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...
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- Critical Essays
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1432
Zadig: Or, The Book of Fate, Voltaire’s first published philosophical tale, was written at a time when the author was finally receiving official recognition for his many literary accomplishments. In 1745, Monsieur Arouet de Voltaire received a court appointment from the king of France, Louis XV. As royal historiographer and later ordinary gentleman of the king’s bedchamber, Voltaire moved easily through the long galleries of the royal palace of Versailles. A close look at courtly pettiness, intrigues, and plotting served only to reinforce Voltaire’s already low estimation of palace royalty and bootlicking government officials. This time was also the period when Voltaire’s long love affair with Mme de Châtelet was ending. She had chosen a younger man over him, and for a time Voltaire was in a jealous rage.
Zadig, a tale set in eighteenth century Persia, reflects both the personal circumstances of Voltaire and the more profound philosophical questions concerning the nature of free will and happiness. Voltaire asks the same question on almost every page of the story: Can an honest and wise person lead a happy life in a world filled with liars, scoundrels, and cheats? In a story with a very thin plot, the reader follows the intelligent and kind Zadig through his travels among dishonest, deceitful, and cruel people who attempt to do him harm at every turn. First married to one of the most noble, desirable, and beautiful women of all Babylon, Zadig, to his great dismay, learns that his wife is unfaithful. Having been disappointed by an aristocratic woman, a woman from the court, he next turns to a woman chosen among the people. Again he has no luck: She also proves to be lacking in true love for Zadig.
Though a person of bourgeois origin, Zadig so distinguishes himself for his intelligence among the citizens of Babylon that he comes to the notice of the king and queen. Zadig’s name is mentioned as one of the persons deserving of a prize that King Moabdar intends to give to his subject who has performed the most generous action during the year. With no attempt at disguising his ironic allusion to life in the French royal court of the eighteenth century, Voltaire has King Moabdar grant the most wonderful prize in all Asia (a golden goblet studded with precious stones) to Zadig, because he is the only one who has not spoken ill of a disgraced government minister who had incurred the king’s wrath.
Zadig, in complete favor with King Moabdar and Queen Astarte, assumes the heavy responsibilities of prime minister. His every act at court demonstrates the subtlety of his genius and the goodness of his soul. Ogled by women and praised by all in the kingdom for his fairness in settling long-standing disputes, Zadig appears to enjoy all the good fortune that fate could possibly bestow on him. He even succeeds in arranging a truce between two religious sects that have quarreled for fifteen hundred years over which foot—left or right—one should first use to enter the holy temples.
In spite of all the rewards and praise Zadig receives as prime minister, he continues to reflect upon the precariousness of his own good fortune and the tricks that life has played on him in the past. As prime minister, Zadig believes the laws of Persia must be applied evenly to protect the innocent. Still, these laws are not able to quell the fanaticism and ridiculous quarrels that seem to presage the fall of Babylon. As if to underscore the validity of Zadig’s personal and political fears, Voltaire has Zadig fall hopelessly in love with the wife of the jealous king, the beautiful and sensuous Queen Astarte. Then, because of war and competing factions within the country, all Persia is thrown into social and economic chaos. The reader of Voltaire’s tale cannot miss the striking similarities, first between Voltaire’s own romantic adventures and those of Zadig, and then between France’s dismal political condition and that of Persia. Voltaire, of course, makes little attempt at accurately describing the Middle East; his purpose instead is to explore the human condition, the questions of human freedom and determination, and to attack the political stupidities and excesses of his own country, France.
The wise and just Zadig is forced to flee for his life from Babylon. He seeks asylum in Egypt. During his flight, he reflects upon humankind: “He pictured men as they really are, insects devouring each other on a little patch of mud.” Though he remains a champion of light and reason, he encounters only brutality and prospering scoundrels on his voyage. After rescuing a woman from a savage beating by her husband, he is condemned to be sold as a slave. On another occasion, he persuades the women of Arabia that there is no reason to practice the custom of burning themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres; for this, he incurs the enduring wrath of the priests, who collect the women’s jewelry from the ashes. Wherever he travels—from Egypt to Arabia to the Isle of Serendib and back to Persia—Zadig gives wise and excellent counsel and saves women, men, and even kingdoms from disaster. He, however, can neither find personal happiness (he still yearns for the beautiful Astarte) nor understand why dishonest and corrupt people appear to prosper. The ways of Providence remain a deep and disheartening mystery to him.
While spending time with a prosperous brigand chief, Zadig learns that King Moabdar has been killed and that confusion reigns in Babylon. Arbogad, the brigand, repeats to Zadig that he (Arbogad) is the happiest of men, and he exhorts Zadig to follow his example. Zadig declines the offer to associate himself with one of the richest thieves of the East. He leaves the robber’s castle, plunged more deeply than ever in his mournful reflections about the sadness of life. He is grief-stricken to think that Astarte may have perished in the riots of Babylon.
On the road back to Babylon, Zadig sees a lady on the bank of a little stream. As he approaches, he notices that she is tracing, with a small stick, a name in the fine sand. To his astonishment, the name he reads is his own: Zadig. The lady is Astarte herself, the woman whom he adores and for whom he has returned to Babylon. Zadig, filled with joy, throws himself at her feet asking, “Can it be true? Immortal powers that preside over the destinies of frail mortals, do you give me back Astarte?” Chance has reunited the two lovers. Both recount their misadventures, and Zadig tells Astarte by what accident he happened to be walking along the banks of the little stream.
Although together again, Zadig and Astarte must yet undergo a number of trials and adventures before finally becoming the monarchs of Babylon. Zadig is obliged to participate in a medieval joust and to solve a number of riddles proposed by the Magi of the city. Before taking part in the knightly tournament, however, Zadig happens upon a hermit who speaks to him of fate, justice, and ethics and then proceeds to burn a home and murder a young man. The hermit fantastically transforms himself into the angel Jesrad and tells an astonished and angered Zadig that all on earth is meant to be and that events transpire as they must; what appears to be chance is not, and Zadig should go on his way to Babylon.
Voltaire ends his tale in both an ambiguous and a positive fashion: Zadig, as a mere human, cannot hope to understand why Providence acts in certain ways. Zadig could not know that a treasure is buried under the burned home or that the young man, if allowed to live, would kill his aunt in a year’s time and Zadig in two. In his story, Voltaire leaves unanswered the recurrent metaphysical questions asked by Zadig, questions about the nature of free will and the existence of evil in a universe created by a supreme Being. In an obvious optimistic conclusion to his tale, however, Voltaire describes the just Zadig and the intelligent and beautiful Astarte presiding over the peaceful and bountiful kingdom of Persia. In his philosophical tale Candide (1759), written some twelve years later, both Voltaire’s narrative tone (in Zadig only mildly satirical for Voltaire) and his views on metaphysical optimism and Providence would change dramatically. From an enlightened kingdom in Persia to the small garden plot of Candide, the journey is long and discouraging.