In Voltaire's Candide, what is the old woman's attitude toward her own suffering and Candide's interpretation of her experiences?

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Voltaire's picaresque satire was intended as an attack upon the philosophical and religious orthodoxies of his time—in particular the Monadology of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. This classic work of rationalist thought includes his theodicy: the argument that we are living in the best of all possible worlds because its foundation...

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Voltaire's picaresque satire was intended as an attack upon the philosophical and religious orthodoxies of his time—in particular the Monadology of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. This classic work of rationalist thought includes his theodicy: the argument that we are living in the best of all possible worlds because its foundation is the ultimate monad, a benevolent God.

In Candide, this optimistic credo is eagerly absorbed by the eponymous, naive picaro and his equally ingenuous beloved, Princess Cunegonde, from her long-winded tutor, Professor Pangloss.

In chapter 10, an old woman had suddenly appeared in the streets of Lisbon to save Candide and Cunegonde from the Grand Inquisitor. En route to Paraguay, Cunegonde despairs of finding a better life after the suffering she has endured and is chided by the old woman: "If you had suffered half what I have, there might be some reason for it." Cunegonde asks if the old woman has been raped by Bulgarians, seen her father and brother murdered, her mother cut to pieces, had both her castles demolished, and had watched her lover (Candide) tortured at an auto-da-fe, as she has?

In chapter 11, the old woman, who turns out to be the daughter of Pope Urban and the Princess of Palestrina, recounts a life packed with enough incidents of personal violation and bloodshed to dwarf even that of the extremely battered protagonists, including the sacrifice of one buttock to feed starving Janissaries. She continues:

I have grown old in misery and disgrace, living with only one buttock while remembering that I am the daughter of a Pope. I have been a hundred times upon the point of killing myself, but still I was fond of life. This ridiculous weakness is, perhaps, one of the dangerous principles implanted in our nature.

In short, my dear miss, I have a great deal of knowledge and experience in the world, therefore take my advice: divert yourself, and prevail upon each passenger to tell his story, and if there is one of them all that has not cursed his existence many times, and said to himself over and over again that he was the most wretched of mortals, I give you permission to throw me headfirst into the sea.

After Cunegonde humbly apologizes for her false assumption, Candide reflects:

It is a thousand pities that the wise Pangloss should have been hanged contrary to the custom of an auto-da-fe, for he would have given us a most admirable lecture on the moral and physical evil which overspreads the earth and sea; and I think I would have had courage enough to presume to offer (with all due respect) some few objections.

As Voltaire's satire suggests, the obedience induced by Leibniz's theodicy was an extremely useful tool to authorities of every stripe in encouraging the acceptance of outrages such the Inquisition along with more secular types of injustice. The philosophical notion that we live in the best of all possible worlds, he seems to say, is an idea which belies the human experience of suffering and the visceral, even biological will to survive despite its worst depredations.

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In Voltaire's Candide, the old lady, who is the servant to Lady Cunegonde, shares her story of her own trials and tribulations. A high-born young woman herself, her fate seems to have been more tragic than Cunegonde's, and when she shares her misadventures with her lady and Candide, they agree. They then listen to the tales of the other people on the vessel which is carrying them, and again, the two agree that the old woman's life has been more horrific than any other.

The old woman's attitude is that even though her life has been horrible, and she has wanted to die many times, still she chooses to live. She notes that even though people hate their lives, they still cling to them.

I've wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but I still love life. That ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our most pernicious inclinations. What could be more stupid than to persist in carrying a burden that we constantly want to cast off, to hold our existence in horror, yet cling to it nonetheless, to fondle the serpent that devours us, until it has eaten our heart?

Candide, having heard the old woman's story, wishes that Pangloss were still alive, imagining the comments the old man would make regarding her experiences.

It's a great pity...that the wise Pangloss was hanged...he would have told us admirable things about the physical and moral evils that cover the earth and the sea, and I would have felt strong enough to venture a few respectful objections.

We can assume that since Pangloss' character reflects the sentiment that Voltaire is criticizing—a sense of eternal optimism in the face of all things good or bad—that with Pangloss' sentiment of "this best of all possible worlds," Pangloss would find good fortune in the old woman's experiences; most probably he would tell her that had she not endured all of the terrible things in her life, she should not now find herself in the good company of her mistress, Candide, etc. The flaw in this logic, however, is that things are not really wonderful for any of them: they are on the run because of Candide's murders of the prelate and the Jew.

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