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A Critical Commentary Of Voltaires Candide English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1798 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Voltaire’s work, Candide, uses powerful satirical narrative to represent slavery in the eighteenth century, the supposed Age of Reason, and Candide’s epiphany, represented throughout the course of the extract. The passage follows the travels of Candide and his fellows to Buenos-Aires, in search of his beloved Cunégonde. After five days of travelling, he arrives, with Cacambo, outside the town of Surinam, where they encounter a mutilated slave.

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The theme of slavery is represented most effectively through the descriptions given by the characters, rather than the physical description of the scene provided by the narrator. A slave or ‘nègre’ is found on the ground. His physical position, ‘étendu par terre’, reflects his social class and the degradation of slaves. The slave’s garment, ‘un caleçon de toile bleue’, is hardly weather-proof or durable, highlighting the poverty endured by slaves and the ruthless attitude of their masters. Voltaire withholds the name of the slave, emphasising the disregard for human life implied within society. ‘Nègre’ is used to represent the entire slave population. This pejorative term further highlights society’s attitude. However, it is important to note that Candide first calls him ‘mon ami’, indicating his open nature, perhaps a reflection of Voltaire’s opinion of slavery.

Whilst the masters of slaves are very disrespectful of their slaves, the ‘nègre’ calls his keeper ‘maître’, showing a profound respect. To add to master’s grandeur, the slave recalls his position in society, qualifying it with the adjective ‘fameux’. In this paragraph, the depiction of slavery is brutal, with the tragedies of the workplace and punishment discussed with a banal acceptance. The language used when the slave describes how ‘la meule nous attrape le doigt, on nous coupe la main; quand nous voulons nous enfuir, on nous coupe la jambe’ gives a feeling of breathlessness and the futility of his attempt to escape. This description of suffering ‘draws accurately on legislation concerning delinquent slaves set out in in the 1685 Code Noir’ [2] .The description also draws a parallel between the relationship between the slave and his master. Voltaire’s use of ‘restrictive adverbials’, [3] such as ‘ne…que’ demonstrate the physical effects of cruelty on the slave. The language used by the slave is resigned, with a repetitive use of passive structures such as ‘on nous’. The slave then coldly states, ‘c’est à ce prix que vous mangez du sucre en Europe’. This simple statement highlights the corruption, not only in slavery, but in all levels of society.

Leibniz’s philosophy of Optimism is evident in the representation of slavery. The slave’s resigned account shows an acceptance of life shared with those who follow the belief of Optimism. Leibniz claimed that both human and moral evils were part of a greater good [4] .This is further emphasised by the qualification of slavery by the mother of the slave as ‘un honneur’. The slave adds an optimistic ‘cependant’; this sudden element of bathos reinforces Pangloss’ ‘meilleur des mondes’ outlook on life. This optimistic view, personified through Pangloss, contrasts greatly with Candide’s opinions after witnessing the situation. The absurdity of Optimism, with reference to the slave-trade, is shown when Cacambo asks, ‘Qu’est-ce que qu’optimisme?’ Cacambo has not used an article before optimism, emphasising how little he cares for it. With reference to the novel as a whole, Optimism is only mentioned directly within this passage. As soon as it is mentioned, it is denounced. Further to the slaves account, he compares his situation with that of ‘des chiens, des singes et des perroquets’. The animals might possibly represent the different social classes within society.

The passage emphasises how slavery was represented in monetary terms; the slave was sold by his mother for ten ‘écus patagons’, the currency of Spain at the time. Moreover, throughout the slave’s account of how he came to be in this position, it appears that slavery was represented differently in the West from the homelands of the slaves. The ‘nègre’ recalls how his mother told him ‘ils te feront vivre heureux’, describing it as an honour to work for ‘nos seigneurs, les blancs’. It is interesting that the masters are classed as ‘les Blancs’. Voltaire divides society not only by social class, but also by race. It is clear that the people of Guinée were disillusioned by the notion of slavery.

