Critical Essays Satire and Irony


Largely because of Candide, Voltaire ranks with Jonathan Swift as one of the greatest satirists in literature. Satire may be defined as the particular literary way of making possible the improvement of humanity and its institutions. The satirist adopts a critical attitude and usually presents his material with wit and humor. Aware of grave limitations in the institutions which humanity has erected, he may seek through laughter to effect a remodeling rather than the demolishing of them. Voltaire is to be identified as such a satirist, and he sought a most thorough-going remodeling of human behavior and institutions.

Basically satire is of two kinds: that which follows the tradition of Horace, which is mild, urbane, good-natured, and which aims to correct by means of tolerant, sympathetic laughter; and that of Juvenal, which is biting, vituperative, derisive, and which is filled with moral indignation at the corruption and evil of man and his institutions. To put it another way, one may say that Horatian satire sports with folly, and that Juvenalian satire attacks crimes or at least offenses deemed to be anti-social. Obviously the latter type, if it invites laughter at all, invites scornful laughter. Both types of satire are found in Candide. And the significant thing is that even when Voltaire was most aroused, he employed the light touch and achieved a tone often of gaiety that is deceptive to the literal-minded reader who accepts the tale as an exaggerated account of the protagonist's adventures and no more. Voltaire's primary device as a satirist is that of irony, applying it not only to statement but also to event, situation, and structure.

Irony is a rhetorical device by means of which the writer's or speaker's actual intent is expressed in a manner carrying the opposite meaning. Quite often, as in Voltaire's work, it is characterized by grim humor. Usually the writer sets down words of praise to imply blame, and words of blame to imply praise, the former practice being more common. As a literary device, irony is effective because it calls for restraint. The satirist who depends upon it never descends to railing or to sarcasm; he expects his audience to get the point. One can understand why Thierot lauded Voltaire as the "most excellent author of quips and jests" and that both Baron Grimm and Mme. de Staël stressed the comic aspects of Candide while not ignoring the underlying seriousness of the tale.

The targets of Voltaire's satire are many and varied. First in importance, to be sure, is philosophical optimism; others include religion, kings and the State, war, avarice, social pride, and folly of one kind or another. In the moral order, dishonesty, sham, prostitution, and all the grave and petty inhumanities of man against man are assailed, just as in the natural order disease, cataclysms, and malformations are. For his purpose Voltaire depended especially upon exaggeration, but he also used the contrasting device of understatement, often in the form of litotes, which is understatement whereby something is affirmed by stating the negative of its opposite — a common device in ironic expression. Related to it is euphemism, a figure of speech in which an indirect statement is substituted for a direct one. Euphemistic terms have been used by many writers to avoid bluntness or offense, but they reveal a tendency to be insincere and sentimental. Voltaire used them ironically with fine comic effect to advance his satire of injustice, crime, and folly. Caricature and parody, ways in which the author exaggerated details of one sort or another for the same purpose, also must be noticed.

Voltaire's primary purpose in writing Candide was to demolish the theory of Optimism, and for this purpose exaggeration served him best. He opposed gross absurdity with absurdity — the doctrine repeatedly voiced by Pangloss and echoed by his disciples versus the conclusions to be drawn from the fantastic experiences which are recorded. Candide is driven from what for him and others at the baron's castle was "the best of all possible worlds." The carnage of the Bulgar-Abar conflict, the tempest and earthquake, the apparent death of Cunégonde and the actual death of her parents, the experiences during the Inquisition — these and all other salient events are described in exaggerated terms.

