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A Comparative Analysis between Candide and Frankenstein

While at first sight Voltaire’s satirical masterpiece Candide and Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein have little in common, a closer analysis reveals a pattern of correspondences between the two works. The main idea that animates the philosophical satire, Candide, is also found in the mythological background of Frankenstein: man is an imperfect being, prone to sin and vanity at the same time. Candide is a satire of the vain creeds of the Enlightenment philosophy, which purported that the world is a perfect clockwork system and that man is a superior being endowed with reason and spirit.

Frankenstein, on the other hand, is a fable that shows both man’s vanity and his ultimate sinfulness: Victor Frankenstein, who discovers the secret formula for the creation of life, succeeds from a scientific perspective but fails from a moral point of view. Both Candide and the monster created by Frankenstein are therefore victims of their own innocence, who are forced to discover, at a great price, the failings of human nature. Both of them are exposed to numberless instances of human sinfulness and vanity, showing them that man is imperfect yet conceited.

Candide and the monster are two innocents that awake to the distressing reality of human life. In Candide, Voltaire makes a powerful satire against the naivete of the philosophies of the eighteenth century that stated in all assurance that the world we live in is “the best of all the possible worlds”. The story of the very naive young character and the people he meets s full of unbelievable adventures, whose variety going from war to maladies, murders, religious quarrels, various travels and many more, intentionally cover an almost complete range of situations and facts pertaining to human life.

All the main principles that the philosophy of Leibniz and his contemporaries held to be true, are gradually incriminated and satirized. The absurdity of many of these principles is subtly unveiled in the course of the story. Candide seems to meet with all the evil in the world. Not accidentally, he is surrounded by different and conflicting voices, that of the positivist philosopher Pangloss who finds a positive outcome in every disaster, the negativist and skeptical Martin and, finally, the wise innocent, Cacambo.

The three characters surround the naive Candide with their beliefs, offering seductive arguments for their philosophical system. What is actually satirized however is the two philosopher’s vanity in having managed to circumscribe, as they think, the entire range of human experience in a meaningful system. During the Enlightenment, philosophy and science flourished, promising to offer the key of knowledge to man and thus grant him unlimited power in the universe. The positivist thinkers argued that the world we inhabit is perfect and pregnant with meaning.

Inebriated by their discovery of the force and superiority of human reason, they proposed that the universe itself is reasonable. However, through a story full of all the possible adventures, Voltaire shows that the world is far from perfect and that, at every step, there are tremendous risks and dangers. Moreover, man has not yet learned how to master the world he lives in and there are still natural calamities that can easily destroy him. Also, man himself is far from perfect and, although there is evolution, in many ways, the lost innocence of the savages like Cacambo is wiser than the learned ignorance of the naive philosophers.

The stubbornness with which Pangloss maintains that everything that happens is for the best and that everything that exists can be made into a logical and coherent system is, according to Voltaire, absurd. Life and the universe where life happens are far more complex and the habit of always looking for causes and their effects or sufficient reasons is only a proof of blindness and ignorance. Candide’s sufferance is therefore amplified by the fact that he naively believes Pangloss’ theory of absolute coherence and harmony to be true.

Pangloss supplies him with absurd arguments regarding the seemingly logical but actually incoherent succession of causes and effects: “There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron…you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts” (Voltaire 168).

Voltaire shows here that man desperately and vainly erects systems of thought that are supposedly explain and give meaning to the world. What man actually does however is to supplant his own theoretical frame in the place of reality. As Edwin Grobe emphasizes, reality eschews all the philosophical systems, pointing to the complexity of the universe and its discontinuity: “The discontinuity of human experience is one of the fundamental themes of Voltaire’s Candide.

It is the discontinuous aspect of biological and psychological life and of natural phenomena which asserts itself repeatedly in Candide’s life and leads him to despair of the rationality of existence” (Grobe 336). Inured in positivist thought, Candide finds it hard to understand instances of human malignity and irrationality. In a world governed by enlightened spirits and magical coherence, there is hardly place for war, intolerance and deceitfulness.

Voltaire thus hints that the chain of necessary causes and events is not so well defined, and many links may be missing to build up a logical construct. For instance, the absolute and given harmony of the universe is disturbed by the war, one of the most terrifying proof that man has not reached yet the state of absolute civilization, and that he is still a savage: “Never was anything so gallant, so well accoutred, so brilliant, and so finely disposed as the two armies. The trumpets, fifes, hautboys, drums, and cannon made such harmony as never was heard in hell itself.

The entertainment began by a discharge of cannon, which, in the twinkling of an eye, laid flat about 6,000 men on each side” (Voltaire 73). The instances in which Candide suffers because of his stubborn belief in the intrinsic perfection of the world are extremely numerous. All his myths of the superiority of human reason are demolished as he witnesses and undergoes terrible experiences caused both by man and by the forces of nature. The book is thus replete with events and satirical hints at the imperfections of human nature and at the disharmony of the universe.

