Gender inequality and patriarchy are common societal characteristics in human history, problems that were well-established in social norms in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when Moliere and Voltaire wrote Tartuffe and Candide, respectively. In Tartuffe, Moliere highlights the patriarchal hierarchy and the subservient nature of women in French society during the reign of King Louis XIV. The author uses the female characters Mariane, Dorine, and Elmire to critique the way the social structures of the time viewed women as weak, powerless, slavish creatures. In this mindset, women are supposed to obey whatever they are told without question. If a father decides that a particular man should marry his daughter, she has no authority to question his ruling. However, Moliere’s characters also reveal women as rational, intelligent beings, able to reason independently despite the social masking that has subjugated them for a long.
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Similarly, Voltaire uses Candide to highlight how women in the eighteenth century enjoyed limited privileges based on societal roles at the time. He shows women to be primarily sexual objects; even some of their names carry sexual undertones, and they can be sexually used or abused at will. Through the means of minimal development of the female characters in the works Candide and Tartuffe, Voltaire and Moliere stress that women are seen as objects and that they must be submissive to men and are powerless in the face of the hardships that come their way.
Women in Voltaire’s Candide
Female characters in Candide are used marginally, underscoring the argument that the role and place of women in society were not pronounced in the author’s time. Voltaire portrays three main female characters: Cunégonde, Paquette, and the Old Woman. Initially, they seem to share many of the same characteristics despite coming from different backgrounds. All lack complexity, and in their simplicity, they lead similar lives. In addition, Voltaire portrays women as sexual objects that occupy an underprivileged position, while at the same time, the author seems to glorify widespread misogyny in society. In other words, Voltaire paints a horrific picture of women and their role at the time as discussed in the next section.
The reader meets the first characterization of women in the opening chapters of Voltaire’s novel in Cunégonde and the chambermaid Paquette. These characters appear unimportant; for example, instead of describing them in detail as he does other characters, the writer depicts Cunégonde as “plump, appetizing, and extremely beautiful” (Voltaire 3). Similarly, Paquette is presented as a “pretty and tractable little brunette” (Voltaire, 4). The choice of words to describe these characters points to a particular view of women and their role, albeit subtly. For instance, portraying Cunégonde as “appetizing” implies that she is seen as a sweet and edible morsel awaiting men’s consumption. Interestingly, the name Cunégonde is derived from the Latin word cuneus, translated as “cunt” in English (Press 141). This aspect underscores the importance of Cunégonde’s sex appeal in the eyes of men. Similarly, Paquette’s outstanding attributes are that she is pretty and tractable; the author deliberately overlooks other areas of her persona, underscoring women as submissive to men and powerless when faced with challenges.
As Cunégonde is the Baron’s daughter, her status and role in society would be expected to be esteemed. However, in the second chapter, she is revealed to be a damsel in distress after she faints when Candide is thrown out of the Baron’s castle, which highlights her as weak. The other female character is the Old Woman who remains nameless, perhaps to underscore the insignificance of women. She is introduced as “an old woman” (Voltaire 16), and she retains that title to the end of the novel. Women seem to play only one major role—serving as sex objects for men to use as they please. For example, when the Baron’s castle is attacked, Cunégonde is assaulted in “many ways” (Voltaire, 25) and certainly sexually abused. Similarly, the Old Woman has been “raped almost daily” (Voltaire, 29). A priest, whom Paquette trusts, “buses his position in order to seduce her, knowing that she is innocent and uneducated” (Bates 26). Therefore, it is clear that in Candide, women are seen as sex objects in addition to being weak and submissive.
Women in Moliere’s Tartuffe
Written in 1664, Tartuffe highlights and criticizes the traditional gender stereotypes propagated by a misogynistic French society in the seventeenth century. Moliere arguably presents women as clever, rational beings. According to Cholakian, men in Tartuffe do not understand the power of women; their perceptions concerning their female counterparts or femininity are “in reality male speculations” (166). The play offers two sets of contrasting female characters. On the one side, Mariane represents a traditional subservient woman whose duty is to take orders from men without question. On the other, Dorine and Elmire represent enlightened women who know their rights and are willing to defy illogical societal norms that have subjugated women throughout the history of humankind.
Mariane is described as an obedient individual who cannot express a personal opinion. In the audience’s first encounter with Mariane, she is having a private conversation with her father Orgon in Act II, Scene II. Orgon is forcing her to marry a husband of his choice, saying, “Daughter, I mean it; you’re to be his wife” (Moliere 2.2.12). This scene underscores the argument that women are seen as mere objects that can be used as a man pleases. In Scene III, Mariane confirms that she is powerless to resist her father’s word, which is final. Dorine encourages her to speak for herself: “Well, have you lost your tongue, girl?/ / Must I play Your part, and say the lines you ought to say? / / Faced with a fate so hideous and absurd, / / Can you not utter one dissenting word?” (2.3.1-4). In response, Mariane says, “What good would it do? A father’s power is great” (2.3.5). Resigned to her fate, Mariane has internalized the stereotypical role of a submissive and voiceless individual in society because men have propagated and normalized such lies for too long.
