25 November, 2002

Candide Versus "The Prioress's Tale"

The following is an assigned essay which was completed for a grade. Unfortunately, some formatting has been lost in the transition to LJ.

Author: Eric J. Herboso
Class: ENG 121.02 (Composition I), for Dr. Schaub
Assignment: Paper 5: Compare & Contrast Candide & “The Prioress’s Tale”

Voltaire is a simplistic writer. His finest work, Candide, exemplifies this simplicity in its acuteness of point, lack of drivel, and ruthlessness in attacks. It is rare to find an author so willing to forego suspense, realism, and subtlety for the sake of succinctness. But that doesn’t mean that Voltaire was the first to write in such simplistic elegance. Three hundred fifty years earlier, an English author named Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, a pseudo-collection of short stories of differing styles and levels of complexity. In one of these short stories, “The Prioress’s Tale”, Chaucer used a form of simplicity very similar to what Voltaire would one day come to be known for.

Like Candide, “The Prioress’s Tale” is short and to the point. No time is wasted on scenes that aren’t integral to the plot, unless the scene is present for some higher purpose. For example, the setting in Candide often changes scope dramatically in the space of but a single line of text, as can be seen when Candide first arrived in South America: "the ship made her way. They landed at Buenos Ayres” (p. 30, Candide). The only extraneous space comes in the form of semi-veiled attacks against Voltaire’s harshest critics, and even then the retaliation lasts for at most only a paragraph or two. In one particularly scathing scene, Candide asks of the Abbé, “What is a folliculaire?” to which the Abbé replies, “a pamphleteer -- a Fréron” (p. 58, Candide). “The Prioress’s Tale” is just as concise. Chaucer moves along in the story at quite a steady pace, pausing only to attack critics of Christianity (Jews) in the same manner that Voltaire attacks critics of Voltaire’s own style (Fréron, Trublet, et al). “Evil shall get what it deserves” (l. 180, “The Prioress’s Tale”).

Candide, the main protagonist of Candide, is just as his name suggests: candid and naïve. Likewise, the child protagonist of “The Prioress’s Tale” is of a singular belief beyond all reason. Because of his blind belief in the holiness of the Blessed Virgin Mary, he vows to learn a song he doesn’t even know the words of “even if [he] shall be punished for neglecting [his] primer / and shall be beaten three times in an hour” (ll. 88-9, “The Prioress’s Tale”). Of course, whereas Chaucer praises the child for such beliefs and Voltaire chastises Candide for the same, the method of making their respective points is the same; it is not so much a similarity of purpose that is seen here, but rather a similarity in proof.

But even though the intent of each author is significantly different, the syntax is quite remarkably similar. When Chaucer introduces the child hero of the story, the depiction consists of but one paragraph that describes his lineage, age, and naïvety. When Voltaire did the same for Candide, he left out Candide’s age, but the rest of the description is strikingly similar to Chaucer’s. Candide’s “countenance was a true picture of his soul. … [And he was] the son of the Baron’s sister” (p. 1, Candide). The child “was a widow’s son, / … / … / and also, whenever he saw the image / of Christ’s mother, he would … / … kneel down and say / his Ave Maria, on his way” (ll. 50-6, “The Prioress’s Tale”).

The concept of suspense is also similar from both authors’ perspectives; while not completely lost on the idea, suspense has been revamped with a higher purpose: clarity of intent. It is this clarity of intent that truly makes these two texts most similar; while it is true that the actual intent of each is different, the way each author so very concisely makes their respective points is both unusual and parallel. Suspense is not created by requiring the reader to wait overly long for the resolution of a given event, but rather by the inclusion of hints towards what will come next in the narrative.

However, it should be noted that despite all of the similarities described above, the two works are truly quite disparate. Voltaire’s Candide is written as a parody on Optimism, describing a proof against the concepts of blind belief, while Chaucer’s “The Prioress’s Tale” is written as praise for Christianity, describing the merits for blind belief. Whereas Chaucer talks negatively of Jews being allowed to live in a community “for purposes of foul usury and filthy lucre, / hateful to Christ and his followers” (ll. 39-40, “The Prioress’s Tale”), Voltaire talks sympathetically of a Manichean in a positive light, showing that Martin “was an honest man, … persecuted by the preachers of Surinam” (p. 51, Candide). But despite these many differences, the method of discourse between the two texts remains similar, even when the crux of each respective methodology is completely different.

It is this utter simplicity of style that makes both Candide and “The Prioress’s Tale” a true pleasure to read; it is not common to find such gifted authors as that can write a story so very simply and yet portray that same story so very well in one and the same text.

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