Thursday, April 9, 2009

Candide (Voltaire)

Finally, a novel! And an old novel, at that. Candide: Or, Optimism, was first published over two hundred years before any other book I've reviewed so far, 100 Years of Solitude having only been published back in the not-as-olden days of 1967 (well, olden for me, still, but maybe not for you). If I spoke French, I'd insert some kind of snobby, intellectual French phrase here, maybe something vaguely philosophical, but not too committal. Oh well, c'est la vie. That's how you spell that, right?


There's a reason this book has been around so long. To me this is a perfect example of great literature that's accessible on several different levels and overall very enjoyable. It's a fairly straightforward story about a young man named Candide, whose entire philosophy on life is that "all is for the best." Every terrible, horrible, atrocious thing that can happen to a person—and most things you could think of do happen to someone at some point in the book—are all in fact necessary for the greater good of the world, and could not have happened any other way. Throughout the story, which moves from Westphalia to Portugal to Argentina to France to England to Constantinople, Candide suffers through a flogging, a shipwreck, an earthquake, several wars, extreme poverty, an illness, and his girlfriend becoming ugly. Others are affected by similarly miserable afflictions: plague, hanging, rape, stabbing, forced prostitution, burning, and cannibalized buttocks. No matter what, though, Candide maintains that "all is for the best."

Now, I've written reports on classic literary masterpieces before, but I've never really done a review on one, so one of the best ways I can think to really give you a feel for this book is this: I wish they made us read this in high school. Public schools need more satire. Instead of being a dreadfully serious philosophical/political book like Crime and Punishment or The Stranger, Candide is wonderful because it gives a commentary on life while being hilarious. Voltaire is known to be a witty writer, and since most of his humor is situational, it comes across very well despite the translation from French. I don't care what you say, an old woman who can't sit on a horse properly because she's missing one buttock(s?) is hilarious. And Candide's naive attitude towards life is a great filter for Voltaire's opinions on the philosophies of his day. Plus, not only is this book funny, it also works fairly well as a straight adventure novel. It's pretty suspenseful for a satire. It's not the longest book in the world—only 144 pages—but even so I read it extremely fast because Voltaire constantly leaves Candide in some great predicament. It also helps when the chapters are really short and titled fun things like "VI—How a magnificent auto-da-fé was staged to prevent further earthquakes, and how Candide was flogged." I still don't really know what an auto-da-fé is, but I find that chapter title pretty exciting. I don't mind that it tells me some of what's going to happen, since it usually only makes me more curious as to why or how it's going to happen.

Anyway, this was a pretty stellar book, especially considering it was written by an old French guy 250 years ago. I'm not gonna say it's my favorite book ever or anything, but it's solidly written, gets its point across, and is quite entertaining. I highly recommend it to you for some light reading, and to teachers across America as a substitute for ghastly tomes like Tartuffe or Beowulf.


Candide: Or, Optimism
by Voltaire

While not very complicated, it's a great vehicle for the message, and is still interesting if you don't care about all that philosophical mumbo-jumbo.

This is satire at its best. It's funny, it's accessible, it allows the reader to judge for themselves; Voltaire knew what he was doing.

You'd think it would be stuffier, but it's pretty easy to read and still relates to current issues. Some of the cultural aspects are understandably outdated at this point, but they're written about from an outsider's perspective, so it doesn't usually feel like you're missing anything. All in all it's a great book.



  1. Well I'm sure Voltaire would be very honored that YOU thought his book was good enough to say it's "solidly written, gets the point across, and is quite entertaining". You yourself said that there is a reason it has been around for centuries, so what makes you think anyone care what you have to say about it? And, you missed a hell of a lot if you think Candide is "light reading". Or, maybe you just said that to point out how you are such a literature genius that even one of the most complex books of all time is "light reading" to you.

  2. Oh forgive me, you're right. Thank you for humbling me and making me realize that my opinions are worthless. Where oh where would I be without your anonymous guidance? I wish I could thank you in person, or at the very least send you a gift basket.


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