The old woman tells her story. It turns out that she is the daughter of Pope Urban X and the princess of Palestrina. She was raised in the midst of incredible wealth. At fourteen, already a stunning beauty, she was engaged to the prince of Massa Carrara. The two of them loved each another passionately. However, during the lavish wedding celebration, the prince’s mistress killed the prince with a poisoned drink, and the old woman and her mother set sail to mourn at their estate in Gaeta. On the way, pirates boarded the ship and the pope’s soldiers surrendered without a fight. The pirates examined every bodily orifice of their prisoners, searching for hidden jewels. They raped the women and sailed to Morocco to sell them as slaves.
A civil war was underway in Morocco, and the pirates were attacked. The old woman saw her mother and their maids of honor ripped apart by the men fighting over them. After the fray ended, the old woman climbed out from under a heap of dead bodies and crawled to rest under a tree. She awoke to find an Italian eunuch vainly attempting to rape her.
A hundred times I wanted to kill myself, but always I loved life more.
The old woman continues her story. Despite the eunuch’s attempt to rape her, she was delighted to encounter a countryman, and the eunuch carried her to a nearby cottage to care for her. They discovered that he had once served in her mother’s palace. The eunuch promised to take the old woman back to Italy, but then took her to Algiers and sold her to the prince as a concubine.
The plague swept through Algiers, killing the prince and the eunuch. The old woman was subsequently sold several times and ended up in the hands of a Muslim military commander. He took his seraglio with him when ordered to defend the city of Azov against the Russians. The Russians leveled the city, and only the commander’s fort was left standing. Desperate for food, the officers killed and ate two eunuchs. They planned to do the same with the women, but a “pious and sympathetic” religious leader persuaded them to merely cut one buttock from each woman for food. Eventually, the Russians killed all the officers.
The women were taken to Moscow. A nobleman took the old woman as his slave and beat her daily for two years. He was executed for “court intrigue,” and the old woman escaped. She worked as a servant in inns across Russia. She came close to suicide many times in her life, but never carried it out because she “loved life” too much. The old woman wonders why human nature makes people want to live even though life itself is so often a curse. She tells Candide and Cunégonde to ask each passenger on the ship to tell his story. She wagers that every single one has been upset to be alive.
At the old woman’s urging, Candide and Cunégonde ask their fellow passengers about their experiences. They find that the old woman’s prediction is correct. When the ship docks at Buenos Aires, they visit the haughty, self-important governor, Don Fernando d’Ibaraa y Figueora y Mascarenes y Lampourdos y Souza, who orders Candide to review his company. When Candide leaves, Don Fernando begs Cunégonde to marry him. The shrewd old woman advises Cunégonde to marry the governor, as marrying him could make both her and Candide’s fortune.
Meanwhile, a Portuguese official and police arrive in the city. It turns out that when the Franciscan who stole Cunégonde’s jewels tried to sell them, the jeweler recognized them as belonging to the Grand Inquisitor. Before he was hanged, the Franciscan described the three people from whom he stole the jewels—ostensibly the Grand Inquisitor’s murderers. The authorities sent the Portuguese official to capture these three. The old woman advises Cunégonde to remain in Buenos Aires, since Candide was responsible for the murder and the governor will not allow the authorities to do Cunégonde any harm. The old woman advises Candide to flee immediately.
The old woman’s story serves a dual purpose. The catalogue of her sufferings illustrates a vast array of human evils that contradict Pangloss’s optimistic view of the world. She has lived through violence, rape, slavery, and betrayal and seen the ravages of war and greed.
The old woman’s story also functions as a criticism of religious hypocrisy. She is the daughter of the Pope, the most prominent member of the Catholic Church. The Pope has not only violated his vow of celibacy, but has also proven unable and unwilling to protect his daughter from the misfortunes that befell her.
The officers who eat the old woman’s buttock value the integrity of their military oath more highly than the lives of the eunuchs and women inside their fort. Their behavior demonstrates the folly of absurd adherence to an outmoded system of belief. Even after it is clear that their side has no hope of winning the war, the officers choose to practice cannibalism rather than betray their oath. This choice undermines their lofty concepts of honor and duty, and makes even the cleric, who advocates mutilation rather than execution, appear humane.
