Book Summary: Candide by Voltaire

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Voltaire’s satirical masterpiece Candide, first published in 1759, attacks the excesses of Enlightenment culture in 18th-century France.

Our protagonist Candide lives in an Edenic paradise and is indoctrinated with Leibnizian optimism by his mentor Professor Pangloss. The idyllic life he has been living is abruptly interrupted by a series of painfully disillusioning events that send him on a wide-ranging quest.

You may still be wondering if you should read the book. This book summary will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.

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Plot Summary

After a naive young man faces some of life’s hardships, he rejects his tutor’s blind optimism in favor of a more realistic view of the world.

Chapters 1–9 (From Westphalia to Lisbon) 

The young and simple-minded Candide enjoys a life of happy innocence at the château of the Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh, who lives with his wife; their beautiful daughter, Cunégonde; and an unnamed son. Located in Westphalia, Germany, the castle is an earthly paradise that shelters its inhabitants from the evils of the world.

Candide, rumored to be the illegitimate son of the baron’s sister and a local gentleman, is tutored by the scholarly Dr. Pangloss, who also resides at the château. Pangloss is a disciple of the philosopher Leibnitz, whose theory of optimism he has reduced to the simplistic formula that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds,” and that everything in life can be explained by the laws of cause and effect.

One day, Cunégonde sees Pangloss making love to the servant girl Paquette, and this moves Cunégonde to tempt the naive Candide. When the baron catches Candide in the arms of his daughter, he expels Candide forever from the best of all possible châteaux. 

Thrown by his fall from grace into the world of hard knocks, Candide enlists in the army of the King of the Bulgarians and fights against the Abarians. In battle, he sees the superficial beauty of two armies arranged in brilliant rows, marching to music. 

But when he notices that the soldiers have caused suffering everywhere, he flees across the farms strewn with mutilated bodies and escapes into Holland, a land of commerce, prosperity, and political equality. Unfortunately, in this land of religious tolerance, the

Protestants deny him bread because he pleads ignorance of their belief that the Pope is the Antichrist (Christ’s enemy who is supposed to appear before the world ends). Candide is saved from starvation only by the help of Jacques, a charitable Anabaptist (a Protestant who believes in the baptism of adults, not of infants). This good deed restores Candide’s faith in Pangloss’s doctrine of optimism.

But then Candide meets a beggar whose body is ravaged by syphilis. The beggar turns out to be Pangloss and he has horrors to report: Cunégonde and her family have been killed by Bulgarian soldiers, and Pangloss has syphilis because of his love-making with Paquette, who had been infected by a Franciscan monk.

Luckily the Anabaptist is able to cure Pangloss, who has lost only one ear and an eye. A horror-struck Candide joins Jacques and the ever-optimistic Pangloss as they sail for Lisbon, Portugal. 

On the way, they experience a violent tempest and are shipwrecked. Jacques is drowned, but Candide is comforted by Pangloss’s claim that the storm and Jacques’s death are part of God’s design.

Unfortunately, this optimism is followed by a horrible earthquake that destroys Lisbon and thousands of people. Pangloss explains that such a catastrophe is still for the best, since, by occurring in Lisbon, it did not devastate other places. 

His remark is overheard by some agents of the Inquisition (the Roman Catholic court that was established to punish nonbelievers) and is taken as evidence of Pangloss’s denial of free will (the Church’s doctrine that humans are free to make their own choices, uninfluenced by God). In order to prevent the continuation of the earthquake, the religious authorities superstitiously give an auto-da-fé, or ceremony of faith, in which they burn some Jews. 

Pangloss is hanged for his beliefs, and Candide is severely beaten for appearing to approve of his tutor’s words. Staggering away from the scene, Candide is approached by an Old Woman, who tells him to follow her.

After grumbling about a pain in her buttocks, the Old Woman leads Candide to a house at the edge of town, where to his surprise he sees the beautiful Cunégonde. Overcome by emotion, the young lovers admit that they are beginning to lose faith in Pangloss’s doctrine of optimism. Cunégonde explains how she had been saved and brought back to health by a Bulgarian captain. 

He later sold her to a Jew, Don Issachar, who took her to his magnificent country house, where she and Candide are now reunited. At Mass, the Grand Inquisitor noticed her beauty and forced Don Issachar to let him share Cunégonde’s favors.

