Last Updated on August 22, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1106
Zadig, or the Book of Fate, is a philosophical novella by the French writer Voltaire, published in 1747. As episodic and colorful as his book Candide, Zadig also explores the waxing and waning fortunes of its eponymous protagonist and charts the course of Zadig's introspection and contemplation of his fate. In a fictional preface and dedication, the book is presented as a gift to the Sultana Sheraa of Iran from a subject named Sadi. Sadi flatters the Sultana shamelessly and proclaims,
You have, moreover, a little Fund of Philosophy, which gives me just Grounds to hope that you’ll relish this Historical Performance better than any other Lady of your Quality would do.
Sadi claims that Zadig was composed for an ancient sultan and that it first appeared in public around the time the tales of One Thousand and One Nights and One Thousand and One Days appeared. His tale's credentials established, Voltaire launches into his story of Zadig, a young man who lives in the realm of Babylon during the reign of King Moabdar. When we first meet him,
Zadig was immensely rich, and had consequently Friends without Number; and as he was a Gentleman of a robust Constitution, and remarkably handsome; as he was endowed with a plentiful Share of ready and inoffensive Wit: And, in a Word, as his Heart was perfectly sincere and open, he imagin’d himself, in some Measure, qualified to be perfectly happy.
Soon, however, Zadig encounters a number of misfortunes and begins to wonder why fate is treating him so poorly. Zadig wants to be happy; he pursues romance with two women, but the first is repulsed by his appearance when his eye is injured in a fight. He marries the second, but she exercises poor common sense, and they are soon divorced.
"It is a peculiar talent of Zadig to render Truth as obvious as possible," Voltaire writes, and for this talent Zadig is both punished and rewarded by twists and turns of fate. He tries to ease the weight of his misfortunes through the study of philosophy.
In the Morning, his Library was always open for the Use of the Learned; at Night his Table was fill’d with the most agreeable Companions; but he was soon sensible, by Experience, how dangerous it was to keep learned Men Company.
A man who is envious of Zadig has the chance to frame the beleaguered philosopher, and Zadig is thrown into prison for treason against King Moabdar. An absurd coincidence reveals Zadig's innocence, and—his presence having been revealed to the king and his wife, Queen Astarte—he becomes not only a favored member of the court but the Prime Minister of Babylon.
All goes well for Zadig until he and Astarte begin to fall in love with one another. They work hard not to give in to their growing mutual feelings, but they cannot hide what is happening from the king, who flies into a jealous rage and arranges to have them both killed. A good friend at the court, Cador, helps both Zadig and the queen to escape. As he runs away from Babylon, Zadig finds himself pondering
the hard Fate of the justly-admir’d Astarte, and reflecting on his own Stars that so obstinately darted down their malignant Rays, and continu’d daily to torment him.
Zadig's adventures on the road to Egypt find him falling into hardship and slavery, but he uses his keen intelligence to impress his new master, Setoc, and once again secures his freedom. He finds out that there has been a revolution in Babylon and that King Moabdar is dead, so he returns to Babylon. Along the way, again by seeming chance, he meets his beloved Queen Astarte.
Back at the court of Babylon, with Astarte ruling the kingdom, Zadig must compete in a knightly tournament to prove to the kingdom that he is worthy of the queen's hand in marriage. This he does, but the envious actions of a competing knight manipulate Zadig out of the competition and back onto the road in disgrace. Zadig is unhappier than ever, and he rails against his misfortunes:
All the Knowledge of Books or Mankind; all the personal Valour that I can boast of, has only prov’d an Aggravation of my Sorrows. He carried the Point so far at last, as to murmur at the unequal Dispensations of Divine Providence; and was tempted to believe, that all Occurrences were govern’d by a malignant Destiny, which never fail’d to oppress the Virtuous, and always crown’d the Actions of such Villains as the green Knight, with uncommon Success.
On the road, Zadig meets a strange hermit who leads him through a series of strange, inexplicable misadventures, all to the point of showing Zadig that humans cannot second-guess the inexplicable outcomes of fate. At last the hermit reveals himself to be the angel Jesrad, who points out to Zadig,
Misfortunes are intended only as a Touch-stone, to try a small Number of the Just, who are thinly scatter’d about this terrestrial Globe: Besides, there is no Evil under the Sun, but some Good proceeds from it . . . there is no such Thing as Chance, all Misfortunes are intended, either as severe Trials, Judgments, or Rewards; and are the Result of Foreknowledge.
Chastened by his lessons about fate, Zadig returns to the court of Babylon and fights to overcome the tricks that were played upon him. He presents his honest, intelligent self to the assembled court and populace, and he wins not only the hand of Astarte in marriage, but also the kingship of Babylon. He proves himself a good and just king, and Babylon experiences a time of tranquility, peace, and plenty under his rule. During a riddling challenge that forms part of the competition for the kingship, Voltaire writes,
What is the Thing we receive, without being ever thankful for it; which we enjoy, without knowing how we came by it; which we give away to others, without knowing where ’tis to be found; and which we lose, without being any ways conscious of our Misfortune? Each pass’d his Verdict. Zadig was the only Person that concluded it was Life.
Life is chaotic, unfair, and uncertain, Zadig concludes, but it is all we have. Zadig learns to accept the ups and downs of fortune and to move forward with what he is given. Whether or not life is determined by fate, readers can see by the example of Zadig's actions that accepting both good and bad luck is, as Voltaire sees it, the destiny we have been dealt in life.