Gender in Voltaire’s “Candide”

Born in the late 17th century in Paris, France, Francois-Marie Arouet was the last of five children born to his parents, members of the still-emerging middle class. Always outspoken, the young man pursued a writing career against the wishes of his father, who intended for his son to become a lawyer. By 1718, Arouet had become notorious under the name Voltaire for his biting, leftist criticisms of social traditions and the Catholic Church. He later became an integral component of the Enlightenment, a European intellectual movement stressing individuality and rationalism over the existing, dominant ideologue of tradition. The movement also functioned as a quest for equality between genders, allowing women to engage in, rather than be the objects of, intellectual exchanges held at salons and coffee houses. It was at one of these conferences where Voltaire met his lifelong mistress, Marquise de Chatelet, who also played the role of his confidant and intellectual partner, was the idyllic model of an Enlightenment woman— she wasn’t afraid to dignify herself as an individual, polymath, mother, lover, and strong woman in general. She held a striking, revolutionary role of Newtonian physicist and mathematician, notorious for meticulously hanging wooden spheres from her ceiling to observe the effects of gravity, all the while being buried up to her corset in notes and sketches. Voltaire once described his partner as, “A great man whose only fault was being a woman.” This unique combination of influences set the stage for Voltaire’s magnum opus Candide. Having been influenced so heavily—both personally and academically—by women, it is obvious all of the suffering experienced by women in Candide is thoughtfully placed criticism, rather than misogynistic humor. In his novel, Voltaire satirizes traditional notions of gender through complex, androgynous characterization which oftentimes relies on the reversal of traditional gender roles; inverted power dynamics and plot structures; and by juxtaposing a society full of misogyny with an egalitarian, labor based alternative.

The book’s criticism of traditional gender roles begins with the way Voltaire formulates his characters. His attentive characterization is androgynous and shatters gender norms, especially in context of the period in which the text was written, in 1759. This is evident from the exposition of the story. Voltaire immediately characterizes his protagonist, Candide, as effeminate— “A youth endowed by nature with the gentlest of characters. His soul was revealed in his face,” (17). Candide, throughout the entirety of the novel, exhibits countless qualities commonly attributed to femininity. He constantly faints when faced with imminent, pressing danger; he hides, rather than fights, when confronted by the massacring Bulgars; he weeps excessively and openly after learning of a Suriname slave’s tragedies; and he even displays weak moral resolve when seduced by a Parisian marquise, despite his inner determination to stay true to his love interest, Cunegonde. In fact, Candide seems especially feminine when compared to Cunegonde— at one point, he even expresses the desire to become her, stating “after the good fortune of being born Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh, the second greatest good fortune was to be Lady Cunegonde…” (18). Conversely, from her introduction, Cunegonde is affirmed as active, aggressive, and arguably more masculine than her male counterpart, being described as “buxom and rosy-cheeked,” (18). Ascription of heavily gendered character traits to the wrong gender is a motif in the novel. For example, Cunegonde is much more verbal about her physical attraction to the opposite sex than Candide, even though one would expect the opposite. This is evidenced by her commentary on the large build and beautiful complexion of her Jewish lover in Portugal, as well as her thoughts on Candide. Whenever her precious Candide is flogged at the Spanish auto-da-fe, Cunegonde’s first reaction surprisingly isn’t one of remorse or helplessness, but of sexual passion— she finds herself admiring the fine shape of his now exposed, muscular torso.

By contrasting the traits of characters with opposite genders, it becomes clear that the relationship between men and women has been turned on its head. Candide, unlike his love interest, finds himself unable to voice his attraction toward Cunegonde, “for he found Lady Cunegonde extremely beautiful, although he was never bold enough to tell her so.” (18) Voltaire even takes his statement to sexual role reversal. Whenever Cunegonde witnesses Pangloss and Paquette (described in the passage as docile, paralleling similar traits between Paquette and Candide) having sex in the bushes, she closely studies Pangloss’ sexual technique. Shortly thereafter, she seduces Candide— notably not the other way around, as traditional gender norms would uphold— by dropping her handkerchief coyly. This motif does not strictly apply to Candide and Cunegonde, as well. Arguably, the old woman is the character who has suffered the most in her lifetime, yet she still has a flaming passion for life. She explains it as the desire “to fondle the serpent which devours us till it has eaten out our heart” (49). This understanding of life is the same one shared by influential Enlightenment philosophers including David Hume and Voltaire himself. Since the old woman is, indeed, a woman, Voltaire’s characterization undermines the notion that men are wiser than the other gender, one prevalent at the time and still existent today. On the contrary, Voltaire portrays his male protagonist as weak and naïve, a portrait upheld by Candide’s relentless, headstrong personal philosophy of Panglossian optimism. Even after hearing the old woman’s recollection of her unsettling past, Candide simply states he may only raise a “few objections” to the idea that we live in the best possible of all worlds (50).

