Candide: Or Optimism (Penguin Classics)
Home : Candide : Study Guide : Summary and Analysis of Chapters I-IV

Candide Summary and Analysis

by Voltaire

Chapters I-IV

Summary:

Endowed with an "honest mind" and "great simplicity of heart," Candide lives in the castle of the Baron of Westphalia. He is rumored to be the illegitimate son of the Baroness, an imposing three hundred and fifty-pound woman. His tutor Pangloss, who inspires from an early age the greatest reverence, instills in him a doctrine of optimism whereby "everything is for the best." One day, Candide and Miss Cunégonde, the attractive daughter of the Baron, kiss behind a screen. The Baron discovers them and banishes Candide from the castle.

In despair over his newfound state of exile and separation from Miss Cunégonde, Candide finds consolation in a tavern with two men, who invite him to dinner. But they soon put him in shackles and consign him to the army of the King of the Bulgars. Candide is whipped into discipline and emerges a military prodigy, much to his own astonishment. When he innocently wanders outside the camp to take a morning walk, he is accused of defection. The King pardons him of the crime, saving Candide from further flogging and punishment by the army.

Candide escapes from the Bulgar army during a gruesome battle with the neighboring Abares and travels to Holland, where Jacques the Anabaptist charitably takes Candide under his care. Walking in the street, Candide comes upon a beggar in wretched condition and tosses him a few coins. The man reveals himself to be Pangloss, who narrowly escaped a vicious and bloody attack at the Castle of Westphalia. He informs Candide that Miss Cunégonde was raped and killed, and the Baron's skull bashed in. Pangloss also explains that his physical deterioration is due to a bout of syphilis, transmitted by Miss Cunégonde's maidservant Paquette. When Candide challenges Pangloss to reconcile his personal misfortune with his doctrine of optimism, Pangloss stubbornly rationalizes his own illness as a "necessary ingredient." "Private misfortunes make for public welfare," he concludes. Dispensing with further philosophical debate, Candide pragmatically pays a doctor to heal Pangloss.

Analysis:

With Candide's expulsion from the idyllic castle of Westphalia, the opening chapter is a thinly veiled re-enactment of Adam and Eve's exile from the Garden of Eden and the scene of original sin. Candide is very much in dialogue with eighteenth-century debates over Christianity, which was evolving in a paradoxically more secular direction away from strict adherence to religious duties and commandments toward a more reason-based approach to ethical behavior.

The concept of genealogical relations and the social legitimacy they confer is thoroughly satirized, first in the description of Miss Cunégonde's flawless nobility, then in Pangloss's explanation of his syphilis contamination, which he traces all the way back to Christopher Columbus's voyage to the Americas. Voltaire succeeds in making a pointed commentary about the arbitrariness of privilege and wealth, but also misfortune and poverty. In his view, there is about as much nobility in having descended from several thousands years of uninterrupted aristocracy as there is in having caught a venereal disease originally transmitted by the famous explorer of New World.

Voltaire weaves together an extraordinary set of plot coincidences in which characters' fates will intersect with one another, in a totally unexpected but always fortuitous way. Those long presumed dead, such as Miss Cunégonde, Pangloss, and the Baron, will suddenly reappear after a prolonged absence from the storyline. Candide's encounter with Pangloss represents the first such example of this plot maneuver, which is intended to highlight the doctrine of optimism that this character promotes, namely, that everything happens for a reason. The improbability of such spontaneous reunions makes their frequency in Candide attributable to more than mere chance; there must be some larger and intentional design behind the unbroken concatenation of character relations. From the perspective of the reader, these coincidences quickly stretch the bounds of realism and become almost comical and over-the-top narrative twists by virtue of their improbability.

Candide Essays and Related Content