Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Learn from your mistakes!

One of the most frustrating and unrealistic characteristics about Candide the man is that he never learns from his mistakes. Indeed, he has such an optimistic outlook on life that he is a completely unrealistic person. He knows what optimism is but ironically, does not recognize this "flaw" it in himself: “‘Optimism,’… replied Candide, ‘it is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst’” (77). Despite tragedy after tragedy, he doesn’t seem to learn from his mistakes and never tries to better his fate: the Father Cordelier steals from him, then the Dutch sailor, then the French impostor. He acts rashly and kills the Jew, the Inquisitor, Cunegonde’s brother (or rather, seriously injures him), and the two “monkeys,” all of which continually put him on the run from the law. After all of these experiences in so many different countries, one would think he would grow a bit wiser. Indeed, it is ironic again when Candide asks Martin what has made him so “hard in [his] beliefs.” “‘It is because,’ said Martin, ‘I have seen the world’” (104). Candide has traveled the world as well and is equally as hard in his own beliefs; however, according to Voltaire, these beliefs are unfortunately wrong.

I call Candide’s behavior “frustrating” because as a reader, I found myself rooting for the main character despite his flaws. I wanted him to learn from his past and make a good decision. (And perhaps he does “redeem” himself at the end of the book when he finally seems satisfied with and focuses on “cultivating [his] garden.”) I find it interesting that I was rooting for such an unrealistic and unreasonable character, and yet Voltaire has found a way to make him loveable and to critique him harshly at the same time.

Candide’s role in the story as the main character, paired with his unrealistic optimism, seems to call into question the roles of the speaker, audience and target of the “humor” in this book. Candide seems like an example of the superiority model more than the incongruity model: while he is not the only character to suffer misfortunes, Candide is singled out (along with Dr. Pangloss) in the way he handles his fate. The coping method he employs—constantly insisting that everything is for the best—seems silly and na├»ve when he constantly on the run from the law, enduring natural disasters, arrested, beaten, without money, separated from the woman he loves, and/or dealing with the pain of the loss of a friend. In this way, it seems that the humor of Candide has a more focused target on a specific group of people than the humor of Tales of the Tikongs does. Knowing that Candide was written at the time of the Enlightenment, (when reason was the most important tool for making any sort of judgment) it makes sense that Voltaire would write in a way that would criticize those who blindly insisted that this is “the best of all possible worlds.”

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