Candide By François Voltaire Critical Essays Structure and Style

The narrative technique used by Voltaire in Candide dates back as far as the Milesian tales, which were short, erotic narratives first collected in the second century. These became the source of such decadent Latin works as Apulius' Golden Ass and Petronius' Satyrican, copies of which Voltaire had in his library. Related works certainly include the late Greek romances, filled as they were with melodramatic incidents involving the separation of families and lovers, shipwrecks, near-miraculous reunions and discoveries; the pastoral romances, many of which included just this sort of material, and the heroic-gallant romance. But basically the structure of Candide is that of the picaresque narrative. The problem of the author is to provide the main character or characters with an inciting incident and then to start him or them off on the road to adventure. And that is exactly what happened in Candide. Related works, as far as structure is concerned, are Oriental narrative, especially the Arabian Nights, a copy of which was in Voltaire's library; and the medieval Renard the Fox stories, which originated in Germany and swept Europe. But the one work that generally is recognized as having given impetus to the type of narrative wherein the hero travels far and wide and has many startling adventures, the one that flourished originally in Spain but soon won popularity in France and throughout Europe, was the sixteenth century Amadis de Gaula. Don Quixote (1605, 1615) is the acknowledged masterpiece in this tradition.


Strictly speaking, however, the picaresque novel (as the adjective indicates) is the story of roguery. But the technique which it popularized recommended itself to writers of other types of narrative.

So in Candide one finds a hero living in his utopia, the castle of Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh. Voltaire then posed the basic problem: is this indeed the best of all possible worlds, as his naive hero firmly believed? To answer that question, an inciting incident is provided — Candide's amatory play with Cunégonde, which leads to his expulsion from his Westphalian paradise. What follows is a conflict between hope and despair, as the hero experiences one thing after another. And each experience constitutes for the reader, if not until the end for Candide, a refutation of the doctrine of optimism: the brutal treatment at the hands of the Bulgars; the horrors of warfare; the tempest and earthquake; the Inquisition, where he witnessed the hanging of Pangloss and was flogged within an inch of his life; the slaying of the Jew and the Grand Inquisitor, and the stabbing of Cunégonde's brother; the loss of most of his Eldoradoan wealth; the rapacity of Parisian society. In addition, by means of digressions, well justified since each adds to the accumulating evidence against optimism, Candide heard the frightening story of the old woman's sufferings and the disheartening experience of Paquette and Giroflée. Yet even after the appearance of Martin (as late as Chapter 19), he never entirely abandoned hope, although he understandably began to question Pangloss' teachings, especially when that would-be savant reappeared as an abject beggar, ravaged by disease.

The series of adventures, therefore, were stages in the education of young Candide. Since he was a slow learner, the series was necessarily a long one, each adventure marked by its own climax — and anticlimax — until the very end of the story, when Voltaire provided the major climax. Up until then, romantic Candide remained hopeful: he could always look forward to the reunion with his incomparable Cunégonde. But when that longed-for event finally took place, he found that his beloved had lost all her beauty; and as they lived together as man and wife she became increasingly shrewish. Best of all possible worlds? His last hope was destroyed. There remained for him only to adopt a kind of stoical retreat: henceforth he would cultivate his own garden, his own little plot of ground.

Admittedly the structure is simple, even obvious, enough, but it exactly served Voltaire's purpose. Candide's experiences, and those of others that were recorded at any length, provide the reductio ad absurdum to the facile conclusions of Leibnitz, Wolff, and Alexander Pope. For Voltaire, so far from this being the best of all possible worlds, it too often is a vale of tears; evil abounds. Nor can evil be explained away by saying that, in accordance with the Divine plan, evil contributes to ultimate goodness. Candide's repeated loss of even a modicum of happiness almost as soon as he acquires it points to the fact that Voltaire, structurally, employed the cumulative method as the formula of presentation in his narrative.

