Voltaire Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1085

A first reading of Zadig may suggest that it is inappropriate to consider this “philosophical tale” an early detective novel. Like most of Voltaire’s major works, however, Zadig can be interpreted from several different perspectives, and each critical approach enriches the understanding of Voltaire’s artistry. Readers who favor sociocriticism have...

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A first reading of Zadig may suggest that it is inappropriate to consider this “philosophical tale” an early detective novel. Like most of Voltaire’s major works, however, Zadig can be interpreted from several different perspectives, and each critical approach enriches the understanding of Voltaire’s artistry. Readers who favor sociocriticism have analyzed Voltaire’s effective denunciation in Zadig of social exploitation, religious hypocrisy, and intolerance. Although Voltaire called Zadig an “Oriental story” whose action takes place in fifteenth century Babylon, in it, he discusses the social problems of his own era, not those of medieval Babylon, about which he and his contemporaries knew very little. In eighteenth century France, true censorship existed; Voltaire himself had been imprisoned twice in the 1720’s because of his criticism. The pseudo-Babylonian elements in Zadig made it easier for Voltaire to avoid problems with the French police.


The many levels of irony and the refined style in Zadig have attracted much critical attention since the eighteenth century, and several scholars have noted that Voltaire’s style combines formal eloquence with subtle wit. His arguments are presented in such an aesthetically pleasing and yet unpretentious manner that it seems inappropriate to question his sincerity. His very style creates a favorable impression on his readers. In addition, his consistent understatement and the aesthetic distance that he maintains between his third-person narrative and his fictional characters make his philosophical tale appear objective and thus worthy of serious attention. Moreover, his well-balanced sentences permit and even encourage diverse interpretations. Readers of Zadig conclude that Voltaire respects all intellectual freedom; this interpretation leads them to respond favorably to Voltaire’s perception of reality.

In the development of the detective genre, Zadig is important not because of its well-constructed plot and refined style but rather because it illustrates appropriate ways of explaining perplexing situations. In his influential work Les Pensées (1670; Monsieur Pascal’s Thoughts, Meditations, and Prayers, 1688), Blaise Pascal argued that there existed two major ways of perceiving the world. Those who use purely deductive and logical reasoning practice “l’esprit de géométrie” (the spirit of geometry), whereas those who discover truth intuitively practice “l’esprit de finesse” (the spirit of finesse). Voltaire frequently referred to Pascal’s distinction. According to Pascal, each individual uses a unique blend of these two major types of reasoning, and neither “the spirit of geometry” nor “the spirit of finesse” suffices in itself to explain reality. Each person must sense intuitively when it is necessary to resort to deductive reasoning to discover a specific truth. Zadig illustrates the usefulness of both “the spirit of geometry” and “the spirit of finesse.” Later detective writers could learn from Zadig, if not directly from Pascal, that both deductive and intuitive reasoning are essential to any search for truth.

Like such amateur sleuths as G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Zadig does not seek out opportunities to solve crimes. He is not a professional detective who seeks monetary gain. No one ever questions the sincerity of Zadig’s motives. If, by chance, someone asks questions about specific crimes, he willingly works to explain logically how things actually happened.

In chapter 2, Voltaire states that Zadig’s marriage to Azora has serious problems. Zadig decides to divorce his wife; this act leaves him with much free time, which he spends studying “the properties of animals and plants.” Zadig soon acquires objective knowledge, and he is able to recognize “a thousand differences” in nature “where others would see everything as uniform”—he has become an expert in zoology and botany.

Near the palace one day, the queen’s eunuch asks Zadig if he has seen the royal dog. In reply, Zadig observes that the dog is a small spaniel bitch that limps and has recently given birth to puppies. Although the eunuch assumes that Zadig has seen the animal, Zadig denies it. A few minutes later, court officials come by and inquire about the king’s missing horse, which Zadig also describes. Although Zadig states that he has seen neither animal, his audience is unconvinced; he is arrested for stealing both spaniel and stallion.

During his trial, Zadig ably defends himself, explaining that specific tracings on the sand and broken branches in the trees enabled him to determine the physical characteristics of the missing animals. The judges are convinced; because there is no proof that he stole either creature, he is acquitted. This chapter in Zadig has influenced later detective writers because it demonstrates that the objective analysis of physical clues can prove innocence or guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Detective writers after Voltaire would strive to develop equally creative and totally logical explanations for perplexing cases.

Not all the characters in this philosophical tale reason as effectively as Zadig. Near the end of the piece, he meets a hermit who practices “the spirit of finesse” in a strange and unpersuasive manner. (The hermit is the antithesis of the reasonable Zadig.) After Zadig and the hermit have spent a pleasant night as guests of a kindly widow, the hermit repays her hospitality by drowning her fourteen-year-old nephew. The hermit justifies this murder by claiming that if this adolescent had lived, he would have strangled his aunt and Zadig within two years. Even after the hermit transforms himself into a winged angel, Zadig refuses to accept the hermit’s questionable defense, noting that there was a simple alternative to this murder: “Would it not have been better to have corrected this child and rendered him virtuous rather than drowning him?” Thus, logic discredits all attempts to justify murder.

Although the hermit acted with the purest of intentions, his action is nevertheless criminal. Zadig, like later detectives, understands that people are to be judged by their actions and not by the ingenious explanations they may present in defense of their crimes. Unless the absolute value of each life is accepted, society will soon fall into chaos. Zadig realizes that the hermit is basically a well-intentioned murderer who used specious reasoning to justify murder.

In his 1972 book Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, Julian Symons perceptively states that although Zadig does contain an “ingenious piece of analytical deduction,” it is not merely “a crime story.” In Zadig, Voltaire wrote primarily about the search for happiness in an imperfect world. Zadig, however, is a detective in two ways: He uses deductive reasoning to solve a perplexing case and also recognizes the faulty reasoning of a criminal.

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