The Sex of All Possible Worlds: Analyzing ‘Candide’ Through the Feminist Lens
If the entire world were experiencing hardship, one is forced to wonder, would it be equal? If the entire world were experiencing joy, one is forced to wonder, would it be equal? If the entire world were to experience any one specific event–any one specific feeling, emotion, or urge–would it be equal? Often, feminism is written off in a socially-tied, hush-hush affidavit: ignorantly, yet contractually bound to be a pipe dream–some way to convince us that we live in “the best of all possible worlds”–a world where equality is a given and opportunity is “just a knock away.” However, the gender-specific challenges faced every day by all men and women–young, old, short, tall, handsome, or plain–remain ever-increasing and formidable. The last place a confused, curious reader may look for answers regarding feminism and equality would appear to be 18th century satire; however, Voltaire’s 18th century satirical text Candide displays trends relevant in feminism not only hundreds of years ago, but also today. Voltaire, while satirizing the principles of philosophical optimism, inadvertently portrayed the deeply-rooted separation of men and women in an andro-centric society. The segregation of the two sexes is often done unconsciously, curiously circumventing the principles of definition and ability in either sex.
Defining a person is an arduous task. One must take into consideration an entire plethora of variables: appearance, intelligence, sense of humor, backstory, and other factors that contribute to a human personality. However, an evident factor on most modern applications as well as the first factor that most consider when “defining” a person is often, quite simply, sex. One of the founding principles of feminism is the desire for unconditional equality–the idea of not allowing anyone to be inhibited or defined by sex. In literature, many archetypes exist on both a feminine and masculine level. In Candide, these archetypes are exaggerated, as is very much characteristic of a satire. However, the exaggerated portrayal of both the male and female characters allows a reader to critically examine feminine archetypes that “define” many females today without further consideration.
Throughout Candide, the reader is introduced to female characters who bear an eerie resemblance in appearance, intelligence, sense of humor, back story, and other factors that contribute to a human personality. The female characters in Candide are defined almost exclusively by their appearances. When narrating Candide’s love for the female lead, Miss Cunegonde, Voltaire explains how this fascination was rooted, as she was “about seventeen years of age, fresh-colored, comely, plump, and amiable” (Voltaire, 11). In remarks that recall the importance placed on Miss Cunegonde’s appearance, the Old Woman explains first in her own story that she had not always been “bleary-eyed” and that her “nose did not always touch [her] chin” (Voltaire, 41). The Old Woman voices her greatest accomplishment as “inspiring young men to love” despite winning many other impressive accolades (Voltaire, 41). However, the male characters in Candide seem free to be unique and defined by other characteristics–differing from many standard archetypes. Forgetting the pseudo-intelligent Pangloss, the powerful Baron, the naive Candide, and the pessimistic Martin is something no reader can imagine. However, when asked about the characteristics of either Miss Cunegonde or the Old Woman in Candide, one would most likely be stuck quoting passages regarding their appearances or their eerily similar backstories. It here becomes clear that Candide was written in a time before the principles of feminism were fully developed.
Human prowess has been tested and reinvented countless times. However, such ability is often measured based off one incredibly evident trait: sex. One’s reproductive organs often wrongly give a notion that one is capable or incapable of performing certain tasks. In Candide, the feminine ability is far from equal to the male ability in terms of character description. While Candide is unlucky, he is still presented as active in his story line, as are other male characters such as Pangloss, the Baron, Martin, Pacquette, and Signor Pococurante. Miss Cunegonde and the Old Woman, however, are often “stumbled upon” or viewed as lucky for their survival and/or health. Often, the female characters express distress in an internal or external fashion. For example, when Miss Cunegonde faints upon the sofa when she is reuniting with Candide, she shows a stereotypical moment of feminine weakness (Voltaire, 31). However, one must take into account that Candide himself illustrates a number of “feminine” moments, including begging as he is flogged (Voltaire, 16). The factor to take into account when analyzing Candide through a feminist literary lens is balance. While Candide shows a few signs of feminine weakness, the female characters’ overall weakness outweighs them in severity and frequency. Candide only reinforces the idea that the stereotypes, notions, and connotations regarding feminine and masculine ability are not only alive and well, but honored by tradition.
Principles of definition and ability have come to exist as obstacles in the way of achieving true feminism or equality in all matters of life. Defining archetypes in literature remain prevalent today and are evidently present in literature dating back as far as the 18th century. The gender-specific molds everyone is born into are an individual’s worst enemy until that individual comes to break them and reveal a unique personality, regardless of preconceived notions. However formidable a task, modern literature, media, and social conventions are slowly stripping themselves of these hindering “principles.” To achieve true equality in a world so unbalanced and andro-centric, one must forget about “the sex of all possible worlds.”
Voltaire. Candide. New York: Dover Publications, 1991. Print.
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