Oxford Professor Jonathan Mallinson Leads Discussion of Reading Candide

Jonathan Mallinson, professor of French at the University of Oxford and Fellow of Trinity College, presented a lecture, "Reading Candide Today: From Voltaire to Cormac McCarthy," on Monday, March 30. The lecture was sponsored by the Offices of the President and Dean of Faculty and the French Department. 

Alluding to the journey's experienced by both protagonists in Voltaire's Candide and McCarthy's The Road, Mallinson began the discussion by announcing he would take listeners on a "journey through time and space, from the satirical to the apocalyptic." Throughout the lecture, Mallinson underscored the context of the different characters' journeys in relation to each other and to modern day life. By connecting the two novels in this way, Mallinson effectively illustrated striking similarities apparent between both works of literature. 

Mallinson began introducing each novel with a brief history of the time periods in which they were published. He pointed out that both novels were written immediately following crisis, as Candide was written shortly after The Seven Years War and The Road, which was written following September 11th. Written during times of "great uncertainty," Mallinson pointed out that each novel's core theme centers around attempting to make sense of a nonsensical world and the prospect of hoping for a better world in the future. He stated that both are "what if?" narratives whose main characters "cling to a belief in order in a world that is the complete opposite." Both novels depict a kind of hope that is confined to language, what is written on the page as opposed to the world that is actually depicted. In addition to some structural similarities, such as the number of main characters and their structural relationships, Mallinson also acknowledged that both novels involve dissociation between man and events but end with the idea of possible rebirth. 

Using quotes from each novel to highlight his points, Mallinson related these similar themes to modern day situations. For example, he stated that the language in both novels leads readers to hang on to a belief in order even though the actual reality is chaotic. He related this to modern day politicians, who use language to try and quell surmounting fear despite the bleak reality of terrorism, war, and economic failure. He also used another example of how present-day marketing ads often disillusion consumers with words and tend ro blur the lines of reality. 

Overall, Mallinson underscored the poignancy of Candide by bringing to surface elements of Cormack McCarthy's novel, The Road, that draw parallels between the world of Voltaire and the world as we know it now. He ended the lecture with a comparison between our lives and a book such as The Road or Candide: "Life is somewhat like a book, we don't know how it ends or what the meaning is, but we keep on reading." 

In addition to teaching French at the University of Oxford, Mallinson is also the general editor of the monograph series, "Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century," as well as acting director of the Voltaire Foundation, an 18th-century research center in the University of Oxford. Mallinson's most recent publication is a translation of de Françoise Graffigny's novel, Letters of a Peruvian Woman. His research interests include 17th- and 18th-century theater and prose fiction. 

-- by Danielle Raulli '10
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