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Literary Slumps and Slurps

Candide ejected from the castle, 1785-89

If England had reached the southern New World before Spain, Portia’s Merchant suitors might have wisely chosen against the casket with cacao in it. Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch would re-tune the suggestion that virtue meant no more cakes and chocolate (Twelfth Night, 2.3). The gentlemen dining with Mr. Page would have “drunk down all unkindness” with hot chocolate after sharing hot venison pasty (Merry Wives, 1.1). And Falstaff's page in Henry V might give all of his fame for a pot of chocolate and safety (3.2).

Rumor has it that, aware of the historic role cacao had played in the pre-Columbian economy, Miquel de Cervantes petitioned the king circa 1590 to serve as governor of Soconusco in present-day Chiapas, Mexico, figuring he would strike it rich trading the beans. (The request was denied.) But culturally, chocolate was still quixotic, as the drink had not yet swept Madrid or La Mancha, so Don Quixote was left to tip windmills without the fortifying benefits of chocolate.

Fast-forward over the 1.5 centuries of chocolate being domesticated in Europe to Voltaire in the 1750s. Candide’s title character hears about and enjoys hot chocolate in regions as diverse as Argentina, Italy, and Westphalia. Chocolate has traveled around the world and Europeans enjoy it wherever they go. In the novel, chocolate gives pleasure, causes death, and also serves as a metaphor for conquest. That is to say, the first major literary appearances of chocolate in a Western novel occasion a reflection on its pervasiveness and general involvement with one of the most unsavory triumphs of Western history: the destruction of empires and seizure of lands in the Americas. In order of appearance in the plot, the anecdote about conquest comes first.

Candide’s adventure story begins when he is kicked out of his uncle’s castle, a paradise, for dallying with his cousin Cunégonde. They become separated and Candide spends the rest of the novel searching the world haplessly for his love. He travels with a philosophical side-kick called Pangloss, whose perspective on the world is a parody of Leibniz’s philosophy. Leibniz argued that the configuration of the world must be the best one possible because God created it to the best of his abilities. In Voltaire’s satire, no matter what horrible torture befalls the travelers, Pangloss manages to find a way to make sense of it through this logic.

In fact, Pangloss uses chocolate as one such “best of all possible worlds” justification, this time for the spread of the syphilis through Europe following Columbus’s accidental invasion of the Caribbean islands. At the moment when he tells the story, Pangloss’s body is being ravaged by the disease, which his young lover Paquette transmitted to him after contracting it through a series of infected clergy and nobles traceable back to “one of the companions of Christopher Columbus”: a Jesuit (to companion) passes it to a page and then it spreads to a marchioness to a cavalry officer to an old countess to a Franciscan and to the hapless Paquette, which brings it into Candide’s story.

In response to Candide’s retort that the devil must be at the root of such a “strange genealogy,” Pangloss opines that the deadly poison, though “clearly opposed to the great end of Nature,” was unavoidable and a necessary “ingredient” of the overall best plan to bring chocolate and cochineal to Europe from the Americas (30). While the bell in this case tolls for Europe, the idea of conquest bringing disease in its wake of course recalls the European genocide by disease, capture, enslavement, and suicide of tribal Caribbeans.

Further along in the novel, when we follow Cunégonde’s journey, which keeps taking her farther from the trailing Candide, chocolate appears again. It comes up when an old woman tells a story from her past to Cunégonde to pass the time and distract them from the fact that they have been captured and sold into slavery (a long story in itself!). The Old Woman’s tale, recounted in the bondage of slavery that again evokes conquest, makes a second connection between chocolate and harm. This time a European wields it as a poison that leads to convulsions and death. A daughter of the fictional Pope Urban X and Princess of Palestrina, the old woman was betrothed in her youth to a sovereign prince of Massa-Carrara, Tuscany. During the ecstasies of the festive marriage celebration, her prince finds himself lured away to drink chocolate with an old lover, an aged marchioness, who feels betrayed by his marriage. She serves him a poisoned cup of chocolate—perhaps a metaphor for the torture the happy marriage causes her—and he dies a few hours later after writhing in the agony of convulsions (50).

Chocolate disappears temporarily once the Old Woman’s story ends and until Candide finds himself in Italy—the very site of the Marchioness's murder of her lover. Back in Italy and broken by years of wandering and encountering trouble, Candide pursues a search for a person unscathed by the trials of life—that is, an optimist. He pays a visit to the wealthy Venetian senator, Count Pococurante, rumored to be “a man who has never known what worry is” (117). Like the Marchioness, he indulges in chocolate, and possesses of enough to gift it to visitors, though with no intention of killing them. This time the confection does not prove deadly but does still have an arousing effect it not unlike the one that lured the sovereign prince to the Marchioness in the previous scene. In the courtyard of the Count’s palace “two pretty girls, neatly dressed” offer Candide and Martin “with cups of frothy chocolate” upon their arrival.

The description of the drink—frothy—takes its cue from the servers, who deliver sexual appeal along with the chocolate. Servants to the Count, they double as concubines; he sometimes takes them to bed. In the next sentence, “Candide could not help exclaiming at their beauty, their style, their manner” (118). Because part of the drinks’ appeal rests in the flirtation of its service, what happens in the scene is double the pleasure: two girls and two cups, frothing with temptation. To Candide and Pangloss, they and the drinks represent a pleasant novelty. As for the Count, they suit him “well enough” but he finds himself “getting tired of these two girls.” Neither the recompense of syphilis, nor the cause of sudden death, this chocolate (an extension of the girls serving it) bores by excess.

In Candide, everyone drinks chocolate and everyone except the hero suffers from it. While the satirical flavor of the novel is partially to thank for the absurdity of these depictions of chocolate, the politics of how chocolate got to Europe play a bigger role in why it looks so bad. Not only did it take 150 years for chocolate to end up on fictional dining tables, it also took that long for disease and death and saturation—rather than cures and virility and thirst—to be chocolate's calling card. The satirical calling card Voltaire writes for chocolate indeed captures with greater realism the history of lethal and relentless “sourcing” that brought cacao to Europe from an unsuspecting (and later subjugated) Mesoamerica.



On the prevalence of food and ale (not chocolate) in Shakespeare: Goldstein, David B. "Failures of Eating in The Merchant of Venice." Shakespeare et les arts de la table. Actes des congrès de la Société française Shakespeare 29 (2012): 31-46.

On the Cervantes rumor:

Voltaire, Oeuvres completes, Paris: Kehl, 1785-1789. Exhibit, "Beyond the Text." Bryn Mawr Collections.

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