Don Issachar arrives, and in self-defense Candide, this most gentle of heroes, strikes him dead with a sword. The Inquisitor then appears, and Candide—reasoning practically, not in the optimistic manner of his tutor—realizes that he, Cunégonde, and the Old Woman will die if the Inquisitor escapes. He therefore runs him through with his sword, and Candide flees to Cádiz with Cunégonde and the Old Woman.

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Chapters 10–18 (From Cádiz to Eldorado in Utopia) 

Candide is soon appointed captain of the infantry in a new army that is sailing to Paraguay to quell the rebellion of Jesuits and Indians against the kings of Spain and Portugal.

On board ship, the Old Woman tells her life story to prove that Cunégonde’s woes are small when compared to her own. The woman was the daughter of Pope Urban X (such a pope never existed) and the Princess of Palestrina. 

She was captured by pirates when young and beautiful, sold as a slave to different masters, assaulted by an Italian eunuch, sold to a chief in the Turkish army, and finally ended up in the city of Azov, Turkey, which was besieged by Russians.

The starving Turks cut off one of her buttocks to eat, and she became a servant to Don Issachar, who placed her in the service of Cunégonde.

Upon reaching Buenos Aires, Candide, the Old Woman, and Cunégonde visit the Governor to ask him to perform the wedding ceremony for Cunégonde and Candide. But the Governor falls in love with Cunégonde, and Candide, with the authorities of the Inquisition on his heels for the murder of the Inquisitor, has to flee and leave Cunégonde with the lustful man. 

Candide reaches Paraguay in the company of his servant, Cacambo, who has accompanied him since Cádiz.

Following Cacambo’s practical advice, Candide decides to fight for the Jesuits rather than against them, since the Jesuit priests have everything and the Indians nothing. Captured by the Jesuits before they can offer their services, the two wanderers are brought to the Jesuit commander, who turns out to be none other than Cunégonde’s brother.

After miraculously recovering from the attack by the Bulgarians, Cunégonde’s brother had been befriended by the Reverend Father Croust (a homosexual relationship is implied), became an officer in the Jesuit army, and was sent to Paraguay to fight the troops of the king of Spain. 

Candide mentions his plans to marry Cunégonde, and the class-conscious brother is incensed that the illegitimate Candide would have such an ambition. He draws his sword, and Candide plunges his own into the Jesuit, then escapes to the border, disguised as the German Jesuit.

In his first experience with a model “state of nature,” Candide encounters two naked women who are being chased by some monkeys. He kills the monkeys since he believes they are attacking the women, but the women inform him that the monkeys had been their lovers. 

Candide and Cacambo move on to another primitive form of existence—the land of the Oreillons, or big-eared people—and almost find themselves, literally, in a stew. The Oreillons, true state-of-nature types (not idealized or romanticized natives), have a cauldron boiling and are ready to “eat Jesuit.” 

When Cacambo tells the Oreillons that he and Candide have just killed the Jesuit commander, Cacambo and Candide are freed. The heroes cross some mountains, travel down a treacherous river, and enter the fabulous never-never land of Eldorado. 

Because of its streets of gold (which no one wants), its plentiful food, its advanced sciences and arts, enlightened rule, and absence of organized religions and prisons, Candide decides that Eldorado must be the ideal world. 

He now realizes that the château in Westphalia was not the best of all possible worlds, and that when he returns to the real world, he will denounce evil as being genuinely evil, despite Pangloss’s optimistic claims to the contrary. 

He leaves Eldorado with enough money (100 sheep laden with gold and diamonds) to ransom Cunégonde from the governor of Buenos Aires.

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Chapters 19–23 (From Surinam to London) 

After losing many of the treasures in the harsh countryside, Candide and Cacambo finally reach Surinam, on the northeast coast of South America. There, they observe the violence practiced against blacks by the Dutch colonists in their sugar mills, and for the first time Candide announces firmly that he rejects optimism, which he now defines as the mania of claiming that all is well when clearly evil is everywhere.

He sends Cacambo to Buenos Aires to buy back Cunégonde, then prepares to leave for Venice, where he will reunite with the Old Woman, Cunégonde, and Cacambo.

