Take a visual journey through Voltaire's Candide




Voltaire. The "La Vallière" manuscript of Candide, ou L'optimisme, 1758. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal.

This, the sole surviving manuscript of Candide, was dictated by Voltaire to his secretary, Wagnière, in the space of three days in the late fall of 1758. Occasional corrections in Voltaire’s hand are visible, for example on this page from Chapter XXII, in which Candide travels through Paris and is horrified by scenes of suffering and corruption. This is customarily called the La Vallière manuscript, named for Voltaire’s friend, the duc de La Vallière, a notable collector of scandalous books. Voltaire sent him this manuscript sometime in mid- to late 1758. A different, later, manuscript, now missing, was used to set type for the first printing of the book in Geneva sometime between late December 1758 and mid-January 1759. 


On his travels in search of Cunegonde, his lost love, Voltaire’s Candide encounters a world marked by political and religious upheaval, scientific discovery, and colonial expansion. His tutor, Dr. Pangloss, insists that “all is for the best,” but episodes of tragedy and devastation continually challenge this optimism.

Candide is a work of fiction, but it is not a novel. Its zany and often ridiculous two-dimensional characters, and its improbable, rapid plot twists, cannot be taken seriously. These are elements of satire in Voltaire’s philosophical tale, or conte philosophique (a literary recasting of debate), in which the author set out to persuade his readers that one of the central and dominant ideas of the 18th century was both false and dangerous. Known as philosophical optimism, this is the idea that everything that happens in life is for the best, even if we cannot understand why it is so.

On its first publication, in 1759, Candide was a sensation — banned, pirated, and talked about all over Europe. Seventeen editions appeared in the first year alone. Although it was disparaged in the 19th century by the leading writers of French Romanticism, Candide has become a staple in the canon of Western literature. It has been reprinted continuously for more than two centuries in all the major languages of the world and illustrated by artists of note. Candide as a cultural treasure has also been continuously transformed: imitated, excerpted, expanded, set to music, staged, and filmed. This adaptability was Candide’s specialty from the start: refashioning controversies has made it an engine for 250 years of debate.