The Position of Women in Voltaire’s Candide

In Candide Voltaire discusses the exploitation of the female race in the eighteenth century through the women in the novel. Cunegonde, Paquette, and the Old Woman suffer through rape and sexual exploitation regardless of wealth or political connections. These characters possess very little complexity or importance in Candide.  With his characterization of Cunegonde, Paquette, and the Old Woman Voltaire satirizes gender roles and highlights the impotence of women in the 1800s.

Cunegonde is the daughter of a wealthy German lord. She is described as “extremely beautiful” (Voltaire. 5) and is repeatedly referred to as “the fair Cunegonde.” (39). She is the typical damsel-in-distress: a woman who is completely reliant on male protection and often fainting at the sight of anything the least bit distressing. She is a vapid beauty and completely obsequious to whomever she happens to belong to at the time.  However, Voltaire does not blame her foolish naiveté on her femininity. Candide himself is terribly innocent and is unable to make decisions without the advice of a third party. In a way, Cunegonde accepts her situation in life better than Candide does. She knows that as a woman in the eighteenth century she has few options if she wishes to survive and she is not above using her beauty to her advantage. She never questions or philosophizes like many of the male characters. Her acceptance of the sexual slavery she finds herself in belies an understanding of the limited options women had at the time.

Women in the 1800s had very few choices for advancement in life. They could either marry well or they could become the mistress of a powerful man or both. Cunegonde becomes the mistress of the Grand Inquisitor, a Bulgar captain, and the governor of Buenos Aires. As their mistress she is assured of a comfortable life, but it is a life of sexual exploitation. When propositioned by the governor Cunegonde must decide between staying faithful to her love, Candide, or being the governor’s mistress. Her companion, who is simply named the Old Woman, offers this advice. …

You have it in your power to be the wife of the greatest nobleman in South America, who has a splendid mustache. Are you in the position in which you can flaunt the luxury of unflinching loyalty? You were raped by the Bulgars; a Jew and an Inquisitor have enjoyed your favors. Misfortunes bestow certain rights. I confess that were I in your position, I would not harbor the least scruple at marrying the governor and thereby securing Captain Candide’s fortune. (41)

These women understand that in the 1800s they had very little power; only through men may they exert any influence. The female characters in Candide are of little importance to the action of the story. The narrator embraces a male perspective and does not endow any of the women with any interesting or redeeming qualities. The Old Woman, being ugly and world-weary does not even earn a name. Paquette is merely described as “a pretty and obedient brunette.” (5) She is pronounced obedient not because of her duties as a chambermaid, rather because she is quite willing to submit to the men in the baron’s castle.  Cunegonde, Paquette, and the Old Woman are not intricate characters.

The subject of rape is a prevalent theme in Candide. All of the female characters suffer through it on at least one occasion.  When Cunegonde describes the attack on her family’s castle and her subsequent rape she states that it is “the customary way of doing things.” (23) The narrator describes another violent scene: “Girls who had been disemboweled after having sated the natural needs of some of the heroes were breathing their last.” (9) The rape of women is viewed as “natural” and the rapists are “heroes” of the story. This perspective highlights how little power women possessed at that time. The characters in Candide seem to accept the rape as an unfortunate, but common occurrence. Paquette is the only woman who seems to view her situation with any sort of bitterness. After she was kicked out of the baron’s castle she became a prostitute in order to make a living. She was “forced to continue this terrible profession that you men find so pleasant, while to us women it is but an abyss of misery.” (92). All of the characters at some point claim that they are “one of the most unfortunate creatures in the world.” (92) However, until the end Paquette is the only one who truly laments her position and feels that she is being wronged. She is completely powerless in this profession and when she is no longer pretty she has only poverty to look forward to. Beauty is the only attribute which women have to recommend them and when that is gone they have no prospects to speak of.

Throughout the novel Candide professes his love for Cunegonde. Candide believes her to be a beautiful maiden, an innocent, virtuous woman. However, he does not see her very clearly. Defying gender stereotypes Cunegonde is the one to initiate their romantic encounter. Voltaire describes her as curious: she is “filled with the desire to be learned.” (5) Upon witnessing a sexual encounter between Paquette and Pangloss, she immediately seeks out Candide to replicate these “experiments.” (5) This passage shows her sexual desire; Cunegonde is not as innocent as Candide thinks. He repeatedly ignores evidence of her sexual exploits and misdeeds. He blames himself for their first encounter and believes that she had no choice but to accept the governor’s offer. She states, “An honorable woman may be raped once, but it only makes her virtue stronger.” (24) For her part she does love Candide but it is a shallow love, more akin to lust.  She wants to be faithful to Candide, but only if it will support the lifestyle that she is accustomed to.

The women of Voltaire’s Candide emphasize the exploitation of females in the 1800s. Cunegonde, Paquette, and the Old Woman are raped, forced into prostitution, and sexually exploited. Women are valued for their beauty and can only succeed if they have pretty face to recommend them. Women in the nineteenth century exist for the pleasure of men and are subjugated to these men.

           Works Cited

Voltaire. Candide Or, Optimism. Trans. Peter Constantine. Modern Library ed. New York: Random House, 2005.

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