Voltaire’s wit and insight into the human condition found a memorable forum in his short stories. These stories were not merely entertaining fantasies but were works of philosophical and social reflection as well. By allowing his readers to see the world through his characters’ eyes, Voltaire taught new ways of thinking about the attitudes and situation of humanity.
Voltaire’s fiction ranges from extremely short pieces to the longer works Zadig: Ou, La Destinée, Histoire orientale (1748; originally as Memnon: Histoire orientale, 1747; Zadig: Or, The Book of Fate, 1749), Le Micromégas (1752; Micromegas, 1753), Candide, and L’Ingénu (1767; The Pupil of Nature, 1771; also as Ingenuous, 1961). While those longer works are the primary stories for which he is remembered, his shorter tales contain many of the same themes in a tightly crafted and inventive form.
Voltaire was fascinated throughout his life with the issues of good and evil, freedom and determinism, and the nature of Providence. A Deist to the end of his life, convinced that God had created the world and left it to run according to an original plan, Voltaire yet struggled with the concepts of fate and Providence from the human perspective. The view of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and others that this is the best of all possible worlds fit with Voltaire’s Deism but not with his experience of the world. Voltaire’s stories show a continually deepening sense of the evil and folly in life, in which it is difficult to find the good. His protagonists often undertake long and bizarre journeys, on which they learn tolerance from the experience of the universality of human suffering. Human goodness does not seem to be rewarded in the long run, and no obviously overarching plan shows itself to his heroes. It appears that existence is a pointless interplay of events in which evil people seem to be quite happy and successful, and the good often suffer miserably. Yet Voltaire always allows for the possibility that some good may be present in the worst of situations, even if that good is well hidden.
Within Voltaire’s longer stories, this theme is quite obvious. In Zadig, the protagonist encounters a continually changing cycle of fortunes and misfortunes until he finally decides in despair that goodness will never be rewarded. An angel in disguise teaches him that the ways of Providence are inscrutable and all that happens in life creates the best possible world as a whole. Once Zadig realizes that the evil in the world is part of the divine plan, and that the world would be imperfect without it, he is freed from his ignorance and becomes the happy man that he had always believed he would be. He ends up a king, ruling more justly and compassionately because of the wisdom gained from his misfortunes.
In the later work, Candide, Voltaire’s growing pessimism is evident. Candide is an innocent and optimistic young man who undergoes an incredible series of cruel and painful disasters. Considering the enormity of the ills which meet him from all sides—he is exiled, drafted, beaten, robbed, and continually loses the woman he loves—he is amazingly slow to question his optimistic view of the world. By the end of his life, however, Candide settles down on a small farm with the woman he sought all his life (now grown quite ugly and disagreeable), and he brushes aside his original belief that things are all ordered for the best. He recognizes that the attempt to try to ignore the inevitability of suffering and evil in life leads to a tragic failure: the failure to try to improve the world in whatever ways are possible. He is now more content with the attitude that “we must cultivate our garden,” thus abandoning the question of the good of the whole universe for the task of alleviating the misery of existence in his small corner of the world.
In Voltaire’s shorter...
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- Critical Essays