All Possible Worlds, Biblio File
The Eighteenth-Century Oriental Tale and Candide
In sending Candide off to Constantinople to reunite with Cunégonde, Voltaire invokes the contemporary vogue for oriental tales, stories set in the near and far Easts as well as North Africa that first achieved popularity at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
In 1701, the French Orientalist Antoine Galland published his translation of Sinbad the Sailor, a text he had encountered during his travels in Syria. Sinbad’s favorable reception then led to the publication of a group of texts that would forever change Western literary history. Between 1704 and 1717, Galland published his translation of the Thousand and One Nights, the story of Scheherazade’s attempt to save her kingdom from the murderous sultan, Schahriar. Convinced of women’s unfaithfulness after his first wife’s infidelity, he daily marries a new bride only to behead her the next morning, but Scheherazade’s heroism puts an end to his bloodshed.
The popularity of the Nights captivated the European imagination. In France and England, adaptations and parodies appeared immediately, and oriental tales inspired by the Nights found their way into novels, plays, and even periodical newspapers throughout the eighteenth century. Appealing because of its magical elements and visions of a luxurious East, the oriental tale was also eminently accessible as a genre. Unlike epic, which sat at the pinnacle of eighteenth-century literary hierarchies, the oriental tale—with its often nested stories, fabulous adventures, and stock characters—belonged to romance, a genre that sat in tension with epic and didn’t require the extensive learning of an elite classical education.
Though critics often conceived of romance and epic as literary antagonists, contemporary responses suggest that eighteenth-century readers saw the Nights as a natural complement to classical epic. In his Memoirs, the historian Edward Gibbon relates how, as a boy, he found both Pope’s Homer and the Arabian Nights “books which will always please by the moving picture of human manners and specious miracles”; later, he would write, of a friend’s recent visit, that the two men talked “much of books, from my own, on which he flattered me very pleasantly, to Homer and the Arabian Nights,” indicating that the Nights, as much as Homer, had become part of England’s common patrimony. In 1789, Horace Walpole, the originator of the Gothic genre and a writer of oriental tales himself, would be bolder still in a letter to Mary Berry: “read Sindbad the Sailor’s voyages,” he assured her, “and you will be sick of Aeneas’s.”
While its excitement and accessibility made the oriental tale popular with eighteenth-century readers, its didactic potential also attracted writers eager to champion virtue. In this, they followed the mandate inherited from Horace’s Ars Poetica, “to delight and instruct.” Many eighteenth-century critics expected literature to be not only pleasurable but moral, and the oriental tale (though sometimes used to more scandalous ends as well) proved to be an ideal vehicle for moral instruction. The Eastern settings—stereotypically renowned for their wealth and luxury—allowed writers to warn against the evils of temptation, while contemporary fears about Eastern despotism resulted in meditations on tyrannical sultans and unruly subjects.
For these reasons, the oriental tale became a favorite genre of eighteenth-century satirists. Setting familiar conflicts in the Orient successfully defamiliarized everything from European politics to social expectations, creating the distance necessary to perceive seemingly natural cultural practices and institutions in new ways. Although satires of this kind often relied on Orientalist tropes—for example, on stereotypes of Eastern luxury and despotic power that were more fictions of the European imagination than accurate reflections of reality—Voltaire avoids simplistic distinctions between “good” Europeans and “bad” Turks. Indeed, the text concludes with Candide embracing the very strategy that has brought so much happiness to his new Turkish companion. The old man explains that the cultivation of his garden “preserves” his family “from three great evils—weariness, vice, and want,” leading Candide to declare to his friends, “we must cultivate our garden.” A far cry from conventional stereotypes about Eastern greed, the “honest Turk” instead furnishes a model of dedication and humility that resonates with Candide’s values. By concluding in this way, Voltaire extends his satire to common Orientalist tropes: though not an eminent man or a Christian, the Turk offers Candide the very solace that Pangloss’ optimism was never able to provide.