What a pair of allegories to contend with but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Candide and Steppenwolf are well matched in their presentation of the argument “What the hell are we supposed to do with our lives?” but only one can win in this philosophical face-off.
Candide by Voltaire
To be quite honest, one of the reasons I’ve been struggling to produce this post is because I can barely remember Candide except for, as is true with all good books, the impression it made on me. That message hearkens true especially now -when everything seems hopeless, we can still be hopeful.
Starting out, Candide’s got a good life. He gets to hang out in his uncle’s castle, safe from the barbarian hoards which lurk outside the walls. Then Candide is caught smooching the Baron’s daughter and gets kicked out. This is only the beginning of things going downhill. Around every corner from France to South America, Candide travels with a revolving door of misfits. He’s robbed and nearly killed on several occasions but manages to find people even more hard off than himself. Even so, he maintains the optimism his tutor instilled that “This is the best of all possible worlds.”
After several glances with death and encounters with the bereaved, Candide begins to doubt his master’s teachings. Maybe indeed, this isn’t the best of all possible worlds. Maybe we’re all just struggling to get by as best we can.
- Goodreads Score: 3.77
- Length: 4 –Candide is short, and if you restrict yourself from getting too involved in the French territorial conflicts, you can blaze through.
- Readability: 2 -Although easy to understand when boiled down to the simple plot, the philosophical critiques are a bit to weighty to call this a highly readable novel.
- Language: 4 – My favorite thing about reading old books is when they’re so applicable to the modern world. “Martin in particular concluded that man was born to live either in the convulsions of misery, or in the lethargy of boredom.” Amen brother.
- Characters/Plot: 4.25 -Representing everyone from the most highborn noble to the lowliest peasant, Candide covers all ground and provides universal advice.
Overall Score: 18.02
Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
If you thought dissecting political French literature was hard, buckle up for tackling the metaphysical conundrum that is Steppenwolf. In Germany, I met a boy during our summer internship who was working his way through Steppenwolf as part of his integration to the land . Steppenwolf isn’t very long, so when he finished with two months remaining, I offered to trade Atlas Shrugged, which I was reading for a second time, for the novel. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.
Written by Hermann Hesse in 1927, Steppenwolf was worrying about “Being and Nothingness” about a decade before Sartre made it hip. In the novel, a regular old Joe Blow named Henry Haller worries that he isn’t meant for this world. By chance, he accepts a book from a stranger, the Treatise on the Steppenwolf which is filled with suspiciously accurate details about Harry’s feelings for his own life. Most particularly, that he is a man of two natures, one the transcendental being he aspires to be, and the other, a lowly, depraved wolf.
Even more disconcerted now that he’s been called out, Harry bumbles through life, convincing himself at every moment he is not fit to be of this world due to his internal strife. Until he meets the beautiful Hermine who attempts to show him that even if there is not deeper meaning, small pleasures are worth living for. Finally, just as Harry is turning the corner on his will to live, he enters the Magical Theater, first encountered when he received the treatise. Everything descends to chaos, Harry -and the reader- not knowing what’s real and what’s not. Eventually it all ends, and you’re left with the rooted question -what is existence anyway?
- Goodreads Score: 4.12
- Length: 3 – A perfectly conquerable 200ish pages. Any more and you’d be driven mad, any less and you’d miss the point.
- Readability: 3- Steppenwolf start out as highly readable, but towards the end devolves into a far too confusing carousel of inner struggles.
- Language: 3.5 -Hesse’s prose is beautiful if confounding.
- Characters/Plot: 3.5 -Much is argued here as to whether or not there even are other characters or, instead, everyone is a figment of Haller’s insane mind. Which, also arguably, is plot of interest.
Overall Score: 17.12
When I initially did my rankings, it appeared Steppenwolf would be the victor. Reconsidering, Candide is indeed the champion here. Perhaps it’s due to the current state of affairs, but I’ve got to give it up for the book that concludes, “Yes, yes, yes all your brilliant thinking is all fine and dandy, but overall I think it’s best that I just go mind my garden.”