Voltaire makes his ideological priorities clear in Candide. Pangloss’s philosophy lacks use and purpose, and often leads to misguided suffering, but the Inquisition’s determination to suppress dissenting opinion at any cost represents tyranny and unjust persecution. The Inquisition authorities twist Pangloss’s words to make them appear to be a direct attack on Christian orthodoxy, and flog Candide for merely seeming to approve of what Pangloss says. This flogging of Candide represents exaggeration on Voltaire’s part, an amplification of the Inquisition’s repressive tactics that serves a satirical purpose. Along with outrage at the cruelty of the Inquisition, we are encouraged to laugh at its irrationality, as well as at the exaggerated nature of Candide’s experience.
Cunégonde’s situation inspires a similarly subversive combination of horror and absurdity. Her story demonstrates the vulnerability of women to male exploitation and their status as objects of possession and barter. Cunégonde is bought and sold like a painting or piece of livestock, yet the deadpan calm with which she relates her experiences to Candide creates an element of the absurd. Candide takes this absurdity further; as Cunégonde describes how her Bulgar rapist left a wound on her thigh, Candide interrupts to say, “What a pity! I should very much like to see it.” In the middle of this litany of dreadful events, Candide’s suggestive comments seem ridiculous, but the absurdity provides comic relief from the despicably violent crimes that Cunégonde describes.
The stereotyped representation of the Jew Don Issachar may offend the contemporary reader, but it demonstrates the hypocrisy that afflicted even such a progressive thinker as Voltaire. Voltaire attacked religious persecution throughout his life, but he suffered from his own collection of prejudices. In theory, he opposed the persecution of Jews, but in practice, he expressed anti-Semitic views of his own. In his Dictionary of Philosophy, Voltaire describes the Jews as “the most abominable people in the world.” Don Issachar’s character is a narrow, mean-spirited stereotype—a rich, conniving merchant who deals in the market of human flesh.
Voltaire makes another attack on religious hypocrisy through the character of the Franciscan who steals Cunégonde’s jewels. The Franciscan order required a vow of poverty from its members, making Voltaire’s choice of that order for his thief especially ironic.