I found the first half of Voltaire’s Candide asking one central question: Do we as human beings have free will, or is there fate and destiny where our lives are already predetermined? Voltaire asks this question through a religious lens. Voltaire is hinting at why a God that is all powerful and all knowing allow such horrific things to happen to his people. Knowing this novella was written in a time where there was a strong correlation between money, class, and religious status, it is not surprising that Voltaire would write about horrific things happening to rich and powerful people in order to demonstrate his point clearly. I believe Voltaire is challenging the common view of his time that the rich and powerful are chosen by God, living in a world where poor people are, and always will be servants; and where others inherit kingdoms.
In a scene where Cunegonede is reunited with Candide, Cunegonede is narrating her history from when they were last separated by her father. She begins her story by saying, “I was in bed and fast asleep when it pleased God to send…” (17). Considering her story is full of murder, rape and tragedy, I highly doubt that this would have pleased God, in any sense of the word. Voltaire is using this idea of Cunegonede’s estate being taken over by the Bulgarian’s to illustrate that God wants it to happen, or has decided that it will happen. In this story, no one has free will; the Bulgarian’s attack Cunegonede’s family because this is what God planned for them to do. Everything that happens to Cunegonede that leads her back to Candide was meant to happen; exactly like the Old Woman’s story, and precisely as Candide’s best friend and mentor Pangloss believed.
In Voltaire’s world, even the daughter of a Pope is not exempt from God’s will. Right when you think Cunegonede’s story couldn’t be much worse, we hear the Old Woman’s story, learning that she has endured more tragedy and heart break in her life than one should endure in ten. Who would be more worthy of God’s mercy than the daughter of a Pope? For Voltaire, even the ‘divine’ are destined to endure whatever ‘pleases God’.
Where this idea of fate, destiny and God could be seen or interpreted several different ways, I believe that Voltaire is wrestling with this idea of God as all knowing and all powerful. Similarly to how someone today might ask: If God is all knowing and all powerful, why doesn’t God stop serial killers, rapists and school shooters from committing their crimes? If God knows that all of this will happen before it happens, why does God allow them to continue? I think these are all monumental questions that people struggled with in 1759, and continue to struggle with today.