—A hundred times I wanted to kill myself, but always I loved life more. This ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our worst instincts; is anything more stupid than choosing to carry a burden that really one wants to cast on the ground? to hold existence in horror, and yet to cling to it? to fondle the serpent which devours us till it has eaten out our heart? —In the countries through which I have been forced to wander, in the taverns where I have had to work, I have seen a vast number of people who hated their existence; but I never saw more than a dozen who deliberately put an end to their own misery.

The old woman, after telling of the rape, slavery, and cannibalism she has experienced, launches into this speculation about suicide in Chapter 12. The question of why more unfortunate people do not kill themselves seems rational in the context of the calamitous, merciless world of the novel. In Voltaire’s time, the first and easiest answer should have been that God and Christian doctrine forbid suicide and that those who kill themselves are consigned to spend eternity in hell. However, the old woman’s very existence, as an illegitimate child of a Pope, makes a statement against the church, and she does not even consider this approach to the question of suicide. Perhaps the implication is that hell cannot possibly be worse than life, or perhaps the old woman, after her experiences, does not believe in God or an afterlife. The pessimism of this passage is obvious and fairly thorough. The one glimmer of hope that shines through the old woman’s words comes from her assertion that people cling to life because they “love” it, not because they are resigned or because they fear eternal punishment. The serpent that is life is not just tolerated but “fondle[d].” Human beings, then, naturally embrace life—a “stupid” move, perhaps, but one that demonstrates passion, strong will, and an almost heroic endurance.