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Invitation to World Literature

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Key Teaching Points and Discussion Prompts

Characters

  1. If you had to choose the two most important female characters, whom would you choose, and why?
  2. Make a timeline of everything that happens to Cunégonde, complete with the places she ends up.
  3. Martin is the only acknowledged pessimist in the novel; how does Voltaire seem to treat him? Is he a hero?
  4. What can you read into the refusal of Cunégonde's brother to let her marry Candide? What traditional values is he trying to maintain by refusing? Why?

Plot Actions

  1. The book moves very swiftly from one event to another. Many scenes take only a page or two, sometimes just paragraphs. This is characteristic of other 18th century novels, but does it work for you as a modern reader? Does it make the often horrible events harder or easier to take?
  2. The book's plot is a journey, as are the plots of The Odyssey and Journey to the West. Are these journeys at all comparable? Characters often go on a journey as a means of learning. Does that happen here?
  3. Is there any significance to the characters ending up in Turkey? Who do they meet there and what worldview do they express? How does this contrast with European worldviews?

Themes

  1. If Voltaire is satirizing this "best of all possible worlds" thinking, what does he propose as an alternative?
  2. How can you explain the human belief in optimism, even in the face of terrible realities? Does optimism lead inevitably to complacency?
  3. Our world is much like Voltaire's: people live in slavery, there are violent wars, and disease and natural disasters wreak terrible havoc on human lives. What might Voltaire's message to today's readers be? What might he make of today's world?
  4. Voltaire mixes actual events, reported "straight," with completely fictional characters and events; but everything is delivered in the same tone and literary style. Does this style work for you?

Discussion Prompts to Encourage Critical Thinking

  1. Voltaire is very hard on organized religion. Some see Voltaire's book as going even further, not just to a condemnation of the actions of religious individuals and institutions, but an attack on the idea of religion, and belief in God. Catholics were forbidden to read this book for centuries, and as late as 1948 it was banned by the Catholic church in the U.S. Do you think Voltaire's views could be compatible with belief in God? Is there a kind of organized religion that could meet Voltaire's standard? Does it exist? Could it ever exist?
  2. What is the most valuable characteristic in Voltaire's view? Is it being smart, lucky, hard-headed, flexible, humorous, or something else?
  3. Voltaire was one of the most controversial figures of his day. Remember he was not even allowed to enter his own country for a period because of what he had written. The majority of his writings were banned at one period or another. Think about figures like this today―perhaps they are comedians, writers, others in the public eye. If it is someone you agree with, put yourself in the shoes of somebody who is outraged by this person. If you are already outraged by this person, imagine taking the opposite view. Then think about how both groups of people would have responded to Voltaire.
  4. Is it possible to separate the literary and historical value of a book from its message and purpose? Other books in this series have dual roles; they are important historical documents that can be read for information on past cultures, or read as pure literature, just for the story (think of Gilgamesh, The Bhagavad Gita, Journey to the West, Things Fall Apart, or The Odyssey). Is it possible to read Candide while ignoring its historical and cultural messages? Is it desirable?