Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4525
Voltaire was the most influential writer in eighteenth century France. He epitomizes the philosopher of the siècle des lumières , the Age of Enlightenment; his curiosity embraces all the developments of his day, whether French or otherwise European, scientific or literary. His faith in human reason does not waver, although...
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- Critical Essays
Voltaire was the most influential writer in eighteenth century France. He epitomizes the philosopher of the siècle des lumières, the Age of Enlightenment; his curiosity embraces all the developments of his day, whether French or otherwise European, scientific or literary. His faith in human reason does not waver, although his optimism about human progress often does. His writings reflect the changing literary tastes of the century as he defends a waning classical tradition while himself introducing the most outrageous innovations. His theater particularly embodies both of these tendencies, whereas his tales tend to exploit traditional literary forms in order to introduce a unique type of satiric philosophical story.
Voltaire’s long fiction includes many rather short stories, which have been called indiscriminately romans philosophiques (philosophical novels) or contes philosophiques (philosophical tales). According to Henri Coulet, Voltaire himself used the term histoire (story). Because satire such as Voltaire’s depends on economy of style and the tales have no real development of plot or character, they are limited in length by the genre itself.
Candide is considered to be the most perfect example of the philosophical novel, revealing Voltaire’s brilliant irony and vivacious wit. All the tales are humorous tragicomedies and include incidents that are by turns absurd, grotesque, poetic, romantic, and shocking. The unifying element is always the philosophical theme that Voltaire is stressing. Voltaire began writing his tales at the age of forty-five, when his ideas were firmly established; hence, the concerns and reforms he seeks to address remain fairly constant throughout the tales. Despite the fact that these stories are meant to appeal primarily to the intellect, they are eminently entertaining. Voltaire’s writings are rooted firmly in the humanistic rationalism of the first half of his century rather than in the literature of pre-Romantic sensibility, which made its appearance in the late 1700’s.
Henri Bénac’s suggestion that the tales fall into four chronological groups related to the development of Voltaire’s thought is widely accepted. Bénac proposes that the first two groups—of 1747 to 1752 and 1756 to 1759—reveal Voltaire’s growing realization that war must be waged against evils such as intolerance, injustice, corruption, and ignorance. The first group includes such stories as Le Monde comme il va (1748; revised as Babouc: Ou, Le Monde comme il va, 1749; Babouc: Or, The World as It Goes, 1754; also known as The World as It Is: Or, Babouc’s Vision, 1929), Memnon: Or, Human Wisdom, and La Lettre d’un Turc (1750); Zadig and Micromegas are the best known of the group. The second group includes History of Scarmentado’s Travels, which is the outline of Candide. In the third group figure Jeannot et Colin (1764; Jeannot and Colin, 1929), Le Blanc et le noir (1764; The Two Genies, 1895), and, best known, Ingenuous, The Man of Forty Crowns, and The Princess of Babylon. According to Bénac, the tales in this third group are, like Voltaire’s pamphlets, weapons in his war against oppression of all kinds. In the last group, Bénac sees Voltaire searching for a morality on which to base a humane and free society. Tales in this period include L’Histoire de Jenni (1775) and Les Oreilles du Comte de Chesterfield (1775; The Ears of Lord Chesterfield and Parson Goodman, 1826).
The concerns of the early tales recur throughout all the stories, but Voltaire presents the different tales with a rich range of tones. Zadig, like other tales of this early group, is imbued with sunny humor and gaiety despite the sardonic irony that underscores the misfortunes of the hero. Voltaire sketches his hero Zadig with an unusually delicate touch, and some passages dazzle momentarily with rare poetry: “He marveled at these vast globes of light which to our eyes appear to be only feeble sparks.His soul flew up into the infinite and, detached from his senses, contemplated the immutable order of the universe.”
