In chapters eleven and twelve of Voltaire’s Candide, we learn the brutal history of the kind old woman who saved Candide from the earthquake. Though she was born the pope’s daughter, she has managed to live most of her life as a slave, enduring plagues, beatings, and the death of the family. Recounting her horrid experiences, she says, “A hundred times I was upon the point of killing myself...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?” (29). This, I believe, is the central question of Candide itself, for it begs readers to think about why life is worth living amidst all of its hardships.
Clearly, something about life’s light pervaded over death’s darkness for the old woman. This kind of optimism, seeing what is still right in a world filled with wrong, is a central theme in Candide. The picture of optimism himself, Candide traverses through life without much thought or care. Not only does he accept his life for what it is, he looks forward to the future. As they leave Portugal for the new world, Candide tells the old lady and Cunegonde, “We are going into another world and surely it must be there that all is for the best” (23). His positivity is astonishing amidst all of the tragedy he has faced, but perhaps this optimism is also his fatal flaw. By never thinking too deeply, Candide is never truly affected. Though he dismisses the violence and corruption in the world, he doesn’t seek change or improvement.
By way of Candide’s optimism, Voltaire suggests that the world is filled with problems; yet he also hints that these problems are not unsolvable. As the old woman suggests, it is perhaps through shared experience that problems can be solved. She tells Cunegonde, “ I have had experience, I know the world; therefore I advise you to divert yourself, and prevail upon each passenger to tell his story...” (29). In this way Voltaire is suggesting that we should not face our problems alone like Candide, nor should we assume that everything will get better on its own. Instead, we should follow the advice of the old woman and share our “gritty realities” (as Kolvenbach might say) so that others may learn from our experiences. In this way, we can be optimistic like Candide, but also mindful of what we have gained from our mistakes or the wrongness in our lives.