Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
At various points, Candide believes that Cunégonde, Pangloss, and the baron are dead, only to discover later that they have actually survived the traumas that should have killed them. The function of these “resurrections” in the novel is complicated. On the one hand, they seem to suggest a strange, fantastic optimism that is out of step with the general tone of the novel. Death, the only misfortune from which one would never expect a character to recover, actually proves to be “reversible.” On the other hand, the characters who get “resurrected” are generally those whose existence does more harm than good. Each “resurrected” figure embodies a harmful aspect of human nature: Cunégonde reveals the shallowness of beauty and fickleness of love, Pangloss’s optimism represents folly, and the baron’s snobbery represents arrogance and narrow-minded social oppression. Through these characters’ miraculous resurrections, Voltaire may be trying to tell his readers that these traits never die.
Candide is full of uncommonly graphic accounts of the sexual exploitation of women. The three main female characters—Cunégonde, the old woman, and Paquette—are all raped, forced into sexual slavery, or both. Both the narrator’s and the characters’ attitudes toward these events are strikingly nonchalant and matter-of-fact. Voltaire uses these women’s stories to demonstrate the special dangers to which only women are vulnerable. Candide’s chivalric devotion to Cunégonde, whom he wrongly perceives as a paragon of female virtue, is based on willful blindness to the real situ-ation of women. The male characters in the novel value sexual chastity in women but make it impossible for women to maintain such chastity, exposing another hypocritical aspect of Voltaire’s Europe.
Candide witnesses the horrors of oppression by the authorities of numerous states and churches. Catholic authorities burn heretics alive, priests and governors extort sexual favors from their female subjects, businessmen mistreat slaves, and Candide himself is drafted into and abused in the army of the Bulgar king. Even the English government, which Voltaire admired, executes an admiral for the “crime” of fighting with insufficient audacity against the French. Powerful institutions seem to do no good—and instead, much harm—to their defenseless subjects. Voltaire himself protested loudly against political injustice throughout his life. The characters in Candide, however, choose a different route. Shortly after hearing about the politically motivated killings of several Turkish officials, they take the old farmer’s advice and decide to ignore the injustices that surround them, channeling their wealth and energy instead into the simple labors that bring them happiness.