(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1432 words.)