Memnon: Histoire orientale contained fifteen chapters that reappeared in Zadig in 1748. The story of Zadig is in the picaresque tradition, which is to say that the hero, on his travels, meets with many adventures. The plot of such a tale is of necessity episodic and highly imaginative. Zadig, a wealthy, virtuous, and handsome young Babylonian, is about to marry the beautiful young Semire, who loves him “passionately.” When a jealous youth, Orcan, attempts to abduct Semire, Zadig bravely rescues his betrothed, receiving a wound that might mean the loss of an eye. Instead of expressing her gratitude, Semire protests that she hates one-eyed men, and she promptly marries Orcan. Zadig recovers quickly and marries another woman, Azora, whose faithfulness he puts to the test by pretending to have died. Unfortunately, Azora fails the test. Zadig encounters difficulties with the law when he makes scientific deductions from observing the tracks of the queen’s dog and the king’s horse, leading a huntsman to deduce that Zadig stole the animals. Zadig eventually becomes the king’s prime minister.
His next misfortune arises through no fault of his own: Queen Astarté falls in love with him. The king, in jealousy, plots to kill them both, and Zadig has to flee. As he arrives in Egypt, he sees an Egyptian beating a woman, who asks Zadig to save her. In the ensuing fight, Zadig kills his adversary. Zadig is arrested and imprisoned for this act, then sold as a slave and taken to Arabia by his master, Sétoc, with whom he becomes close friends. Zadig dissuades a young widow from burning herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, as is the religious custom. He also persuades an Egyptian, an Indian, a Chinese, a Greek, and a Celt to worship the same Supreme Being. Zadig is accused of impiety by Arabian priests and condemned to be burned. The young widow whom he saved now helps him escape.
Zadig next goes to the island of Serendib (Ceylon) on behalf of Sétoc. He makes a good impression on the king of the island and helps him to find an honest minister. On his travels, Zadig meets the brigand chief Arbogad and learns that King Moabdar has gone mad and been killed, and Astarté has disappeared. Zadig eventually discovers that Astarté is a captive of Ogul, who is sick with an imaginary illness. Zadig cures Ogul, and the two return to Babylon, where peace is restored. Zadig wins a tournament that is held to decide who shall be the new king of Babylon and marry Astarté. Zadig wins the tournament but is cheated, and his rival claims the victory. In the middle of his despair, Zadig meets a hermit who reveals to him the secret of happiness, and Zadig learns to accept the ways of Providence. Zadig guesses the correct answers to the riddles and finally marries Astarté.
Zadig the hero—whose name in Arabic means “just”—attempts to be happy in a world where goodness is frustrated by absurd and illogical interventions of fate. At one point, Zadig says: “I was sent to execution because I had written verses in praise of the King; I was on the point of being strangled because the Queen had yellow ribbons; and here I am a slave with you because a brute beat his mistress. Come, let’s not lose heart; perhaps all this will end.”
The absurdity of Zadig’s world, which is out of control and beyond the powers of logical explanation, is not the horror evoked in Franz Kafka’s fiction; unlike Kafka, Voltaire does not attempt to create a sense of dreamlike but undeniable reality in either setting or characterization. Voltaire’s exotic Eastern novel is in the tradition of the fifteenth century The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, also known as The Thousand and One Nights, translated from the Arabic by Antoine Gallard and much in vogue after the success of Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes (1721; Persian Letters, 1722). The events are as unreal as those of the fairy tale, and the sensibility of the reader is not touched by Zadig’s dilemmas. Instead, Voltaire disturbs the comfort of the reader’s reason, logic, and innate sense of order and justice; the irony of Voltaire is at work. The frustration of Zadig becomes that of his audience. The knight Itobad steals Zadig’s white suit of armor during the night, leaving his green suit in its place so that Zadig cannot claim the hand of Astarté, and Zadig cannot prove that he is the victor of the tournament, because the combatants must conceal their identities until a victor is proclaimed. Zadig has often been punished unjustly for being good, and here he is once again cheated of a happiness that is almost within his grasp. The audience is robbed of an anticipated happy ending and is frustrated by this anticlimax.
