The power of language helps take readers to a place they could only imagine in their wildest dreams. It allows them to envision grand earthquakes and utopias. It lets them see the world on a deeper level than just the sometimes uniform world around them. Language lets writers tell a story, regardless of how farfetched or enchanted it might be if it were actually true. It helps them to convey certain messages through symbols and analogies. It encourages them to point out the fallacies and contradictions in common belief. Most of all, it brings together the two groups to create an interesting, unusual interaction. Without language, the world would truly be in the dark. Without this communication, people would have no way to dissent, no way to have their opinion known, no way to tell stories. With language, people have power. But what is this power if there is no style along with it? Anyone can throw words together to make a sentence, to let their voice be heard. But without some sense of a particular peculiarity and character, this diction will never be more than just words. To truly make a point clear, a writer must develop his story by challenging the reader with language and ideas that sometimes contradict each other but work in a way that they serve a deeper purpose. Voltaire thoroughly wields this power in Candide by using literary devices and stylized language to clearly demonstrate his critiques on optimism, war, and blissful ignorance.
The most obvious way Voltaire uses language to shape his ideas is through his overlapping and continuously changing uses of genre. Candide is many different genres all wrapped into one, and this mix is what makes the story come together in the way that it does. In one light, it is a bildungsroman (Fajardo-Acosta). It is a coming of age novel for the protagonist. The story shows how Candide develops from a naïve, blissfully ignorant adolescent to an experienced adult. Through all of his experiences, he grows as a person and his values are constantly challenged. With this, the story is also a picaresque novel, depicting the escapades of a wayward, lower-class hero who must confront the corruptness of society (Boone). Candide is very much in this type of a situation throughout the story; however, while his adventures are often times humorous, they are not necessarily realistic. On that note, the genre is also somewhat of a black comedy or farce (Fajardo-Acosta). While many of the issues in the story are very disturbing and forlorn, Voltaire treats them in a manner that makes them ludicrous to the point where they are far less melancholy. In this, the idea of a farce comes to the forefront. This work is dramatic, but in the lightest form of the word. The situations the (highly exaggerated) characters get into are quite improbable. This largely satirical genre-mixing is truly the best way for Voltaire to demonstrate his critiques. By writing in this way, the story is not depressing in a way that it is too dramatic to make these points clear. Oppositely, if the book was too light, he could not make a very powerful critique because there would be nothing to oppose the merry manner of optimism. Candide must have these experiences, and Voltaire must portray them in this way so that the critique is clear. With Voltaire’s genre-mixing, he is able to tell a largely sad story, and at the same time, use his language to make it lighter and prove a point.
Voltaire makes just as much of a statement with the way in which he tells the stories. In some instances, he divulges a lot of information, to the point where the reader might in fact get turned off to what he is saying. When he is describing the scenes that Candide sees in the villages during the war between the Abars and the Bulgars, Voltaire seems to go into every single dirty detail. “Others, whose bodies were badly scorched, begged to be put out of their misery. Whichever way he looked, the ground was strewn with the legs, arms, and brains of dead villagers” (Voltaire 26). On the other hand, there are times when Voltaire seemingly skims over any authentic detail in other narratives. For instance, when the old woman talks about her life, there are moments where she goes into specifics, and others where she lists things and in the process, reveals relatively nothing. “The Princess of Palestrina and I must certainly have been mighty strong to withstand all we had to undergo before reaching Morocco. But that’s enough: such experiences are so common that they are not worth the trouble of describing” (Voltaire 51). Despite the differences in details in these two descriptions, Voltaire makes a statement with both. He uses varying amounts of specifics in the stories to make different points. To make his critique of war clear, he uses gory details to show just how brutal the act is. Oppositely, he avoids some details of the old woman’s story as to not detract from the subject at hand, and to keep the reader engaged. Clearly, Voltaire uses varying degrees of detail when describing different events to fully show the purpose of each of them.
