Voltaire Analysis

Other Literary Forms

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Voltaire’s writings are vast, spanning more than one hundred volumes of letters, literature, and scholarship. He wrote in both French and English, publishing his works in several countries, depending on the prevailing political climate.

Voltaire has been remembered most for his incisive short stories, which convey complex philosophical ideas. During his own age, however, he was noted as a political satirist, playwright, and poet. He was a master of the epic poem, and his La Henriade (1728; a revision of La Ligue; Henriade, 1732) revived the popularity of this genre. His plays were renowned throughout France, and dipe (1718; Oedipus, 1761), produced when Voltaire was only twenty-four, received critical acclaim. His major philosophical work, Dictionnaire philosophique portatif (1764; A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket, 1765; also as Philosophical Dictionary, 1945), was an ambitious compendium of philosophical ideas and terms. In addition, his historical writings, such as Le Siècle de Louis XIV (1751; The Age of Louis XIV, 1752), have earned for him a reputation as one of the first modern historians.


During his lifetime, Voltaire was both revered and rejected. He was alternately honored by kings for his brilliance and exiled or imprisoned for his radical political views. He was welcomed into the courts of George I and Princess Caroline of England, Frederick II of Prussia, and Louis XV of France. Louis XV appointed him as Royal Historiographer and as Ordinary Gentleman of the King’s Bedchamber in the 1740’s. In 1746, Voltaire realized one of his greatest ambitions when he was elected to the prestigious Académie Française. In the 1750’s, Frederick II gave him a medal of merit, made him a chamberlain, and considered Voltaire to be his personal tutor and court philosopher until a bitter disagreement caused Voltaire to leave Prussia.

Voltaire’s scathing attacks on intolerance, injustice, and superstition scandalized many of the powerful in the government and the French Roman Catholic Church, but his humor, imagination, and daring in expressing his opinions won for him numerous followers as well. When he was living in Switzerland in his later years, people made pilgrimages to his home and stood outside it hoping to catch a glimpse of him. At the end of his life, Voltaire returned to Paris to the acclaim of crowds of admirers. Yet, even in death, he stirred controversy: His body had to be smuggled out of Paris to allow him the decent burial in consecrated ground that the French Catholic hierarchy denied him.

Voltaire was one of the foremost philosophes of the French Enlightenment, and his influence went far beyond his long and successful lifetime. His ideas on the freedom and dignity of the individual are credited with having had a strong influence on the French Revolution of 1789. His satirical and irreverent wit gradually eroded some of the religious and political intolerance of eighteenth century France. Many who have fought for toleration, justice, and equality have looked back to the spirit of Voltaire’s writings. He summarized his own sense of satisfaction about the successes of his and other philosophes’ writings in a letter to Jean Le Rond D’Alembert dated July 18, 1766, in which he rejoiced thatthe Church of Wisdom is beginning to develop in our neighborhood where, twelve years ago the most somber fanaticism ruled. The provinces are becoming enlightened, the young magistrates are thinking boldly. One is astonished by the progress that human reason has made in so few years.

Other Literary Forms

In addition to his plays, Voltaire wrote many poems, especially odes. Some of his most important longer poems are Poème sur la religion naturelle (1722); La Henriade (1728), an epic poem initially entitled La Ligue (Henriade, 1732); Le Temple du goût (1733; The Temple of Taste, 1734), on literary criticism; Discours en vers sur l’homme (1738-1752; Discourses in Verse on Man, 1764); Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne (1756; Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake, 1764); and La Pucelle d’Orléans (1755, 1762; The Maid of Orleans, 1758, also as La Pucelle, 1785-1786).

Voltaire’s main historical works are Histoire de Charles XII (1731; The History of Charles XII, 1732); Le Siècle de Louis XIV (1751; The Age of Louis XIV, 1752); and Essai sur les murs (1756, 1763; The General History and State of Europe, 1754, 1759).

Voltaire’s current reputation is based on his contes philosophiques (philosophical tales), of which three of the principal ones are: Zadig: Ou, La Destinée, Histoire orientale (1748; originally as Memnon: Histoire orientale, 1747; Zadig: Or, The Book of Fate, 1749), Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759; Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759), and La Princesse de Babylone (1768; The Princess of Babylon, 1769).

Voltaire wrote numerous philosophical treatises, essays, polemics, and brochures, and he left behind a voluminous correspondence, compiled in The Complete Works of Voltaire (1968-1977; 135 volumes, in French).


Voltaire dominated the eighteenth century theater by the number of his plays alone. He wrote fifty-two in all, of which twenty-seven are tragedies. He was the most popular dramatist of his time and the principal author for the Comédie-Française, which now only occasionally performs his plays. In his own time, Voltaire was regarded as one of the masters of French drama. More of his plays were performed than those of Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine together. Today, he is best known for his philosophical works, especially his tales, but during his lifetime he believed his immortality would rest on his dramatic accomplishments. Although he wrote most of his plays rapidly, he constantly reworked them and revised the failures, often bringing them to success, as with Mariamne.

