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
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.