Feminist Approach Of Candide

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Women in the 18th century enjoyed very few privileges compared to men. In the book Candide, wrote by Voltaire, during the whole story women are getting treated like objects and have no rights. Voltaire’s portrayal of sexual exploitation as completely habitual seeks to underline women’s importance and the position they occupied in society. Does all of this define Voltaire as one of the first feminist of his time?

First of all, you can notice that the book describes how women in the 18th century played a really small role and had very few rights in society. During the whole book there are only very few female characters. The only main female characters who interact with Candide are “the old lady” and “Cunegonde”. Voltaire describes women with only weak and degrading adjectives which makes them look like objects. During the whole book women never get the right to do something to defend themselves and are treated like animals. And even when something good finally happens to Cunegonde she experiences rape and other horrific events. One example is when she escaped the Bulgarian man and still got raped and abused a lot.

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Secondly, the book describes women in a special way. In the opening chapters of the book, Voltaire insinuates the lack of importance of women. He describes Cunegonde as “appetizing” which would basically mean that he compares her to a piece of beef. He doesn’t say that she’s beautiful as a person instead he describes her body to make the reader understand society’s view of women as purely physical rather than an accumulation of her traits as person such as intelligence and personality.

The name Cunegonde comes from the latin word “cunnus” which is a degreading word to describe a woman. Voltaire’s description of women focuses on the prime importance of sexual appeal to define his characters. The fact that he uses a degrading name for one of his main characters is a way to tell the reader that she is just a sexual object to satisfy the wants of the male population.

Later in the story a lady called “the old women” appears and she is described as neither pretty, nor attractive. Her name remains like that throughout the whole story which would suggest that men didn’t care enough about women enough to give them importance.

Voltaire describes a lot of crimes committed by male characters during the whole story. But all of these crimes are described as insignificant and they are almost normal for everyone else in the story. Cunegonde gets described at the end of the story and it says that she got raped several times and got hit, abused, etc… which in the 21st century would be something horrible and everyone would take it extremely seriously. But in the book it’s almost like an innocent act. When Voltaire describes Cunegonde’s rape he says it’s “the natural way of things”.

Candide has the ideology that everything happens for the best so he doesn’t even really care about the rape of anyone because he thinks it had to happen. Which brings it back to Voltaire that describes the objectification of women as a normal thing.

Regardless of the apparent lack of complexity Voltaire depicts the women in Candide as survivors. But as he describes them as survivors he details the suffering entailed to become one. Following the Bulgar attack on the Baron’s castle, the raping of Cunegonde until she could be raped no more, the reader naturally assumes her death. And it’s a real surprise when she reappears in chapter 7.

Cunegonde uses her sexual appeal as a means of obtaining wealth and security from powerful men at many stages of the story seducing the Bulgar captain, Don Isaacar, The grand Inquisitor and the governor of Buenos Aires. The transition from sex as a pleasurable activity to a mere currency used for survival (the option only available to women) is a cynical corruption of eroticism that reflects women’s inferior position in society. When the fleeing trio formed by Candide , Cunegonde and her advisor find themselves perused, the old woman immediately suggests the simple course of action telling Cunegonde she has to become the governor’s wife. Consequently, this routine seduction of men is suggestive of women’s dependence on them for survival; and yet Voltaire does not blame women for this behavior, underlining it as a necessity.

In addition to portraying the lack of importance of women in society, Voltaire shows their inability to control their direction and decisions in life. The female characters that we meet during the reading of Candide are from varying echelons in the society (hierarchy), yet there are nevertheless found similar situation. Living in poverty, went through slavery and being sexually abused.

Cunegonde, the old women and the baron all come from really good families with a lot of money and were really happy but because of a series of divers event that happened in their life they all end up being abused in different ways. By establishing narrative parallels between the book’s female characters, liking their current position in society and their constant flight from man to man, while simultaneously contrasting their origins.

Voltaire underlines women’s vulnerability, linking it to their dependence on men to survive, the people who commit crimes against them.

Although the whole story criticizes women and treats them like animals he wraps the story up with an optimistic outlook. Despite the misfortune of those characters, Voltaire sees women’s future in society as improving. Voltaire describes the female characters from desirable in the beginning of the story to ugly and not desirable at all. But by the end they all acquire jobs and obligations with responsibilities etc… For example Cunegonde, Volatiare describes her as becoming ugly day after day but end up being a successful pastry chef. Maybe this would represent Voltaire’s ideology and perception of women’s role in society. Which would reflect Voltaire’s hope for the future position of women in society, women who aren’t linked to their appearance all the time but more to their ability of doing things and intelligence.

In Conclusion, Voltaire wrote a book which through his story describes women in the 18th century. The book seems really hard on women and some scenes are pretty violent. Voltaire uses this novel to criticize society at that time and tries to show how ridiculous it was. By describing crimes as normal and under qualifying women in his novel Voltaire tries to make people understand his vision of the society and how it should be. At the beginning of the book the reader might think that Voltaire must not be feminist at all and that he treats women like he describes it in the story but by the end of the novel the reader understands that Voltaire is one of the few feminist of his time. 


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