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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.