While reading the ending of Candide, I couldn’t help but think about what role it is exactly that Candide plays in his story and our understanding of it. Throughout the book, Candide seems to be pushed around like a ragdoll, constantly a victim of circumstance, but despite all of the terrible things he goes through, he always ends up okay, allowing for him to be a humorous character rather than a tragic one. This realization reminded me of an essay I read last year by Ruth Nevo titled “Toward a Theory of Comedy,” in which she writes of the comic hero as “at once victor and victim” (328).
Candide appears to be the perfect epitome of this characterization. While he falls victim to the most horrific of situations, he always comes out on top and ultimately, by the end of the tale, he changes, realizing his true potential and ability to change his situation and work toward a better one. If Candide did not grow throughout the book or did not make it out of his many calamities okay, he would be a character that warranted pity more than laughter and therefore would not fulfill Voltaire’s comic pursuit.
We encounter another comic hero in John Kasaipwalova’s short story, “Betel Nut Is Bad Magic for Airplanes.” While Candide, gave us a third-person narrative telling the many adventures of our comic hero, Kasaipwalova writes a first-person narrative from the very perspective of the hero. This first-person presentation allows for even more comedy as we are given the perspective of the person at the root of the comedy. Even with this difference, though, the narrator still can be seen as both victor and victim as he is oppressed by the police and their “law [that is] laid down by the lawful government in the book” (615) (I found this line particularly hilarious with its redundancy) but in the end comes out a victor chewing his betel nut in the back of the police car as they drive him back to the university.
In Nevo’s essay, she writes particularly about comedy of manners, wherein the comic hero is portrayed as a victim of vice and is driven entirely by one overruling moral flaw which puts them in unfortunate situations (much like the narrator’s mother in King’s Borders with her pride), but by looking at other texts, I think it is clear that this victor/victim theory can apply to much more than just that. For example, to go back to King’s story, I would say that the narrator is also a comic hero being made a victim, not of his own vice, but of his mother’s while in the end becoming victorious in his finally being able to visit Salt Lake City.
This duality of comic characters is crucial to the success of the humor of a tale; a character cannot be all one or the other, because the entire tone of the piece would change drastically. If Candide were all victor and no victim, then Voltaire would have written a small epic, while on the other hand, if he were completely victim, it would be a tragedy. Instead (and lucky for us), Voltaire created a character with a certain balance of both qualities which allows us to feel a slight sadness or disgust at his follies but also to laugh when, despite his hardships, he jumps right back up again, (almost) unscathed.