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.