The superlative is dominant from the very beginning. Life at the castle of Thunder-ten-tronckh is utopian, a life of perfect happiness. It is a "most beautiful castle." Candide is introduced as the "gentlest of characters" who combined rather sound judgment with great simplicity of mind. The baron is a great, powerful lord in Westphalia; the baroness is the best of all possible baronesses; Cunégonde is the perfect beauty. Pangloss is presented as an oracle, the wisest philosopher in the realm. Already the absurd is opposed to the absurd. We learn that this most beautiful and agreeable of all possible castles, as Voltaire calls it in the last sentence in the chapter, is crude enough, what with its one door and window and its one tapestry. The baroness is obese; the baron obviously a primitive character. But all this exaggeration, all the superlatives prepare the reader for the dire events which are to follow. Similarly in the account of that never-never land, Eldorado, and the description of Don Issachar's residence in the woods, with its spacious gardens and magnificent appointments, Voltaire again used exaggeration as a prelude to adverse fortune.

The author used a variety of forms to oppose Optimism. The formula "best of all possible worlds" appears again and again only to be refuted with satiric and ironic sting. One of these forms involves a type of understatement. Candide is master of it — inadvertently so. Often, after experiencing terrible danger and suffering, his immediate reaction is that Doctor Pangloss might possibly — just possibly — begin to doubt his own philosophy. After hearing the old woman's story in all its horrible detail, he remarks: "It's a great pity that the wise Pangloss was hanged, contrary to custom, in an auto-da-fé: he would have told us admirable things about the physical and moral evils that cover the earth, and I would have felt strong enough to venture a few respectful objections." Recall also his immediate reaction when he learned that the Oreillons, believing him to be a Jesuit, intended to roast or boil him and then eat him: "All is well, I won't argue about it; but I must admit that it's a cruel fate to have lost Lady Cunégonde and then be roasted on a spit by the Oreillons." At the inn in a Spanish village, the old woman expressed her conviction that a Franciscan father had stolen Cunégonde's money and jewels. Candide remarked that he should have left them enough to finish their journey. There is ironic understatement also to be found in the account of Candide's losses at cards in Paris. The youth was puzzled because he never held any aces, but, wrote Voltaire, Martin was not surprised. It is often through just such laconic statements that the author achieves witty understatement.

Voltaire had a natural tendency toward euphemism, and examples of this rhetorical device are plentiful in Candide. Doctor Pangloss was inevitably euphemistic as he voiced the clichés of Optimism to prove that even great evil leads to good. In matters relating to Church and State, the euphemistic cliché also served Voltaire's purpose. The account of the Inquisition, for example, provided him with wonderful opportunities for satirical, euphemistic comment. One should recall the almost ceremonial politeness of the dark-skinned inquisitor when he inquired into Pangloss' views at the end of Chapter V. The plight of Pangloss and Candide was described in a manner no less ceremonious (Chapter VI).

"They were separated and each was placed in an extremely cool room where no one was ever bothered by the sun. A week later they were both dressed in sanbenitos and paper mitres. Thus attired, they walked in a procession and heard a deeply moving sermon, followed by beautiful polyphonic music. Candide was flogged in time to the singing, the Biscayan and the two men who had refused to eat pork were burned, and Pangloss was hanged, although this was not customary."

The incongruity of the scene is pointed up by the formal euphemistic terms in which it is described, and so with reference to Cunégonde's experiences as a spectator at the Inquisition (Chapter VIII). The Grand Inquisitor, whose illicit passion for her had been aroused when he saw her at Mass, did her "the honor of inviting her to attend. She had a very good seat" and enjoyed the refreshments served to the ladies between Mass and the executions. It is as if she were attending a fashionable social event!

Cacambo's glowing praise of the Jesuits' government in Paraguay provides another example. "Their government is a wonderful thing. The kingdom is already more than seven hundred fifty miles across, and it's divided into thirty provinces. The Fathers have everything, the people nothing; it's a masterpiece of reason and justice. I don't know of anyone as divine as the Fathers."