After the Dutch merchant Vanderdendur steals Candide’s gold, an impoverished Candide leaves for Bordeaux on a French vessel. He is accompanied by a poor, aged scholar named Martin, who preaches Manicheanism, a doctrine of pessimism—the opposite of Pangloss’s optimism.

Martin believes in the eternal conflict between good and evil, and for Candide this is a refreshing doctrine, since it acknowledges the reality of evil. Martin’s pessimism is further reinforced when they observe a naval battle that results in the sinking of Vanderdendur’s ship. 

One hundred people die, but Candide does recover one of his sheep, still heavy with gold and diamonds.

Candide finds Paris to be a city of unscrupulous women, physicians, gamblers, and bad actors—a place where the most terrible acts are done in an atmosphere of ridicule, fraud, seduction, and perpetual religious and political quarrels. 

To escape this hell, Candide flees to England, where he arrives just in time to see an admiral named Byng murdered by four soldiers—an act that represents the madness of the English military and political establishment.

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Chapters 24–30 (From Venice to Constantinople) 

After fleeing the lunacy of England, Candide goes to Venice and is reunited with Paquette, now reduced to prostitution and accompanied by her current companion, Friar Giroflée.

Candide then meets Lord Pococurante, a wealthy 60-year-old Venetian gentleman and senator who suffers from boredom. Candide also becomes acquainted with six foreigners, all kings who had been dethroned.

Traveling to Constantinople to rejoin Cunégonde, who has been sold into slavery there, he frees two galley slaves, one of them Pangloss, whose hanging in Lisbon had been unsuccessful, the other the brother of Cunégonde, whom Candide thought he had killed in Paraguay. 

Although Pangloss has been hanged, dissected, and beaten, he refuses to renounce his optimism. When Candide finally sees Cunégonde, he notices that she has bloodshot eyes, a deflated bosom, and wrinkled skin. He decides to marry her anyway, out of a sense of duty, loyalty, and pride.

As the novel ends, Cunégonde’s brother is sent back to the galleys and then to the Father General of the Jesuits as punishment for his arrogance. The others— Candide, Cunégonde, Pangloss, Cacambo, the Old Woman, and Martin—live isolated in a foreign country on Candide’s little farm. 

At first they are unhappy and bored as they argue about the meaning of life, and their melancholy grows when Paquette and Friar Giroflée join them. In desperation, they ask a Dervish (Turkish religious man who gives voice to Voltaire’s “deism”) about the meaning of existence; he tells them to keep their noses out of such lofty affairs, and slams the door in their faces. 

A fine Old Turk then puts them on the right track: He tells them that he minds his own business, raises fruit on his farm, and sells it. His purpose in doing so is to cultivate his garden for profit and pleasure.

Seeing the wisdom of this way of life, Candide decides that he and his friends should do the same thing. They set to work on Candide’s garden, each one using his or her talents to make this shared property flourish. 

They replace self-pity and boredom with the values of good cooking (Cunégonde), embroidery (Paquette), clean linen (the Old Woman), carpentry (Giroflée), raising vegetables (Cacambo), and work without argumentation (Martin). Candide expresses their spirit with the famous motto “We must cultivate our garden.” 

Only Pangloss remains mired in his rigid philosophy. The others, who become contributing members of society, follow Candide’s practical example of living off the fruits of one’s labors.

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Key Characters

Candide: Illegitimate son of the Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh’s sister. At first, he was a naïve believer in his tutor’s unquestioning optimism, but by the novel’s end, he develops a practical answer to life’s problems: work hard and “cultivate one’s garden.”

Cunégonde: Daughter of the Baron. She stimulates Candide’s desire to find the “best of all possible worlds.” At first, she was a woman of great beauty and some rank, but by the novel’s end, she has grown ugly.

Pangloss and Martin: Two caricatures of systematic philosophers whom Voltaire attacks. Pangloss, Candide’s tutor, preaches the value of extreme optimism; Martin, Candide’s aged friend, preaches extreme pessimism. To the very end, Pangloss denies the existence of evil, rationalizing it as part of the general good, even though he has always suffered terribly. Martin bends all perceptions of good into a system that makes evil (anxiety, boredom, etc.) the dominant force of the universe.

Cacambo: Candide’s valet and companion from Cádiz onward. He was born in Argentina; one-quarter Spanish. A man of all trades with practical solutions for most of Candide’s problems.