The confusion is further emphasised by the religious theme central to the passage. The lexical field of religion emphasises the religious beliefs of the slaves, a central theme in their African culture. Evidently, the slave is religious, as he attends church ‘tous les dimanches’. However, Voltaire highlights, yet again, the corruption within society by making it clear to the reader that the slave had been converted. The Pasteur claims that they are ‘tous enfants d’Adam, blancs et noirs’. This contradicts his earlier statement of the masters being ‘les blancs’. Like his clothes and culture, his religious identity has been stripped from him. Here, Voltaire is criticising the social system of the period. It is clear that the slaves are taught what they know not to be true, yet they accept it as it is the way of the world in which they live.

Despite Voltaire’s thought-provoking depiction of slavery in the passage, it is interesting to look critically at Candide’s attitude to the situation. When he first encounters the slave on the road, he addresses him in a friendly manner, symbolising his naivety and lack of understanding. Voltaire’s portrayal of Candide’s naivety is referenced even in his name. Candide is taken from Latin and connotes ‘whiteness, openness, naivety, innocence and, more negatively, inexperience and credulity’. [5] The passive language of the slave throughout his description of his horrific ordeal is a direct juxtaposition with the raw emotion portrayed through Candide’s reaction.

The flaws in Pangloss’s optimism are clearly highlighted, especially during Candide’s discourse. W.H Barber suggest that the characters ‘help Voltaire in his purpose of parodying the episodic adventure novel [making it possible for the reader] to view characters and narrative as it were externally, and consequently critically to become aware of the caricature and exaggeration, the deliberate implausibilities, the bathetic contrasts’ [6] . Despite Candide’s denouncing of belief, he does little else to react to the situation. Candide merely begins to cry, leaving the slave where he found him. The reader criticises Candide for not helping to free the slave from his bind in society. Voltaire is provoking this response in the reader to make clear the effects of passivity. He also ‘seems to regard the problem as so large and horrifying that […] one can only weep and go on one’s way, or presumably, continue to eat sugar with a guilty conscience.’ [7] 

Throughout this passage, irony plays very little part. However, other narrative techniques are employed. Personal deixis is used when Candide is talking to the slave. He asks, ‘que fais-tu là, mon ami, dans l’état horrible où je te vois?’Here it is impossible for the reader to understand the situation and the horrible state that the slave is in without reading into the context of the question.

The theme of culture can be thoroughly examined in this passage. Talking ‘en hollandais’, Candide emphasises his European background compared with the African culture of the slave. Division within society is clearly illustrated when the slave tells Candide that his mutilation is the price that he has paid to eat sugar ‘en Europe’. Voltaire demonstrates that the world is divided. Interestingly, the slave understands Candide’s Dutch, highlighting their cultural awareness, the importance of communication and the enforcement of other cultures upon slaves. The cultural toleration of the slaves is juxtaposed with the attitude of Western civilisation. African culture appears to be more family-oriented when compared with Candide’s upbringing. The slave refers to his mother, ‘ma mere’, showing his respect for the advice given to him by his family.

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Throughout this passage of Voltaire’s Candide, slavery is represented in a number of ways, most notably by the description provided by the slave himself. In addition, Candide’s attitude highlights the philosophy of Optimism that Voltaire aims to discuss throughout the entire book. It is said that ‘the narrative of Candide is [..] a vehicle carefully designed to convey a philosophical discussion of topical concern both to the author and reader’ [8] . In conclusion, Voltaire has employed a palette of narrative techniques to enrich this passage of the book.

Word Count= 1,490

Bibliography MHRA format

Barber, W.H., Studies in French Literature 5, Voltaire: Candide (London: W.H. Barber, 1960)

Cronk ,Professor Nicholas, Voltaire and the Voices of Enlightenment, read by Simon Russell Beale, (BBC Radio 3, 2010)

Mason,Haydn, European Masters : Voltaire (London : Hutchinson, 1975)

Williams,David, Voltaire:Candide (London: Grant and Cutler Ltd, 1997)

Voltaire, Candide, Presentation by Jean Goldzink, (Paris, Editions Flammarion, 2007)


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