The Bulgar-Abar conflict gave Voltaire quite as good a chance for satire in which he made the most of euphemism (Chapter II). Having recruited Candide into the service of "the most charming of kings," one of the recruiting sergeants said: "You're now the support, the upholder, the defender and the hero of the Bulgars: your fortune is made and your glory is assured." Immediately after this high-flown speech, Candide was put in irons and taken to a regiment. In this entire episode euphemism as opposed to reality abounds. We read of the gay uniforms, the stirring music — and learn the grim facts of warfare (Chapter III):

"Nothing could have been more splendid, brilliant, smart or orderly than the two armies. The trumpets, oboes, drums and cannon produced a harmony whose equal was never heard in hell. First the cannons laid low about six thousand men on each side, then rifle fire removed from the best of worlds about nine or ten thousand scoundrels who had been infesting its surface."

After the terrible carnage, Te Deums were sung in each camp: the properties were carefully observed — thus Voltaire's view of "glorious war."

One other quite amusing and effective use of euphemism deserves to be noticed. In the first chapter, the beautiful and innocent Cunégonde observed Pangloss and Paquette in a most compromising situation. Voltaire successfully strove to avoid calling a spade a spade:

"One day as Cunégonde was walking near the castle in the little wood known as "the park", she saw Doctor Pangloss in the bushes, giving a lesson in experimental physics to her mother's chambermaid, a very pretty and docile little brunette. Since Lady Cunégonde was deeply interested in the sciences, she breathlessly observed the repeated experiments that were performed before her eyes. She clearly saw the doctor's sufficient reason, and the operation of cause and effect."

Exaggeration, understatement, and euphemism obviously lend themselves to caricature and parody, of which we now take particular notice. Out-and-out caricature is apparent in the characterizations, however brief, of the baron and baroness in Chapter I. The learned Doctor Pangloss, early and late, is a notable caricature — and so the Jesuit baron, what with his protestations of undying devotion and then his complete volte-face. The governor of Buenos Aires, with his multiple proper names, his insufferable pride, provided another example. The entire deflating effect in Chapter I, with its contrast of naiveté and dogmatism, is sheer parody — especially the mock tragedy of Candide's expulsion from the castle.

Earlier, reference was made to seventeenth and eighteenth century romantic fiction, especially the pastoral romance and the heroic-gallant adventure narratives, most of them of almost interminable length. Voltaire, who could no more stomach these than could his illustrious predecessors, Molière and Boileau, objected to both style and content, as he made clear in his Siècle de Louis XIV. With reference to style, the chief aberrations were those of préciosité. In origin l'esprit precjeux was the search for elegance and distinction in manners, style, and language. Its devotees sought for new expressions, particularly metaphorical ones; they avoided low or barbarous terms, and — to their great credit — pursued clarity and precision. At its very best, préciosité stood for sensitivity in taste and sentiment. But it had a narrowing tendency, and the style of the typical romantic writer easily led to excess. The pages of their works were filled with eloquent protestations of undying love, torrents of tears, swooning heroines, sudden recognition scenes, violent deaths, journeys from one country to another. In Candide, Voltaire no doubt enjoyed himself parodying the genre: his hero traveled far and wide; Pangloss was hanged but survived; Cunégonde was reported to have been disemboweled, yet she reappeared; there were deaths of adversaries and flights to temporary safety. The extravagant discourse of the Jesuit baron perhaps best illustrates caricature and parody in the narrative. When he first met Candide in Paraguay and found out the youth's identity, he was most effusive. "The baron never tired of embracing Candide," we read. And then the reversal follows immediately. When the baron learned that the youth expected to marry his sister, his mood changed, but his discourse and actions were no less extreme: "You insolent wretch! How impudent of you even to think of marrying my sister, who has seventy-two generations of nobility behind her!" Later when Candide and the baron, whom Candide had not really killed, met again, the baron said "You can kill me again, but you'll never marry my sister while I'm still alive." Fully to appreciate the extravagance of his words, one must recall all that had happened to both the baron and his sister — the one now a woman whose beauty had completely faded as a result of her suffering, the other just rescued by Candide from the galleys.