Experience: Candide and Olaudah Equiano

A Portrait of Olaudah Equiano
A Portrait of Olaudah Equiano

The Nature of Knowledge

Travel narratives, popular during the 17th and 18th centuries, attempted to relay trans-cultural experiences in a world that was growing ever and ever smaller due to exploration, communication, and colonialism. Two such works, Olaudah Equiano’s, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano , an autobiographical account of his slave experience, and Francois-Marie Arouet de Voltaire’s Candide or Optimism , a fictional travel narrative, seem to have been written for didactic purposes. These works seek to teach their audience about the nature of oneself and others, as well as, to exhibit foreign cultures with a cautious adherence to presenting them accurately or as a means to evaluate their own cultures. Suffering and diabolical evil are surfeit within the plots and influence the characters’ developments. Loss, gain, and wicked men teach Candide and Equiano about the state of the world. Knowledge is a key theme in both works and both authors attest to the power of knowledge. However, each author has different connotations for the word. For Equiano, knowledge is freedom, while Voltaire views knowledge as a moral responsibility.

For instructive purposes, the origins of Candide and Olaudah are imperative to understanding their experiences. Equiano begins his narrative with a lengthy explanation of Ibo culture in Africa. Of his audience, he seeks to, “compel them to acknowledge that understanding is not confined to feature or color” (417). He does this by explaining that the Ibo have a monotheistic religion, their own slave trade, rich dance, medical practitioners, different in practice but relatable in concept to European culture. He explains that although the Ibo own slaves, their slaves are prisoners of war or criminals, and that no more work is demanded of them than their free counterparts. He shows his European audience the comparisons of their cultures, that while skin-color and ethnic background may provide superficial differences, all human beings have rich customs, virtues, and vices. Equiano writes of his native culture to first inform his audience, however, he also does so to convey his innocence, a notion that Voltaire likewise uses to introduce his protagonist, Candide.

Candide and Cacambo encounter the slave
Candide and Cacambo encounter the slave

Innocence vs. Experience

Equiano experiences a small degree of slavery in his native land, but he is taken at a young age, and is quite inexperienced about the cruelty of human beings. On his bound journey on a ship sailing towards the West Indies, Equiano witnesses true cruelty for the first time, “the white people looked and acted…in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty; and this not only shown towards us blacks, but also to some of the whites themselves” (424). Aboard the ship, Equiano’s innocence begins to dissolve, as he witnesses shackled slaves throwing themselves overboard and other similar horrors. Likewise, at the outset of Voltaire’s work, a household of noble aristocrats in Westphalia raises Candide. He knows nothing of the outside world except what he learns from his philosopher mentor, Pangloss, who tells him, “in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the finest of all castles” (276). With this skewed vision of reality, the highly impressionable Candide adopts Pangloss’ theory of absolute optimism, yet he does not know of suffering and agony. Even after witnessing the horror of the war between the Bulgars and Abars, Candide does not relinquish his optimism. Both Equiano and Candide lose their innocence very shortly beyond each narratives beginning although Equiano quickly discovers the iniquity of humankind, while for Candide, it takes the entire plot to understand personal suffering does not justify the overall good.

Candide and Equiano’s travels not only break their innocence, but are experiences where they encounter a multitude of different people, all who influence the development of the protagonists and teach them a lot about the nature of others. Equiano becomes assimilated with British society while living with his master Captain Pascal. On contemplating his doubt and dismay, he writes, “that fear…which was the effect of my ignorance, wore away as I began to know them…therefore I had the stronger desire to resemble them” (432). Observing the magnanimous treatment by his captain, who teaches him English customs, Equiano begins to feel comfortable in his foreign abode and feels the desire to live as an Englishman. But the presence of bondage ever tugs at his soul, and he realizes that in order to be free, he must become like his masters. While enslaved to the captain, Equiano acquaints himself with an American boy, Richard Baker, who shows Equiano compassion. The narrator expresses remorse for the boy’s death, “I lost…a faithful friend who…discovered a mind superior to prejudice…who was not ashamed…to be the friend of one who was ignorant…of a different complexion, and a slave!” (430). While it is excruciatingly clear to Equiano that whites discriminate against their black slaves, Equiano also realizes his own prejudices and what his relationship with Baker shows is that not all whites are as callous as those men on the slave ship or on the plantations. What these examples show is that the moral whites in Equiano’s life teach him that there are good people from the lands of Europe and America and in order to become free in a world dominated by slavery he must assimilate with the masters, in the facets of religion, language, and customs.