Voltaire takes his critique of gender a level deeper by not only examining individual character traits with relation to gender, but also by using women as the sole catalysts for positive change within the novel. He turns traditional power relations between genders on their heads, by having women play more dominant roles than men in both their personal relationships and the central narrative of the novel. Nowhere is this more evident than in the relationship between Candide and Cunegonde. The relationship is initiated by Cunegonde as she drops her handkerchief, coquettishly hoping for Candide to pick it up. Candide’s reaction displays a traditionally female coyness toward the situation. When caught kissing Cunegonde by the baron, Candide is exclusively blamed as the perpetrator regardless of the reality of the situation.  After her one brief fling with Candide, Cunegonde is shipped off to Spain, setting her lover off on an endless journey to recapture his now fetishized love. His struggle to marry Cunegonde is framed recurrently as an attempt to find his lost self, or his other half: this confirms Voltaire’s message that both genders are interdependent on one another. While the relationship begins based off of pure physical attraction, it ends with Candide upholding his ethical imperative to marry Cunegonde regardless of her now-revolting appearance. Cunegonde, in the meantime, “did not know that she had grown ugly, nobody had told her so: she reminded Candide of his promises in so peremptory a tone that the good Candide did not dare refuse her” (118). It is her ugliness that sets her free—no longer is she constantly objectified by men. This also makes a scathing argument against the trend in society for women to base their self-image off of the opinions of others, especially men.

While throughout the majority of the novel women function in a society created on a foundation of their suppression, their mistreatment is only overcome by life on Candide’s farm. All of the murders, beatings, and sexual assaults that women are subjected to in the novel should not be viewed simply as Voltaire poking fun at the society he lives in—he is showing his disgust at the mistreatment of women in the European, American, and Muslim cultures. The garden is his alternative, a metaphor for a society based off of labor, rather than birthright and gender. It was created by individuals belonging to groups which had been marginalized for hundreds of years— the old woman is the one who offers the advice to purchase the farm, critical to egalitarian treatment of both genders, and the money is spent by a religiously oppressed Jew. Once settled, Candide announces, “We must cultivate our garden.” (117) (This phrase becomes a parable meant to represent coexistence between the genders, where equality is based off of labor rather than gender.) Candide’s garden is an escape from the rest of the world which is full of rape, objectification and forced labor— gender becomes irrelevant as long as each member of the community does his or her job. Cunegonde bakes, the old woman knits. By basing value off of productivity, even the most ferocious of stereotypes can be overcome. This is exemplified by Paquette’s admittance to the colony, now a prostitute serving a client. Candide recognizes the prostitute, traditionally a timeless oppressive stereotype, as an individual forced into an unethical act. He willingly accepts Paquette and her pimp into the community where she then becomes a social equal. Candide recognizes that only through superseding gender stereotypes can a truly whole community ever be formed.

Throughout Candide, concepts reinforcing the idea of gender equality are found in the form of character traits which oppose notions of traditional gender roles, Cunegonde and the old woman being the most dignified and noble characters in the book while men such as Candide and Pangloss are represented as morally weak. This is fleshed out further by altering character relationships to represent women as dominant and men as submissive, as evidenced by the awkward sexual interactions between Candide and Cunegonde. Women act as catalysts not only within in their in-story relationships, but also in the plot structure of the book itself— what kind of a protagonist would Candide be without the old woman to guide him and Cunegonde to inspire him? Voltaire’s argument for gender equality even goes so far as to offer a solution to the problems satirized in the form of Candide’s farm, a sort of proto-Marxist community where social standing is designated explicitly via productivity. With reference to these points, Candide undeniably fits in with the overarching Enlightenment model of gender equality. Though at points dry and blunt, Candide’s scathing satire provides an excellent example of an early work used to further the still ongoing struggle for gender equality.

Cited Works:

Voltaire. Candide. New York: Bantam, 1959. Print.


