Candide, the illegitimate nephew of Baron Thunder-ten-Tronck, is bullied by the Baroness and her son Maximillian. Candide is in love with Cunegonde, the Baroness' daughter. Along with Cunegonde's maid, Paquette, they discover that Dr. Pangloss, a man thought to be the world's greatest philosopher, has taught them happiness. Candide and Cunegonde dream of what married life would be like with wildly differing views. The Baron is angered at what Candide has done to Cunegonde, as he is a social inferior. Candide is promptly exiled and is recruited by the Bulgar Army, who plots to liberate Schloss Thunder-ten-Tronck. His attempt to escape the army is foiled, and both armies attack the castle. All the principal characters are killed. Candide returns to the castle's ruins and searches for Cunegonde. Hebecomes a beggar and gives the last of his coins to a syphilitic man who turns out to be Dr.Pangloss, who reveals that he was revived by an anatomist's scalpel. Apparently he contracted his syphilis from Pacquette. A merchant offers the two employment and they sail to Lisbon. As they arrive, a volcano erupts and the ensuing earthquake results in the death of 30,000 people. Pangloss and Candide are blamed, arrested as heretics and publicly tortured to face the Grand Inquisitor. Pangloss is hanged and Candide is flogged. Candide eventually ends up in Paris, where a mysterious but beautiful woman is shared sexually by a rich Jew and the city's Cardinal Archbishop. Cunegonde (for it is she, miraculously alive) contemplates her fall from purity in exchange for wealth. Candide is reunited with her and forgives her. Her companion, an old lady, forewarns Cunegonde and Candide that Cunegonde's lovers are about to call. Candide inadvertently kills both. The three flee to Cadiz with Cunegonde's jewels, where the Old Lady reveals her colourful past.. The jewels are stolen and the Old Lady offers to sing for Candide's dinner. The French police arrive and attempt to apprehend Candide for murdering the Jew and the Archbishop. Candide befriends Cacambo, a Brazillian, and accepts him as his valet. Accepting an offer to fight the Jesuits in South America against the Spanish government, Candide takes his friends to the New World, and they sail away, hoping to find peace and happiness.
In Montevideo, the four are reunited with Maximillian and Paquette who have escaped from Europe dressed as slave girls. The governor of the city falls in love with Maximilian, but quickly realizes his mistake and falls in love with Cunegonde. The Old Lady convinces Cunegonde that her marriage to the governor will support her financially and she reluctantly submits. Candide and Cacambo stumble upon a Jesuit camp and discovers that the Mother Superior is actually Paquette and the Father Superior is Maximilian. When Candide tells Maximilian that he will marry Cunegonde, Maximilian challenges him to a fight. Maximilian is once again inadvertently stabbed to death by Candide, who flees into the jungle with Cacambo.
Three years later, Cunegonde and the Old Lady are bored with life in Montevideo Meanwhile, Candide and Cacambo are starving and lost in the jungles. Finding an abandoned boat they float downriver until they finally reach Eldorado, the fabled city of gold. Finding peace for a while, they stay, but eventually Candide begins to pine for Cunegonde and are given blessing to leave and take several solid gold sheep with them. Durign the journey, the sheep die or are lost until only two remain. Unwilling to go back to Montevideo, Candide gives Cacambo one of the sheep to ransom Cunegonde, telling them that they will meet again in Venice
Arriving at Suriname, Candide meets Martin, a local pessimist. Vanderdendur, a Dutch villain, offers his ship, the Santa Rosalia, bound for Venice, in exchange for the golden sheep. The ship sinks and Martin and Vandendur drown. Candide drifts ashore with the last remaining sheep, and travels to Venice where the Carnival festival is taking place. Candide searches for Cunegonde and meets Maximilian, who is revived once again and now is the corrupt Prefect of Police. Paquette is now one of the town's most successful prostitutes. Cunegonde and the Old Lady are employed to encourage the gamblers. Pangloss wins a game of Roulette, but fritters his money away. Candide discovers that Cunegonde is leading a dissolute life and is appalled. Between them, the characters scrape together enough money to buy a small farm. Candide and Cunegonde are reconciled and they all settle down to a simple but happy life together.