Voltaire was a master of the art of satire, and he often made use of anticlimax as an effective satiric technique. Zadig, after bewailing a list of horrifying punishments he has narrowly escaped, says, “Come, let’s not lose heart; perhaps all this will end.” This anticlimactic statement satirizes both Zadig’s naïve optimism and the ridiculous optimism of the philosophers Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Friedrich August Wolf—that “this is the best of all possible worlds”—which was much in vogue in the eighteenth century.
This leitmotif, the attack on optimism, is one of the many minor satiric barbs that Voltaire uses to spice his tale. Other satiric attacks abound in Zadig and reappear throughout the tales. Eighteenth century readers, usually members of the nobility and upper middle class, took delight in synthesizing the apparent subject of Voltaire’s narrative with the real and often audacious object of its satire. Voltaire makes a dangerous allusion to the court when the fisherman tells Zadig how archers “armed with a royal warrant were pillaging his house lawfully and in good order.” The ironic effect is achieved by the surprising juxtaposition of “pillaging” and “lawfully.” Voltaire’s irony had its basis in reality: He had been forced to flee the court at Versailles after making disparaging remarks about the courtiers being cheats. In Zadig, Voltaire also frequently satirizes the judicial system and judges who are “abysses of knowledge,” who “prove” Zadig looked out of a window even though Zadig has answered none of their questions.
Voltaire’s anticlericalism and antireligious bent often figure in the satire of Zadig. Almona the Arab widow intends to burn herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, as the Brahman religion demands. Zadig the philosopher reasons her out of this plan, convincing her that she is about to take a ridiculous course in order to satisfy her vanity and not her religious principles. Zadig also persuades Sétoc that it is ridiculous to worship shining lights (the stars), and he demonstrates his reasons by kneeling and appearing to worship lighted candles. The “bonzes,” who represent the monks, “chanted beautiful prayers to music, and left the state a prey to the barbarians.” Zadig’s rationalism (and Voltaire’s) is primarily concerned with people’s practical problems in society.
Voltaire’s primary philosophical theme, however, is people’s concern with destiny. Zadig vacillates between hope and despair as fate deals him many adverse blows. Despite his ingenuity and virtue, which he displays when he acts as the prime minister of King Moabdar, Zadig is presented as the plaything of destiny. The fisherman’s story and the hermit incident reinforce the supremacy of this philosophical question as the main theme. How do philosophers explain the sufferings of a good person in the hands of a malevolent destiny? Voltaire resolves this problem happily with a deus ex machina ending. The angel Jesrad, representing divine intervention, tells Zadig to stop his questioning and simply worship Providence. Most men, Jesrad explains, form opinions with limited knowledge. Zadig’s virtue triumphs, and he wins his queen and rules with “justice and love. Men blessed Zadig and Zadig blessed heaven.” The skies of Zadig remain free of the blackness of Candide.
Micromegas, which appeared in 1752, is a philosophical tale in a more literal sense, being primarily a vehicle for ideas on relativity. It is a very short tale, with almost no action (in stark contrast to the episodic Zadig) and only two mainprotagonists. Micromegas (which is Greek for “little big one”) is a very tall inhabitant of the planet Sirius who has been banned from court for writing a book about insects that the “Mufti” of his planet has found to be heretical. He goes on an interplanetary voyage, finally arriving on the planet Saturn, where he meets a dwarf. (Voltaire intended his readers to recognize in the dwarf a caricature of his own enemy, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle.) The two travelers arrive on Earth and finally discover minute humans in a boat. The travelers attend a banquet at which various forms of philosophical credos are represented, allowing Voltaire to launch a satiric attack on the theories of Aristotle, René Descartes, Nicolas Malebranche, and Leibniz. Voltaire approves of the philosophy of the follower of John Locke. A storm develops, and the philosophers fall into the pocket of Micromegas. Although the giant is angry that such small creatures have so much pride, he gives a book to the philosophers; its pages, however, are blank. Voltaire gives the closing line to the dwarf (his enemy, Fontenelle), who, upon receiving the blank book—supposedly a philosophical treatise revealing the final truth about things—says, “Ahthat’s just what I suspected.” This last line was extremely offensive to Fontenelle, because it implied that he agreed that all of his metaphysical speculations over the past years had been wasted effort—that such truths were impossible to discover and prove. This attack on metaphysics is the main thrust of Voltaire’s satire in Micromegas. Voltaire ridicules the philosophers in the boat, implying that “our little pile of mud” is relatively unimportant when seen in relation to the rest of the cosmos and that the opinions of its inhabitants are hence practically worthless. The philosophers in the boat all talk at once and all have different opinions. Voltaire shows that this kind of truth is “relative” to the person uttering it, and unreliable.
