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Nicole Horejsi, Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University

Candide uses the opportunity of their deaths to cement the unflattering parallels between Don Issachar and the Grand Inquisitor. Though Christian readers might be tempted to side with the Inquisitor, the two men are fundamentally similar, to the point where they fight over the same woman and meet the same death. Their respective burials–the Inquisitor “interred in a handsome church” and Issachar “thrown upon a dunghill”–measure only the extent of contemporary prejudices. That they receive such different rites is an ironic comment on society, not on the relative goodness of each man.

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That Candide is “naturally so gentle,” yet capable of “slay[ing] a Jew and a prelate in two minutes,” continues to raise interesting questions about the nature of his actions here.

Candide’s response to Cunegonde implicitly suggests that, under other circumstances, he wouldn’t be capable of such inexplicable brutality. But he is motivated by external circumstances, both magnanimous (being a lover) and selfish (jealousy), not to mention the persecution of the Inquisition. These circumstances have changed Candide, so that he must “stop at nothing,” not even murder. He is adapting to the “best of all possible worlds,” and that seems to mean becoming inured to violence.

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Candide’s deliberations are intriguing here. He begins practically, imagining not only his own welfare, but Cunegonde’s as well. Then his reasoning becomes more personal: the Inquistor had him whipped, and is his rival. The final justification–slipped in among the others without much distinction–is the most startling: “as I have now begun to kill, I will kill away.” It is not as if Candide has stolen one diamond and might as well have stolen two, because stealing is stealing. Surely two murders are worse than one, especially when the Inquisitor’s death is less pressing: Candide kills him before he can even “recover from his surprise.”

The characterization of Candide’s decision is certainly meant to give the reader pause. But what are we ultimately to make of his actions? The next paragraph only deepens the mystery.

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It is surely deliberate that the narrator reminds the reader, on the cusp of Candide’s second murder, of the petty arrangement between Don Issachar and the Inquisitor. As Cunegonde relates in Chapter 8, “Quarrels have not been wanting, for they could not decide whether the night from Saturday to Sunday belonged to the old law or to the new.” That the Inquisitor appears promptly at midnight, during the long-disputed timeframe, to claim his prize, further distances the reader from his impending murder. It is difficult to sympathize with a character so barbarously drawn.

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The sudden introduction of the sword seems surprising; surely the narrator could have mentioned it before? It adds to the fairy-tale-like quality of the scene–the sword appears as if by magic–and also serves to distance Candide somewhat from his actions; he has not been looking for trouble, and so the sword is a minor detail until it becomes necessary.

The juxtaposition of “gentleness” with swift and decisive violence is nonetheless unsettling. As the narrator relates, “despite his gentleness,” Candide “laid the Israelite stone dead.” That he happens to fall “upon the cushions at Cunegonde’s feet” seems a perverse take on traditional quest narratives, in which the hero must show his devotion by sacrificing many enemies to his mistress. In the real world, however, murder is a serious business; as Cunegonde quickly reminds him, his actions have far-reaching moral (“Holy Virgin!”) and legal (“If the officers of justice come . . .”) consequences.

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Don Issachar’s question here reveals his utter inability to understand Cunegonde’s position. Although she is at the mercy of his arrangement with the Grand Inquisitor, he imagines that Cunegonde is with Candide because the Inquisitor “was not . . . enough” for her. Don Issachar’s logic extends, implicitly, to her relationship with him, as well: presumably she is with the Inquisitor because Don Issachar is “not enough,” either. 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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As a longtime reader of classical and neoclassical texts, I find Cunegonde’s relation here fascinating. Her insistence that “A modest woman may be ravished once, but her virtue is strengthened by it” flies in the face of literary representations of rape from antiquity through the eighteenth century. The classical standard, of course, is the chaste Lucretia, the Roman matron raped by Sextus Tarquinius, the corrupt son of the last king of Rome, who desired to violate Lucretia because of her reputation for virtue. Lucretia then committed suicide in order to preserve her modesty. Frequently, the raped woman is an insupportable anomaly, especially when women’s sexual value is determined by their virginity or marital chastity.

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.

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The matter-of-factness with which Voltaire describes Cunegonde’s rape is chilling: although she doesn’t realize it at the time, rape is “the usual practice of war.” This is one of the many interesting moments in the text where fiction approaches reality. Although Cunegonde’s narrative is rather fantastic, rape itself is only surprising in its banality, especially in the context of warfare. As we will learn moving forward, almost all of the main female characters are subject to sexual violence of some kind.

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In light of the text’s ending, it is an interesting bit of foreshadowing that Candide attends to Cunegonde’s story while “devour[ing] her with his eyes.” Later, in Chapter 27, he will also prioritize her beauty in inquiring after her circumstances: “Is she still a prodigy of beauty? Does she love me still? How is she?”

What is also striking, here, is the subtle violence behind the metaphor of “devouring” (and the English accords with the French at this moment). The term suggests greediness at best and a brutal animality at worst. 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.

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Now that Candide has reunited with Cunegonde after their respective miseries, the Baron’s castle appears even more bitter-sweetly prelapsarian, despite its flaws. In the world outside the castle, sexuality becomes perverse, and relatively benign violence becomes grotesque and commonplace: “innocent kisses” translate into rape, and “kicks” into torture and murder.

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The reappearance of Cunegonde is certainly surprising after Pangloss’ description of her rape and disembowelment in Chapter 4. Here, Candide voices his (and, likely, the reader’s) astonishment as he assumes that Cunegonde’s reappearance must contradict Pangloss’ earlier relation. Seeing her alive, he concludes that she was neither raped nor brutalized, but, as Cunegonde knows too well, such “accidents are not always mortal.”

Together with Pangloss’ earlier description of the soldiers’ violence, Cunegonde’s story stresses the dismal reality for women “in the best of all possible worlds.” Even women of the very highest social classes fall victim to brutality; just a few chapters later, the old woman’s story will reinforce this sense of vulnerability, and the easy reversals of fortune that even the wealthy and titled can experience.

Additionally, in light of her surprising recovery, Cunegonde’s relation that her “brother was also killed” now seems suspicious. The dead don’t seem to remain dead for long in *Candide*.

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