The beautiful daughter of a wealthy German baron, Cunégonde is the object of Candide’s desire from the very beginning of the novel. His unwavering admiration of her beauty and the romantic spark between them ultimately drives the entire narrative arc as both the inciting incident and climax revolve around their relationship. Given how central she is to Candide’s journey, the lack of dimension that Voltaire gives her character is particularly ironic. Beyond the fact that she is young, “comely, plump, and desirable,” Voltaire gives the reader very little insight into who she really is as an individual. The simplicity of Cunégonde’s character works to emphasize the irrational nature of Candide’s endless pursuit of her. Rather than seeking out a woman with whom he shares a genuine emotional connection, Candide spends the novel chasing an imaginary version of Cunégonde who is perfect in every way. Voltaire critiques the optimism of the Enlightenment in a number of different ways throughout Candide, but his use of Cunégonde as a symbol of an unattainable ideal is one of the most impactful.

While Cunégonde’s first appearance in the novel romanticizes her character, Voltaire quickly alerts the reader to the fact that her perfection is merely an illusion. Cunégonde reunites with Candide for the first time in Portugal, and while he believed that she was dead, she explains that the soldiers who attacked her father’s castle also raped and wounded her. This violent scenario shrouds Cunégonde in a metaphorical darkness, stripping her of her identity as a pure and radiant woman. The fact that she subsequently becomes a mistress to multiple powerful men reinforces her loss of innocence, although Candide is too naïve to see that the ideal woman he is after does not exist. Cunégonde, like many of the women in the novel, is a victim of sexual violence, and this position calls attention to the male characters’ ignorance toward the reality of their suffering and the impossible expectations to which they are held. 

By the end of the novel, Cunégonde’s true, miserable nature manifests itself more explicitly and creates an anticlimactic ending to Candide’s journey to find her. They reunite once again in Constantinople, and when Candide sees her working as a slave to a Turkish prince, he finally sees that she no longer embodies the ideal qualities that he once attributed to her. Years of suffering destroyed her beauty and altered her attitude, making her the antithesis of who Candide hoped to marry. Although he begrudgingly upholds his promise to marry her, Cunégonde’s transformation serves as Voltaire’s final critique of optimism and reflects the harmful consequences of blind faith. Their mismatched relationship at the end of the novel suggests that an idealistic outlook is more likely to cause unnecessary suffering than it is to bring genuine happiness.