A critique on love and human nature

fingers on the pages of a book


In Voltaire’s “Candide,” the main character Candide travels through the world in the pursuit of reuniting with his one true love, the beautiful Cunégonde. Throughout his journey, Candide visits Lisbon, Buenos Aires, Venice and Paris, experiencing the adventures and dangers of a lifetime. As his last destination, Candide arrives in Istanbul, where he reunites with his Cunégonde, but the beautiful Cunégonde of his youthful memories has disappeared; she has become an ugly, old woman. Through death, deception, and numerous hardships, Candide’s hope for reuniting with his beautiful Cunégonde had kept him alive and perseverant. Yet the root of his undying hope was a lie, as there was no beauty to rediscover, in the end; it was all in his head. 

As I thought about the absurdity of Candide’s lifelong desire to reunite with a first love whose beauty no longer exists, I questioned whether this is what love really is. Isn’t love a made-up story we tell ourselves? 

Strangely enough, soon after finishing the novel, I experienced a similar disappointment to that of Candide. In my mind, I had written him to be a deep character worthy of falling in love with, a story based on all the books I grew up reading. He was not the character I had thought him to be in the end. 

Maybe this glamorous concept that gets our hearts racing and our minds filled with dreams is only something we compose in our heads. We see someone and we add virtue to them. We associate too much meaning with them. We imagine them to be grander than who they really are. I think this is what love is: it is in our minds, and it is simply not real. We tend to fall in love with the idea of people, not who they really are. 

Perhaps love is a delusion. Or it is that people change. We are fluidic, and as our life paths continue, we change into new people. Sometimes it is growth, and sometimes it is decay. 

I don’t know how to explain it.

The funny thing is, after going through so much hardship for the sake of reuniting with his Cunégonde, being beaten nearly to death, almost killed and manipulated by others numerous times through his journey, in the end Candide’s reunion with Cunégonde didn’t give him peace. Instead, he found her more intolerable and cranky day by day. There were no such hardships anymore in Candide’s life, but normal life in Istanbul didn’t give peace either. Candide and his friends continued to whine about what was missing in their lives, even though now they were in the better place they were hoping to end up in. Then what was the point of all this struggle? Will we be as delusional as Candide in the future we are hoping to lead?

Perhaps this is what a marriage is: love turning into misery between two people. Upon how their lives end up in Istanbul, Candide’s realistic but pessimistic companion Martin concludes that “man was born to live either in a state of distracting inquietude or of lethargic disgust”. Is Martin right? Is anything really never enough? 

I don’t know. Perhaps people get used to the good things in their lives without noticing.  

Candide ends on a didactic note — that we must plant our own garden to attain happiness. He and his friend Martin meet with a wise Turkish man in Istanbul who tells them not to think about other people’s lives, but rather to work instead, saying that “labor preserves us from three great evils — weariness, vice, and want”. The only way to be happy, according to the wise man, is to produce something. Thus, Martin and his friends find peace: they work in their garden and Cunegonde becomes a baker. 

I think this is the right way of finding peace and happiness. 

While reading “Candide,” I found myself in an internal dilemma as to whether human nature is good or bad. I believe Voltaire wants us to realize that either human nature is bad and that it is easy and convenient for people to act badly, or that there is both good and bad in people. Throughout the book, Candide appears to represent the good, and the people he encounters through his journey tend to benefit from the good he does and in turn, manipulate him. 

As Candide and his friend sail to Lisbon, a storm starts, bringing chaos to the boat. A character named Jacques saves one of the crew members from falling into the sea while he is clinging to a mast, but as a result of his efforts, Jacques falls into the sea, and the crew member whose life he just saved doesn’t help him back. This could be a symbol of how human relations are in real life: you could go to great lengths in helping a person who wouldn’t do the same for you. People can accept the good you do for them without feeling the need to do good for you in return. 

At the same time, “Candide” also demonstrates how doing bad things can lead to good outcomes for people. In one scene, Candide and his friend Cacambo get held hostage by a native tribe who want to kill them for being Jesuits. Previously in the book, Candide had killed Cunegonde’s brother, who was a Jesuit (or so he thinks — later in the book we actually learn that Cunegonde’s brother has survived). To save themselves, Cacambo explains to the tribe that they aren’t Jesuits, as Candide wouldn’t have killed one if he was a Jesuit. After verifying that this is true, the tribe sets Candide and Cacambo free. In this way Candide’s bad act turns out to be a good event for him, saving his life: if Candide hadn’t killed a man, he would have died. 

When Candide is in Paris, people notice that he is wearing a big diamond ring, and they come to his help. He notes that on his first trip to Paris, he was poor and sick, and no one had come to help. Perhaps this shows how much people care about status and wealth when forming friendships.  

From love to human motivation, Voltaire’s “Candide” reveals striking ideas (or perhaps facts) about human nature. Perhaps we are delusional when it comes to love, and perhaps we are not inherently good after all.