Agency and Parallel Construction in Voltaire’s Candide


A quick refresher, courtesy of Penguin Classics and Chris Ware

Candide’s opening and ending are in many ways parallel and, as such, they serve as ideal lenses through which to view transformations in Voltaire’s characters—transformations which become apparent in the differing details of repeated themes and situations. Candide is introduced as a gentle young man, whose “mind was of the simplest,” who “listened to [Pangloss’] lessons with all the candor of his age and character,” and to whom things simply happen, without his instigation or input. Yet this is not exactly the Candide we have as the novel closes. Rather, we are left with a Candide who, if not necessarily a man of action, certainly takes action and forms his own ideas: he has emerged as a complete subject and, what’s more, he has shifted philosophically to acknowledge the importance of his agency. One cannot imagine the Candide of most of the novel, and particularly the opening, calling a Baron, his superior, the “maddest of madmen” to his face and then presenting an argument in support of Candide’s own actions. Indeed, one cannot imagine the Candide of the opening doing much at all: he simply stands by, a spectator in his own life, occasionally exclaiming “Oh!” and wondering—rather idly—why things are the way they are. It is this transformation from Candide the spectator to Candide the subject, aware of himself and his agency, that I wish to develop through the analysis of parallel situations in the novel’s opening and close.

In Chapter 29 (which could be thought of a sort of beginning of the end, setting up as it does, the state of affairs which begin the final chapter), there is an almost a direct repetition of the scenario which sets the whole novel in motion: Candide and Cunégonde wish to be involved and the Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh (then the father, now the son) forbids it. The only major difference in the two scenes is that in the first, Candide is a hapless victim of circumstance, while in the second, he instigates the situation. Voltaire makes it exceedingly clear in his description of the cause which leads to the effect of Candide’s being expelled from the castle, how little Candide himself actually had to do with it. It is Cunégonde, not Candide, who witnesses Doctor Pangloss’ lesson in experimental physics to the chambermaid and is inspired by it. Furthermore, the event of the kiss itself is not planned; rather they “found themselves behind a screen,” the particular use of the word “found” implying that neither one of them really knows how they got there, nor did they mean to be there. They simply ended up there, through no actions of their own, language which de-emphasizes their agencies. As the scene is described, with every action Candide and Cunégonde themselves fall further into the background as they are supplanted by fragments of themselves. Cunégonde drops her handkerchief and Candide picks it up, but from there she quickly becomes “she” and he “the young man” (moving away from their individualities as subjects), before the two characters cease to be the subjects of clauses at all and rather fragmented parts of their bodies lead the action: “their lips met, their eyes glowed, their knees trembled, their hands wandered” (10). This structure completely removes Candide’s agency and individuality: his tryst with Cunégonde happens to him, he does not make it happen. This Candide merely exists, incapable of individual action and thought, blown about by the winds of circumstance without protest.

Voltaire’s repetition of this scenario at the end of the novel immediately highlights the change in Candide. No longer is he a passive entity to which things simply happen—now he sets events in motion himself. In Chapter 29, the Cunégonde-Candide versus a Baron of Thunder-Ten-Tronckh situation is only allowed to repeat itself because Candide (and, to an extent, Cunégonde) sets it in motion. Rather than being discovered by the Baron behind a screen, Candide himself “notifies” the Baron of the fact that he is going to marry his sister. When the Baron protests, Candide, far from passivity, ridicules him and  proceeds to list all the things that Candide himself has done for the Baron. “I rescued you from the galleys, I paid your ransom, I paid your sister’s too. . . I would kill you again if I heeded my anger” (132, emphasis my own). The very structure of these sentences mirrors the description of the the earlier version of the scenario—short, simple sentences in quick repetition, but where before the subject of the sentences was anything but Candide himself, now he monopolizes them, asserting himself through them. Thus, the once passive Candide has not only become active, but claimed his agency. Whereas at the end of Chapter 1, Candide was kicked by the Baron, here Candide himself gives the Baron a metaphorical kicking, which also serves to expel the Baron, just as the Baron’s kicking of Candide expelled him from Thunder-Ten-Tronckh.

Perhaps, though, the most telling encapsulation of Candide’s transformation from passive receptacle to active agency comes in the novel’s famous last line. As the “little society” of Candide’s farm establishes itself following Martin’s “laudable plan” of “work without reasoning,” Pangloss observes to Candide that “all events are linked together in the best of all possible worlds” and to illustrate this point, he points out that had Candide not undergone all the trials and tribulations of the preceding 29 chapters, he “would not be here eating candied citrons and pistachios.” Candide replies: “That is well said… but we must cultivate our garden” (138). Here Candide not only questions Pangloss’ philosophy, but directly contradicts it, as his use of the word “but”—introducing opposition—signifies. The Candide at the opening of the novel was described largely in terms of his attention to and blind acceptance of Pangloss’ philosophy. Candide “listened attentively and believed innocently” (9) and throughout the opening of the novel  he simply parrots Pangloss’ beliefs: “That is what M. Pangloss always told me” (12), “Doctor Pangloss was certainly right to tell me…” (17). However as Candide progresses through his adventures, and more and more ills befall him, he begins to question Pangloss’ philosophies. After the earthquake of Lisbon he asks “If this is the best of all possible worlds, then what are the others?” (27) and later on, Candide and Cunégonde are prompted by a theft which contradicts Pangloss’ ideas about property to “[reason] a great deal about the philosophy of poor Pangloss” (38). This trajectory towards formulation of his own thought culminates in Candide’s assertion that one must cultivate one’s garden, which simultaneously conveys Candide’s nascent agency and his understanding of the importance of that agency. In the first descriptions of Pangloss’ philosophy, Pangloss gives as an example of the the fact that we live in the best of all possible worlds the idea that “pigs being made to be eaten, we eat pork all year round” (9), a conception of food which ignores all the labor which must go into its production. Pangloss’ pigs seem to be constantly available and Candide accepts this view, believing it innocently as cited above.

Taking this discussion of food in parallel with Pangloss’ comment about the pistachios and candied citrons, Candide’s transformation becomes even more starkly apparent. Not only is Candide now rejecting Pangloss’ philosophy, he is rejecting it on a specific point with which he agreed explicitly at the start of the novel—and that point is to do with recognition of the human agent. In saying that we must cultivate our garden, Candide is acknowledging the work that must go into the food we eat, that it does not simply appear miraculously, that cultivation is required. Pangloss’ logic in that Candide would not be where he is had he not undergone what he has is flawless (for once), however Candide wishes to amend it with respect to the way the food he is eating figures into the overall philosophy—particularly its specific application to agency. No longer does Candide hold with a view of the world in which things simply exist without work, without responsibility, without any need for will as Pangloss’ pigs do. The Candide of the end of the novel recognizes the need for cultivation of the garden (literally, for food), but also the cultivation of one’s agency. Those pistachios do not exist on that table for Candide because he existed through his adventures, but because someone, even if not he, worked for them. Candide’s assertion to Pangloss that we must cultivate our garden introduces a human element, a human agency into the equation. His recognition of that fact and assertion of the need for cultivation represents his understanding of the need for will and cultivation of the self. The Candide of the end of the novel no longer merely exists, but acts and thinks and this transformation is played out in his rejection of Pangloss’ apparently harmless comment about the pistachios and citrons, which is representative of a much larger difference in their two philosophies.

 (All page numbers taken from my Folioplus edition.)


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