Thoughts on Candide by Voltaire

The original release.This month I joined the Literary Classics Challenge over at Living Outside the Lines. My goal is to read at least one classic a month for the next year. Ever the optimist, I started with Candide.


This is an excellent example of what happens when context is lost during translation. The original Candide was published in 1759. There are seventeen separate translations that survive from the original publication era and God knows how many others since. Voltaire, the author, was an acomplished fellow with more than a few literary credits to his account and an impressive body of work about philosophical, theological, historical, and political content.

Suspecting that in the original form there was considerably more irony and humor than translated across in the edition I first acquired, I went shopping for a second version, then a third…and because I’m a tad obsessive/compulsive when a notion takes hold…a fourth and then a fifth volume. I draw the line at five versions. All of these translations were completed in different times by different translators. I know enough about translation to know its a tricky business. Duh. Obviously.

After five excursions through the content I found myself a bit weary of reading about poor besotted (and ludicrously named) Candide. Can I be honest and say that by the time he came round to being disillusioned in poor old Pangloss’s optimistic perspective about “all is for the best” I was ready to slap a high five. The equally smarmy, and somewhat slutty, love-interest Cunegonde has more adventures than everyone else combined. Interestingly one of the translations I read resurrected characters toward the end which had been killed off at the beginning without any explanation. My advice is to accept the possibility and keep moving because the book is short, the pace is fast, and in the end the entire thing is designed to poke philosophical fun. Make no mistake, the story is funny. The humor ranges from subtle observations about social status to over-the-top ridiculous aggrandizing about the posturing of human behavior as a result of “enlightened reasoning.”

This was one of those times I wished I could read a book in the original language with enough facility to really grasp the underlayment of tautology. There’s so much subtext in this story, you can sense it oozing out between the lines, and since it reflects directly on the time period in which it was produced I simply didn’t always have enough background to “get” all the inside jokes. Sometimes we forget how important context is and in the case of classic literature, there’s a reason a story continues to resonate with subsequent generations. Candide succeeds in this arena because it pokes fun at the dissolute and morally bankrupt ruling class in a time when that world was about to change. Drastically.

Recall that the French Revolution occurred a mere thirty years later. Civil and civic unrest was building. Disquiet with the ruling class and their continued indulgence was fomenting among the masses. Eventually things boiled over. Candide was a simpering fop, a simpleton of the ruling class, coddled and cared for by the people whom he was perceived to better. The book is an ironic commentary on the changing social class and the upheaval of attitudes and norms of behavior. It hops from country to continent, leaps across philosophical works, and dismisses some historical events while heavily emphasizing others.

Then there’s all the stuff written about the book. Let’s not even go there.

Having somehow managed to squirm my way through an education void of Candide, I didn’t really know what to expect. My first read-through left me feeling like I’d skimmed the cliff-notes version of a longer treatise. The book is only of novella length and my recall of historical events from this time period was somewhat lacking. I’m glad I waited until I completed two versions before conducting research. I had no idea so much had been written about the writing of Candide. In fact, a quick google will produced hundreds of sites with useful information and a browse through wikipedia hits most of the hard facts.

The story is absolutely worth reading. With some context for the time period and an understanding of the social interaction of the people, not to mention the major events of the day – well, the satirical flavor comes across much stronger. The criticism of time and place and people is strengthened by a minute amount of knowledge that sets the reader into that world with a sense of what life was like. For that reason, I recommend reading multiple translations if you’re unable to read a classic work in the original form.

Next on my list is something completely different, maybe some Ivanhoe or Moby Dick. Stay tuned…or, better yet, climb on the Classic Literature Express and join up. Read with us. Explore some of the world’s greatest writers and get started over at Ali Dent’s site.

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  1. #1 by Ali Dent on June 29, 2012 - 1:00 pm

    Lesann, this is a great post. I haven’t heard of Candide before. It’s interesting how you compared translations. You are one smart lady. I have enough interest now to read it some time in the future.

    Ivanhoe or Moby Dick? Let me k ow when you decide. Our literature club will read Ivanhoe this year but I won’t have the calendar set until next week. Jt would be fun to have you read it when we do:)

    • #2 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on June 29, 2012 - 8:10 pm

      Thanks, Ali! Candide was fun but it really made more sense once I had some background to expand the details. Using various translations is always interesting because as you know, word choice can alter meaning so easily. It would be a wonderful book to incorporate into a history or philosophy lesson. I’ll hold off on Ivanhoe because it would be fun to read along with some others. I have to rummage up a copy of Moby Dick or select something else but on to the next one!

