To the modern reader, the women characters of Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism – Paquette, Cunégonde, and the Old Woman – are exaggerations of women at best. Absolutely horrible things happen to them and they go to extremes just to survive their life. They are expected to be a beautiful sexual object. However, to readers during the eighteenth century, this caricature would not be so shocking. That is, women during the time were expected to be both innocent (to satisfy men’s ideals of a mother and wife) and sexually active (to satisfy men).
That is, as Lady Montagu wrote in a letter, a woman’s education was meant to make her a good wife. They were expected to be mothers and wives first. And if they couldn’t be, then they better be sexually active. This is seen through the soaring rates of births out of wedlock, which some blame on man’s new ability to “abandon a pregnant lover by simply moving away.
” In sum, being a second fiddle to men was the role of women at the time. Through his caricature of women as survivors, Voltaire reveals the absurdity of society’s expectations upon women.
In particular, all three of his main women characters lead horrible lives. They begin as beautiful objects of desire. Paquette, for instance, becomes the mistress to several men in sequence and is only saved from prison because of her beauty. Likewise, Cunégonde is raped by several men and is jointly owned by two men when Candide meets her after Pangloss’s death.
The Old Woman too had a similar beginning as she was “raped almost every day.” Clearly, all three women experienced sexual exploitation regularly when they were beautiful. Moreover, in the case of the Old Woman and Cunégonde, they change tactics once they become ugly. The Old Woman, after all, is Cunégonde’s servant when Candide meets her. Similarly, Cunégonde is a slave when Candide rescues her for the final time. They can no longer rely on their beauty to survive, so they resort to their labor. As Cacombo so eloquently put it: “Women always find ways to keep themselves afloat.” Their role in Candide, then is to survive through whatever means necessary. This is what makes them such effective caricatures- their lives seem so outrageously awful, but they are really doing what all women did and still do today. Through these women, Voltaire is highlighting the survival skills of women in eighteenth century society.
Unlike the three women, Candide has no such survival skills. All he has is optimism, which they do not seem to have. Thanks to Pangloss’s philosophy, Candide chooses to accept the hand that he has been dealt rather than figure a way to get through it. When he gets separated from Cunégonde for the first time and he has to beg on the streets, he says that it is “arranged for the best.” He does nothing to try to get off the streets, he just proceeds to act like this is the best situation for him at the moment. When the Oreillons almost kill him for being a Jesuit, he celebrates the chance that saved him: “If I hadn’t been lucky enough to stick a sword through the body of Miss Cunégonde’s brother, I would have been eaten without mercy.” Instead of praising the quick thinking of Cacombo, which actually got them out of the situation, he chooses to praise fate in that killing the Baron was for the best. Simply put, Candide can only say that he survived his life by destiny, while the women can all say that they survived their lives by actively trying to. And in the end, they all provide in their little garden society. By having them participate equally, Voltaire is expressing the idea that women should be just as involved in society as men.
In comparison to Voltaire, the Enlightenment thinkers varied widely on how they thought about women’s position in society. Some believed that women should continue their current role, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Within his treatise on education, he argued that women’s duties included making life “agreeable and sweet” to men. In other words, they should take care of men as wives and mothers. Conversely, some thought like Mary Astell, who argued in her works that women cannot continue to uneducated and subservient to men. Specifically, she expressed the idea that “all women are born slaves” even though “all men are born free.” Obviously, Voltaire’s viewpoint falls somewhere in between these extremes: the role that women played in society at the time was ridiculous and he mocks it through the characters of Paquette, the Old Woman, and Cunégonde. Those characters are such intense caricatures of women because he wanted to make fun of the idea that women should solely be mothers, wives, and lovers.
Therefore, by turning the three main women – Paquette, Cunégonde, and the Old Woman – in Candide, or Optimism into caricatures, Voltaire is emphasizing the ridiculousness of the role of women in eighteenth century society. These caricatures are humorous because their lives of assorted atrocities are only slightly more extreme than the average woman at the time. They play the role of survivor, just like any woman does. As made evident through the comparison of their lives to Candide’s, Voltaire may not think that women should do everything that a man does, but he does believe that they should do more than just survive their lot in life. Women should have the option to do what they want with their lives because they can at the very least meet the productivity level of someone like Candide. Which, for Voltaire and his disregard for optimism, isn’t a very high bar at all.