Tools for the embrace: An ethical consideration of "Candide" and "Rasselas"

John Drozd, Fordham University


This paper examines the meaning of Candide and Rasselas as they function for young readers today. The question of “morality” is examined in Said's terms, in a work's ratification or rejection of the cultural status quo; in Lennard Davis' terms, in the manipulation or the freedom of the reader; and in Warner Berthoff's terms, in how a work either affirms or denies life itself as a good. The opening section examines the general concept of morality and literature, and morality and teaching. The second section examines the structure of both books. Candide uses an unpredictable ironic undercutting as it moves through society, setting up numerous figures and ideals for ridicule, but failing to identify its own moral position. This structure keeps the reader from gaining control, and yet it also places strictures on expressiveness. If all ideals are undercut, can the book take a stand on any moral position? It seems not—issues of basic human decency, equality, and even the question of slavery remain open. In the end, Candide is unsuccessful in lancing Optimism, because the world it offers yields to no philosophy. The characters withdraw from the world because world will not yield to Optimism, not because Optimism is wrong. Rasselas, in contrast, openly weighs and debates each outlook encountered. In most cases, the failure of an outlook is found in the expectations invested—optimism, example, exaggerates the natural human tendency toward hope. In Rasselas, we observe a folly of action, so characters change. In Candide, we observe a folly of being—in a world created to drive us mad, our choices do not matter. Section III considers the final world-view of both texts. The “crisis” of Candide is a world that will not yield to human control, where the crisis of Rasselas is the self who will not serve the world. The difference is world-views stems from the fact that Candide finds discord between expectation and experience, but does not return to examine the former. Thus the world appears demonic. Rasselas dwells on expectations, as the barrier to be overcome, to reach experience.

Subject Area

Comparative literature|British and Irish literature|Romance literature

Recommended Citation

Drozd, John, "Tools for the embrace: An ethical consideration of "Candide" and "Rasselas"" (1999). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9941914.