Philosophy: Bad Faith in Sartre’s “No Exit”

19th century philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, in his book Being and Nothingness, classifies two distinct modes of being in the world. The first is being-in-itself, which is how inanimate objects exist in the world around us. These beings exist explicitly as objects—for example, a piano is a piano, and is unable to actively choose to become something else. A piano cannot think about itself, and can only be thought about by others; it can never be its own subject. Being-in-itself is contrasted with being-for-itself, which is what human beings fall under. Being-for-itself allows for true consciousness and the unique property of free will— this type of being is able to determine the meaning, or essence, of their own existence. The ability to determine one’s own meaning is daunting, however—Sartre describes human beings as, “condemned to be free,” because with freedom comes responsibility, and with responsibility comes existential anxiety. Human beings attempt to escape existential anxiety by giving up their freedom to others. Humans allow other humans to create meaning for them, which is a form of what Sartre refers to as “bad faith.” In a broader sense, bad faith encompasses any form of self-deception. Bad faith can take many forms, whether it be living in the past or defining one’s being as a social category. For example, Sartre argues that it is impossible to “be” a waiter. A man can be a waiter at some point in his life, but that does not define his entire existence. The category of “waiter” has been pushed upon a human being by others. Most of the time, humans are unable to transcend their roles or social categories. Instead, we measure our self-worth by gauging our performance as these social categories. One might find meaning in being a good feminist, a star athlete, or a renowned scholar; one rarely finds meaning in simply “existing well.” Other times, we seek relationships with others to escape existential anxiety. We pursue relationships not because we are attracted to others, but because we like how they look at us, how they perceive us. We avoid becoming our own subject to avoid self-criticism, because we prefer the false reality that the other’s look gives us—Sartre calls this being-for-others. The play No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre is an elaborate allegory for bad faith: the playwright uses characterization of Estelle, Garcin, and Inez to portray different modes of being—being-for-others, being-in-itself, and being-for-itself, respectively.

Estelle represents being-for-others, which is evident in her lack of self-awareness. She has no sense of self that comes from within; rather, she relies on external objects’ perceptions of her to give her an identity. Estelle is a superficial and naïve woman obsessed with outward appearance, a facet of being inextricably linked to the gaze of others. Whenever she realizes that there are no mirrors in Hell, Estelle informs the others of her lack of self-awareness unashamedly, stating “When I can’t see myself I begin to wonder if I really and truly exist,” (19). Inez, who is attracted to Estelle, offers to act as a mirror for Estelle. Inez describes what she sees aloud to a grateful Estelle. What Estelle does not realize is that, through this action, Inez has stolen subjectivity from her. By believing what Inez says about her, Estelle has ceded her own ability to determine her self-perception. The fault in this logic becomes evident when Inez falsely leads Estelle to believing she has a blemish on her cheek. Estelle becomes flustered until Inez admits that there was never a pimple in the first place. Inez confronts Estelle, asking “Suppose the mirror started telling lies?” (21). As humans, we cannot allow external objects to pass judgment on ourselves, for only the self has intentions which further the self’s goals. Inez continues pressing Estelle in the play. “Suppose I covered my eyes—as he is doing—and refused to look at you. All that loveliness would be wasted on the desert air,” (21). Estelle’s obsession with looks is inherently rooted in bad faith—she is finding meaning in her existence that can only be appreciated by beings outside the self. One who is a being-for-others will inevitably face conflict in relationships with other people, because their reason for seeking the relationship is not for love; rather, one seeks a relationship because they find comfort and meaning in how their lover views them. A being-for-others escapes the self, the harshest critic and only basis for reality, and instead lives vicariously through their lover’s perception of them. In No Exit, Estelle is separated from her lover, Peter. She continues to trust in bad faith, however, yearning, “Peter dear, think of me, fix your thoughts on me, and save me. All the time you’re thinking “my glancing stream, my crystal girl,” I’m only half here. I’m only half wicked, and half of me is down there with you, clean and bright and crystal-clear as running water…” (32). Estelle has no sense of self without her other half; when she does not have that other half, she is forced to reject her current situation and instead live in the past.