Old Woman: Humorous traveling companion of Candide and Cunégonde. Portrayed as the eternal female victim, constantly pursued and attacked because of her alluring beauty.

Themes and Ideas

1. Criticism of Philosophical Systems

“Candide” is a clever satire that mocks abstract philosophical systems, especially Leibnitzian optimism (the novel’s full title is “Candide, or Optimism”). Leibnitz was a respected German philosopher whose serious theory of optimism was simplified by some 18th-century thinkers in formulas like “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”

Voltaire criticizes not all of Leibnitz’s ideas, but rather the simplistic versions of his optimism, as exemplified by Dr. Pangloss. Voltaire rejects the notion that the world is as it should be, that events are predetermined (fatalism), and that every “cause” leads to an appropriate “effect.” Voltaire’s religious ideas are based entirely on reason, and by the novel’s end, Candide shares Voltaire’s deist attitude that humans must cultivate their own garden.

2. Social Criticism

Voltaire attacks every aspect of society in “Candide”: human nature modified by civil institutions (in Paris, Candide finds liars and scoundrels); corrupt, fanatical, oppressive, greedy, and power-hungry clergy from the Pope to the priest; fraudulent and quackery-practicing medical professionals; dubious integrity in the law courts and police; class distinctions based more on snobbery than merit; European prosperity resting on the misery of people and the slave trade; and the superficial glory of war contrasted with the horrible devastation from land and sea battles.

3. Utopia

Voltaire explores the concept of a “perfect place” by presenting several definitions of the ideal existence: the earthly paradise of Thunder-ten-tronckh; the land of the Oreillons; Eldorado (a scientific, rational, and emotionless dream world that Voltaire realizes does not exist); and the sheltered garden of Pococurante with its idleness and boredom.

In contrast, Voltaire offers Candide’s garden community with its emphasis on hard work, open-mindedness, honest values, progress, and community effort, where each individual participates according to his or her talents and strength.

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The Château of Thunder-ten-tronckh symbolizes ignorance, blindness, and self-deception of a closed, self-contented society, with no other measure for judgment than its own pride and contentment.

Lisbon symbolizes the fanaticism and superstition of the Roman Catholic Church and its Inquisition.

Eldorado represents a utopia that may serve as a standard for judging contemporary society.

Surinam symbolizes the brutality of slavery.

Paris symbolizes the frivolity and indifference of France’s citizens toward the corruption, decadence, and quarreling factions dividing church, state, families, and social institutions.

London symbolizes a nation that has relatively free institutions, but that is capable of great abuses in the application of its laws.

Candide Review

Candide is a captivating exploration of the human condition, set against the backdrop of the 18th-century Enlightenment. This timeless literary masterpiece follows the naïve protagonist, Candide, as he journeys through a series of adventures, guided by the unshakeable belief in “optimism,” the idea that all events, no matter how tragic, happen for the best.

As Candide experiences hardships and disillusionments, Voltaire masterfully employs biting wit and irony to criticize the blind optimism and philosophical dogmatism espoused by figures like Leibniz. The narrative is rife with poignant insights into the nature of human suffering and the limitations of reason, challenging readers to confront the absurdity of life while advocating for a pragmatic, compassionate approach to existence.

Though written over 250 years ago, Candide remains strikingly relevant, with its timeless themes and incisive commentary on society’s ills. Voltaire’s razor-sharp wit and compelling storytelling make this novella a must-read for anyone seeking to engage with the complexities of human nature, philosophy, and the pursuit of happiness.

While its brevity may leave some readers wanting more, Candide is an essential piece of literature that will continue to provoke thought and entertain for generations to come.

About The Author

Voltaire (pen name of François-Marie Arouet, 1694—1778), born in Paris, France. Major “philosophe” of the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment, along with Montesquieu, Diderot, and Rousseau. Studied under the Jesuits; made friends with members of the nobility; gained knowledge of classical theatre, poetry, history, while also receiving religious training. Knew most of the bold freethinkers of his time. 

His controversial early poems were partly the cause of his early imprisonment in the Bastille (1717) and his exile to England (1726–29). But his writings also helped him become the royal historiographer (official writer of history) of Louis XV (1745) and a guest of Frederick II, King of

Prussia, from 1750 to 1753. Author of plays, short stories, novels, philosophical and historical works.

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