Chapter 11 – History of the Old Woman


1 3 “I had not always bleared eyes and red eyelids; neither did my nose always touch my chin; nor was I always a servant. I am the daughter of Pope Urban X, and of the Princess of Palestrina. Until the age of fourteen I was brought up in a palace, to which all the castles of your German barons would scarcely have served for stables; and one of my robes was worth more than all the magnificence of Westphalia. As I grew up I improved in beauty, wit, and every graceful accomplishment, in the midst of pleasures, hopes, and respectful homage. Already I inspired love. My throat was formed, and such a throat! white, firm, and shaped like that of the Venus of Medici; and what eyes! what eyelids! what black eyebrows! such flames darted from my dark pupils that they eclipsed the scintillation of the stars—as I was told by the poets in our part of the world. My waiting women, when dressing and undressing me, used to fall into an ecstasy, whether they viewed me before or behind; how glad would the gentlemen have been to perform that office for them!
2 “I was affianced to the most excellent Prince of Massa Carara. Such a prince! as handsome as myself, sweet-tempered, agreeable, brilliantly witty, and sparkling with love. I loved him as one loves for the first time—with idolatry, with transport. The nuptials were prepared. There was surprising pomp and magnificence; there were fêtes, carousals, continual opera bouffe; and all Italy composed sonnets in my praise, though not one of them was passable. I was just upon the point of reaching the summit of bliss, when an old marchioness who had been mistress to the Prince, my husband, invited him to drink chocolate with her. He died in less than two hours of most terrible convulsions. But this is only a bagatelle. My mother, in despair, and scarcely less afflicted than myself, determined to absent herself for some time from so fatal a place. She had a very fine estate in the neighbourhood of Gaeta. We embarked on board a galley of the country which was gilded like the great altar of St. Peter’s at Rome. A Sallee corsair swooped down and boarded us. Our men defended themselves like the Pope’s soldiers; they flung themselves upon their knees, and threw down their arms, begging of the corsair an absolution in articulo mortis.
3 “Instantly they were stripped as bare as monkeys; my mother, our maids of honour, and myself were all served in the same manner. It is amazing with what expedition those gentry undress people. But what surprised me most was, that they thrust their fingers into the part of our bodies which the generality of women suffer no other instrument but—pipes to enter. It appeared to me a very strange kind of ceremony; but thus one judges of things when one has not seen the world. I afterwards learnt that it was to try whether we had concealed any diamonds. This is the practice established from time immemorial, among civilised nations that scour the seas. I was informed that the very religious Knights of Malta never fail to make this search when they take any Turkish prisoners of either sex. It is a law of nations from which they never deviate.
4 “I need not tell you how great a hardship it was for a young princess and her mother to be made slaves and carried to Morocco. You may easily imagine all we had to suffer on board the pirate vessel. My mother was still very handsome; our maids of honour, and even our waiting women, had more charms than are to be found in all Africa. As for myself, I was ravishing, was exquisite, grace itself, and I was a virgin! I did not remain so long; this flower, which had been reserved for the handsome Prince of Massa Carara, was plucked by the corsair captain. He was an abominable negro, and yet believed that he did me a great deal of honour. Certainly the Princess of Palestrina and myself must have been very strong to go through all that we experienced until our arrival at Morocco. But let us pass on; these are such common things as not to be worth mentioning.
5 “Morocco swam in blood when we arrived. Fifty sons of the Emperor Muley-Ismael had each their adherents; this produced fifty civil wars, of blacks against blacks, and blacks against tawnies, and tawnies against tawnies, and mulattoes against mulattoes. In short it was a continual carnage throughout the empire.
6 2 “No sooner were we landed, than the blacks of a contrary faction to that of my captain attempted to rob him of his booty. Next to jewels and gold we were the most valuable things he had. I was witness to such a battle as you have never seen in your European climates. The northern nations have not that heat in their blood, nor that raging lust for women, so common in Africa. It seems that you Europeans have only milk in your veins; but it is vitriol, it is fire which runs in those of the inhabitants of Mount Atlas and the neighbouring countries. They fought with the fury of the lions, tigers, and serpents of the country, to see who should have us. A Moor seized my mother by the right arm, while my captain’s lieutenant held her by the left; a Moorish soldier had hold of her by one leg, and one of our corsairs held her by the other. Thus almost all our women were drawn in quarters by four men. My captain concealed me behind him; and with his drawn scimitar cut and slashed every one that opposed his fury. At length I saw all our Italian women, and my mother herself, torn, mangled, massacred, by the monsters who disputed over them. The slaves, my companions, those who had taken them, soldiers, sailors, blacks, whites, mulattoes, and at last my captain, all were killed, and I remained dying on a heap of dead. Such scenes as this were transacted through an extent of three hundred leagues—and yet they never missed the five prayers a day ordained by Mahomet.
7 1 “With difficulty I disengaged myself from such a heap of slaughtered bodies, and crawled to a large orange tree on the bank of a neighbouring rivulet, where I fell, oppressed with fright, fatigue, horror, despair, and hunger. Immediately after, my senses, overpowered, gave themselves up to sleep, which was yet more swooning than repose. I was in this state of weakness and insensibility, between life and death, when I felt myself pressed by something that moved upon my body. I opened my eyes, and saw a white man, of good countenance, who sighed, and who said between his teeth: ‘O che sciagura d’essere senza coglioni!‘”

