The story begins with Candide living in the castle in Westphalia. Alongside is the baron's daughter Cunégonde and their tutor Pangloss among others. Pangloss is an ardent believer in Leibniz philosophical thought that teaches that this is the "best of all possible worlds" and "all is for the best". Candide is attracted to Cunégonde and they are caught kissing one day. The baron throws Candide out of the castle. Candide roaming around is caught up in a brutal war between two armies and is conscripted. Nearly executed, he escapes to Holland where he meets Jacques and by chance Pangloss (who is sick and in bad shape). Jacques takes both of them in and cares for them. Pangloss revels that the castle was destroyed in the wars and everybody was killed. Candide mourns the loss of his beloved. Traveling to Lisbon, Jacques is subsequently drowned while saving someone. Pangloss stops Candide from rescuing him saying that this harbor was created for him to drown and provides an optimistic commentary of their situation. They both are captured by the inquisitors and condemned. Candide is flogged and Pangloss is hanged. Left to his state, an old lady leads Candide to a house where he meets Cunégonde who reveals her terrible escape from near death in the castle. She is now owned by a merchant and an church official who take turns to her company. Candide slays both men and escape to Americas with Cunégonde and the old woman. During the voyage, the old woman reveals her unimaginable horrors that she had faced. On reaching Americas, in Buenos Aires, Cunégonde gets separated from him. Candide escapes with his valet (Cacambo) as he is being pursued. They together face countless adventures (wars, cannibalistic tribes) until they reach El Dorado. In this fabled land of unimaginable riches and utopia, they stay for a month. But soon Candide longs for Cunégonde. The king of El Dorado provides them with many sheep full of diamonds for their journey back. Candide and Cacambo travel back to Suriname slowly loosing the treasures. At Suriname, he sends Cacambo back to Buenos Aires to buy back Cunégonde and to meet him in Venice while he proceeds to Venice directly. Candide needing a companion for his journey back to Venice hires the services of Martin (who is a Manichean and a believer that the world is inherently evil). The rest of their journey is made over lengthy discourses on philosophy.
But then, to what end," said Candide, "was the world formed?"They reach Venice and wait for Cacambo. Cacambo arrives and tells them that Cunégonde is taken as a slave in Constantinople. They all leave to retrieve her. On the ship, Candide comes across Pangloss (he survived being hanged by inquisitors) working as slave in a ship. Candide buys his freedom. They all reach Constantinople where Candide is united with his beloved. Cunégonde is now ugly and pale shadow of her former glory but Candide still marries her. With whatever diamonds left, Candide buys a farm and they all (Candide,Cunégonde, Martin, Cacambo, Pangloss, the old woman) live together. Eventually boredom catches with them and each is now much more unhappier with their lives. Each of them philosophizing over their state and the turn of events. They go to a dervish to seek answers.
"To make us mad," said Martin.
"Do you think," said Candide, "that mankind always massacred one another as they do now? Were they always guilty of lies, fraud, treachery, ingratitude, inconstancy, envy, ambition, and cruelty? Were they always thieves, fools, cowards, gluttons, drunkards, misers, calumniators, debauchees, fanatics, and hypocrites?"
"Do you believe," said Martin, "that hawks have always been accustomed to eat pigeons when they came in their way?"
Candide asks "Master, we come to entreat you to tell us why so strange an animal as man has been formed?"
"Why do you trouble your head about it?" said the dervish; "is it any business of yours?"
"But, Reverend Father," said Candide, "there is a horrible deal of evil on the earth."
"What signifies it," said the dervish, "whether there is evil or good? When His Highness sends a ship to Egypt does he trouble his head whether the rats in the vessel are at their ease or not?"
"What must then be done?" said Pangloss.
"Be silent," answered the dervish.
"I flattered myself," replied Pangloss, "to have reasoned a little with you on the causes and effects, on the best of possible worlds, the origin of evil, the nature of the soul, and a pre-established harmony."
At these words the dervish shut the door in their faces.
"There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunégonde had you not been put into the Inquisition; had you not traveled over America on foot; had you not run the Baron through the body; and had you not lost all your sheep, which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts."
"That is all well said, but we must cultivate our garden", answered Candide
The story is very dense in terms of events and story line. Events move fast and episodes of chance meeting of characters and characters narrowly escaping death are far too many to be believable (I do not think it even tries to be a realistic story). The story touches the political and religious climate of early 1700s Europe that was caught in internecine wars, religious persecution, slavery and exploitation all around. The torture and the evil around shows its face over and over again and nowhere does Candide ever gets a chance to redeem his optimism. Slowly his faith in optimism is shredded away and by the end, Candide ignores the Pangloss continued optimism and says that "we must cultivate our garden". The story does not develop any over riding moral tale or theories on human ethics or the nature of evil. It is endless series of adventures with evil and exploitation (and satire thrown in equal measure) that covers the face of the earth and in all classes, be it kings, or clergy or common-folk. Voltaire is very critical of religion (in fact of all religions) and widespread slavery and the incessant wars that the Europe saw. Unimaginable brutality (including sexual violence) is common in the story. At the end, Candide sees through that absurdity of philosophical argument and realizes events will happen on their own accord and what he can do is to work and take responsibility of one-self. Debating over the issues that afflict human condition or having an optimistic outlook does not absolve one from the need for individual responsibility and action. Good may or may not always begets good, but inaction always begets boredom and dissatisfaction. Pangloss belief that evil is part of the larger good and world is in pre-established divine harmony is discredited in endless tale of horror and misfortune. The faith in larger Good, in the benevolent God, in optimism all amounts to nothing. Candide seeing all the misery around him, finds the world anything but harmonious. Any perspective or theory provided, can not and will not solve or even explain the workings of this world. The only way to make sense of this world, is to do the work required of you and enjoy the fruits of your labor.