Voltaire was the literary and philosophical bridge between the classical theater of the seventeenth century and the Romantic theater of the nineteenth century. It was he who kept the classical theater alive, both in subject matter (one-third of his tragedies are based on classical themes) and in form. He insisted on adherence to the Aristotelian unities of action, time, and place, and on verse, propriety, and verisimilitude. His style, though sometimes declamatory, is in accurate French alexandrins, elegant and frequently excellent poetry in the style of Corneille. Yet, as dedicated as he was to the values of French classicism in the drama, Voltaire was intrigued, if torn, by contemporary literary theories and foreign dramatic works, and at times he violated his own precepts in introducing into his plays—and into France—dramatic elements of the coming age.

Thus, while Voltaire kept French classical theater alive, he distinctly widened its frontiers. Voltaire’s trip to England from 1726 to 1729 brought him into contact with the English theater, and especially with the plays of William Shakespeare. Critic Admad Gunny maintains that Voltaire also came to know and was influenced by...

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Other literary forms

Voltaire (vohl-TAYR) is probably the most prolific and versatile writer of any age. He wrote in all the literary forms, and he wrote in them concurrently. His numerous plays fill 6 volumes, and his correspondence 102 volumes. He was especially active toward the end of his life; living at Ferney in his eighties, he wrote pamphlets, many plays, and one of his best philosophical poems, Épître à Horace (1772). He went to Paris at the age of eighty-three, shortly before he died, to see a production of his latest classical tragedy, Irène (pr. 1778). At the time of his death, he was at work on a new play and rewriting others.

In many ways, Voltaire wished to be considered as a defender of the classical tradition. His plays are mainly classical, embodying the unities and dealing with highborn heroes. dipe (pr. 1718; Oedipus, 1761) was widely acclaimed in Voltaire’s day, as were Zaïre (pr. 1732; English translation, 1736) and Mérope (1743; English translation, 1744, 1749). He also, however, introduced devices and techniques that ultimately led to the demise of classical theater, including local color, such as red togas for members of the Senate in Brutus (pr. 1730; English translation, 1761) and real cannon fire in Adélaïde du Guesclin (pr. 1734). Voltaire’s later plays include a certain amount of tearful sensibility that was a characteristic of Denis Diderot’s bourgeois...

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Voltaire’s career spanned sixty years, and during that time he achieved great fame and even greater notoriety. Voltaire’s literary ambitions were revealed when he chose dipe as the subject of his first tragedy. His ambition was to rival Pierre Corneille, and at the age of twenty-four he was already hailed as a worthy successor to both Jean Racine and Corneille. In the theater, Voltaire considerably delayed the demise of classical tragedy, and he remained an extremely popular dramatist of the age. Between 1745 and 1803, his plays were staged many more times than those of Corneille and Racine. Today, however, Voltaire’s plays are no longer of interest to audiences.

Voltaire also enjoyed success in the field...

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Although Voltaire wrote in several different genres, including theater, poetry, and letters, he has remained most famous for the philosophical tales (contes philosophiques) that he composed during the last four decades of his lengthy literary career. In such well-structured works as Zadig: Ou, La Destinée, Histoire orientale (1748; Zadig: Or, The Book of Fate, 1749), Le Micromégas (1752; Micromegas, 1753), and Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759; Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759; also known as Candide: Or, The Optimist, 1762; also known as Candide: Or, Optimism, 1947), Voltaire described the pernicious effects of social injustice and religious...

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Discussion Topics

What were the most important things that Voltaire learned in England?

Is the happy ending of Zadig, based on intellectual sluggishness—the failure to pursue answers to metaphysical questions—an ironical one?

What was Voltaire’s purpose in writing The Age of Louis XIV?

How does Voltaire account for Candide’s optimism? Was it primarily a matter of the education he received?

What does Voltaire signify by Candide’s conclusion “that we should cultivate our gardens”?

Why was Voltaire’s thought attacked by followers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau?

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Aldridge, A. Owen. Voltaire and the Century of Light. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975. A teacher and student of comparative literature, Aldridge reexamines the life and career of Voltaire within the context of European intellectual and political history, providing many useful insights in a pleasant style equally suited to the specialist as to the general reader. Also offered are stimulating readings of Candide and other selected works, together with a valuable bibliography.

Bird, Stephen. Reinventing Voltaire: The Politics of Commemoration in Nineteenth Century France. Oxford, England: Voltaire Foundation, 2000. An examination of the critical response to Voltaire,...

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