Candide’s acquaintances with other people are instructive as well, but unlike Equiano, they do not teach him the value of knowledge as strength and freedom. The value of his education is in its conceptual beauty, in breaking with obstinate logic. The people Candide encounters show him the value of individual thought, and the absurdity of Pangloss’ unflinching optimism. One such character, perhaps the hero of the narrative, is the realist Cacambo, whom Candide meets in South America. Cacambo, like Pangloss, is optimistic, though his positive attitude is not so stubborn as to ignore pain. Surrounded by the indigenous Oreillons, Cacambo delivers a sound speech, “But if I have spoken the truth, you are too familiar with the principles of international justice, morality, and law not to spare our lives (302).” His rationale for explaining why the Oreillons should eat them if they are lying and should not if they are telling the truth, exemplifies the pragmatism and sensibility of Cacambo. His speech convinces their aggressors to free them and show them their fanciful city, Eldorado. A less heroic character than Cacambo makes his appearance when Candide flees South America. He is the pessimist Martin, who Candide adopts as his new mentor, thinking he has lost Pangloss to eternity. Martin is Pangloss’ foil. He is blind with pessimism. Candide is in a perpetual search for knowledge, and being lost, must attach himself to someone he feels knows the truth. It is this lemming-like faith that Voltaire criticizes. Through Candide, the author posits that it is morally irresponsible to follow others blindly, simply because they present an alluring rationale.

Candide encounters strange customs he cannot understand, as represented by the women's flirtation with monkeys
Candide encounters strange customs he cannot understand, as represented by the women's flirtation with monkeys

Condemning Dogmatized Thought

Both authors have sufficient condemnations against the religious sect of humanity. They frequently cite the disparity between the faith people attest they adhere to, and those same people’s ignoble actions. At one point, Equiano declares, “O, ye nominal Christians...Is it not enough that we are torn from our country…to toil for your luxury and lust of gain? Must every tender feeling be likewise sacrificed to your avarice?” (427). Equiano questions the righteousness of people who call themselves Christian and yet retain slaves and brutalize them. Hypocrisy is a most prevalent trait among many of the Christians populating Equiano’s narrative. Likewise, Candide also criticizes Christians for acting unchristian. The clergymen of Candide are frequently seen philandering, stealing, and brutalizing heretics. Candide rescues Cunegonde by slaying the Inquisitor and Issachar the Jew, and when clergymen arrive to discover the two dead, “they buried the Inquisitor in a fine church, and threw Issachar in the public dump (289). Here Voltaire displays the hypocrisy of the church as well, as they solemnly respect their own Inquisitor and defile the corpse of a Jew. Equiano learns the true nature of the “faithful”, which in turn causes him to evaluate his own sense of spirituality. While Candide (the character) never openly condemns the Church, Voltaire’s intention is to inform the reader about the iniquity of those who are obligated to live without sin.

These experiences with despair, suffering, and hope, teach Candide and Equiano a great deal about what knowledge means and how best to use it. With Equiano’s reading and writing, he learns the English language and uses it to provide ammunition for the abolitionist movement. He learns a great deal about human nature, the world, and himself through the eyes of a slave. Alternatively, Candide has never known slavery until he comes across a slave after leaving the idyllic Eldorado. Candide becomes overwhelmed with dismay upon hearing the slave’s story and rejects Pangloss’ philosophy, “[Optimism is] the mania for insisting that all is well when one is suffering” (309). Throughout the narrative, tragedy after tragedy, Candide doubts Pangloss’ logic, than an instance of grace happens and he affirms it again. His encounter with the slave marks his final break from his mentor’s inconsiderate philosophy.

Though knowledge represents freedom for Equiano and is an obligation for Candide, both authors convey their disdain for ignorance. Equiano admonishes those who perpetuate their own ignorance, “even to pour out to them the treasures of wisdom is throwing the jewels of instruction away” (469). He condemns anyone who does not learn from their past, notably slave owners, who he saw continuing to act savagely again and again with total disregard for the humanity of their victims. Likewise, Voltaire reprimands the ignorant. The final line of Candide illustrates Candide’s revelation and Voltaire’s thesis. When Pangloss attempts justifying all of their adversity, Candide responds, “that is well said…but we must cultivate our garden” (338). Though a philosophy might be worded well, it is fruitless theorizing and does not precipitate realistic, beneficial goals. Candide finally understands that there is no predetermined purpose for suffering and that it is solely an aspect of life, and that it is wholly ignorant to justify human suffering for the common good, because no common good exists when everyone is suffering. It is better to seek knowledge through misery than to blindly and contentedly follow foolhardy attempts to explain the world.


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