This essays looks briefly at the similarities and differences between the characters of Cunégonde and the old woman in Voltaire’s satire.
Voltaire’s Candide is a very funny satire that skewers the Optimistic attitude that “this is the best of all possible worlds.” Obviously, considering the horrific events Candide goes through, this isn’t the best of anything.
Candide has several companions in his misadventures, notably Dr. Pangloss, his mentor and tutor; and Cacambo, his servant. Of the women in the tale, two are most important: Cunégonde, the woman Candide loves, and the old woman, whom he meets on his travels.
This paper will compare and contrast the way the two women are presented in the novel.
Cunégonde is Candide’s true love. She is the daughter of the Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh, who raised Candide in his castle. She is beautiful, desirable, and despite all the horrible things that happen to her, she is fearfully dull. She is raped and cut open by Bulgarian soldiers (she notes it isn’t always necessary to die from such treatment); sold to numerous men as a sexual plaything; reunited with Candide; parted from him; and reunited again at the end of the book. She isn’t very bright, and she’s essentially passive as a doormat. She fights her Bulgarian rapist, but as soon as she’s rescued (by a Bulgarian captain, not Candide) she becomes his willing servant and his lover.
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When he grows tired of her, he sells her to a Jew named Don Issachar, who adores women. But soon after that she catches the eye of the Grand Inquisitor, who also wants her. The two men work out an arrangement whereby Don Issachar visits her Monday, Wednesday and the Sabbath; the Grand Inquisitor has the other four days of the week, though there have been some arguments, apparently, about when the Sabbath begins and ends.
Soon after Cunégonde tells Candide her tale, Don Issachar shows up. He immediately attacks Candide, and Candide kills him. A few moments later, the Grand Inquisitor arrives, and Candide figures that he’ll turn them in, so he kills him, too. Then he, Cunégonde and the old woman escape from the scene. When they arrive at an inn, Cunégonde comment is “Where will I find another Jew and another inquisitor to give me more jewels?” She is for sale to the highest bidder; she also has the brains of a flea, and because Candide is a bright young man, his devotion to her is ridiculous; a satirical example of men’s weakness for women.
IIIThe Old Woman
The old woman is a much livelier character, despite the fact that she’s so much older, and despite the fact that she has been through many of the same ordeals as the younger woman: she has been raped numerous times, sold far more often than Cunégonde, and even had one buttock cut off to feed the janissaries that were defending her and other women of a harem. The daughter of Pope Urban X, she has been raised in luxury only to fall prey to pirates and sold into slavery. But she meets his misfortunes with an energy and drive that Cunégonde lacks. She even says at one point: “I have been a hundred times upon the point of killing myself, but still I was fond of life.” (Voltaire, PG).
The greatest difference between the two lies in the old woman’s active stance, as contrasted with Cunégonde’s passivity. We learn that the old woman was sold at last to a Boyard, who put her to work in the fields and lashed her every day. But instead of simply assuming this was her lot in life, she did something about it: “But this nobleman having about two years afterwards been broken alive upon the wheel, with about thirty others, for some court intrigues, I took advantage of the event, and made my escape.” (Voltaire, PG).
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After escaping, she tells us, she traveled through many different countries, making her living as a servant at various inns and hostels. In this too she is different from Cunégonde, who has been satisfied to allow men to keep her. She has lived a live that is actually much harder than Cunegonde’s, because the latter has been sheltered and cared for by men who wanted her for her beauty and sexual charms, which meant that she was well-treated (if any woman being sold against her will can be said to be well-treated).
Still, both Don Issachar and the Grand Inquisitor gave her rich gifts, good food and fine wine; no one did such things for the older woman. True, they were both little better than slaves, but Cunégonde accepted her chains while the old woman fought hers.
Finally, as she finishes relating her tale, the old woman says “I have a great deal of knowledge and experience in the world…” (Voltaire, PG).
And that may be the biggest difference of all. Cunégonde, as I say, is not very bright, and so the things that she’s been through mean little to her, and she hasn’t learned much from them. But the old woman has gained a great deal of experience, and furthermore, put it to use. She has escaped from the Boyard and made a living for herself in many different countries, surely not an easy thing to do.
The women in Candide, in general, suffer a great deal of physical hardship. Rape abounds, as does torture, mutilation and other types of general mayhem. But they react to their misfortunes very differently.
Cunégonde accepts whatever happens to her passively; indeed, one gets the impression that she simply lets events roll over her, neither noticing nor caring much what happens. The old woman, however, is very much aware of what’s going on, and she actively involves herself with events. In so doing, she becomes the more attractive character.
Voltaire. Candide. [On-line]. The On-Line Literature Library [Web site]. 29 Jun 1999. Accessed: 3 May 2003. http://www.literature.org/authors/voltaire/candide/index.html
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