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Women are portrayed as objects and means of acquiring wealth and power. Orgon wants Mariane to marry Tartuffe to attain a certain social status. He says, “Yes, Tartuffe shall be Allied by marriage to this family, / / And he’s to be your husband, is that clear? / / It’s a father’s privilege” (2.4.8). Orgon wants to be associated with Tartuffe because the latter is allegedly associated with nobility. For his part, Tartuffe sees women as sexual objects. This assertion explains why he is seducing Elmire even though he knows that she is married. Additionally, Tartuffe is confident that he will marry Mariane since he has won Orgon’s trust. Therefore, women as shown in Tartuffe are expected to be submissive, voiceless, and weak. They are used as a means to a certain end, such as achieving wealth and social status.
Women in Candide and Tartuffe are viewed as weak, voiceless, and submissive; they serve as objects for achieving sexual pleasure and attaining material wealth or social status. Mariane in Tartuffe and Paquette in Candide mirror each other based on how they are viewed in society. Paquette is tractable, according to her description. As such, she can be manipulated easily. Similarly, Orgon is manipulative and controlling toward his daughter, Mariane. He has decided that she must marry Tartuffe; thus, his decision should not be questioned. He reminds Dorine that he has the privilege of choosing the man that will marry her daughter. He speaks with a sense of entitlement, highlighting how such a mindset is deep-rooted and normalized within society.
In addition, women are seen as sexual objects. In Candide, the theme of objectifying women as sex toys stands out conspicuously. Cunégonde is named after the female sexual organ. The fact that parents would give a beloved daughter such a name underscores deeply entrenched antifeminism that objectifies women as sex toys to satisfy men’s fetishes. Additionally, Cunégonde is described as appetizing and plump; such descriptions can only exist in the minds of men who have normalized the objectification of women as sex toys. Similarly, Paquette is pretty and tractable, which carries sexual undertones and indicates the ease with which men may be able to solicit sex from her. The same theme is clear in Moliere’s play.
Tartuffe is a fraud and a chauvinist who thinks that the only good thing that can come out of women is sex. He does not respect women for who they are, regardless of their marital status. He seduces Elmire in utter disregard of the fact that she is married. In his view, it does not matter that she has a family and a husband. After all, he simply wants to have sex with her before moving to his next target. He disrespects Mariane even though the two are about to get married. Similarly, in Candide, the priest seeks to abuse his position and influence in seducing the defenseless Paquette to quench his sexual thirst. Therefore, Voltaire and Moliere’s works Candide and Tartuffe share common themes of presenting women as voiceless, weak, and easy-to-manipulate sex objects.
Art and literature have been used to highlight societal problems from ancient times. Voltaire and Moliere employed their skills in literary works to air the problems associated with patriarchy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the authors’ times, women were subjugated, and their voices were unheard, no matter how logical or rational. They were not supposed to question the decisions their male counterparts made. In other words, they were to be seen but never to be heard. Additionally, they existed as sex objects that could be used anytime in any manner to satisfy men’s sexual hunger, whether through consensual intercourse or rape. In Candide, Voltaire presents three female characters, Cunégonde, Paquette, and the Old Woman, who are all treated similarly despite their diverse origins. Cunégonde and the Old Woman are raped, underscoring the objectification of women as sexual tools. Cunégonde’s name means “cunt” in translation. In addition, the characters are voiceless, and thus, they cannot speak on their own.
Similarly, in Tartuffe, Moliere paints the same view of women in society. Orgon is convinced that one of his privileges is to force his daughter into an arranged marriage. Tartuffe is a treacherous Casanova using women to satisfy his fetishes without regard for their marital status. These arguments suffice to conclude that Voltaire and Moliere, through their works Candide and Tartuffe, respectively, stress the fact that the authors saw women as objects, submissive to men, and powerless.
Bates, Deborah. The Portrayal of Women in Selected Contents of Voltaire. 1995. McMaster University, Masters’ Dissertation. Web.
Cholakian, Patricia. “The Itinerary of Desire in Moliere’s ‘Le Tartuffe’.” Theatre Journal, vol. 38, no. 2, 1986, pp. 164-179.
Moliere, Jean-Baptiste. Tartuffe, n.d. Web.
Peress, Maurice. Dvořák to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores America’s Music and its African American Roots, Oxford University, 2004.
Voltaire. Candide, or Optimism. Penguin, 2005.