The Demise of the Female in Voltaire’s Candide

January 24, 2019 by Essay Writer

A stark parallel can be drawn between the two central female characters of Voltaire’s satirical philosophic thrust, Candide. It is through the tragic strife and oppression of first the Old Woman and then Cunegonde that we see two sagas woven of such similar threads that their resemblance cannot be denied. Perhaps intentionally, the fate of the unfortunate Old Woman foreshadows the dismal destiny that awaits Candide’s beloved Cunegonde.Mystery shrouds our initial encounter with the Old Woman, whose name Voltaire omits from the text, adding to the curiosity of her character. In time she is given a voice, an opportunity which she seizes with the utmost candor. She is irked by the ignorance of Candide and Cunegonde as they bemoan the great misfortunes that have befallen them: “You pity yourselves,” she says, “but you have had no such misfortunes as mine.” (Ch 10, pg 332) Here she begins to relate her own calamitous experience; apparently, she has been repeatedly victimized by humiliation, rape, betrayal, mutilation, and the misery of her degraded lot in life. Exposing herself as the daughter of Pope Urban the Tenth and the Princess of Palestrina, the Old Woman proceeds to trump the title and standing of the baroness Cunegonde, who boasts “seventy-two quarterings”, by assuring her that until the age of fourteen she “lived in a palace so splendid that all the castles of all your German barons would not have served it as a stable.” (Ch. 11, 333) We learn that her face was not always besmirched by eyes that were bloodshot and red-rimmed and her nose did not always touch her chin. (Ch 11, 333) Her rendition of her physical blessings is far from humble and she quite candidly asserts that her “breast was formed—and what a breast!” (Ch. 11, 333) She delves further into the description of her singular beauty and charm, surpassing that of the “fresh, plump and desirable” Cunegonde.The similarities continue. Just as Cunegonde was torn from her paramour Candide by a mere kiss that left him expelled from the castle, so too was the Old Woman wrenched from her betrothed prince by a bizarre twist of events that left him poisoned and lifeless. The Old Woman tells of how she was violated—mind and body—by an invading corsair captain who raped and deflowered her in a fashion similar to the corruption of Cunegonde by the butchering Bulgar soldier and captain. While the Old Woman watched as her mother was viciously torn apart, Cunegonde witnessed the brutal slaughter of her own maternal flesh and blood. Following their introductions to the horrors stirring in this “best of all possible worlds,” the Old Woman and Cunegonde both endured the shame of serving as concubines for a number of insufferable male captors. Rape and submission plagued their lives, which grew more horrendous with each passing episode.The two were hardened, however, by their hapless trials—not destroyed. Cunegonde asserts that “though a person of honor may be raped once, her virtue is only strengthened by the experience.” (Ch. 8, 329) After the Old Woman’s “prized” buttock was severed in a desperate cannibalistic attempt to feed the Ottoman janizaries, she toyed with notions of suicide but concluded: “Always, I loved life more.” (Ch. 12, 337) It must be acknowledged that the Old Woman exudes a certain pensive nature that places her intellect above that of the less sensible Cunegonde. Following her own debate as to why the practice of clinging to a dreadful life is a “ridiculous instinct” that is “perhaps one of [mankind’s] worst instincts”, she reasons that humans everywhere have—at one time or another—cursed their existence. (Ch. 12, 337) In the bet that ensues, the Old Woman wagers that the naïve youngsters, Candide and Cunegonde, cannot possibly find on board the ship a single one “who has not often told himself that he is the most miserable of men.” (Ch. 12, 337) We see that the Old Woman—for all her cynicism—is indeed philosophical in her own right, and is wiser than her young companions to the ways of the wayward world.In accordance with this disparity, one aspect in which the female characters decidedly differ is that of resilience. Though both have weathered the storms of life (and then some), the jaded Old Woman is able to rationalize and form decisions—perhaps because she has grown wise from experience—whereas the feebler Cunegonde is indecisive and seeks direction in nearly all endeavors. Luckily (and sometimes unluckily), Cunegonde has the Old Woman to fall on for assistance, lest she crumble in the face of the fate-determining choices with which she is presented. Yet the Old Woman relies on Cunegonde as well, in a symbiotic relationship wherein she offers discretion and guidance in exchange for the therapy gained by attempting to rescue Cunegonde from the perils of life.The fated paths of the women cross when the Jew Don Issachar employs the Old Woman in the service of tending to his newly-bought pet—the depraved baroness. Abandoning the shambles of her own wrecked destiny, the Old Woman endeavors to salvage the fate of her young counterpart, Cunegonde: “I attached myself to your destiny, till I have become more concerned with your fate than with my own,” she says. (Ch. 12, 337) In a sense, the Old Woman is living through Cunegonde. Although not explicitly stated, we can assume by her sage advice and godmother-like role in guiding Cunegonde’s future that the Old Woman sees in Cunegonde a semblance of her former self. She therefore toils to avert any further adversity that impedes the path to Cunegonde’s “happiness.” For instance, when the governor of Buenos Aires—Don Fernando—is so suddenly struck by Cunegonde’s beauty that he declares that he “will marry her tomorrow” (Ch. 13, 338) if she so pleases, the Old Woman counsels her to accept the offer because she is currently penniless and the union would ensure her financial welfare. The Old Woman assures Cunegonde that “miseries entitle one to privileges” and that in her place she would “make no scruple of marrying My Lord the Governor, and making the fortune of Captain Candide.” Besides, he boasts “a really handsome mustache.” (Ch.13, 338) Romance is here subordinated and Candide—who had nearly forsaken paradise when he left El Dorado to recover Cunegonde—is dismissed in a shift of the wind. With imprisonment pending, Candide flees Buenos Aires and is not reunited with Cunegonde before she and the Old Woman are cheapened to washer-women of the Prince of Transylvania.By this point, we see that the elegant beauty which was once enough to sustain the gifted pair was only a fleeting grace that would deteriorate from time and the twists of fate. To Candide, Cunegonde had been inspiration enough for him to abandon the appeal of civic perfection and the happiness offered by the utopian El Dorado in order to seek the “true happiness” found in her arms. Yet once he arrives at his long-sought prize, he finds her with “her skin weathered, her eyes bloodshot, her breasts fallen, her cheeks seamed, her arms red and scaly…” (Ch. 29, 376) This description is an echo of that applied to the Old Woman—essentially, fate has dealt both she and Cunegonde the same agonizing blow. In a poignant allusion to the ephemeral happiness that both women had once enjoyed as royalty in lavish courts, Candide queries: “But how can she be reduced to this wretched state with the five or six millions that you [Cacambo, Candide’s servant] had?” (Ch. 27, 372) Money is, in other words, insufficient currency with which to purchase happiness.Near the end of the book, Candide—silencing the protests of his inner voice—mercifully marries the baroness, who is growing ever-uglier by the day and has become “sour-tempered and insupportable.” Voltaire does not forget the decrepit Old Woman, whom he very purposefully acknowledges side-by-side with her younger counterpart as “ailing, and even more ill-humored than Cunegonde.” Fortune’s Wheel has spun full-circle, and the women are both reduced to pitiable positions: Cunegonde as pastry cook and the Old Woman as launderer. In true Boethian fashion, the lesson taught to the dispossessed royal duo is that “Fortune by its own uncertainty, can never come near to reaching happiness.” (Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy)

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