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12 Responses to “Chapter 11 – History of the Old Woman”

Some lead-off questions for discussion: What details strike you about the old woman’s narration of her story in chapters 11 and 12 if you were thinking of it as an oral history about traumatic events? How does the old woman’s history of her experiences play with conventions of self-definition, exaggeration, reversal, sentimentality? How do these features combine and contrast with one another in the narrative: when does sentimentality pair well with exaggeration? How does she build up to her reversals of fortune?

How would you contrast this story to a testimony in real life? In recent years, we have seen the memoir genre grow in popularity, and with it comes an interest in highly titillating stories as well as an even greater interest in how these stories get exaggerated or even made up. The old woman’s story is fiction, of course, but it also contains some signals about the way that any narrative introduces some amount of artifice to a story. To insist on some Platonic ideal of truth all the time is to deny this aspect of how we relate to stories we’ve already heard (there are conventions to most stories) and to the ways we’re used to making sense of events. Oral history is about telling one’s own story, but it is also about the relationship of that story to others, and we can see some of those conventions for relation in these two chapters.

The old women’s narration of her life story is a very “woe is me” story, and is a very traditional oral history. She used very vivid imagery to describe her terrible life as well as exaggerations to enhance the meaning of her story. It reminded me of a fishing story. One person tells a story—Cunegonde about her misfortune—and another person—the old women—tells an even bigger story. The second person’s story is even more extravagant in an attempt to either out do the other or in the case of the old women to prove a point. The old woman saw the bad side of life. She had experienced so much trouble that it would be normal that she viewed the world in this way. Cunegonde did nothing but complain about her life, and the old woman needed a way to prove that there were people in the world who were just as misfortunate of even more so than Cunegonde. The use of the overt exaggeration by Voltaire is done with the purpose of showing the misery of the human condition. The novel is filled with characters who are suffering, but keep saying that “it is the best of all possible worlds” so everything is fine. The old woman however was not like that. She was very realistic in her approach; she knew what had happened, but she did not see it happening because she was made for that purpose. I felt that the old woman saw her misfortune as something to overcome. That everything could only be a step up from how her life had been before. Throughout the course of the novel she is the only character who does not lament of her poor situation.
What I found so striking about her story is that it is one of reminiscence and sentimentality. The woman gives her story an air of melancholy. She was brutally tortured, yet she still looks back on her life with some sort of respect. This was her life no matter what happened. This correlates well with the modern memoir genre. A genre dominated by stories of woe or trauma, yet retold by people who respect the life they had as a way to teach them how to enjoy the life they are living.

I really like that Ms. Boone mentions how impressionable the structure of stories can be depending on the culture in which they were formed. Judging by what we have seen of Candide’s world it is very easy to see where the old woman’s narrative derives its hyperbolic descriptions and casual tone from. Like everything else that seems to be happening it is horrifying to the point of absurdity. And although this story currently takes the cake, the old woman is quick to point out that everyone else suffers and believes themselves to be “the unhappiest of mortals”. The only silver lining seems to be the fact that they are all in motion. Hope springs from the fact that there are places to be. Although the old woman claims to have lived through many excruciating circumstances, boredom is never a problem. The repercussions of innumerable bad decisions seem to keep everyone in Candide’s world occupied as playing either the role of victim or victimizer. The consequences of divorcing oneself from this cycle of activity is an important theme in the book (although it’s not brought to light until the last pages of the book).

