How do the old woman's themes/story contribute to Voltaire's Candide overall message?

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The themes of the old woman's story in Candide are: one cannot depend that things will always stay the same: being rich and famous one day does not necessarily guarantee that this will not change, even though we may believe our troubles are awful, there is always someone with difficulties worse than our own, even when we hate our lives and think it would be better to be dead, we still hold on to life; while there is life, there is still hope. These themes are all realistic ideas and experiences. The reader should feel thankful for what they have when they have it, and remain hopeful for a positive future.

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In Voltaire's novel, Candide, the three themes that stand out in the old woman's tale for me are:

  • one cannot depend that things will always stay the same: being rich and famous one day does not necessarily guarantee that this will not change
  • even though we may believe...

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  • our troubles are awful, there is always someone with difficulties worse than our own
  • even when we hate our lives and think it would be better to be dead, we still hold on to life; while there is life, there is still hope

Voltaire wrote Candide in the form of a parody (a form of satire) directed toward Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz and his philosophy on optimism—we see this in Pangloss' teachings and attitude which continually return to his belief that in every situation, "this best of all possible worlds." In other words, everything is as it should be.

My sense is that more than having an unshakable belief that things are always for the best no matter the circumstances, I imagine that Voltaire believed a realistic approach to life was more valuable. This is not to say that people should not have an appreciation for positive things in their life, but one need not appreciate difficulties and hardships, seeing them as positive parts of our human existence.

Because Voltaire is making fun of optimism under every circumstance, I believe the old woman's story, and the themes found there, encourage the reader to feel positive when appropriate, and sad when a situation dictates it. Bad things happen, but this is not something we must accept without resistance or feeling.

The ideas that things can change at any time, there are always other people with problems worse than our own, and regardless of our heartaches, life is still valuable are realistic concepts that follow the advice that the old woman shares: she is not silly enough to believe that watching her mother murdered was "the best of all possible worlds." And this is exactly what Voltaire was trying to share with his audience. The author uses the character of the old woman to allow us to feel honestly about the things that fill our life: thankful when things are good, and hopeful when things go awry.

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In Voltaire's Candide, what are the main themes found in the old woman's history?

In Voltaire's novel, Candide, three themes stand out in the old woman's tale.

The old woman has not always been a servant; in fact, she was once a member of the nobility—the Princess of Palestrina. The first theme I would identify would be that being born to greatness does not guarantee lifelong happiness. For instance, the old woman speaks of her betrothal to a prince of Massa-Carrara.

I was about to reach the peak of my happiness when an old marchesa who'd once been my prince's mistress invited him to her house for chocolate. He died in less than two hours, with horrible convulsions.

The second theme is that even when we feel that our lives are terrible, or our experiences the worst we can imagine, there are always others who have had more trials, more pain, than we.

For example, even as Candide and Cunégonde despair over their dire straits, the old woman's tale shares experiences far worse than their own, which they cannot deny.

The third theme is found in the old woman's reaction to what she has experienced:

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...

In other words, even when we feel our lives are at their worst, there is a love of life that persists within, driving us forward, refusing to release the very thing that causes us so much pain. Perhaps the old woman is intimating that although we may feel very low, our spirit fights to survive.

There may be other themes present in the old woman's story, but these are the three that stand out the most for me.

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