What's the meaning of life? Why do bad things happen to good people? Do things happen for a reason, or is life just a series of one thing after another? Candide (1759) is a classic philosophical novel that addresses all of these questions with wit and humor, entertaining readers for centuries.

Candide Candide

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Table of contents

    Voltaire's Candide

    Francois-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), who later adopted the pen-name Voltaire, was a key figure of the eighteenth-century French Enlightenment. Writing poetry, plays, essays, and short stories, he popularized the scientific method and championed religious tolerance and freedom of speech.

    Candide, Voltaire Head Statue, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Voltaire was a famous French philosopher and writer.

    When Voltaire wrote Candide in 1759, he was already wealthy, popular, and happily ensconced on his country estate. Candide was published anonymously and was an enormous hit across Europe, its first printing selling out almost instantly. It remains one of Voltaire’s most widely read works to this day.1

    Characters in Candide

    Candide is an episodic story with many minor characters. The story centers on Candide himself, his love interest Cunegonde, and his tutor Dr. Pangloss.

    Main Characters


    Likely the illegitimate son of Baroness Thunder-ten-tronckh, Candide is a naïve but intelligent young man who is eager to learn about the world.


    Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh's daughter (making her Candide's first cousin), Cunegonde experiences many horrors but remains Candide's faithful lover throughout the book.


    Candide's philosophy tutor, Pangloss is insistent that they live in the best of all possible worlds and that every evil is part of some greater good even after contracting syphilis, losing his job, getting hanged, vivisected, and being enslaved on a Turkish galley.

    Minor Characters

    Candide has an enormous cast of supporting characters, many of whom are unnamed or play brief but crucial roles in the story.

    • Martin
    • Cacambo
    • The old woman / Princess of Palestrina
    • Baron von Thunder-ten-tronckh
    • The Baroness
    • The Baron’s Son / Cunegonde's brother
    • Jacques the Anabaptist
    • Don Issacar
    • The Grand Inquisitor
    • Governor of Buenos Aires (Don Fernando d'Ibarra y Figueroa y Mascarenes y Lampourdos y Souza)
    • The Abbe of Perigord
    • Paquette the maid
    • Signor Pococurante
    • The Dervish

    Candide Summary

    Although a short work, Candide has a dizzying number of events and characters. What follows is a short outline of the main events in the plot.

    Chapters 1-5

    Just outside of the castle of Baron-von-Thunder-ten-Tronckh, a young Cunegonde catches Pangloss having sex with a maid in the woods and gets the idea to seduce Candide, which she easily does. When the two of them are caught, Candide is chased out of the castle.

    Candide, Westphalia Castle, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The opening chapters of Candide are set in a castle in Westphalia.

    Candide wanders the countryside until he is forcibly recruited into the army of the Bulgars. After a bloody battle between the Bulgars and the Avars, he deserts. The villages around him are all in ruins, so he travels to Holland where he is taken in by a carpet manufacturer named Jacques.

    While the Bulgars and Avars are real European civilizations, they never fought each other in Westphalia. Voltaire is using them to represent the incessant warfare that plagued Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

    One day, he meets a beggar with a disfigured face and a violent cough. It is Pangloss, his face having been disfigured by syphilis he caught from the maid, Paquette. He goes on to explain that the castle has been destroyed by Bulgar soldiers who have murdered the entire family. Jacques has Pangloss treated, though he loses an eye and an ear.

    As the three of them travel to Lisbon on business, a violent storm batters their ship in sight of the port. Jacques drowns after a pointless fight with an angry sailor shortly before the ship sinks.

    Candide, Pangloss, and the angry sailor swim to Lisbon, which has been hit by a terrible earthquake. Over dinner one day, Pangloss is explaining the absolute necessity of the earthquake and is overheard by an Inquisitor.

    The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, in which thousands of innocent people died, was one of Voltaire's motivations for writing Candide.

    Chapters 6-10

    Pangloss and Candide are imprisoned and blamed for causing the earthquake. Pangloss is hanged for his blasphemy, and Candide is beaten for listening to it with seeming approval. As Candide is leaving, a mysterious old woman beckons him to follow her. She takes care of him and later leads him to another building, where he meets Cunegonde.

    Cunegonde explains how she was stabbed and raped before being captured by a Bulgar captain who made her his maid. He sold her to a Jewish man named Don Issacar, who took her to Lisbon. The Grand Inquisitor there fell in love with her. He threatened Don Issacar to arrive at a deal in which they would share her.

