First and foremost, I have to ask, could more issues be packed into eighty-seven pages? Is there anything Voltaire doesn’t satirize here? This story is exceptionally hard to pin down, perhaps because Candide is forever moving from place to place, but I think I managed to trace some of its most interesting and important elements.
The first element that struck me was the way in which Voltaire satirizes war. Perhaps most interesting is the fact that his satire seems so close to the truth, I couldn’t actually laugh. Really, none of it seemed funny. Ridiculous, yes. But funny? Humorous? Voltaire wastes no time introducing us to the bloodshed so common in “this best of all possible worlds.” Once Candide is recruited by the Bulgarian army, he “trembled like a philosopher, hid himself as well as he could during this heroic butchery” (5). The subsequent description of the battle, of the “earth… strewed with brains, arms, and legs” (5), seems to me too graphic to be funny. This raises my question once again, however, because while grotesque, the description of the war also seems ridiculous as a result of Voltaire’s causal tone. Indeed, in his resolve “to go and reason elsewhere on effects and causes,” Candide passes over this carnage. He doesn’t race, or hurry, or view the scene with horror; he passes over it. This casual treatment of war and its “effects” blatantly contradicts our usual ideas of warfare. The scene, therefore, feels exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness, but not to the point of laughter. Much of the story, in fact, seems to follow this vein of contradiction: Candide stabs the Jesuit Baron de Thunder-ten-Tronckh exclaiming, “I am the best-natured creature in the world, and yet I have already killed three men, and of these three two were priests” (36). The tone of his exclamation, combined with the fact that he dons the Jesuit’s clothes in order to escape, only add to the casual treatment of violence. And it’s the kernel of truth beneath these facts and the thought that even in today’s world violence is too commonplace that makes the satire effective, but less than funny.
Does this mean, then, that the ridiculous isn’t necessarily a vital element of humor? Many of the theorists whose works we’ve read emphasize humor’s ridiculous nature and its reliance on thwarted expectations. Voltaire provides us with both these things in Candide and yet (and I’m starting to feel like a broken record), I didn’t find Candide’s adventures at all humorous.
The fact that Candide takes Pangloss’ affirmation that “this is the best of all possible worlds” so literally also raises a point: is this funny or just plain frustrating? I’ve often felt satire can be both funny and a little off-putting, but Candide’s blind faith in Pangloss simply annoyed me. I think Voltaire’s story lacks balance, another element we’ve discussed in class. While I could argue that Candide is an eternal optimist, I think it is more accurate to say that his optimism is too naïve and the myriad disasters he faces before acknowledging his plight seems proof of this fact.
Finally, there’s the competition imbedded within this story: whose misery is greater? Each character is trying to prove that his/her life is full of greater misfortune and misery than anyone else’s. This element of Candide is perhaps the most visible in everyday life. We all know these people, the ones who want to tell their stories to shock, to earn pity. In fact, Cunegonde’s argument with the Old Woman serves as an example I have actually seen played out in reality. This scene, on page twenty-three is also one of the only scenes where I found laughter depicted as “Cunegonde almost broke out laughing, finding the good woman amusing, for pretending to be as unfortunate as she.” Laughter, in this case, is antagonistic, making a mockery of the person at whom the joke is aimed. What makes this passage one of the funniest in the story is the fact that Cunegonde actually wants to be recognized as having a miserable life. In reality, I have had friends who desire the very same thing. A little recognition for being the unluckiest, most miserable human being in the world? Take it! Who wants that title?! Here, at least it seems to me, the combination of the ridiculous and the real illustrate humor successfully. The balance that’s so lacking in Voltaire’s description of war and in Candide’s optimism is portrayed clearly with Cunegonde’s instigation of the Old Woman.
Ultimately, this story felt too outrageous, even by the standards of satire. I wanted to laugh, but mostly, I was a little disgusted, or annoyed, or both.