Invitation to World Literature
Candide Candide – Key Points
Key Teaching Points and Discussion Prompts
- If you had to choose the two most important female characters, whom would you choose, and why?
- Make a timeline of everything that happens to Cunégonde, complete with the places she ends up.
- Martin is the only acknowledged pessimist in the novel; how does Voltaire seem to treat him? Is he a hero?
- 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?
- 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?
- The book’s plot is a journey, as are the plots of The Odysseyand 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?
- 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?
- If Voltaire is satirizing this “best of all possible worlds” thinking, what does he propose as an alternative?
- How can you explain the human belief in optimism, even in the face of terrible realities? Does optimism lead inevitably to complacency?
- 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?
- 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
- 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?
- What is the most valuable characteristic in Voltaire’s view? Is it being smart, lucky, hard-headed, flexible, humorous, or something else?
- 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.
- 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?
Unit 1 The Epic of Gilgamesh
The first known human story is that of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Images of artifacts from ancient Iraq mix with beautiful illustrations, dance, and costume to tell of the relations between gods and mortals, the search for friendship, love, and immortality. Featured cast members include Assyriologist Ben Foster, comic book illustrator Jim Starlin, and poet and playwright Yusef Komunyakaa.
Unit 2 My Name Is Red
Both an historical novel and a graphic murder mystery set among the miniaturists of the Ottoman court. With its focus on Istambul, a major crossroads of the world, it tells of the artistic/cultural contest between Europe and the East. Cast members include the book's Nobel-prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk, and its English translator, Erdağ Göknar.
Unit 3 The Odyssey
Odysseus must travel the known and unknown world before he can return home to his beloved island kingdom of Ithaca. What does this ancient story say to readers today? In this program, Odysseus's story is given ancient and modern historical and philosophical context, and illustrated with centuries of art. Featured are theater director Mary Zimmerman, actor-director Tim Blake-Nelson, and psychologist/author Jonathan Shay.
Unit 4 The Bacchae
The city of Thebes is torn apart by the conflicting demands of reason and religion, as the disguised god Dionysus returns to his home town demanding to be worshipped. Opposing him is the young king Pentheus, who is doomed to suffer the ultimate punishment for his disbelief. Featured speakers include world-renowned playwright/author Wole Soyinka, actor Alan Cumming, and Daniel Mendelsohn of Bard College.
Unit 5 The Bhagavad Gita
This epic tale of the warrior-prince Arjuna confronting a life-or-death dilemma during civil war presents a unique and powerful philosophy of duty, discipline, and serving a higher purpose. Beautiful illustrations connect the story with its rich history and culture. Featured speakers include Sheldon Pollock, Professor of Sanskrit Studies and acclaimed composer Philip Glass.
Unit 6 The Tale of Genji
This portrait of court life in medieval Japan follows the life and exploits of the great Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Japanese court, it provides an insider's view of Japanese court life, the official and behind the screen. Art, clothing, music from the time of the novel illustrate the obserations of authors Jane Smiley and Chiori Miyagawa, among others.
Unit 7 Journey to the West
The powerful and mischievous Stone Monkey King brings chaos to heaven and earth. Freed from a mountain prison in order to guard a Chinese monk on his journey to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures from India, Monkey seeks his own spiritual transformation. Modern performance, contemporary art, and Buddhist philosophers provide a rich context to the ancient tale. Featured cast members include playwright David Henry Huang, storyteller Diane Wolkstein, and translator Professor Anthony Yu.
Unit 8 Popol Vuh
The Mayan book of creation, the dawn of life, and the glories of gods and kings. This magnificent epic was saved from destruction at the hands of the Spanish by Quiché chroniclers. Once repressed, the story is now interwoven with the history of today's Mayan people. Featured speakers include archaeologist Richard Hanson, humorist Mo Rocca, and Guatemalan artist Shuni Giron.
Unit 9 Candide
A satirical novel following the travails of Candide, a hopeless optimist whose faith in his tutor's mantra that his is "the best of all possible worlds" is tested beyond all limits. Voltaire's challenge to the aristocracy of his day proves refreshingly amusing and biting today. Original illustrations, songs, and comic book figures plumb the depths of this satire. Featured speakers include director Harold Ramis, actress Kristin Chenoweth, and cartoonist Chris Ware.
Unit 10 Things Fall Apart
In this foundational modern African novel, Chinua Achebe's story follows the lives of people trying to understand which belief systems deserve their loyalty. The protagonist, Okonkwo is a tribal leader who battles neighboring villages, the English, and his own demons in early colonial Nigeria. The perspectives of readers from around the world reveal the novel's universal themes. Cast members include playwright and professor Tess Onwueme and theater director Chuck Mike.
Unit 11 One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez's multigenerational saga of the Buendía family in the isolated town of Macondo inaugurated the boom in Latin American literature in the 1970s and marked the beginning of magical realism. Writer Sandra Cisneros and scholar of Latin American literature, Ilan Stavans lend their thoughts and voices to the discussion of this epic novel.
Unit 12 The God of Small Things
Fraternal twins Rahel and Estha struggle to reclaim their lives after their childhood is destroyed by tragic circumstances. As past and present merge in this narrative of Indian society and politics, the many layers of the caste system are mirrored in the poetic and inventive language of the author. Featured speakers include Simon Gikandi of Princeton University, author Evelyn Ch'ien.
Unit 13 The Thousand and One Nights
Shahrazad must hold the interest of her despotic husband the sultan with nightly tales, lest she lose her life in the morning. This wellspring of storytelling, circulating from medieval Persia to Egypt to Iraq, like its wily raconteur lives on in many modern adaptations. Art, performance, and film images are employed to show the collection's broad span of influence. Featured speakers include Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Aly Jetha and Shabnam Rezai, co-producers of the 1001 Nights animated series.