    Candide, Cunegonde Don Issacar Murder Chapter 9, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Candide kills Don Issacar, as illustrated in this 18th-century engraving.

    Don Issacar arrives, flying into a jealous rage. Candide kills him. While planning what to do next, the Grand Inquisitor enters, and Candide instantly kills him. They flee for Spain with the old woman.

    After being robbed of all their money by a monk at an inn, they reach Cadiz, where Candide impresses a general who makes him captain of a company on its way to quell a Jesuit rebellion in Paraguay. The three of them embark together.

    Chapters 11-15

    On the way, the old woman tells her story: once a rich and beautiful princess, her husband was murdered by a jealous mistress before she and her family were enslaved by pirates. Her family was killed, but she was rescued by an Italian man who again sold her into slavery. She became the concubine of a soldier who took her to war in Russia, where one of her buttocks was cut off and eaten during a siege. She was once again enslaved by the Russians before making her way to Lisbon.

    Arriving in Buenos Aires, the Governor falls in love with Cunegonde. Candide is forced to flee as police pursue him for the murder of the Inquisitor. He escapes with Cacambo. At the first Jesuit camp they find, Candide is shocked to discover that the commanding officer there is Cunegonde’s brother.

    Cunegonde’s brother explains how he was rescued by a Jesuit priest, raised in the order, and eventually sent to South America. When Candide mentions his intention to marry Cunegonde, her brother is enraged because Candide is a commoner. They fight, and Candide runs him through. Cacambo disguises Candide in the officer’s cape and hat, and they escape.

    Chapters 16-20

    After their escape, Candide and Cacambo have a close scrape with the Lobeiros tribe, who only agree not to kill and eat them when they learn that Candide has murdered a Jesuit, making him a hero.

    Candide and Cacambo leave but get lost in the Amazon. They are in a strange place where children play games with precious stones and sumptuous food is offered to them in a palace for free. They have reached the city of Eldorado, a utopia of gold, exotic birds, plentiful food, constitutional monarchy, and dedication to the study of math and science. The citizens have purposefully kept themselves hidden to avoid warfare. Candide and Cacambo are received warmly and stay for a month, after which they decide to return to Buenos Aires and then Europe. The King reluctantly says farewell and helps them leave with 100 sheep carrying valuables.

    Candide, Amazon River, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Candide and Cacambo get lost and find Eldorado in the Amazon.

    On their difficult journey, the sheep die off one by one of exhaustion or other incidents until only two are left. On the way, Candide learns that Cunegonde has become the Governor’s mistress and decides to send Cacambo back to Buenos Aires with money to buy her freedom and escape to Venice. A Dutch merchant agrees to take Candide to Europe, realizing that Candide is immensely wealthy, tricks him out of his two remaining sheep. Candide sails to Bordeaux with Martin, who he has chosen as a companion because of his uniquely bad luck in life.

    While crossing the Atlantic, Candide and Martin witness a battle between two ships, one of which is sunk. They see something swimming toward them that turns out to be one of Candide’s stolen sheep laden with treasure. They had witnessed a Spanish ship sink the Dutch one captained by the man who had cheated Candide.

    Chapters 21-25

    In France, Candide is scammed out of much of his remaining money and imprisoned on false charges. He escapes with Martin and reaches Venice via England, where he decides not to stay after witnessing the execution of an admiral.

    Candide, Venice Canal, StudySmarterFig. 5 - Candide and Martin reach Venice but are unable to find Cunegonde and Cacambo.

    Candide arrives in Venice, but Cunegonde and Cacambo are nowhere to be found. Martin thinks it obvious that Cacambo has simply absconded with the money, more proof that the world is a miserable place.

    While waiting, they meet Paquette, now working as a prostitute. She is with Brother Giroflee, a depressed monk. They also meet Signor Pococurante, who is deeply unhappy despite having every luxury in his villa.

    Chapters 26-30

    One day, six deposed former rulers of European states arrive at the hotel as guests. Cacambo is one of their servants. He informs Candide that Cunegonde is in Constantinople, instructing Candide to secretly follow him. They board a deposed Turkish sultan’s ship, learning that Cunegonde and Cacambo were both taken by pirates and sold into slavery. Cunegonde is now a servant outside of Constantinople. Candide buys Cacambo’s freedom, then notices that two of the rowers look familiar: they are Pangloss and Cunegonde’s brother. He buys their freedom as well, and has the ship redirected to find Cunegonde.

