In his signature work Candide, French author Voltaire offers an extensive criticism of seventeenth and eighteenth-century social, cultural, and political realities. Aiming the brunt of his satirical attack on the elite strata of society, Voltaire simultaneously criticizes some liberal Enlightenment philosophies. Voltaire mocks the authority of both Church and State, showing the corruption inherent in each. Similarly, the novel points out the insipid arrogance of the aristocracy, especially via his relationship with the Baron and his family, all of whom except for his beloved Cunegonde remain farcically nameless throughout the novel. Although Voltaire sympathizes with the core values of Enlightenment thought such as social justice, reason, and egalitarianism, his novel demonstrates disappointment with the distortion of those values. Excess optimism, represented clearly by Pangloss, and excess pessimism, represented by Martin, are portrayed as the two impractical extremes of Enlightenment values in Candide. Furthermore, while Voltaire appreciates the burgeoning rationalism and scientific thought of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, he also points out how excess reason can exaggerate the importance of human beings' place in the universe, neglecting an appreciation for the powerful forces of nature. Voltaire also satirizes human friendship and romance via the relationships that the title character develops with people like Cunegonde, Jacques, Cacambo, and the old woman. Candide is an enduring work of literature because of its broad and unsparing social critique and for its author's frank illustration of irony.
Cunegonde in many ways propels the plot of the novel because Candide pursues her almost as his life's purpose. Following Cunegonde from nation to nation, Candide endures exile, danger, and isolation and yet never really finds fulfillment in his love. Through Candide's relationship with Cunegonde, Voltaire launches his clearest attack on elitism and on social norms. The novel opens with the youthful flirtation between Candide and Cunegonde, which leads directly to Candide's exile and his relentless lifelong journey in pursuit of Cunegonde and of his own freedom. Candide's exile, his illegitimate birth, and the refusal of any one in the Baron's family to recognize Candide as a social equal comprise a solid critique of the aristocracy. Cunegonde's betrayal of Candide in Buenos Aires suggests that she, too, plays into the social norms and elitist mentality of her family. The Baron's family all become stripped entirely of their wealth and political power by the end of the novel and yet none will recognize Candide as a social equal. Even when humbled and beaten, the Baron's family retains their sense of superiority. In spite of Candide's having helped Cunegonde and in spite of his obvious intelligence, the Baron and the Baron's son perpetually look down their noses at Candide, proclaiming that he is of too lowly a birth for Cunegonde. Voltaire mocks Cunegonde's brother in Chapter Fifteen, when he states, "you have the impudence to marry my sister, who bears seventy-two quarterings!" The insistent references to pedigree mimic the lineage of horses or dogs, not humans. In casting the nobility in a degrading light through their compromised position in Turkey and their ridiculous ascription to nobility by birthright, Voltaire mocks the aristocracy with aplomb. The fact that none of Cunegonde's relatives are referred to by first name, but only in relation to Thunder-ten-tronckh emphasizes Voltaire's mockery of nobility in Candide.
Voltaire also frankly mocks Church authority and Church doctrine. A brunt of Enlightenment philosophy already, the Church is under attack by figures in the novel like Pangloss. However, especially through Pangloss, Voltaire shows how the Enlightenment failed to offer a sound alternative to the Church. While Voltaire paints the Church as being much more one-dimensional and monolithic than the Enlightenment, the author nevertheless points out weaknesses in both philosophies. In Candide, the Church is initially represented by the heavy-handed forces of the Grand Inquisitor in Lisbon. The Grand Inquisitor's participation in Cunegonde's enslavement shows the outright hypocrisy of Catholicism, underscored by the elaborate burial of the Grand Inquisitor offered by the Holy Brotherhood. In spite of obvious moral failings, men of the Church are assumed to possess moral superiority. Anyone who eschews Church doctrine, regardless of their virtuous deeds, is deemed a heretic in Lisbon. Throwing Don Issachar, the Inquisitor's partner in the sex slave trade, onto a dunghill after his death further illustrates the Church's hypocrisy, as does the practice of burning heretics at the stake. In Chapter 10, a Franciscan friar steals money from Cunegonde. However, the most glaring portrayal of Church hypocrisy in Candide is the old woman, daughter of a Pope. The idea of the highest Catholic authority and advocate of celibacy bearing a child is hilarious as well as bitingly sarcastic.
The Church's lack of moral authority coincides with its lack of metaphysical or intellectual prowess in Candide. For instance, in Chapter 6 the Church-controlled Portuguese authorities sacrifice human beings in order to prevent earthquakes, a superstitious, irrational absurdity. Voltaire writes "After the earthquake ... The sages of that country could think of no means more effectual to preserve the kingdom from utter ruin." However, Voltaire makes sure to criticize equally Enlightenment thinkers, the university intelligentsia: "it having been decided by the University of Coimbra, that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible preventive of earthquakes." The character of Pangloss serves a similar purpose in Candide: to point out the fallacy of intellectual elitism and to critique some of the means by which Enlightenment thinkers applied their teachings.
Although political and Church elitism is portrayed as being far more dangerous and violent than Enlightenment thought in Candide, Voltaire does not spare either the unbridled optimism of Pangloss or the equally as irrational pessimism of Martin. The aptly-named Pangloss, who glosses over many of life's harsh realities with his saccharine idealism, is shown to be an utter fool by Voltaire. Although Voltaire sympathizes with Pangloss's socially enlightened values and obvious intelligence, the author sees through his naive suppositions about the world's perfection. The absurdity of Pangloss's theories is elucidated in the final chapters of Candide, when he still proclaims the world is perfect in spite of all the intense horrors he has witnessed. In the conclusion, Voltaire depicts Pangloss himself as a hypocrite: "Pangloss avowed that he had undergone dreadful sufferings; but having once maintained that everything went on as well as possible, he still maintained it, and at the same time believed nothing of it." Martin, who "was firmly persuaded that a person is equally ill-situated everywhere" represents but the polar opposite of Pangloss in his unwavering and equally as ridiculous pessimism.
Neither the philosophers nor the Church can offer Candide a clear understanding of the meaning of life. The title character of Voltaire's novel comes to an almost Buddhist conclusion through his final words: "let us cultivate our garden." Manual labor and a reconnection with nature offers Candide a hands-on experience of reality, divorced from the false morality of the Church, the false social superiority of the elite, and the false intellectual prowess of the philosophers. Life, it turns out, is full of suffering and irony. Mankind remains subject to forces beyond its control: the forces of nature as represented by the earthquake in Lisbon and the storm that kills the kind Anabaptist Jacques. No one, neither of Church nor of Enlightenment authority, can dominate nature nor fully escape human suffering. Through Cunegonde's aging, Voltaire also shows how human beings ultimately have no control over their bodies and their mortality. While the message of Candide seems postmodern in its sardonic detachment, Voltaire offers a sensible middle path between extremes. The dervish's brusquely slamming the door in Chapter 30 encapsulates the central metaphysical message of Candide: human beings don't have all the answers. To assume that through money, power, morality, or reason human beings can master reality is simply arrogant.