Grace Vail
Professor Vander Zee
English 299
27 March 2016
The Worst of All Possible Worlds?: Pessimism, Optimism, and Catastrophy in Voltaire’s Candide

Candide is a satirical novel of philosophical fiction, exploring the life of a man named Candide, who is banished from his Uncle’s castle and the woman he loves, Cunegonde. He goes on many disastrous adventures to get her back, traveling with his teacher, Pangloss the philosopher, both of them holding the belief that the world they live in is “the best of all possible worlds”. This idea, as well as Voltaire’s views on pessimism and optimism, are explored with the portrayal of the characters and unfortunate events. It’s hard to think that anyone could have an individualistic stance on optimism and pessimism, because most people would assume that optimism is happiness, and pessimism is its binary opposite. Voltaire’s work shows that neither topic is simple, and that too much of either can lead to strayed perceptions of the real world around oneself. With closer examination of the work, one finds that Voltaire believed you can not have one without the other, and that human nature can be altered by circumstance and a person’s world view.

A commonly held view on the purpose of Voltaire’s writings is that he wrote to make fun of certain commonly held beliefs regarding Leibnizian optimism, pessimism, and common sense. However, in my essay I develop the idea that Voltaire was not just discounting these perceptions, but commenting on what he agreed and disagreed with about the theories, and showing us the way he interacted with and viewed the ideas with the writing of his novel.

I explore optimism and pessimism in the context of the novel Candide by Voltaire, as well as Voltaire’s goal in using these ideas to get his point across about common sense and human nature, his point being a person’s circumstance can alter their world view. Though critics have commented on these ideas before, I want to explore more in depth his particular views and opinions on these philosophical doctrines, and how he explores different sides of optimism and pessimism with the use of characters and certain scenes in the book. Closer attention to the use of characters and catastrophic events reveal that rather than just discount optimism or pessimism, he uses satire and these situational events to comment on the way he views these ideas actually fit into the world he lived in.

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