In Westphalia, in the castle of Baron Thunder-Ten-Tronck, live four young people: Cunegonde, the Baron’s beautiful daughter; Maximilian, his equally beautiful son; Paquette, a very obliging servant girl; and Candide, an obscure bastard cousin. Instructed by the philosopher Dr. Pangloss, they are taught that this is “the best of all possible worlds” and that everything that happens in it happens for the best.
The humble Candide and the exalted Cunegonde fall very unsuitably in love. Once their love discovered, Candide is summarily thrown out of the castle by the Baron. Forced to fend for himself in the real world on the eve of war with the neighboring Bulgarians, Candide is tricked into enlisting with the enemy army and reluctantly joins in ravaging his homeland. All the inhabitants of the castle are believed to be killed.
Full of sadness, Candide roams until he washes up in a Portugese fishing village at the height of a tremendous earthquake. In the ruins he sees only one wretched beggar, which turns out to be none other than Pangloss, who has survived the Westphalian holocaust but has lost several fingers and appears to be wearing a tin nose. Pangloss, cheerful as ever, explains to Candide that this disfigurement is merely a natural product of God’s greatest gift to mankind – love. Candide and Pangloss, both good Westphalian Protestants, are arrested as heretics by the Inquisition and dragged to a great gala auto-da-fé, which the Church believes will discourage future earthquakes. Pangloss is hanged and Candide is flogged.
Again alone, Candide continues his travels and eventually ends up in Paris, where he finds that Cunegonde also survived the attack on Westphalia and has been living in luxury under the patronage of two men who share her favors on different mutually-agreed-upon days of the week, lavishing gifts on her as she ponders whether jewels can make up for her lost innocence. Her two suitors misfortunately arrive during her reunion with Candide, who inadvertently kills them both.
Candide, Cunegonde, and her companion, the Old Lady, are forced to flee to Cadiz where, having lost their money, the Old Lady tries to repair their fortunes by offering her body to the elderly Dons in the city square. Her success is minimal, but an imposing Businessman appears and offers Candide the job of leading a military mission to relieve the Jesuits of Buenos Aires. The three agree to leave their troubles behind in the Old World and enjoy a fresh start in the New.
Candide, full of hope, sets sail with Cunegonde and the Old Lady for South America. Meanwhile, in the slave market of Buenos Aires, Maximilian, disguised through mischance as a female slave, has an unexpected reunion with Paquette, who has also survived the Westphalian armageddon. Embarrassingly, the lecherous Governor falls in love with Maximilian. His true gender discovered, Maximilian is sold to the Jesuits.
When Candide, Cunegonde, and the Old Lady also arrive in Buenos Aires, the Governor quickly falls in love with Cunegonde. Convinced by the Old Lady to accept his financial support, Cunegonde marries the Governor, while Candide leaves Buenos Aires and encounters the Jesuit camp, where to his surprise he meets Maximilian and Paquette. In a family tiff, Candide unintentionally stabs Maximilian and has to flee into the jungle. Eventually, he stumbles upon the legendary city of Eldorado, where the streets are paved with gold, eternal harmony reigns, and even the animals are eloquent. Soon bored with this paradise however, Candide leaves with some of his new treasure. Unwilling to return to Buenos Aires, he sends money to ransom Cunegonde from the Governor, with the instructions for her to meet him in Venice.
On his voyage across the Atlantic, Candide’s ship sinks, and he is rescued by a galley ship carrying five deposed kings, who are engaged in a debate about the philosophy of life. Leading the debate from among the slaves rowing the ship is Pangloss, who miraculously survived the auto-da-fé.
The ship arrives in Venice during the Carnival festival, and as the kings play roulette and baccarat, Candide and Pangloss discover Cunegonde and the Old Lady earning an unscrupulous living at the casino. They also find Paquette working as a prostitute, and Maximilian, who somehow survived the stabbing and has since become Venice’s Prefect of Police. Reunited at last, the Westphalians realize that their illusions have been shattered, and they come to recognize that life is neither “good” or “bad,” but there to be lived and made the best of. Reconciled to their new philosophy, Candide resolves to marry Cunegonde, and they all decide to settle down on a simple farm, cultivate the earth, and “make their garden grow.”