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Women in Voltaire’s Candide Essay

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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...


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...ir 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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