The Ancien Regime In Voltaire’s Candide
François-Marie Aroused, more commonly known as Voltaire, was an 18th century philosopher, and writer known for his, satire and wit, and influence on the age of enlightenment. The Ancien Régime or old regime is a word to describe the social and political system of France from the around the 15th century to until the French revolution in 1789. Throughout the novel we learn about how the view of women, wealth and how it was valued above everything else, social classes, and religion in the 18th century, that characterize the Ancien Regime.
Women of the 18th century were often seen as objects to be bought, used, and sold. Although Voltaire does not spend much time developing female characters, Cunegonde’s story of being used, raped, and sold shines light on how women of the time were viewed. During the invasion of the castle Voltaire writes:
“A Bulgar Captain appeared, he saw me covered with blood and the soldier too intent to get up. Shocked by the monster’s failure to come to attention, the captain killed him on my body he then had my wound dressed, and took me off to his quarters, as a prisoner of war. I laundered a few shirts and did his cooking; he found me attractive, I confess it, and I won’t deny that he was a handsome fellow, with a smooth, white skin; apart from that however, little wit, little philosophical training, it was evident that he had not been brought up by Doctor Pangloss. After three months, he had lost all his money and grew sick of me; so, he sold me to a Jew named Don Issachar, who traded in Holland and Portugal, and who was mad after women. This Jew developed a mighty passion for my person, but he got nowhere with it; I held him off better than I had done with the Bulgar soldier; for though a person of honor may be raped once, her virtue is only strengthened by the experience.”
Cunegonde’s story exemplifies the vulnerability of women, and how they were often seen as objects, to bought and sold like food or clothing. The Bulgar Captain acts a prime example of how women were treaty. The Captain found Cunegonde attractive and cared for Cunegonde, but when he hit a financial hardship, he sold here without question having grown tired of her. Even after Candide of her story and how the Bulgar raped her and left a wound on her thigh, he interjects with how much he wishes to see it. Treating women as objects like seen in the novel wouldn’t change until hundreds of years after.
Voltaire comments on the perceived correlation between wealth and happiness El Dorado was a land of such riches that when Candide went to pay for a meal with two large gold pieces, that he was mocked for trying to give him pebbles. However, after staying for a month in their refuge, Candide realizes,
“If we stay here, we shall be just like everybody else, whereas if we go back to our own world, taking with us just a dozen sheep loaded with Eldorado pebbles, we shall be richer than all the kings put together, we shall have no more inquisitors, to fear and we shall easily be able to retake Miss Cunegonde.
This harangue pleased Cacambo; wandering is such a pleasure, it gives a man such prestige at home to be able to talk of what he has seen abroad, that the two happy men resolved to be so no longer, but to take their leave of his majesty.”
The king then berates the two for their foolish plan, but regardless assists them with it. Part of the king finds their plan foolish is that El Dorado’s happiness isn’t derived from their wealth, as it was throughout the Europe. Compare this to in Europe were even the wealthiest of people often longed for more riches. Weeks into their journey Voltaire makes an point about wealth and riches when Candide says, “My friend, you see how the riches of this world are fleeting; the only solid things are virtue and the joy of seeing Miss Cunegonde again.” Candide now having seen a land of infinite wealth learns that although physical wealth may weather, virtue and mental happiness are unwavering.
Social classes in the 18th century was strict seldom allowing movement up the classes. One of the many reasons for it was those in the higher classes looked down upon those lower than them with disdain
“That is all I desire, said Candide; I was Expecting to marry her, and I still hope to.
— Your insolent dog replied the baron, you would have the effrontery to marry my sister who has seventy-two quarterings! It’s a piece of presumption for you to even mention such a crazy project in my presence.
Candide, Terrified by this speech, answered:
— Most reverend father, all the quarterings in the world don’t affect this case; I have rescued your sister out of the arms of a Jew and inquisitor; she has many obligations to me, she wants to marry me. Master Pangloss always taught me that men are equal; and I shall certainly marry her.
— We’ll see about that you scoundrel said the Jesuit baron of Thunder-ten-Tronckh; and so, saying he gave him a blow across the face with the flat of his sword”.
The baron’s son is more concerned with the social status of Candide than he is of his merits or character, regardless of the fact they share a genuine love for each other, and the Candide saved Cunegonde from a lifetime of servitude to a Jew and inquisitor.
Once Candide returns from his adventures and I reunited with Cunegonde, and when she reminds him of his promise to marry her, he goes forth although she lost her beauty. How
‘I will not suffer,’ said the Baron, ‘such meanness on her part, and such insolence on yours; I will never be reproached with this scandalous thing; my sister’s children would never be able to enter the church in Germany. No; my sister shall only marry a Baron of the empire.’
Candide feels that he must marry Cunegonde, regardless the fact that she has lost both her beauty and castle, he also feels that he must in spite of the baron. The social structure of the Ancien Régime in 18th century was incredibly strict. The aristocracy’s view of lower class being that of absolute inferiority. Voltaire perceived the aristocracy as corrupt and concerned only of their lineage.
Voltaire was adamant about the separation of the church and the state, finding that any institution with such power to rarely do good, using their power over people to extort an manipulate them. Religious conflicts were ever present in the 18th century whether they be caused by states or churches. In Eldorado is unique compared to Europe as it has one sole uncontested religion meaning that there no conflict between religions allowing there to be peace.
“Cacambo asked meekly what was the religion of Eldorado. The old man flushed again
— can there be two religions he asked I suppose out religion is the same as everyone’s we worship god from morning to evening
— then you worship a sing deity said Cacambo, who acted throughout as an interpreter of the questions of Candide.
— it’s obvious said the old man, that we there aren’t two or three or four of them. I must say the people of your world ask very remarkable questions.”
Eldorado’s situation is unique as all its citizens have come to an agreement on religion. This allows for unity between its citizens however in Europe such and idea is folly as religions are both widespread and diverse. Europe is cautiously divided due to the corruption of churches and states who can abuse their power without fear of consequence from their defenseless subjects. When these powers were combined is what Voltaire was truly against. He felt that secular rule was the only way.
Throughout the novel we learn about how the view of women, wealth and how it was valued above everything else, social classes, and religion in the 18th century, that characterize the Ancien Regime. Voltaire’s Candide is a defining work of the 18th century satirizing and mocking many of the ideals of the Ancien Regime. Candide acts as an enjoyable window into the past that allows us to see the critiques of an era long past.
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