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...
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- Critical Essays