Candide is the illegitimate nephew of a German baron. He grows up in the baron’s castle under the tutelage of the scholar Pangloss, who teaches him that this world is “the best of all possible worlds.” Candide falls in love with the baron’s young daughter, Cunégonde. The baron catches the two kissing and expels Candide from his home. On his own for the first time, Candide is soon conscripted into the army of the Bulgars. He wanders away from camp for a brief walk, and is brutally flogged as a deserter. After witnessing a horrific battle, he manages to escape and travels to Holland.
In Holland, a kindly Anabaptist named Jacques takes Candide in. Candide runs into a deformed beggar and discovers that it is Pangloss. Pangloss explains that he has contracted syphilis and that Cunégonde and her family have all been brutally murdered by the Bulgar army. Nonetheless, he maintains his optimistic outlook. Jacques takes Pangloss in as well. The three travel to Lisbon together, but before they arrive their ship runs into a storm and Jacques is drowned. Candide and Pangloss arrive in Lisbon to find it destroyed by an earthquake and under the control of the Inquisition. Pangloss is soon hanged as a heretic, and Candide is flogged for listening with approval to Pangloss’s philosophy. After his beating, an old woman dresses Candide’s wounds and then, to his astonishment, takes him to Cunégonde. Cunégonde explains that though the Bulgars killed the rest of her family, she was merely raped and then captured by a captain, who sold her to a Jew named Don Isaachar. At present, she is a sex slave jointly owned by Don Isaachar and the Grand Inquisitor of Lisbon. Each of Cunégonde’s two owners arrive in turn as she and Candide are talking, and Candide kills them both. Terrified, Candide, the old woman, and Cunégonde flee and board a ship bound for South America. During their journey, the old woman relates her own story. She was born the Pope’s daughter but has suffered a litany of misfortunes that include rape, enslavement, and cannibalism.
Candide and Cunégonde plan to marry, but as soon as they arrive in Buenos Aires, the governor, Don Fernando, proposes to Cunégonde. Thinking of her own financial welfare, she accepts. Authorities looking for the murderer of the Grand Inquisitor arrive from Portugal in pursuit of Candide. Along with a newly acquired valet named Cacambo, Candid...
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...to the latter category, because they will admit no exceptions. Like Pangloss, Martin abides by ideas that discourage any active efforts to change the world for the better. If, as Martin asserts, “man [is] bound to live either in convulsions of misery or in the lethargy of boredom,” why should anyone try to rescue anyone else from “convulsions of misery”?
Cacambo sheds a subtle and interesting light on the philosophical themes of the novel. Unlike any other character in the novel, he inspires perfect confidence, both in his intelligence and his moral uprightness. He knows both native American and European languages, and deals capably with both the Jesuits and the Biglugs. He suffers fewer gross misfortunes than any other character, less out of luck than because of his sharp wits, and he lives up to Candide’s trust when Candide sends him to fetch Cunégonde. Any reader tempted to conclude that Voltaire has no faith in human nature must reconsider when faced with the example of Cacambo. Despite the optimism Cacambo inspires, however, he is no optimist himself. His wide experience of the world has led Cacambo to conclude that “the law of nature teaches us to kill our neighbor.”