Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Eternal Optimist or Unrealistic Fool?

It’s a shame that someone as optimistic as Voltaire’s Candide should go through so many troubles just to end up unhappy. But perhaps he is not really optimistic so much as garnering lofty expectations. For every unfortunate situation in which he finds himself, and there are many, Candide finds a way to expect things to turn out well in the end. This is all fine and dandy, except his optimism is more selfish than anything. What about his reaction to Cunegonde when he finds that she is no longer beautiful? What about his rash decision-making? Throughout the whole novel, he is desperate to prove that Pangloss’s declaration, “all is for the best” (77), is true. Before the characters discover that labor is rewarding, however, and when the novel appears to be over, the only character that is relatively happy is the only character who refused to have outrageous expectations. “For Martin, he was firmly persuaded that he would be as badly off elsewhere, and therefore bore things patiently” (84). Perhaps the lesson we can take away from this is that it really is best to live in the moment.

As for the humorous aspects, this novel has many. Even the most gruesome events are reported with a disinterested bluntness. It is difficult not to smirk when Candide goes for a pleasant walk and in the following sentence is asked by Bulgarian soldiers “which he would like best, to be whipped six-and-thirty times through all the regiment, or to receive at once twelve balls of lead in his brain” (4). This, of course, is only after we realize that beatings such as these do not have the harm we might expect. Throughout the novel the reader gets used to this sort of unrealistic survival as well; virtually every substantial character that is believed to be dead is found to have miraculously survived, and some, such as Cunegonde’s brother, more than once.

The optimism Candide has throughout the novel also becomes a large part of the humor, and quite a bit of this is social criticism. When Candide and Martin are discussing the failings of mankind, Candide is certain that man must have fallen at some point while Martin argues that if hawks have always eaten pigeons and still do, there is no reason to think men have not always been cruel. Candide’s argument, “there is a vast deal of difference, for free will—” (55), is cut off at a humorous timing that in a way criticizes the idea of free will and essentially says man is no better than the animal without free will. However, we cannot be prevented from smiling at the idea that perhaps none of us is as good as we’d like to believe when it is put so bluntly and exaggerated so greatly in Candide’s adventures.

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