It the witty and insightful satire Candide written by eighteenth-century Enlightenment author Voltaire, a portrait of European society is painted as simultaneously colorful and dark. Voltaire, true to form, uses his skillful writing to criticize nearly every aspect of his society, including some aspects of Enlightenment thinking. His satire Candide criticizes a wide range of social and political issues of his time period such as religion, corruption, imperialism, and foolishness of blind philosophizing by juxtaposing his society with the mythical and utopian land of El Dorado. Through the buffer of Candide, Voltaire is able to openly address these controversial topics of eighteenth-century European society.
One of the most popular areas of society that Voltaire criticizes in his satire is the powerful entity of the Church. Voltaire was openly a deist and, therefore, was not terribly conflicted when it came to identifying the negative aspects of the Church’s power in society. In his thesis on religious criticism in Voltaire’s Candide, Lecavialier says “Voltaire openly condemns the hypocrisy of the religious way of life by exposing its adherent’s associations with politics, self-interest, dishonesty, greed, carnality and fanaticism (68).” For example, the auto-da-fé sacrificed many people guilty of “crime” not worthy of death such as the two men who refused bacon and were burned for being “Jews”, the Grand Inquisitor was a violent man who bought Cunegonde as a sex slave and attempted to murder Candide, and even the Friar is consorting with a prostitute. The Friar even goes on to say that “jealousy, discord, and fury, dwell in the convent (Voltaire, 69).” The satire on the Church is so severe that Voltaire even portrays a Pope as having an illegitimate daughter—The Old Woman. All of these corrupt individuals represent the hypocrisy of the Church. They are supposed to represent the ideals of their religion, like kindness, celibacy, and charity and yet they choose to embrace the sinful aspects of life instead.
Candide also comments largely on the questionable social norms that have seemed to develop in European culture. Some of these norms include violence, corruption, and, briefly, imperialism. Violence is omnipresent in this satire and can be found in almost every chapter. While a lot of the violence is carried out by the representatives of the Church—see above for examples—much of the violence is also brought down upon innocent women. We have three central female characters in the novel, Cunegonde, The Old Woman, and Paquette, and all three of those women have been violated by both men and by society. It is a dual violation because, while the men commit the atrocities, the society exists in a structure that allows them to do so. Cunegonde is raped and almost killed by a Bulgarian, The Old Woman was the beautiful daughter of a Pope reduced to a broken, ugly old spirit by the cruelty of men and merciless society, and Paquette, too, had been bought and sold as a sex slave. These women represent both Voltaire’s criticisms of society but it is in a speech of Paquette’s where she describes the incessant trials of her life that we also view what M. Sarcey describes as “horror against the society which throws some of its members into such an abyss (Voltaire, 94).” We also catch a glimpse of the corruption of that society when Paquette explains that, though she was innocent, the only reason the judge set her free was “on condition that he succeeded the surgeon,” the surgeon being the man who forced her to be his mistress (67).
Voltaire’s portray of imperialism in this novel is like a flash of lighting, quick but illuminating. Voltaire and Cacambo come across a “negro” who works on a sugar cane plantation. The description of his appearance is shocking and saddening to Candide, who, despite all his experience, remains an optimist up until that point. Though simply stated, the negro’s words seem to have a tone that resembles innocent admonishment when he says that “this is the price at which you eat sugar in Europe,” while talking about his missing hand and leg that had been cut off due to the difficulty of the job and as a punishment for trying to escape his slavery. Enlightenment ideals and reasoning are manifested in the character of the negro, as well. He comments on the fact that “the Dutch fetiches, who have converted me, declare every Sunday that we are all of us children of Adam—blacks as well as whites…Now, you must agree, that it is impossible to treat one’s relations in a more barbarous manner (49).” This is logical reasoning done on the part of the negro and it embraces the Enlightenment ideal of an emphasis on individualism. This is the idea that the individual is just as important as the collective. This way of thinking is characteristic of the Enlightenment, which “emphasized human reason, the scientific method, and human dignity (Halla, 2-3).”
Though this exchange is an excellent instance of demonstrating ideals, there is only one place in the entire satire that Voltaire truly considers to be the epitome of perfection: El Dorado. El Dorado—the mythical city of gold—is where Candide and Cacambo accidently find themselves in chapter XVII. Voltaire paints this city as the picture of utopia. There is wealth beyond want and, yet, the people do not show the obsession or corruption that occurs in the “real world,” if you will, as a result of that wealth. There is no quarrel over religion, no hierarchy of church, it is secluded from the world of imperialism and greed, and the people are kind and welcoming. The king himself declares that “all men are free (Voltaire, 46).” This is the world that Voltaire considers to be ideal. After Cadide leaves the utopia of El Dorado, he seems to be much more effected by the corruption, violence, and inequality of the world. He even begins to doubt the doctrine of his infalliable Pangloss when he says, “certainly, if all things are good, it is in El Dorado and not in the rest of the world.” And this jaded tone persists until the end of the Candide’s story.