Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1764
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 tales Babouc and Memnon, the issue of the apparent dominance of evil over good receives an answer similar to that given by Zadig in 1747. As in the novel Zadig, the protagonists learn that this world is imperfect but that it plays its appointed role in a universe that is ordered by Providence.
In Babouc, the jinni Ithuriel descends to earth to send Babouc on a fact-finding journey to Persia. Babouc is to travel throughout Persepolis to see if the Persians are worthy of punishment or destruction because of their evil actions. Babouc sets off and soon finds himself in the midst of a war between Persia and India. This war, begun over a petty dispute, has been ravaging the country for twenty years. Babouc witnesses bloody battles, treachery, and cruelty on both sides. He also witnesses many amazing acts of kindness and humanity. His journey continues in this vein. For every set of abuses in religion, politics, sexual conduct, and education, he finds also some good and noble elements. His cry of surprise echoes throughout the piece: “Unintelligible mortals! How is it that you can combine so much meanness with so much greatness, such virtues with such crimes?”
By the end, he agrees with a wise man whom he meets that evil is prevalent and good people are rare, yet the best is hidden from a visitor and needs to be sought more diligently. As he examines the society, he finds that those who have obtained positions of power through corrupt means are capable of devotion to their work and often pursue their careers with devotion and justice. He gains compassion for the people and their leaders and devises a way in which to communicate what he has learned to the jinni. He has a metalsmith fashion a statue out of every kind of stone, earth, and metal and takes this figure back to Ithuriel, asking, “Will you break this pretty little image, because it is not all gold and diamonds?” Ithuriel immediately comprehends and pardons the Persians, deciding not to interfere with “the way the world goes.” Even though the world is not fully good, it contains enough good to merit its continued existence.
Memnon: Or, Human Wisdom
In Memnon: Or, Human Wisdom (not to be confused with Memnon: Histoire orientale, the original title of Zadig), Voltaire takes a different path to a similar moral. In this humorous tale, a young man named Memnon plans to become perfectly wise by ridding himself of all of his passions. He decides to renounce love, drinking, wasting money, and arguing. He is assured that this will lead him to financial and emotional security, remove all hindrances to the exercise of his reason, and thus make him happy. After he forms this plan, he looks out his window and sees a young woman in tears. He rushes to counsel her, sheerly out of compassion, and ends in her embrace. Her uncle enters, and only a large sum of money convinces him not to kill Memnon. Memnon then has dinner with his friends and consoles himself by getting drunk and gambling, which leads to an argument in which he loses an eye. “The wise Memnon is carried back home drunk, with no money, and minus an eye.” He recovers a bit, only to find that his investors have bankrupted him.
He ends up sleeping on a pile of straw outside of his house and dreams that a six-winged heavenly creature, his good jinni, comes to him. Memnon wonders where his good jinni was the night before and is told that he was with Memnon’s brother, who was blinded and imprisoned. Memnon comments that it is worthwhile “to have a good genie in a family, so that one of two brothers may be one-eyed, the other blind, one lying on straw, the other in prison.” The jinni helpfully points out that the situation will get better if Memnon abandons his ridiculous attempt to be perfectly wise. This world is only one of many others, all of which are ordered by degrees of perfection, and the earth is far down near the craziest end of the scale. All is well, the jinni assures him, when one considers the arrangement of the universe as a whole. Memnon says that he will believe that all is well when he can see that it is with both eyes.
Jeannot and Colin
Although Voltaire’s fiction depicts a crazy world where fortunes are uncertain, evils abound, and goodness does not ensure happiness, there are two things which are valued in most of his stories—the search for knowledge and the companionship of trusted friends. In Jeannot and Colin, Voltaire examines the worth of friendship and learning over the illusory happiness to be gained from wealth and power.
Jeannot and Colin are friends and roommates at school until Jeannot’s father sends for him to come home and enjoy the new family wealth. Jeannot does so, scoring his old friend and turning with relish to his new life of leisure. His mother and father discuss his future with a tutor, but each area of study, whether philosophy, mathematics, or history, is judged of no use to a young man of society who now has servants to do as he wishes. They decide to teach him to dance and be attractive, so that he can shine in social graces. He becomes a vaudeville singer and charms all the ladies of breeding. This, however, does not last: His father is bankrupted, his mother forced to become a servant, and Jeannot himself is homeless. In a state of distress, he runs into his old friend, Colin, whom he had snubbed. Colin is overjoyed to see him and offers to take Jeannot into his home and his business and to help Jeannot’s mother and father out of their difficulties. Colin’s kindness and forgiveness change Jeannot’s heart and allow Jeannot’s natural goodness to grow, free from the ravages of society. Jeannot lives happily, assisting his parents and marrying Colin’s equally sweet-tempered sister.
Philosophical reflections and social satire weigh down the plots of some later stories, such as The Ears of Lord Chesterfield and Parson Goodman, making them tedious. These stories show the drier side of Voltaire’s satire. At his best, however, Voltaire offered his readers richly woven tales which critiqued society, satirized pretensions, expressed new philosophical ideas, and simply entertained. The stories include much humor and piercing insight into the common follies of humanity. These philosophical tales succeeded, as no straightforward philosophy could, in offering many people new perspectives on reason, experience, and humanity.