It was most appropriate that Voltaire, at the end of his career should have received the accolade as the most brilliant member of the French Academy. It must be conceded that he attained this honor as a philosophe. But originally the Academy was dedicated to the perfection of the French language, and remained so dedicated well into the eighteenth century. Le mot juste — the right word — could have been its motto; and Voltaire deservedly has been hailed early and late as one who complied. Moreover, no one had a finer sense of sentence rhythm. If precision, clarity, and rapidity are the first elements of his style which deserve notice, quite as important are the satirical, the ironical elements.

There remain to comment on and to illustrate other stylistic virtues. Most works suffer through translation, and it must be admitted that Candide is no exception. But it has suffered much less than others. In his detailed discussion of the sentence structure and pattern in Candide, Ira O. Wade has pointed out that short sentences abound, ones with the so-called normal pattern of subject-verb, subject-verb-object. And when modifiers are added to one or more of these elements, the sentence never expands beyond modest proportions. Consider the very opening paragraphs:

"In the castle of Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh in Westphalia, there once lived a youth endowed by nature with the gentlest of characters. His soul was revealed in his face. He combined sound judgment with great simplicity of mind; it was for this reason, I believe, that he was given the name of Candide.

"The baron was one of the most powerful lords in Westphalia, for his castle had a door and windows. Its hall was even adorned with a tapestry. The dogs in his stable yards formed a hunting pack when necessary, his grooms were his huntsman, and the village curate was his chaplain. They all called him "My Lord" and laughed when he told stories."

Voltaire used the device of the formulaic story. It is as if this were a folk or fairy story with its "once upon a time" beginning. This is the art that conceals art. But Voltaire does more than add modifying elements to avoid monotony and excessive predication which leads to it. He could and did build up his sentences to a greater degree so that the story (What happens next?) did not become more important than its meaning. Note the final paragraph in Chapter XXII, for example, when Candide, disillusioned by his experiences in Paris, prepared to leave, having managed to bribe the officers of the law to relieve him from custody:

"'I can take you only to Lower Normandy,' said the officer. He immediately had the irons removed, sent his men away and took Candide and Martin to Dieppe, where he left them in the hands of his brother. There was a small Dutch ship in the harbor. The Norman, who, with the help of three diamonds, had been made into the most obliging of men, embarked Candide and his retinue on this ship, which was about to sail for Portsmouth, in England. It was not the way to Venice, but Candide felt that he had been delivered from hell and expected to resume his journey to Venice at the first opportunity."

Here is a good example of effective loose sentences, each illustrating adroit use of coordination and subordination. Also apparent is Voltaire's success in keeping the pattern symmetrical and sustaining the rhythm.

Voltaire found most effective ways to provide concluding statements. Recall Pangloss' account of what happened at the castle when the Bulgars stormed it; note particularly his final remark. Candide had just been informed that Cunégonde was dead and had asked if she died as a result of his being kicked out of the beautiful castle —

"No" said Pangloss, "she was disemboweled by Bulgar soldiers after having been raped as much as a woman can be. They smashed the baron's head when he tried to defend her, the baroness was hacked to pieces, my poor pupil treated exactly the same as his sister. As for the castle, not one stone was left standing on another; there's not one barn left, not one sheep, not one duck, not one tree. But we were well avenged, because the Abars did the same to a nearby estate that belonged to a Bulgar lord."

Judicious repetitions are another stylistic device of which the author was master. Tout est bien — "All is well" — of course is a refrain line throughout the work, but there are many other examples, two of which may serve as illustrations here. Time and again the repetition of the word for (car) served as means of inciting derisive laughter at the supposed logic of Leibnitzian philosophy. Following the tempest and the disastrous earthquake in Lisbon, Pangloss attempted to justify his optimism by assuring his companions that things could not be otherwise: "For," he said, "all is for the best. For if there's a volcano at Lisbon, it couldn't be anywhere else. For it's impossible for things not to be where they are. For all is well." It will also be noticed that Voltaire handled dialogue expertly.

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