Candide by Voltaire (REVIEW)

The absurdist ethos is punctuated by the book’s ending - that whole thing about needing to tend to the garden. Is this the best of all possible worlds?

Samir Arora
Jul 2, 2022
3 min read

A Critic's Meta-Review: 5/5

Though it has been presented to me as such, I do not believe that Voltaire’s Candide is a pessimist’s manifesto. No — Voltaire was too nuanced a thinker to settle comfortably into the role of a cynic. He was obviously not an optimist in the vein of Gottfried Leibniz, whose simplistic outlook is immortalized in the character Pangloss; neither was he, however, a disillusioned old curmudgeon like Martin, who appears towards the end of the novel.

If any character is representative of Voltaire here, it’s probably the titular protagonist - but, honestly, I don’t really think Voltaire inserted himself into this story. I think he just wanted to tell an interesting tale with elements of absurdism, almost of a Sisyphean nature.

The absurdist ethos is punctuated by the book’s ending - that whole thing about needing to tend to the garden. Is this the best of all possible worlds? Is it the worst? Why do people spend their whole lives chasing something that, once they finally get it, makes them all the more miserable, knowing they’ve got it now but it wasn’t worth it so all the time spent chasing it was, essentially, for naught? What’s the meaning of all this?

Who knows, man. Just keep rolling that boulder up the hill. Take care of the garden. Make your bed. Brush your teeth. Do your dharma.

This thing reads like the Gita if you let it, mate. Don’t go into it thinking it’s supposed to be this brutal takedown of optimism, and it won’t be. If you’re going to take any lessons from it, take these:

  1. Reality is permeated by impermanence; one day you’ll be feeling all mushy inside about this girl you’re smitten with, but give it a week and you’ll be scrambling for a new pad of paper to jot down your fourth list of major complaints against the poor woman. It ain’t her fault - it’s yours, for wanting to stretch a particular emotion that you crave well past its elastic capacity.
  2. Don’t remember people by their ideas, or what they profess to believe, but by what they actually do and how they actually live their lives. It’s easy to talk a good game, like Pangloss does, but a lot of times all that talk ain’t nothing except just that - talk. If actions don’t align with words and the thoughts behind them, what’s the point in wasting your breath?
  3. Adapt, or perish. This is basic Darwin 101 stuff, but it’s always good to bear in mind that if you can’t change your ways to accommodate whatever setting or situation you’ve been placed in, you’re toast. Imagine water in a square cup being poured into a round glass and not changing its shape; you can’t, because it defies all logic. Well, that’s how you’ve got to be - like water. Don’t be an onion, bro.

In the end, Cacambo seems, to me, the most relatable character. At least, if I had to be stuck on a boat with anyone from the story, it would be him.


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The (Can)Dude Abides
I recently finished reading Voltaire’s seminal work of satire Candide and was moved enough by what it had to say philosophically that I found myself typing a little thinkpiece on it while sitting in the passenger seat of my mother’s MDX.

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