Voltaire’s Micromegas is in direct imitation of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and Montesquieu had previously used this type of travel story in Persian Letters. Voltaire, then, used an established subgenre, the fictional travelogue, as a vehicle for social commentary: The traveler in a strange land, seeing things for the first time, has no prejudice and puts into a new perspective situations that have been seen in only a certain way for centuries. This fresh perspective opens the way for critical appraisal and reform.
In Micromegas, Voltaire makes little effort to convince the reader of the reality of his story; the tale must be accepted as fantasy. The satire is less complicated, less adroit, and less sparkling than it is in Zadig. The main purpose of the satire is to address subjects of great interest to Voltaire’s contemporaries; little of the subject matter of Micromegas is of interest to the modern reader. These two early works, Zadig and Micromegas, do, however, share a lighthearted spirit of enjoyment as Voltaire ridicules general stupidity and personal enemies. In these works, too, Voltaire formulated what would become the constant subjects of his satiric attacks throughout his tales.
Candide belongs to the second group of tales described by Bénac and is distinguished by its radical pessimism and bitter irony, in contrast to the sunny atmosphere of the previous two tales. Candide is considered the epitome of the philosophical tale, and it remains highly relevant today. Unlike Voltaire’s other writings, Candide is still read everywhere. The tale’s atmosphere is dark and often despairing. Voltaire was shocked by the horrors and atrocities of the Seven Years’ War, which began in August, 1756, when Frederick the Great invaded Saxony. The Lisbon earthquake in 1755 also horrified Voltaire, causing him to reflect on what kind of Providence could inflict death on the innocent and guilty alike. The optimistic philosophy of Leibniz and Wolf seemed totally absurd in the midst of so much human suffering.
The satire in Candide is directed above all against this optimistic philosophy, epitomized in the character Pangloss. The characters in this tale are caricatures, deformed so that each represents only one characteristic or outlook. Candide, the hero, represents naïve, good, and reasonable humanity. The philosopher Martin symbolizes a cynical Manichaeanism that acknowledges the power of evil as well as of good in the world. James, who represents real human goodness and charity, is allowed to drown in stormy seas after rescuing a sailor who had attempted to murder him. Such is the bitter mood of the tale.
The form of this novel is basically picaresque, as in Zadig, but Voltaire also parodies the novel of adventure and the novel of sentiment. The characters continually die horrible deaths after suffering gruesome tortures in various lands, but they somehow miraculously (and ridiculously) reappear, having been saved or cured. Their tearful reunions are a parody of the sentimental literature that Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740-1741) introduced to France from England and that infiltrated the bourgeois dramas of Diderot, and indeed of Voltaire’s own theater. These reappearances also reinforce the central unity of the novel. A finely orchestrated rhythm unifies the entire tale; it is not simply that the main aim of the satire holds the tale together, as in the other stories. The fates (and philosophies) of secondary characters affect the hero in a rhythmic ebb and flow of alternating hope and despair that echo across the desolate landscape of a sad humanity in the throes of war, persecution, and suffering.