Voltaire tries to put his message through: the world and its actors should be viewed realistically, as complex and chaotic as they really are. The dramatic experiences undergone by Candide are also replicated by the monster created by Victor Frankenstein. If Pangloss was the positivist and vain philosopher who believed in man’s superiority, Victor Frankenstein is the vain scientist who ventures on a dangerous journey towards the discovery of the principle of life. Animated by his belief in human infallibility, Frankenstein creates a monster meant to correct the imperfections he sees in nature:

“So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein–more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation” (Shelley 30). The creature that is thus born from the dream of the scientist becomes the victim of man. Like Candide, the monster is initially innocent. He is created by Frankenstein but then abandoned in fright. While slowly acquiring understanding and knowledge of his surroundings, the monster instinctively rejoices at the beauty and comforts that can be found in human life.

Roaming through the woods, he symbolically discovers the power and usefulness of fire as well as the pleasures afforded by sleep or food. His innocence is shattered however when he tries to approach the human world. The rejection and intolerance with which he is received actually turn him into a monster. Initially he is a monster because he is created by artificial means and because he is misshapen. Gradually, the creature becomes an actual monster when he comes in contact with human intolerance and persecution. He is corrupted by the environment in which he lives.

Because he is rejected at every turn, he resorts to murder in order to prevail upon his creator and give him a companion. For the monster, the mirage of the world is broken almost as soon as it was formed: “How miraculous did this appear! The huts, the neater cottages, and stately houses engaged my admiration by turns…One of the best of these I entered, but I had hardly placed my foot within the door before the children shrieked, and one of the women fainted” (Shelley 115-116). He grows therefore disillusioned with humanity and with life itself.

As Michele Turner Sharp points out, Frankenstein is therefore a story about the perils of knowledge and the ethical problems that arise as a consequence of scientific advancement: “The monster’s tale is easily taken for a definitive statement on the potentially deleterious consequences of knowledge, particularly when mishandled or, alternatively, when driven by an imposition of patriarchal biases within scientific or professional work” (Sharp 88). The sin of imitating God in his mechanism of creation is arguably the most dreadful sin of all and its result can only be monster.

Created out of the vain flight of rational thought, the monster becomes an error that must be corrected. Frankenstein symbolically hunts his creation in order to put an end to the horrors that it generates. At the same time, the monster’s story significantly parallels the Biblical tale of creation. Frankenstein attempts to create life in his own image and perfect the existent form of life through his science. Lured by the power of knowledge but also animated by vanity, he sets to make a copy of life.

As Barbara Johnson notes, in this context, the monster can be seen as a reflection of the protagonist and his desire to create a double: “The desire for resemblance, the desire to create a being like oneself–which is the autobiographical desire par excellence–is also the central transgression in Mary Shelley’s novel. What is at stake in Frankenstein’s workshop of filthy creation is precisely the possibility of shaping a life in one’s own image: Frankenstein’s monster can thus be seen as a figure for autobiography as such. ”(Johnson 245)

Victor Frankenstein is therefore similar to Pangloss in Candide, while the monster resembles Candide. Both Candide and the monster are victims of philosophical systems that claim to capture the essence of human life at their core. The adventures that they undergo however, show them the real face of the world and humanity. Candide’s misfortunate adventures resemble the monster’s failure to find a place within the confines of human civilization. Devoid of any hope, the monster has to roam in wilderness, far from human contact.

If Candide’s innocence is created by the positivist principles that Pangloss and other philosophers teach him, the monster’s innocence is given by his initial lack of knowledge. Both of the two characters grow to understand human character and life for what they are. Notably, despite the fact that he is a monster and that he is different from the human beings, the creature is also animated by the natural desires that haunt man. His curiosity leads him to learn how to speak, read, how to build a fire and finally to penetrate the mysteries of the world that surrounds him. His desire for companionship is also a mark of his humanity.

Despite all this, he is not received into the human community because of his deformity. Both Candide and the monster suffer the tribulations of two innocent and naive characters who set out to explore the world but only find sufferance and distress. The two authors therefore point to the same idea: humanity is inherently flawed but also vain in its superiority and ability to reason. Our reasoning capacity leads us to question nature and kindles our desire for knowledge. However, any ultimate progress is hampered by the flaws proper to human nature, including vanity and malignity.

Works Cited: Grobe, Edwin P. “Discontinuous Aspect in Voltaire’s Candide. ” Modern Language Notes. 82. 3 (May 1967): 334-346. Johnson. My Monster/ My Self. in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Norton Critical Editions). New York: W. W. Norton, 1995. Sharp, Michele Turner. “If It Be a Monster Birth: Reading and Literary Property in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. ” South Atlantic Review. 66. 4 (Fall 2001): 70-93. Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003. Voltaire, Candide. New York: Penguin Classics, 1983.

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