    Neither Cunégonde's brother nor Pangloss’ wounds were fatal, and after a series of misadventures both of them separately made their way to Constantinople. Their misunderstandings of local sexual customs lead to them both being imprisoned on the same galley.

    In Turkey, they find Cunegonde, bitter and ugly from stress and hard work, and the old woman. Candide buys their freedom and a nearby farm. He announces his intention to marry Cunegonde, but her brother still objects to the match.

    Candide, Istanbul Constantinople, StudySmarterFig. 6 - The book concludes on a farm outside of Constantinople in modern-day Istanbul, Turkey.

    They sell Cunegonde’s brother back into slavery and are joined by Paquette and Giroflee. The five of them return to their farm. A consultation with a Dervish, who tells them not to bother with theorizing about good and evil, and their visit to another local farm where a family lives modestly but happily on the fruits of their labor, inspire them to do the same.

    Themes in Candide

    Candide is a rich and subtle book dealing with deep themes in a witty and humorous way. The prevalence of violence and suffering, hypocrisy and the abuse of authority, and the inability of theory to capture reality are among the central ideas it addresses.

    Violence and Suffering

    Candide begins his journey as a soldier in a brutal war, witnessing not only soldiers killing each other but atrocities committed against civilians where entire towns are wiped out. This is just the beginning of the pointless violence and excessive human suffering that he will either be witness to or experience directly as the book progresses: rape, syphilis, torture, earthquakes, plague, enslavement, robbery, and other horrors regularly occur, and are reported by the narrator with a deadpan matter-of-factness suggesting that they are nothing to be surprised at. Candide confronts the atrocities, disasters, and social issues of the 18th-century world with a directness and frankness that were rare for its time.

    Hypocrisy and Abuse of Authority

    The decimated villages that Candide sees during the war were destroyed, we are told by the narrator, “in accordance with international law” (Chapter 3). The law exists, here as elsewhere, as a tool of power and privilege. Religion is presented in a similar light, especially in the figure of the Inquisitors who torture innocent people for no reason while keeping mistresses in luxurious villas. Jesuits in South America, supposed to be saving the souls of the inhabitants there, are more interested in ruling over them and exploiting them. Even lowly monks lie and steal without remorse. Many of the characters in Candide are driven more by self-interest than anything else and freely lie and cheat to gain advantage. The more authority they possess, the higher the likelihood that they will be hypocrites.

    Theory Versus Reality

    As a boy, we are told, Candide was a faithful and eager student of Pangloss, a “professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmo-codology” (Chapter 1). Pangloss’ ridiculous philosophy insists that everything in the world makes sense, that all is ultimately for some greater good, and that no other world could be better than the one they live in. Pangloss keeps this outlook through all of the terrible things he endures, even as Candide seems to abandon it.

    Martin stands as a counterpoint to Pangloss. He is a pessimist, believing that evil always has the upper hand. The many horrible things that Martin has endured in his life led him to this outlook, but he is likewise blind to the real good that does happen: the many fortuitous meetings between characters in far-flung parts of the world, the immense wealth that Candide manages to hang onto, and Cacambo’s ultimate loyalty to Candide.

    Candide suggests that both of these attempts to form a grand theory of the meaning of life, good, and evil are deeply flawed because they distort or ignore reality. It is the Turkish Dervish who shuts down their attempt to classify events as good or evil by asking, “When His Highness sends a ship to Egypt, does he worry whether the mice on board are comfortable or not?" before slamming his door in their faces (Chapter 30). In the end, Voltaire posits one must give up one's attempts to theorize and focus on trying to make reality better.

    Candide Analysis

    Candide unflinchingly portrays the seemingly endless ills of the 18th-century world through the medium of a patently unrealistic plot full of coincidences that beggar belief and cartoonish, flat characters who keep coming back for more abuse. This allows Voltaire to write in a way that prefigures Realism, not in the sense of providing characters with psychological depth or realistic sensory descriptions, but of describing real social problems no matter how ugly they may be or how uncomfortable they may make readers.

    Candide is a parody of the novel, a genre that had only recently become popular in the middle of the 18th century. Its basic format is a common one in heroic and romantic novels: the protagonist, an illegitimate child in a wealthy household, is expelled and makes his way through a series of misadventures before eventually marrying his sweetheart. It also parodies the Bildungsroman, a type of novel that follows its protagonist from youth to maturity, showing the reader how he develops and changes.

