In both Voltaire’s and Ch’eng-en’s story’s the characters are on a quest. But the two authors use different methods to illuminate the journeys that the characters embark on. They also use different methods to reach their readers. Western authors lean heavily on the black comedy and satire. Eastern authors use the traditional oral folklore written down. While both can be sardonic and pessimistic in places, overall both forms of literature are effectual in offering its readers a narrative to ponder upon.
Ch’eng-en uses the typical allegorical style of the Eastern authors. While Monkey was written by more than one person, Ch’eng-en is the author most associated with the novel (Norton 8). The story incorporates animals, gods, demons, fairies, and ghosts as the characters who represent human qualities. It also introduces supernatural elements. Magic, ghosts, and gods permeate the story. “…there came a magician from the Chung-nan mountains who could call the winds and summon the rain, and make stones into gold.” (Ch’eng-en 43) These elements of the supernatural and the gods spoken about were ones that were familiar to the Chinese people, thus providing a connection with the readers.
Monkey’s theme is one of striving for enlightenment. The Eastern tradition of literature strove to impart wisdom to the reader through the use of characters of the imagination. The reader is left to decipher what the message is, which is usually the importance of living a good life that will lead to enlightenment. In China, as well as in other parts of the world, stories were passed down through the generations orally, and then later written down to be enjoyed. There is a structure of the traditional folklore story.
The first definite indicator of the traditional oral structure is in the way the chapters each end. Chapter 1 ends with the sentence, “And if you do not know whether in the end, equipped with this name, he managed to obtain enlightenment or not, listen while it is explained to you in the next chapter.”( Ch’eng-en 16) The key word here is “listen”. The narrator (the storyteller) ends each chapter in this manner to encourage the reader to look forward to the action of the next installment (the next chapter). This method would have been used in the oral tradition to encourage people to come back the next night, or the next storytelling time.
In contrast, Voltaire’s Candide, is definitively satirical. The characters are definitively human, with all the foibles of the human condition. Voltaire’s pokes fun at religious figures and institutions, as well as at political figures of the time. In Chapter 15 the brother of Cunegonde says, “…I became even more so; the reverend father Croust, superior of the abbey, conceived a most tender friendship for me…” (Voltaire 543). Voltaire is referring to a certain Jesuit rector (Father Croust) with whom he “had quarreled in 1754”. (Baym 543)
When Voltaire offers words of wisdom, they are typically dripping with satire. On page 545 of Candide Cacambo says, “Indeed, the law of nature teaches us to kill our neighbor, and that’s how men behave the whole world over.” (Baym 545). The western tradition of narrative was often written in this way. Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift were two authors that also utilize the satirical strategy to get their point across. Jonathan Swift poked fun at the aristocracy and even the Queen of England, and Pope enjoyed writing satirical stories of the rich and powerful.
Voltaire’s novel is typical of the Western tradition of literature of his time, peopled with characters who are larger than life and events that are exaggerated to illuminate their absurdity. While both types of literature seek to proffer words of wisdom and offer a narrative that will blast convention and make people think, they each do it in ways that their respective readers will better understand. In the west that would be the use of satire and black comedy, in the east it would be the use of folklore and humor. Both types of literature are effective and still enjoyed today.
Baym, Nina. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Second Edition, Vol. D, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.
Voltaire, “All is good”, Philosophical Dictionary, 1764, Voltaire Society of America, http://humanities.uchicago.edu/homes/VSA/Candide/tout.est.bien.html
K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2002, 2006