Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Zadig: Or, The Book of Fate, Voltaire’s first published philosophical tale, was written at a time when the author was finally receiving official recognition for his many literary accomplishments. In 1745, Monsieur Arouet de Voltaire received a court appointment from the king of France, Louis XV. As royal historiographer and later ordinary gentleman of the king’s bedchamber, Voltaire moved easily through the long galleries of the royal palace of Versailles. A close look at courtly pettiness, intrigues, and plotting served only to reinforce Voltaire’s already low estimation of palace royalty and bootlicking government officials. This time was also the period when Voltaire’s long love affair with Mme de Châtelet was ending. She had chosen a younger man over him, and for a time Voltaire was in a jealous rage.
Zadig, a tale set in eighteenth century Persia, reflects both the personal circumstances of Voltaire and the more profound philosophical questions concerning the nature of free will and happiness. Voltaire asks the same question on almost every page of the story: Can an honest and wise person lead a happy life in a world filled with liars, scoundrels, and cheats? In a story with a very thin plot, the reader follows the intelligent and kind Zadig through his travels among dishonest, deceitful, and cruel people who attempt to do him harm at every turn. First married to one of the most noble, desirable, and beautiful women of all Babylon, Zadig, to his great dismay, learns that his wife is unfaithful. Having been disappointed by an aristocratic woman, a woman from the court, he next turns to a woman chosen among the people. Again he has no luck: She also proves to be lacking in true love for Zadig.
Though a person of bourgeois origin, Zadig so distinguishes himself for his intelligence among the citizens of Babylon that he comes to the notice of the king and queen. Zadig’s name is mentioned as one of the persons deserving of a prize that King Moabdar intends to give to his subject who has performed the most generous action during the year. With no attempt at disguising his ironic allusion to life in the French royal court of the eighteenth century, Voltaire has King Moabdar grant the most wonderful prize in all Asia (a golden goblet studded with precious stones) to Zadig, because he is the only one who has not spoken ill of a disgraced government minister who had incurred the king’s wrath.
Zadig, in complete favor with King Moabdar and Queen Astarte, assumes the heavy responsibilities of prime minister. His every act at court demonstrates the subtlety of his genius and the goodness of his soul. Ogled by women and praised by all in the kingdom for his fairness in settling long-standing disputes, Zadig appears to enjoy all the good fortune that fate could possibly bestow on him. He even succeeds in arranging a truce between two religious sects that have quarreled for fifteen hundred years over which foot—left or right—one should first use to enter the holy temples.
In spite of all the rewards and praise Zadig receives as prime minister, he continues to reflect upon the precariousness of his own good fortune and the tricks that life has played on him in the past. As prime minister, Zadig believes the laws of Persia must be applied evenly to protect the innocent. Still, these laws are not able to quell the fanaticism and ridiculous quarrels that seem to presage the fall of Babylon. As if to underscore the validity of Zadig’s...
(The entire section is 1432 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Zadig, a charming young man with a good education and great wealth, lives in the time of King Moabdar in Babylon. Despite the fact that he is a very sensible young man, or perhaps because of it, he never boasts of his own abilities or tries to find fault in others. He expects that with the advantages he modestly enjoys he will have no difficulty in being happy, but he is mistaken in this belief.
In rescuing the beautiful Sémire from kidnappers, Zadig is injured by an arrow in his left eye. The great doctor Hermes predicts that he will lose the eye because wounds in the left eye never heal. When Zadig’s eye does heal, the doctor writes a book proving that it could not have happened. Unfortunately, Sémire, to whom Zadig has been betrothed, decides that she does not like one-eyed men. In her ignorance of Zadig’s recovery, she marries Orcan, the young nobleman who sent the kidnappers to seize her.
Zadig marries Azora, the wisest girl in the city, who takes a frivolous interest in handsome young men. When she scolds a widow for changing the course of a stream in order to escape from her vow to stay by her husband’s tomb as long as the stream flows there, Zadig arranges to have Azora told that he has died. He then has his friend Cador make friendly overtures to Azora and, having done so, complain of a pain in the spleen for which there is but one cure: rubbing the place with the nose of a man who has been dead no more than twenty-four hours. When Azora then goes to the place where Zadig is supposedly buried, he leaps up to keep her from cutting off his nose with a razor. He says that her act proves she is no better than the widow she had criticized. Finally, when living with Azora becomes too difficult, Zadig leaves her.
One day the queen’s dog and the king’s horse are lost. Zadig is able to describe the missing animals and their location, but when he then says that he has never seen them, he is imprisoned. He is released after he explains that he was able to tell from marks on the ground what the animals were like, but he has learned a lesson, and when he sees an escaping prisoner, he keeps quiet. Nevertheless, he is fined for looking out his window.
A rich and jealous neighbor named Arimaze, who is called “The Envious,” finds a tablet on which Zadig has written a poem. The tablet is broken in half, and the part of the poem on one piece of the tablet could be read as criticism of the king. Arimaze shows that part of the tablet to the king, but just as Zadig is about to be condemned for insulting the monarch, a parrot drops the other half of the tablet in the king’s lap. Both the king and the queen—especially the queen—begin to hold Zadig in high esteem. He is awarded a goblet for having been generous enough to speak well of a minister who had incurred the king’s wrath; such an act is new in the king’s experience, and he values Zadig for it.
Zadig becomes prime minister of Babylon and, through his sensible decisions, wins the hearts of the people. He cures a great lord who is too conceited for his own good by having an orchestra and a choir sing his praises all day long, until the lord in desperation calls a halt to the chorus of praise. Zadig also settles a religious dispute that had gone on for fifteen hundred years, concerning the question of whether one should enter the temple of Mithra with the right foot or the left foot; Zadig jumps in with both feet.
Zadig is popular with the ladies of Babylon, but he succumbs to a woman’s advances only once and does so without pleasure, for he is too much in love with Queen Astarté. The wife of Arimaze, enraged because Zadig has rebuffed her, allows her husband to send her garter to the king so that he might be deceived into believing...
(The entire section is 1539 words.)