Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Big exaggeration minimizes offensiveness

The first two words that describe Candide on the back of the book say it all; “Caustic and hilarious.” This satire attacks anything and everything from love to Voltaire’s current political events. The tale follows the simple minded title character through his devastatingly unfortunate life, and as his travels span the globe and great lengths of time, the range of commentary is almost as large as the exaggeration that Voltaire uses to display it. Never mind looking at the smaller details, or line by line, just take the general outline of the story and you can see that it stretches the possibility of truth beyond the average tall tales like Paul Bunyon. A young man, the bastard child of a Pope no less, is the main character.

All of the people he meets seem to be revived from severe fatal injuries by random nurses and doctors within days, and despite their own ridiculously terrible misfortunes, they all happen to find each other once again before the story ends. Because the events are so magnified and ludicrously outside the realm of possibility, and because they happen to characters who are ridiculously simple and unfortunate, the commentary seems less direct and offensive. Just as Hau’ofa applied his social commentary to an invented island and people, Voltaire applies his commentary to a group of archetypal characters who suffer things so impossible that we can safely laugh without fear of harming or targeting an actual person.

Take, for instance, “Miss Cunegonde, thou pearl of girls” (14). Candide seems to have fallen head over heels in love with her, and his singular goal throughout the entire novel is to marry her. Her descriptions, however, center around only her beauty and her appearance. When her actions or her dialogue occurs, we find that she is a very sexual being, and not much else. She was willing to be taken by the Governor of Buenos Aires, while Candide was set to fight to protect their love. Then in the end she becomes ugly and miserable and Candide has to marry her out of obligation. All of these things could be taken as a biting commentary on the vain and fleeting focus of women as objects. Or it could be taken as a negative view of the prevalence of lust in their society. It could even be taken as a warning about the difference between infatuation and love. There are so many parts to this drawn out relationship between Cunegonde and Candide that could be taken as such a harsh and terrible view of love and women, but because it is so magnified in its ridiculousness, we miss the scathing tone and instead find ourselves laughing at it.

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