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All Possible Worlds, Biblio File, Women's History Month

Forced to bend my soul to a sordid role: women and violence in Candide


Mahlon Blaine illustration for 'Candide', 1930 (click for larger view)Mahlon Blaine illustration for 'Candide', 1930 (click for larger view)Our interactive reading of Candide continues with chapters 7-12. Here's a roundup of recent discussions...

"The diligence with which these gentlemen strip people!" American illustrator Mahlon Blaine chose the old woman's story as one of the full-page drawings for his 1930 edition of Candide. The exotic nude woman posed between two men in various states of undress is of a piece with Blaine's erotic illustrations for William Beckford's Oriental tale Vathek (1928) or for the Marquis de Sade's Justine (1931).

But this is a story that begins with the old woman's warning: "alas! you have not known such misfortunes as mine." Cunegonde and the old woman recite, and even insist upon, a litany of sufferings: rape, humiliation, slavery, starvation, mutilation, and debasement. Elsewhere on All Possible Worlds, Eric Palmer has connected Candide's themes to the photographs from Abu Ghraib; in the old woman's and Cunegonde's stories, we have some early version of "torture porn." That term, as it was introduced to contemporary cultural discourse, was a distancing device, a way of describing how abuse of power links with titillation.

Any illustrator of Candide has some difficult, fascinating choices to make about how to render these stories in chapters 7-12. What is an illustrator—and, by extension, any reader—to make of this sexual violence shot through with anti-Semitic caricature and odd, discordant bits of humor? The stories are so extreme, so excessive that any highlighted element of the story threatens to overwhelm the whole narration. These debates about perception and who controls how a story is told (and heard by other characters) are built into Candide itself, as the layers of narrative reveal a contest of interpretations.

Nicole Horejsi, an assistant professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, shows how the competition among Don Issachar and the Inquisitor to share sexual access to Cunegonde is based on his "impossible" view of Cunegonde as a manipulator: "His interpretation turns Cunegonde into a voracious and demanding lover and allows him to recast himself as the victim of her romantic scheming, thus masking the sordid reality of his arrangement with the Inquisitor."

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Candide 2.0 commenters Christopher Cleveland and Samantha Morse have noted how these anti-Semitic caricatures function in the text, while Rinku Skaria has drawn attention to the "immaturity" of Candide's raised eyebrow at Cunegonde's wounds--"I hope I shall see it!"

Indeed, as he listens to the story, Candide's own interpretations of his lover's story become mixed up in the violence. Candide responds to Cunegonde's beauty by "devouring her with his eyes." Horejsi points out "the subtle violence behind the metaphor of ‘devouring' ... Perhaps the point is to distinguish Candide from Cunegonde's Bulgar ‘ravisher' and other masters—for the ‘gentle' Candide, this is no doubt a ‘gentle' kind of devouring—but the proximity of the terms (‘devour'; ‘ravish') draws him nearer to them, too."

Horejsi argues that Cunegonde asserts some authority by recasting the story around her personal virtues of survival: "But Cunegonde insists that her virtue stems from her modesty, a personal rather than physical quality, a distinction that clearly separates the violation of her ‘self' from the violation of her ‘body.' This fairly unusual move has important consequences: it both allows Cunegonde to relate a story that would otherwise be nonnarratable, and enables her to live her life without the stigma of violation. That Cunegonde is raped and doesn't die undermines familiar narratives in which the modest, raped heroine perishes in order to maintain the fiction of bodily sexual virtue."

Voltaire has satirized the twists and turns of an Oriental tale by piling on so many sufferings in these chapters: the characters emerge from the debasement indignant rather than destroyed. Some of Candide's sequels were parodies, where the (often anonymous) authors retold the stories in broader strokes. Oddly enough, these treatments miss Voltaire's irony and end of reverting to a mere exaggeration of the titillations inherent in the Oriental tale.

The 1761 sequel, for example, transforms the unveiling into a stock pleasure den scene, and the originally charged language of devouring and unveiling turn once again into conventional set pieces. Upon meeting the dark-haired Circassian beauty Zirza, Candide reconsiders Cunegonde's diminished beauty. The language mirrors the original scene, but with all the violence replaced by ineffable exotic pleasure:

"What difference between Cunegonde grown ugly, and violated by the Bulgar heroes, and a young Circassian of eighteen, who was never ravished! This was the first time that poor Candide had tasted pleasure. The objects which he devoured were repeated in the glass. Which way soever he turned his eyes, he saw the black satin contrasted with the whitest skin in the universe. He beheld—-but I am obliged to comply with the false delicacy of our language. Let it suffice to say, that our philosopher was completely happy."

Mahlon Blaine did not illustrate this scene—it's missing the frisson of irony upon which his work depends—but Clara Tice imagined this Oriental fantasy as an unveiling of exotic nudes for her 1927 illustrations of Candide and second part.

 Bennett Libraries, 1927. NYPL, General Research Division. By Permission of the Clara Tice family.'Candide, or All for the Best.' Illustrated by Clara Tice. New York: Bennett Libraries, 1927. NYPL, General Research Division. By Permission of the Clara Tice family.

Cunegonde's story becomes sensational in "Glitter and Be Gay," the show-stopping aria from Bernstein's operetta adaptation of Candide. Cunegonde's conflicting desires to laugh off and weep at her misfortunes become an opportunity for a coloratura soprano to show off her vocal flexibility. "Glitter and be gay/ That's the part I play," she sings, revealing another strategy by which the character can distance herself from her story, by considering it a kind of performance. Harolyn Blackwell, who played Cunegonde in the 1997 Broadway revival, describes these coloratura passagios as the musical equivalents of the baubles that the woman covets:

Pearls and ruby rings…
Ah, how can worldly things
Take the place of honor lost?
Can they compensate
For my fallen state,
Purchased as they were at such an awful cost?

Bracelets, lavalieres
Can they dry my tears?
Can they blind my eyes to shame?
Can the brightest brooch Shield me from reproach?
Can the purest diamond purify my name?

By chapter 11, the villains and jewels are both gone, and Cunegonde's response is part comic, part baffling, as the irony resumes full-tilt: "Who was it that robbed me of my money and jewels? … How shall we live? What shall we do? Where find Inquisitors or Jews who will give me more?" Director Robert Carsen revamped this number for his English National Opera production of Candide (premiered in 2003) by insisting on the performance aspect of the story. In this production, Cunegonde becomes Marilyn Monroe performing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Monroe's performance is so iconic that it has become a set piece, which Madonna seized to introduce irony to eroticism in her "Material Girl" music video—a move that Voltaire's old woman, Mahlon Blaine, and many others had already perfected.


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