    In Candide, however, our protagonist and main characters simply suffer one misfortune after another, seeming to change and learn little until the book’s conclusion. While Candide does have a kind of happy ending, it is not the triumphant one readers would have expected of a heroic or romantic novel. Instead, the main characters hide away on an obscure Turkish farm, chastened by their experience with the world, reluctant to expose themselves to further harm, and content to live in modest comfort as they cultivate their gardens.1

    A parody is a type of satire that imitates a certain style, tone, or idea in order to make them seem ridiculous. It may be done simply to mock its target, but it usually also aims to correct a wrong idea or injustice.

    Candide is also a satire of a certain worldview known as optimism, which is roughly the equivalent of the contemporary belief that everything happens for a reason, or that all evil is part of God’s larger plan for a greater good. The discrepancy between this belief and all the suffering and violence in the world is presented by the book's narrator with ironic mock seriousness.

    Candide is often cited as a satirical attack against the German philosopher Leibniz (1646-1716), who attempted to reconcile the existence of evil with a benevolent, omnipotent God by claiming that evil is necessary to maximize the good in the world. In other words, less evil would mean less good, so a possible world without evil would also have correspondingly less good in it. Leibniz reasoned that, despite the very real existence of evil, we actually live in a world where good is maximized, or the best of all possible worlds.

    Optimism was not limited to Leibniz, however, but was a widespread feature of Deist religious belief in the 18th century. Alexander Pope’s (1688-1744) “Essay on Man” (1733) provides a succinct account of this belief in verse form:

    “All nature is but art, unknown to thee;

    All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;

    All discord, harmony not understood

    All partial evil, universal good.

    And [...] One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.”

    Pangloss represents a caricature of this view, with his claim that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” despite the horrors that he witnesses and experiences. Candide himself initially parrots Pangloss, eventually wavering after his encounter with a mutilated slave on a sugar plantation and his conversations with Martin. In the end, he embraces a more practical orientation, rejecting entirely the attempt to construct a grand theory of life and the universe.2

    Candide - Key takeaways

    • Published anonymously by Voltaire in 1759, Candide was an immediate success that is still widely read.
    • It tells the story of a young man kicked out of a castle for falling in love with a woman above his station and his many misadventures in Europe and South America before reuniting with his love and settling down on a farm outside of Constantinople.
    • Candide and his companions witness and experience a seemingly endless array of horrible things, including war, rape, execution, murder, slavery, dismemberment, earthquakes, and plague.
    • Despite these horrors, Candide's tutor, Pangloss, insists that everything is for the greater good and we live in the best of all possible worlds.
    • Candide is a satire of the idea that all evil is for the purpose of some greater good, suggesting that ultimately we should focus on practical engagement with the real world rather than making elaborate theories about it.


    1. Cronk, Nicholas (editor). The Cambridge Companion to Voltaire. Cambridge UP 2009.

    2. Voltaire and Roger Pearson (translator and editor). Candide and Other Stories. Oxford UP, 2006

    Frequently Asked Questions about Candide

    What is Candide about?

    Candide is about the misadventures of a young man expelled from his home and a series of terrible things that happen to him in Europe and South America before he is finally able to marry the woman of his dreams. It is a parody of the novel and a satire of the idea that everything is ultimately for the best, known as optimism.

    Who is the author of Candide?

    Francois-Marie de Arouet (1694-1778), better known by his pseudonym Voltaire, is the author of Candide.

    What is Voltaire's message in Candide?

    Voltaire's message is that it is pointless to philosophize about whether the world is essentially a good or a bad place, and that we should focus instead on practical work that makes the world better.

    What does Voltaire criticize in Candide?

    Voltaire criticizes the idea that everything is ultimately for the best, known as optimism.

    What are some examples of satire in Candide?

    Candide's satirical targets include: 

    • The optimistic philosophy that we live in the best of all possible worlds. This is satirized by the exaggerated frequency and magnitude of horrible things that happen to the characters without comment. 
    • Christianity, particularly Catholicism, as its highest officials regularly abuse their power, commit crime, and have seemingly no interest in religion. 
    • The legal order, which is shown to permit and even sanction many of the horrors depicted in the book. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who is the author of Candide?

    Who is Candide's mother?

    What historical disaster was one of the inspirations behind the writing of Candide?


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