What is the importance of the role of the old woman, and how are various themes and ideas (wealth, optimism, religion) expressed through her character?
Much of the information about the old woman comes from her biography as she provides it. Once a wealthy, great beauty and the illegitimate daughter of a pope, by the time Candide meets her she is a self-described red-eyed, long-nosed servant woman. In many respects, the old woman stands for the pervasiveness of injustice in the world, the oppression of women, and the evils of slavery–all of which she endures. Yet it is her endurance that creates the strongest impression, and ultimately bolsters the theme of optimism—the faith in life that she calls “a ridiculous foible.”
The old woman’s many qualities begin to emerge in chapter eight. During Candide’s stay in Portugal, after he was whipped and witnessed the philosopher Pangloss hanged in an auto-da-fé, the old woman takes him in, feeds and clothes him, and heals his wounds. She later reunites him with his beloved Cunegonde, who reveals that the woman is her servant, and that she had commissioned her to help Candide and to bring him to her.
The old woman stands for charity; in chapter eight, Voltaire tells us that Candide was “amazed . . . with the charity of the old woman.” In helping her mistress in chapters eight and nine, she also stands for loyalty. In chapters nine and ten, she stands for common sense, as she counsels Candide after he kills an intruder and advises them to get money by selling a horse. She also stands for compassion, as in chapter twelve when she says Cunegonde’s misfortunes have affected her more than her own.
During their voyage from Europe to South America, the old woman tells Candide and Cunegonde of her history of misfortunes. These mis-adventures affirm Voltaire’s attitudes toward slavery and female oppression. Her identity as a pope’s daughter and references to religious missions and the vanities of court life combine to reflect Voltaire’s deeply critical stance toward the Catholic church. Her descriptions of the vanities of court life and comments on the fleeting nature of the human hold on wealth also convey Voltaire’s distrust of materialism and social hierarchy.
The old woman’s story is detailed in chapter eleven and twelve. She narrates her flight from Italy with her mother, after her husband was killed, and their capture by corsairs. The women endured violation, deflowering, and enslavement. During a battle to capture the boat, ferocious attacks killed many of the women, but she survived. She is then sold into slavery, not once but again and again. While serving the Aga of the Janissaries, during an attack on them, she and her companions are almost eaten. Instead they are spared but disfigured by each having one of their buttocks cut off. Further slavery and servitude continued to be her lot, until becoming Cunegonde’s servant in her old age.
Reflecting on all these travails (chapter twelve), however, the old woman ultimately supports optimism and rejects despair.
I waxed old in misery and disgrace, having only one-half of my posteriors, and always remembering I was a Pope’s daughter. A hundred times I was upon the point of killing myself; but still I loved life. This ridiculous foible is perhaps one of our most fatal characteristics; for is there anything more absurd than to wish to carry continually a burden which one can always throw down? to detest existence and yet to cling to one’s existence? in brief, to caress the serpent which devours us, till he has eaten our very heart?
Of all the characters' suffering in Candide, the suffering of the old woman would win the prize, if there were one. When tales of woe are exchanged, the horrors of her life are beyond imagining, including the loss of one buttock when she was cannibalized. Through her character and the epic nature of her physical trials, much satire is achieved in regard to Candide's search for truth; based on her history and the world as she has experienced it, the philosophy of optimism becomes far more difficult to defend.
The old woman had not been born to her sorry state. She is the daughter of Pope Urban X (a significant satirical religious reference in the novel) and a princess. Growing up in wealth as Princess Palestrina, she had been extraordinarily beautiful. Through a series of fantastic, horrendous events, she had become the deformed old woman Candide meets.
Despite her tribulations, however, the old woman has not given up. Although she had once contemplated suicide, she could not relinquish her life; she carries on, even though she has no reason to expect a better future--and she does not get one for quite a while after meeting Candide. More misery ensues until she is rescued by Candide to spend her days on the farm where she finds life terribly dull.
Through the old woman, life is presented as one terrifying experience after another, punctuated by periods of drudgery and boredom--yet human beings cling to it. Many pretend to be happy and optimistic to endure life; some, like the old woman, just keep living. She is developed in the novel as a very memorable satirical portrait of the human condition.
The Old Woman is important for several reasons. First, she goes through terrible suffering, despite having been born into a royal status. She has been raped, sold several times into slavery, and cruelly abused as a slave, and she has had the plague and suffered losing a buttock when the Russians starved her harem and her guards needed food. Her sufferings are so over-the-top they can almost make you laugh, which was Voltaire's intention. His deeper intention, however, was to make his audience laugh at Pangloss's philosophy that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds—a real philosophy at that time, promoted by Gottfried Leibniz. The Old Woman's life makes the reader realize that everything is not for the best in this world.
The Old Woman is also important because she is realistic—she does not expect the world to be any better than it is—but at the same time, she retains her optimism and love of life. Because of her love of life, she works to avoid boredom. She shows that life has value, stating,
A hundred times I wanted to kill myself, but always I loved life more.