Candide Study Guide

Dismissed as a piece of light satirical fluff at the time of its publication, Candide has only recently been elevated to a canonical status and included on the list of the "world's greatest books." Originally presented in January 1759 under the preface "translated from the German of Dr. Ralph," it would have been largely forgotten as a work of anonymous literature were it not the more famous signature of Voltaire appended in smaller print to its title.

The enduring interest in Candide is largely due to the recognition of its literary qualities. First viewed as a rumination on the metaphysical question of good vs. evil, Candide has more recently undergone a critical re-evaluation that emphasizes the work's narrative craft and character development over its philosophical orientation. Composed in thirty relatively short and pithy chapters, it is written in a certain rhythm or "tempo," as renowned literary critic Eric Auerbach calls it, that contributes to its satirical edge.

The title of the book, close in meaning to its English counterpart "candid," derives etymologically from the Latin candidus, the primary meaning of which was "white." It dates back to Roman times when politicians were expected to present themselves in a clean, white toga; hence the word "candidate." The word subsequently drifted from its literal Latin root to acquire the more general sense of "uncorrupted" and "unbiased." The main character of the book was conceived as an embodiment of the moral valence of the word; Candide is supposed to be pure of soul and spotless of mind, an incarnation of the "optimism" espoused by German philosophy that Voltaire so pointedly satirizes. In particular, Voltaire took aim at Leibniz and his assertion that the presence of evil in the universe is a simple and relative matter of perspective rather than an intrinsic part of creation. It is important to note that the subtitle of Candide is, precisely, l'optimisme. Accordingly, Voltaire's rumination on man's free will and the philosophical tendency to rationalize even the most extreme and absurd instances of adversity via a stubborn and unwavering belief in "optimism" form the thematic undercurrent of the book.

As a general note, this reader recommends the translations of Robert M. Adams (Norton Critical Edition) or of John Butt (Penguin) for their elegance and fidelity to the original French. Use of the Hackett translation is discouraged.