Figures such as the cleric, who perform “good” deeds that are somehow compromised, limited, or otherwise ineffective, turn up throughout the novel and are often presented comically or ironically. Another example is the kindly French surgeon who treats the women’s wounds but does nothing to prevent them from being sold to new slave owners. The surgeon’s “enlightened” practice of medicine does nothing to alleviate the women’s real suffering. He merely helps the women survive to encounter more misery and injustice.
The old woman is pessimistic but acutely aware of the world she lives in. Direct experience dictates her worldview, and her pragmatism lends her more wisdom and credibility than any of her travel companions. The old woman chides Cunégonde for making judgments about the world based on her limited experience, and urges Candide and Cunégonde to gather knowledge through investigation before making judgments. Through her character, Voltaire reiterates the importance of actual, verifiable evidence and the limited value of judgments based on empty philosophical rhetoric.
The old woman defines life as misery, but unlike her younger companions she is not prone to self-pity. She tells Cunégonde, “I would not even have mentioned my own misfortunes, if you had not irked me a bit, and if it weren’t the custom, on shipboard, to pass the time with stories.” For her, tales of woe are neither edifying nor moving. They are simply a way of making a point and staving off boredom. Though her suffering does not move her to self-pity, it does shape the pragmatism and frankness that define her character.
The old woman’s meditations on suicide speak to one of the novel’s most pressing underlying concerns. If life is so full of unmitigated suffering, the prospect of taking one’s own life seems a reasonable option. The old woman, a Pope’s daughter, does not even consider the standard Christian mandate that suicide is a sin and that those who commit it are destined to burn in hell. Despite her pessimism, the old woman’s speech on this subject has a strange hopefulness to it. She asserts that people cling to life because they love it, not because they fear eternal punishment. Human beings naturally embrace life—a stupid move, perhaps, but one that demonstrates passion, strong will, and an almost heroic endurance.
Don Fernando represents a satire on the arrogance of the nobility. His long list of names mocks the importance that the nobility attaches to titles. Here, Voltaire once again attacks the nobility’s belief that it is naturally endowed with superior virtues that entitle it to wealth and power. Rather than being a wise or just governor, Don Fernando is a predator, a liar, a cheat, and a joke.
Cunégonde’s decision to accept Don Fernando’s proposal adds greater complexity to her character. She is the object of Candide’s lust and idealistic devotion, and Voltaire repeatedly refers to her as “the lovely Cunégonde.” But she is far from the semi-divine romantic heroine Candide believes her to be, and her calculating, self-serving decision to marry the Don is proof of this. Voltaire undercuts Candide’s romantic ideals by having him continue to worship Cunégonde even after she faithlessly marries the Don. It is possible that Voltaire also uses these ideals to emphasize Cunégonde’s lack of chastity, although it is unlikely that Voltaire means to condemn her for this. Cunégonde uses her beauty and sexuality to manipulate men, which seems a highly reasonable way of behaving in a world in which sexuality is the only asset women possess.
"Moreover, in the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve enjoyed the fruits of nature without having to work..."
I don't think that's true. Genesis 2:15 says, "The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it." Adam's purpose was to work even before the fall, which happens in Genesis 3. Also, I don't believe that Adam and Eve fell from God's grace. Yes, God said "you shall surely die" if you eat of the fruit, and they did, but it was actually God's grace that made them go out of the garden to prevent them from li... Read more→
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What I got from this book is that whether Panglos is right or not. Whether Pessimism or Optimism prevailed, it doesn't do any good to philosophy over it.
Man was placed in the garden to work, not to be idle.
I believe that in the end Candide gave up on arguing - he simply realised the pointlessness of doing it and that true happiness will be by living life without thinking about it the whole time.
Thanks for your post.
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Honestly I don't think this book has anything to do with religion, right or wrong. Any type of theorizing, philosophy, formal religion, or even societal emphasis on what is important is represented as something negative. For example, all church figures are corrupt, philosophers Pangloss and Martin no matter what their opinions are either ignorant or miserable. The happiest (and eventually model) character is the farmer, who thinks and works for himself. Voltaire was jaded by the corruption of religion and hopeless optimism of philosophy and ... Read more→
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