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.