A gloss of the incidents in the tale reveals that there is no development of character or plot as such, and it underlines the rapid and vertiginous pace of the tale’s episodes. This brisk pace lightens the seriousness of the atrocities being described, preventing the reader from dwelling on them or taking them to heart. Hence, Voltaire employs a technique of diminution, undercutting the value and dignity of human life.
Candide lives happily in a château in Westphalia with the baron of Thunderten-tronckh. Pangloss, the disciple of the optimistic philosophy of Leibniz, also lives there as tutor, as does Cunegonde, the baron’s beautiful daughter, whom Candide loves. Candide agrees with Pangloss that all works out for the best in this wonderful world at the château. The baron, however, discovering the two lovers embracing, chases Candide out of the château. He is carried off forcibly to join an army and fight. After deserting, he goes to Holland, where he meets Pangloss, who has become a beggar and is barely recognizable with the sores of a terrible disease. Candide learns that all the people of the château have been killed.
Candide takes Pangloss to his benefactor, James the Anabaptist, who restores the sick man. The three then set sail for Lisbon, where James has a business engagement. On the way to Lisbon, their ship is wrecked in a storm, and James is drowned, while a sailor who had tried to murder him is saved. In Lisbon, Pangloss and Candide live through an earthquake that kills thirty thousand people. As Candide and Pangloss wander through the destroyed city, Pangloss attempts to comfort the citizens with his philosophy that “all is for the best”—a philosophy that, as Voltaire makes clear in his juxtaposition of Pangloss’s theories to the suffering about him, is ludicrous if not cruel. Overhearing Pangloss’s remarks, an officer of the Inquisition questions Pangloss about his belief in Original Sin and Free Will. Pangloss, sputtering his rationalizations, is arrested along with Candide—“one for having spoken, the other for having listened with an air of approval.” Pangloss is hanged, but Candide is saved by the timely arrival of Cunegonde, who has escaped from the massacre of her family.
As things are beginning to seem more hopeful, Candide is obliged to kill two people, and he has to flee to America. He takes refuge with some Jesuits in Paraguay, where he miraculously meets Cunegonde’s brother, who has also escaped the massacre at the château and has become a priest. Although he embraces Candide as a brother, his mood suddenly shifts when Candide announces that he intends to marry Cunegonde, and in the ensuing fight, Candide kills the brother of his beloved. After similar incidents in Eldorado, Surinam, Venice, and Constantinople, Candide finally finds Cunegonde. After all of her suffering, she has become very ugly, but, true to his word, Candide marries her. He then takes the advice of a wise old Turk and installs himself and his companions in an estate. He refuses to ask any more philosophical questions about evil and suffering in favor of hard work and practical reality—thus the novel’s famous closing line: “we must cultivate our garden.”
In 1759, the year that Candide was published, Voltaire bought Ferney, an estate on the French-Swiss border, which has led critics to surmise that Candide’s conclusions about work and the happiness to be found in practical progress are those of Voltaire. Once Voltaire was installed at Ferney, he gained confidence and energy and bombarded his public and his enemies with pamphlets, essays, plays, and stories, waging numerous legal battles on behalf of those persecuted for religious reasons. Ingenuous was written during this last, very active period of Voltaire’s life. Although Voltaire was seventy-three years old when he wrote this work, his incredible intellectual and creative vigor had not diminished.
Ingenuous is one of the weapons Voltaire used in his unremitting battle against intolerance and injustice and belongs to the third group of novels delineated by Bénac. Voltaire’s confidence had returned, and he wrote with a sure hand; none of the tales that follow Candide can rival the grandeur of Ingenuous.
Ingenuous is the most romantic of Voltaire’s stories, and its plot is narrative rather than episodic. The tone of the story is more naturalistic, as are the characters. The device of a voyage is used again; the religious and social systems of France in the time of Louis XIV are seen through the eyes of the Huron stranger, who, without prejudice and with candid reasoning, questions institutions and beliefs that have been taken for granted and must now be considered from a new perspective.
