Voltaire begins his picaresque tale by introducing the characters who live in the castle of Westphalia, a province in western Germany. Candide, which means optimism, is the first character introduced, and Voltaire explains that he is the Baron's nephew. Though Candide has respectable parents, he is a bastard by birth, yet still seems to be a part of the noble palace family. He is said to be honest, simple-hearted and gentle.
Other members of the palace include the Baron of Thunder-Ten-Tronckh, the head of the castle, and his overweight wife, the Baroness. Together, the two have Cunegonde, a gorgeous seventeen-year-old princess, a son, and the esteemed palace tutor, Pangloss, who teaches that everything is for the best and that man lives in the "best of all possible worlds."
It seems Dr. Pangloss is quite versed in "experimental physics," for one day Cunegonde spies the tutor "giving a lesson" to her mother's "attractive and obedient" maidservant in the bushes. This inspires Cunegonde to yearn to practice this art with Candide. When the two young lovers do engage in this kind of science, however, they are caught in the act, and Candide is expelled from the castle permanently.
In the second chapter, Candide finds himself "ejected from the earthly paradise" to which he had grown accustomed. Drifting to a neighboring village, and now very cold and hungry, he stumbles across two recruiting officers of Frederick the Great standing outside a tavern. The two men seem enamored by Candide's height of five feet, five inches, and offer to buy him a meal. Trusting their kindness, Candide is reminded of Pangloss' philosophy, that all is for the best; he thinks that perhaps being exiled from the castle (and from his love, Cunegonde), may ultimately lead him to a better end after all.
Soon, however, these newfound "friends" bind Candide with chains, and force him into the army, where he is beaten daily. At one point, Candide is at the point of being killed (smashed in the head, as he requested in order to end his own misery) when the King of the Bulgars passes and grants his pardon.