Garcin is the character which Sartre utilizes to display the lifestyle of being-in-itself. His reliance on others to ascribe his life meaning is most obvious in his incessant need to be told he is courageous. Garcin, upon being asked why he is in Hell, responds with a half-truth: “I ran a pacifist newspaper… have I done anything wrong?” (16). He does not admit to his desertion of the Brazilian army, a decision that haunts him until (and after) his death. It is regret which causes him to adopt bad faith. First, he lives in the past: he watches his coworkers discuss his desertion, listens as they condemn him for his cowardice. “He’s talking about me […] Nothing worth repeating. He’s a swine, that’s all,” (36). While he pretends that their gossip does not bother him—and it does— readers know otherwise through a later scene with Estelle. He begs her to call him courageous, thinking her declaration will allow him to overcome his fears. “If you make the effort, if you will it hard enough […] we can really love each other. A thousand of them proclaiming me a coward; but what do numbers matter? If there’s someone, just one person, to say quite positively I did not run away […]—well, that faith would save me. Will you have that faith in me?” (40). Unfortunately, Estelle herself has a problem with being-for-others, so she cannot supply the perception that Garcin aches for. Secondly, Garcin uses bad faith by designating his wife, a simple being that is, as a narrow social category. By doing so, Garcin is able to have sex with another woman in his own household, while his wife was home, without feeling remorse. He knew his wife could overhear them, but he also knew she would be too timid to confront him about it. His excuse? “She was a martyr from birth; a victim by vocation,” (23). By ascribing the social role of martyr to his wife, he dehumanizes her and creates an empathetic obstacle he is never able to overcome. He cannot feel compassion for his wife when he views her as anything less than a being which simply exists. Garcin turns once again to bad faith to deal with his past sins—rather than accepting the past as is, he relives it.  He watches over her: “Yes, my wife. She’s waiting at the entrance of the barracks. She comes there every day,” (34). His wife has been faithful up until the end, and he is forced to watch the result of his bad faith for the rest of eternity.

Inez comes closest to Sartre’s ideas of being-for-itself, evidenced by her acceptance of her condition and her control over the other characters. From the outset of the play, Inez never deludes herself. Instead, she lives in the moment and accepts her fate. “Life begins on the other side of despair,” (16) becomes her mantra. Inez also never questions whether or not she deserves her punishment. As others deny their bad faith, she laughs and criticizes them: “Yes, we are all criminals […]—all three of us. We’re in hell, my pets; they never make mistakes,” (16). Inez foils Estelle who is reliant on others for self-image; she needs no external objects to give her meaning. She states, “I’m always conscious of myself in my mind. Painfully conscious,” (16). Self-awareness is what gives Inez control over her own fate. Sartre does not provide us with a perfect character, however. While she may be living her life as a being-for-itself, she still indulges in bad faith. She utilizes their weaknesses to control the other characters: acting as a mirror for Estelle, she falsely leads her to believe a pimple exists on her face when it does not, and she also refuses to call Garcin a courageous man. She is a self-proclaimed sadist, a foil to Estelle who lives to only give pleasure to others. Inez also is the only character in the play who has a profound understanding of Sartre’s idea of the look. “Forget about the others? How utterly absurd. I feel you there, in every pore. Your silence clamors in my ears. You can nail up your mouth, cut your tongue out—but you can’t prevent your being there. Can you stop your thoughts? I hear them ticking away like a clock, tick-tock, tick-tock, and I know you hear mine. […] every sound comes to me soiled, because you’ve intercepted it along the way. Why, you’ve even stolen my face; you know it and I don’t,” (34). Her understanding is the underlying factor that allows her to live her life in better faith than the rest of the characters, though she also is evidence of the need for balance between nothingness and social roles that Sartre believed was necessary to force order into nothingness and give our lives meaning.

In No Exit, the characters Estelle, Garcin, and Inez are unknowingly pitted against one another in a battle of subjectivity. While Hell seemingly offers them quite a bit of freedom, they choose to deal with both regrets in their past life and adversity in their current one through what Sartre argues to be bad faith. Estelle is guiltiest of this, existing as a being-for-others. Garcin lives as a being-in-itself, while Inez arguably becomes a being-for-itself. Condemned to be in the company of one another for eternity, the play ends with the characters still at one another’s throats—will they ever be able to escape their bad faith and coexist? In No Exit, Garcin comes to the conclusion that “Hell is other people.” In Being and Nothingness, Sartre states, “I am never any one of my attitudes, any one of my actions.”  By reaching the epiphany that everyone is simply a being who exists while simultaneously utilizing one’s social role to better their true existence, one can finally live a life in good faith—unfortunately, the characters in No Exit never have that “Eureka!” moment. Their fictional failure to do so does not condemn the reader to the same fate. While it is easy to dismiss the play as pessimistic, Sartre is merely critiquing the zero-sum mindset of the status quo when it comes to well-being. No Exit is a reminder that existence is only something that is what it is.