The character of the Huron is in the tradition of the “noble savage” popularized by a missionary, baron de Lahontan, who praised the uncorrupted American Indian. The unity of the tale lies in the unfolding of the story of two lovers: Hercules Kerkabon (as the Huron is later named) and Mademoiselle de St. Yves. The satire used here also unites with the central love theme, targeting the corrupt Catholic Church and its priests, monks, and practices, which are instrumental in separating the lovers and ruining their chance for happiness. Voltaire also satirizes the court officials and Jansenism.
Voltaire’s wit has a somewhat subdued tone throughout Ingenuous; the satire resides in the calmly reasoned arguments of the Huron, who questions all the basic doctrines of Jesuit and Jansenist alike. Voltaire, using the Huron as his mouthpiece, explains very simply all of his objections to the two religions. At the time of writing this tale, Voltaire was involved in the trials of the Calas family, the Sirven family, and La Barre, and his hatred of religious persecution and his anger at the injustices meted out by a corrupt judicial system were therefore as intense as they had ever been.
The story reflects the century’s taste for cosmopolitanism. The Huron has been reared by a Huron tribe in Canada and arrives on the Lower Brittany coast in 1689. It is “discovered” that he is the lost child of the Abbé Yerkabon and his sister. Their brother went to Canada as a soldier and was killed by the Iroquois. The Abbé claims Hercules as his nephew and baptizes him as a Catholic. The beautiful Mademoiselle de St. Yves acts as his godmother. Hercules later falls in love with Mademoiselle de St. Yves but cannot marry his godmother, because the Church forbids it. Mademoiselle de St. Yves is sent to a convent, and Hercules, who is by now a hero for helping to defend the French against an English attack, goes to Versailles to engage the king’s help in his marriage scheme. At Versailles, he is arrested and imprisoned in the Bastille, where he meets Gordon, a Jansenist. After much study and discussion, he converts Gordon to Deism. Now Mademoiselle de St. Yves goes to Versailles to save Hercules, but she must submit to a government minister in order to obtain her lover’s release. She never recovers from the shame and dies of her chagrin. Hercules is tempted to take his own life but recovers himself and becomes an excellent officer and philosopher. The tale does not end with the expected happy ending for the lovers, but Voltaire suggests that even if ambitions and ideals cannot be attained, there are compromises that can be made and one can be tolerably happy—a message similar to that of Candide.
The Man of Forty Crowns
The Man of Forty Crowns, published the year after Ingenuous, displays a strong contrast in style. The two tales have in common the underlying interest of Voltaire in practical things. In Ingenuous, Voltaire has Hercules recover from his loss and become a good soldier; in The Man of Forty Crowns, Voltaire has his protagonist discuss tax reform with a mathematician. There is a great difference, however, between these polemics and those of Ingenuous. In the later tale, Voltaire writes for a clever and agile mind able to follow the mathematical bent of his arguments. There is scarcely a plot or an appealing character to enliven the discussion. Voltaire, as usual, satirizes monks (who do not pay taxes), despotic monarchs, unfair judicial systems, and ignorant people who think they know more than they do. This highly polemical tale, amusing for Voltaire’s eighteenth century circle, is of little interest today; not even the odd humorous remark, such as the suggestion that smiles and songs be taxed, can redeem the lack of relevance or interest of this story for a modern reader.
Voltaire’s tales do suffer a slight impoverishment in translation. The musicality of the French language offsets the dryness of the succinct, economic prose and the laconic, pointed understatement. Polemical tales such as The Man of Forty Crowns particularly suffer in English translation.
Of Voltaire’s many tales (some two dozen in all), Candide remains the most popular. Perhaps it has universal appeal because the evils it portrays persist in today’s world. Wars are still waged in the name of religious causes, and political prisoners continue to be tortured and cast into jail without trial. Unfortunately, Voltaire is no longer here to provoke people’s consciences and fire their minds with his energetic fury. Without him, the genre of the philosophical tale lies in disuse.