Navrose Gill says:

In this passage, Voltaire is once again criticizing an ideal that he was very much against: hypocrisy. The old woman says, “I am the daughter of Pope Urban X,” a statement that in itself is extremely ironic. Through this statement, Voltaire is attacking the insincerity of religious leaders who don’t practice what they preach. The Pope, a man who pledges to be celibate for life, is in fact father to an illegitimate daughter.

Navrose Gill says:

In this passage, the Moroccan soldiers strip, rape, and tear to pieces the old woman, her mother, and other ladies simply to satisfy their sexual urges. Voltaire is once again attacking the hypocrisy and pretense of religion as these men who commit these vile acts upon these women, have “never missed the five prayers a day ordained by Mahomet.” No matter the amount of bloodshed or traumatic effects these soldiers leave behind, they never fail to pray to their God. This is yet another testimony to Voltaire’s belief that religious leaders are unable to practice what they preach.

Matt C says:

Voltaire makes a clear statement about the illusion of riches and beauty. The old woman starts out saying, “I had not always bleared eyes and red eyelids; neither did my nose always touch my chin; nor was I always a servant,” then continues on to reveal her prestigious past shows how riches and beauty are not permanently attached to a single person or household, but are always drifting from one to the other. Along with a lack of permanence, these objects of human desire do not represent the people themselves for neither Candide nor Cunegonde could have guessed that the old woman was either beautiful at one point or very wealthy. Through this Voltaire is trying to show that in the end, riches and beauty have much less importance than what people make them out to be.

Please Dr. Dhein, do not forget that the old women also is one of the realists within the story. She had lived through so many awful and destructive events that she has become almost an observer to the story. It is almost like she is a narrator within a narration. Her story takes the obsurdity of many of Candide’s adevntures and puts them all into perspective. No longer does anything seem impossible, rather just another piece of the narrative puzzle. Her realism, also makes her one of the more boring characters, because by the time we are introduced to her any and all of the absurd events that could have happened to her have.

Connor Beeks says:

During this chapter, Voltaire uses the old woman to be just yet another contradiction of the optimistic philosophy Pangloss holds. She goes through all these problems in her life and yet still has not turned completely pessimistic, but instead holds a pragmatic view on life. Through the old woman, a mockery of Pangloss’s fake philosophy is shown. He continues to hold his optimistic view even after all the problems he encountered, while instead the old woman realizes what life is about and changes her views.

Yet another horrible scene is painted by Voltaire. The vivid images of people being annihilated place in the forefront the brutality of the world in which the old woman fought to survive. Horrific details of murders are given while ironically making note of the fact that those committing these horrible acts are the same people that comply with their religious obligations of praying 5 prayers a day. Here, Voltaire is singling out the hypocracy of those who claim to be “religious.”

Navrose has made a good point about hypocrisy. Voltaire wrote a note in one of his own copies of Candide about this passage and his invention of a Pope Urban X: “Notice how exceedingly discreet our author is. There has so far been no Pope called Urban X. He hesitates to ascribe a bastard to an actual Pope. What Discretion! What a tender conscience he shows!”

I’ve been making a list of mentions of how Candide’s characters make references to traveling outside of the text, since they will later transcend time and space to comment on the French Revolution, World War I, and the Beat movement. The old woman’s boast of how “poets in our part of the world” remarked on her beauty seems to be one such reference. I noticed another link out to imaginary acclaim in chapter 2, when the King of the Bulgars pardoned Candide “with a clemency which will bring him praise in all the journals, and throughout all ages.” Are there other such references to imaginary acclaim for the characters in this best of all possible referential worlds?

M. Beasley says:

Voltaire exposes another natural instinct of humans in the old woman’s story when not knowing who she is the man mutters, “What a shame to have no testicles!” However, when he realizes he used to work in her mother’s court he cares for her until she is healthy. Only to quickly sell her to dey in Algiers.