In order to approach the book properly, it is useful for the reader to have a prior acquaintance with the genre of the philosophical tale, in the form which it developed in England and France in the 18th Century.

Voltaire gave two alternative titles to his book: “Candide” or “Optimism”.

Under the rapid narrative of ever-changing events, Voltaire is satirising a set of fashionable ideas of his time.  His target is the Optimist school of philosophy.  As writings of this kind are essentially concerned with ideas, they are referred to as “contes philosophiques”.

Most British readers will have the advantage of a good knowledge of a book of this genre by having read “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift. This may come as surprise to many who may have regarded Swift’s books simply as entertaining tales for children. Swift said that he wrote to 'vex the world rather than to divert it' and under his tales there is an examination of different aspects of society in 18th century England.

The vehicle of the philosophical tale allows the writer to address a readership much wider than the limited number of readers who would read a dry philosophical essay. 

There is a BBC webpage which describes the technique of Jonathan Swift.  Voltaire was influenced by Swift and the BBC description of Swift’s techniques could apply also to the techniques used by Voltaire in his contes philosophiques. We read on the BBC webpage:

Swift uses many literary techniques in Gulliver's Travels to convey his ideas, including irony, humour, comments on individuals and society in general and long lists followed by sharp statements…….Young readers may see only the surface of the story, while adults can penetrate the depths of his writing.

In these notes we will seek to review Voltaire’s skill as a writer who is able to engage our interest and to entertain us, but we will seek also to look underneath in order to penetrate the depths of his wide-ranging thoughts and reflections.