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‘Charity’
The Old Conductress: Voltaire’s Candide, Chapter 7, pages 26-29
How the Old Woman Took Care of Candide, and How He Found the Object of His Love
The old broad who shall steal a large portion of the story from the wide-eyed dupe, Candide, who wore his soul on his face, transgressing the most fundamental and ruthless conceit of his age with every waking breath, taking the ideological fool “to a decayed house,” calls out the blessing of three saints, attends to his injuries and departs. For a couple days, the care of Candide’s back, which was the object of so much attention amongst the military, religious and economic masters of the day, who whipped their property constantly, occupies a length of narrative not visited upon other acts in this story.
Here, as elsewhere, Voltaire uses oblique narrative tools to unsettle the reader—who was intended to be none-other than a member of the master class—as to the treatment of his lesser.
“The old conductress” then walked him to a noble manse with moats and gardens and took him in through a postern door, where he was bewildered to meet a beauty in glittering attire—none other than Cunegund, who the old woman has taken pity on and reunited with the only decent man she has known, Candide.
This passage is deftly drawn as a contrast to the brute realities underpinning the noble order of Voltaire’s age, all of whom knew and shrugged off that their life was built on nameless and suffering backs, unlike the fools of our blind day, who believe that all shared the privilege of those few who winnowed the suffering of the many for their leisure. What the deluded modern reader will take as a crude caricature of 18th century life, was in fact a deft attempt to insert a conscience into the cruel minds of the ruling class.
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