Voltaire’s use of hyperbole and incredibly unbelievable instances help drive his stories forward and set up the satirical tone of the book. To make his point about optimism and the fallacy of the idea of “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds,” he must put Candide in situations that go beyond simply contradicting that point. Throughout the book, Candide finds himself in increasingly despairing predicaments. From narrowly escaping death (but none the less being beaten) for Pangloss’s statements about religion to “killing” his lover’s brother to discovering a utopia to being duped by the Marchioness, Candide experiences many things that most readers could only dream of. Regardless, other characters face just as much adversity, if not more. Pangloss is infected with the plague, hanged, and enslaved to work on a ship. Cunegonde’s whole life is shaken up; her family is murdered and her town is destroyed. She is essentially left for dead. After going through many an adventure, when she and her beloved are finally reunited, she has lost her beauty. (This is yet another situation that tests Candide’s optimism because despite the fact that her ugliness makes him not want to marry her anymore, he does anyway.) The old woman easily experiences the most distressing and outlandish circumstances. She begins her story by describing how beautiful she once used to be and how noble her lineage was. (In this section, Voltaire also utilizes another device to make a point. In a note, he refers to himself in the third person to point out the fact that he used discretion by not using a real Pope in his story. By doing this, he adds to his satire while remaining unscathed from any criticism he might receive for making a somewhat blasphemous account.) Alas, the luxuries of her life were short lived. She goes on to tell how she saw her mother and other women literally ripped apart by the men who were fighting over them. Later, she experiences poverty, slavery, and the plague. However, her story gets to the point of ridiculousness when she describes how Turkish soldiers cut off one of her buttock. Obviously, this story is greatly exaggerated and not very realistic. But all of these anecdotes serve Voltaire’s purpose. They are all meant to challenge the optimism that Candide so firmly believes in at the beginning of the novel. The language of these stories all shape the tone and theme of the story.
To deepen the breadth of the characters, Voltaire juxtaposes them. Beyond just using stories to challenge the idea of optimism, he also chooses to employ a foil to oppose and highlight Candide’s beliefs. Martin does exactly that. Whenever Candide chooses to look at the glass as half-full, Martin is there to counter his observations. A good example of this is when the two men are in Count Pococurante’s library. Pococurante shows his utter disrespect and distaste towards the works in his collection. Candide takes this to mean that the man is incredibly happy because he is never fully pleased and feels superior to everything he possesses. “‘But,’ said Candide, ‘isn’t there a pleasure in criticizing everything and discovering faults where other men detect beauties?’” (Voltaire 124). Martin, on the other hand, believes that just the opposite is true. “‘That is to say,’ replied Martin, ‘that there is a pleasure in not being pleased’” (Voltaire 124). With all of their conversations, their views are always in contradiction of each other. Martin serves as just another hindrance to the optimism Candide tries so very hard to hold on to. He acts as a way of proving this idea wrong and further critiquing these ideas.
Voltaire’s utilization of language and literary devices shape his ideas throughout his novel. Without his genre-mixing, his story would be very static. Because he crosses the lines between making the work a bildungsroman, picaresque novel, black comedy, and farce, he is able to do many things at once. He can tell the narrative of a boy growing up and being challenged by the corruption around him, and at the same time he can critique the ideas that were so widely held during his time. With his varying degrees of details, he allows the reader to be engaged at different levels and paint his points in contrasting amounts of depth to make certain points especially vibrant. The way in which Voltaire presents his characters also adds deeply to his critiques. By putting them in highly exaggerated, unrealistic situations, he proves the ridiculousness of believing “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” and shapes the overall theme of the novel. Also by juxtaposing Candide and Martin, he furthers his ideas about optimism in a fresh way by contrasting the two characters’ opinions. The way all of these come together helps to show how Voltaire used the power of language to not only simply tell a story, but also analyze the real and imagined world.
Boone, Alice. “Candide at 250: Scandal and Success.” New York Public Library. 2009. Web. 11 Feb. 2010. <http://legacy.www.nypl.org/research/chss/candide/travels.html>.
Fajardo-Acosta, Dr. Fidel. “Candide (1759).” World Literature Website. 2001. Web. 11 Feb. 2010. <http://fajardo-acosta.com/worldlit/voltaire/candide.htm>.
Voltaire. Candide. Trans. John Butt. London: Penguin Books, 1947.