette, has ravaged his body. Still, he believes that syphilis is necessary in the best of worlds because the line of infection leads back to a man who traveled to the New World with Columbus. If Columbus had not traveled to the New World and brought syphilis back to Europe, then Europeans would also not have enjoyed New World wonders such as chocolate.

Jacques finds a doctor to cure Pangloss, who loses an eye and an ear to the syphilis. Jacques hires Pangloss as his bookkeeper and then takes Candide and Pangloss on a business trip to Lisbon. Jacques disagrees with Pangloss’s assertion that this is the best of worlds and claims that “men have somehow corrupted Nature.” God never gave men weapons, he claims, but men created them “in order to destroy themselves.”

Analysis: Chapters 1–4

Voltaire satirizes virtually every character and attitude he portrays. The name of the barony—Thunder-ten-tronckh, a guttural, primitive-sounding set of words—undercuts the family’s pride in their noble heritage. Throughout Candide Voltaire mocks the aristocracy’s belief in “natural” superiority by birth. The baron’s sister, for instance, has refused to marry Candide’s father because he only had seventy-one quarterings (noble lineages) in his coat of arms, while her own coat of arms had seventy-two. This exaggeration, a classic tool of satire, makes the nobility’s concern over the subtleties of birth look absurd. Voltaire uses exaggeration of this sort throughout the novel to expose the irrationality of various beliefs—and, more importantly, the irrationality of pursuing any belief to an extreme degree.

Pangloss is a parody of all idle philosophers who debate subjects that have no real effect on the world. The name of his school of thought, metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-nigology, pokes fun at Pangloss’s verbal acrobatics and suggests how ridiculous Voltaire believes such idle thinkers to be. More specifically, critics agree that Pangloss’s optimistic philosophy parodies the ideas of G.W. von Leibniz, a seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher who claimed that a pre-determined harmony pervaded the world. Both Pangloss and Leibniz claim that this world must be the best possible one, since God, who is perfect, created it. Human beings perceive evil in the world only because they do not understand the greater purpose that these so-called evil phenomena serve. Leibniz’s concept of the world is part of a larger intellectual trend called theodicy, which attempts to explain the existence of evil in a world created by an all-powerful, perfectly good God. Voltaire criticizes this school of philosophical thought for its blind optimism, an optimism that appears absurd in the face of the tragedies the characters in Candide endure.

At the beginning of the novel, Candide’s education consists only of what Pangloss has taught him. His expulsion from the castle marks Candide’s first direct experience with the outside world, and thus the beginning of his re-education. Candide’s experiences in the army and the war directly contradict Pangloss’s teaching that this world is the best of all possible worlds. The world of the army is full of evil, cruelty, and suffering. Powerful members of the nobility start wars, but common soldiers and subjects suffer the consequences. Neither side of the conflict is better than the other, and both engage in rape, murder, and destruction.

In his attacks on religious hypocrisy, Voltaire spares neither Protestants nor Catholics. The Dutch orator embodies the pettiness of clergy members who squabble over theological doctrine while people around them suffer the ravages of war, famine, and poverty. The orator cares more about converting his fellow men to his religious views than about saving them from real social evils.

The Anabaptist Jacques is a notable exception. The Anabaptists are a Protestant sect that rejects infant baptism, public office, and worldly amusements. The Amish and the Mennonites, for example, follow Anabaptist doctrine. Voltaire, generally skeptical of religion, was unusually sympathetic to Anabaptist beliefs. Jacques is one of the most generous and human characters in the novel, but he is also realistic about human faults. He acknowledges the greed, violence, and cruelty of mankind, yet still offers kind and meaningful charity to those in need. Unlike Pangloss, a philosopher who hesitates when the world requires him to take action, Jacques both studies human nature and acts to influence it—a combination that Voltaire apparently sees as ideal but extremely rare.