In A Nutshell
Imagine your favorite white-hot wit that lampoons everything in their path—say, Amy Schumer. Now, roll in the acerbic observations of your favorite public intellectual—say, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Finally, add the kind of world-building that rockets books to the top of the bestseller list—like our man George R.R. Martin.
You just ended up with someone kind of like Voltaire, the literary force of nature behind Candide.
Nothing is safe from the scathing commentary Voltaire delivers in this novel—not power, wealth, love, philosophy, religion, education, or, most significantly, optimism. But this isn't a dull treatise or an angry screed. Instead, it's an adventure story that follows the (totally insane) antics of Candide, a wide-eyed, innocent boy who's totally besotted by a super-hot girl.
But this isn't your standard love story. Instead, Candide goes to war, suffers through natural disasters, gets on a ship bound for Latin America, gets in a shipwreck, goes to the mythical city of El Dorado, and kills a disproportionate number of religious figures.
He also meets the weirdest characters this side of The Hobbit—a former concubine with only one butt cheek, a group of women who have monkeys for lovers, a utopian civilization, and more skeevy scoundrels than you can count with two hands and two feet.
And all of this—and we mean all—is told through the lens of biting satire. Published in 1759, Candide makes fun of the typical coming-of-age story and, more broadly, literature itself. François-Marie Arouet, whose pen name was Voltaire, was an Enlightenment thinker, which is reflected in his concern with the power of reason, rejection of the tyranny of church and state, and interest in equality among men.
As you might have guessed, outspoken Voltaire was very unpopular with both government and church authorities in his time and was periodically imprisoned and exiled for his views... and Candide was banned within a month of its release.
And yet, despite the best efforts of censors, we're still reading this novel today. And, what's more, we're still laughing.
Why Should I Care?
You know what sucks? People who are just too upbeat. Too sunny. Too smiley. Too glass-is-half-full.
There's nothing wrong with being upbeat once in a while. Some days you find a twenty dollar bill on the sidewalk—if that happens, go nuts with the perma-grin. And hey—if you're hanging out with five Golden Retriever puppies on a 70-degree May afternoon with a double-scoop ice cream cone, there is no one in the world that would begrudge you a really beatific expression.
But then there are those other people.
You know the type. The day calls for wintry mix and they're whistling. They say "What's shakin', bacon?" every time you see them. They say things like "Sweating is healthy!" when it's 103 degrees in August and the air conditioner is broken. They'll sit next to you on the bus—before you've even had coffee—and say "Turn that frown upside-down!"
They make us want to scream. And throw water balloons. And put toothpaste on toilet seats.
And write brilliant 17th-century novels about how Optimism as a ruling, strict philosophy is totally bogus.
Oops. There's already a brilliant 17th-century novel about how Optimism as a ruling, strict philosophy is totally bogus: Candide.
This book outlines basically every terrible thing that could happen—from natural disasters to disembowelment and everything in between—and then makes fun of people who still seem to believe that the only response to life is to Keep Calm and Smile On.
Candide was banned at the time of its publication because of its scandalous satire of both the church and government, but we have to imagine there was at least one chirpy citizen who wanted it banned because it was just not nice.
But the joke's on those foolish enough to try to keep Candide away from the reading public. Multiple centuries later, it's still a satire-alicious hit. And you know what? That fact makes us feel pretty freakin' cheerful.