Kelsey HerbertWriting-to-Learn #1
Dr. Desmond Harding
ENG 262 #22361464
September 19, 2018
The Oppression of Women in the 18th Century and Today
The philosophical satire of Voltaire’s novel, ‘Candide, Or Optimism,’ focuses on the coming of age of a young Candide, madly in love with one of just three female characters, Cunegonde, and how he comes to understand the philosophy and reality of the cruel world. One central focus I found was of the oppression and exploitation of women during the eighteenth-century. Oppressed by the misogynistic society presented in this novel, I feel that the women are often portrayed as understanding that this is their place in the world. I think that this acceptance seems to stem from the idea of survival, something we often see in crimes today against women. Voltaire focuses on satirizing the way that women are being presented, between Cunegonde, the Old Woman and Paquette, in the ways that they speak, think, and are perceived to this societal time period. She uses their stories as a way to demonstrate the danger of vulnerability and lack of value seen in women during this time, and can still be reflected in modern day.
Today, we are still surrounded by the walls of unfairness and inequality amongst men and women alike. Under the pen name of Voltaire, author Francois-Marie Arouet, takes advantage of this adventurous satire to acknowledge the reality of this idea, during the 1750’s in Europe and South America. The objectively ironic and melodramatic tone of the piece allows for the audience to laugh at the comical stretches, but never loses sight of the larger themes. I feel that she attempts to explain the sense of normalcy that these characters appear to hold. The Old Woman shares her own experience with Candide, saying, “Imagine my situation, the daughter of a pope, only fifteen years old, who in the space of three months had been exposed to poverty and slavery, had been raped almost daily, had seen her mother torn to pieces, had endured war and famine, and was now dying of the plague in Algiers,” (29). Voltaire illuminates such harsh realities without justifying it as any more than the price that women had to pay.
These women share many similarities within their lives. They are mistreated and sexually abused by men, and suffer a very sudden change in their lifestyles. Rape is described as being natural, almost heroic of the attackers. I felt that it was portrayed as a customary idea of the way things were done during this time, a common occurrence. Women are degraded regardless of their wealth or political connections within this world, something that continues to exist. Gender roles are also highlighted, Voltaire chooses to embrace the male perspective as a result. The male characters value sexual abstinence, but make it impossible for women to avoid or escape. This suffering provides very little complexity and importance to these characters. I feel that Voltaire continuously focused on the idea that these characters were not intricate in the slightest and eludes to the idea that women today still encounter this.
The women appear to never question or philosophize their thoughts as the male characters do. It’s an interesting insight to the limited options and very little power women were given. Cunegonde uses her beauty to her advantage, as it is seemingly her only worthy attribution. She is often described as “the fair Cunegonde” (18) and “extremely beautiful,” (4). Paquette is also described as being a “pretty, obedient brunette” (70). Although she is also willing to submit to the culture, she is the only woman to view her situation as being as bad as it really is. She understands that she is being wronged, but instead chooses to embrace her new lifestyle, with bitterness. This can be related to Olympe de Gouges’, ‘The Rights of Women’ (1791). In this short piece, the author analyzes a revision of the ‘The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,’ by explaining that women are deserving of respect. She states, “that the demands of women-citizens henceforth founded on simple and incontestable principles, may all turn to maintaining the constitution, good mores, and the happiness of all.” She is also seeking a way to expose the truth being shut-in behind closed doors.
Resistances and developments, like the Women’s March and the Me-Too movement, exist and have allowed for the female population to make their presence known. This is an opportunity for women everywhere to share their stories, to open up the discussion again. The reality of the situation is that it is still a prominent force in today’s society everywhere. Women are forced into a corner and given the option to be submissive or dominate, but it’s not always a fair choice. Whether it be race, religion, sexual orientation, or age, etc. women continue to break the stereotypes in order to separate themselves from the culture of oppression and deception.