    • #3 by Bridgette Booth on June 30, 2012 - 3:26 pm

      Yep, you sold me on it too. (Although I think I read it in graduate school but just don’t remember it.) lol.

      • #4 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on July 1, 2012 - 11:07 am

        For those of us who are writers, Candide zips along at a pace faster than a modern-day thriller but it doesn’t always deliver on the action. Several times I had to pause and say to myself, “what just happened?” and then I realized we’d jumped continents again. Who knew intercontinental travel was so easy? lol

  2. #5 by Jillian on June 29, 2012 - 1:40 pm

    I read this one in the original French a while ago, but it is a fuzzy memory! I have it on my list to re-read at some point in the next few years. I remember liking it — but that’s unfortunately all I remember. 🙂

    Very best wishes to you in your reading endeavors! I recommend Moby Dick next, but I’ve only actually read the first 80 pages. I set it aside because I LOVED it and wanted to read it at the “perfect” time. 🙂

    • #6 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on June 29, 2012 - 8:13 pm

      Thanks for visiting Jillian!

      My comfort level with French is phfftt, thus the translations. It is a fun read though – you should definitely try again when you have time. There are so many more books I’ve never got around to reading that I think this may become an ongoing endeavor. Even some of the classics I read years ago would be worth a new read since I’m older and more experienced now. I have virtually no memory of War & Peace and I know I read it…

      I think I may go with Moby Dick, thanks for the recommendation! Good luck on your reading journey too!

      • #7 by Ali Dent on June 30, 2012 - 2:12 pm

        The only Melville I’ve read is Billy Budd, Sailor. The writing was superb but I didn’t enjoy the story very much. The kids and I had a great debate on whether Billy committed murder or manslaughter. That was great fun and they learned a lot about what they need to learn in order to discuss opposing ideas in a respectful and effective manner. I coined the acronym RE: (respond respectfully and effectively), to describe the way we want to talk to others especially if we disagree. It takes practice, but I digress. If you choose Moby Dick then I certainly will be interested in what you think about it.

        • #8 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on July 1, 2012 - 11:05 am

          Huh. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Billy Budd, Sailor. This has already made me realize how few of the standard Classics I’ve read. The “RE” approach sounds smart because debating opposing ideas usually turns emotional, although part of the fun of reading something together is to hear what other people thought. I miss old-fashioned book clubs for that reason. I’ve always thought sitting around the salon, sipping tea and arguing over fictional characters sounded like fun. I’m thinking I’ll go with Moby Dick next.

  3. #9 by Fanda on June 29, 2012 - 10:55 pm

    Candide is in my Classics Club list too, so thank you for your advice to read it from several different translations.

    • #10 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on June 30, 2012 - 11:48 am

      Thanks for visiting, Fanda.

      I don’t think it’s really necessary to read more than one version, if it’s a good version. The one I started with wasn’t as good as the later ones. I found it helpful but really, after you go through the same story a couple of times I just picked up more of the details and better context. I hope you enjoy!

  4. #11 by Mona Risk on June 30, 2012 - 6:18 am

    Hi Leslie, I read it in French years ago. An interesting book that we had to study in high school. I remembered it as too long, and sometimes boring. The sarcastic voice of Voltaire must have been lost in translations.

    • #12 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on June 30, 2012 - 11:51 am

      Thanks for visiting, Mona!

      I thought this would be a great story to study in connection to the history and philosophy of the times, which is one of the reasons I can see it being such a popular book for educational purposes. Like so much of what I read in high school though, if I read it again later in life, it makes a lot more sense. There really is something to that “life experience” thing and being able to connect with written content. As a teen I simply didn’t have enough. With a guide the voice of Voltaire would likely be darn near hilarious. Try it again and see what you think…

  5. #13 by Sherry Isaac on July 1, 2012 - 6:02 am

    I read Candide after a history class took me into his times. It was cool to read wit and sarcasm, as a teen I had no idea people could have been like that, thought like that, then. But, you’d have to have a sense of humour to wear some of those clothes and sport some of those hair dos.

    I won’t tell you how long ago that was, but I do still have the book, and it may be time to give Voltaire another read.

    • #14 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on July 1, 2012 - 11:09 am

      I bet with the context of the history class, Candide was a snapping good read. I enjoyed it a great deal more after I had some context. If I’d read this as a teen I probably would have missed most of the wit and satire, but I agree, it would have made me far more appreciative of the times. Ah…clothing and hairstyles. Sadly, I look in my high school yearbook and have that same reaction. Time and fashion are ever the perfect enemies.

      Give it another shot, I bet you laugh at different places now!

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