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Last Updated September 5, 2023.


Zadig, the protagonist, is a handsome, youthful Babylonian man who is modest, intelligent, and discerning.

Tho’ rich and young, he knew how to give a Check to his Passions; he was no ways self-conceited; he didn’t always act up to the strictest Rules of Reason himself, and knew how to look on the Foibles of others, with an Eye of Indulgence.

Zadig imagines himself qualified to be perfectly happy and seeks happiness out. He first determines to marry a pretty young woman, Semira, and all is going well for the young lovers until one day, as they are walking along the Euphrates River, they are beset by ruffians. Zadig acquits himself well in the fight, but his eye is injured. Sadly, Semira reveals an aversion to even a temporary physical blemish in her boyfriend, and she rejects him.

Zadig tries again when he meets a lovely woman, Azora, whom he likes, and they quickly marry. However, Zadig soon realizes that Azora is not only somewhat flighty but also exercises very poor judgment, and he divorces her.

Zadig decides to pursue a bachelor life of intellectual pursuits. He studies philosophy and turns his study and home into an open literary salon. This is a great success for him, and Zadig shows great promise in intellectual debate.

Zadig believes he has now become supremely happy, but as Voltaire points out, he is grossly mistaken. A jealous colleague manages to frame Zadig for treason against the King of Babylon, and he finds himself close to execution. He is saved at the last moment, and his fate once again changes—his demeanor and intelligence have impressed the king and queen. He enters into their service and soon becomes a trusted minister of the land.

Much of Zadig’s good fortune is a result of his pleasant character.

Neither the Choice of his Friends, nor that of his Dishes, was the Result of Pride or Ostentation. He took Delight in appearing to be, what he actually was, and not in seeming to be what he was not; and by that Means, got a greater real Character than he actually aim’d at.

But his time at court is shorter than he hoped. Zadig finds himself falling in love with the lovely Queen Astarte of Babylon, and she feels the same about him. Yet this triumph is meaningless, for King Moabdar perceives their mutual affection and jealously decides to have his wife and Zadig killed. Though both are saved by timely warnings from servants and friends, Zadig finds himself outcast to Egypt, where he is enslaved. His fortunes improve and decline several times, and it is not surprising that he begins to feel mistrustful of life.

Still, Zadig manages to behave kindly toward those in need during his travels. He believes in justice, and he is willing to step in and defend people who are in trouble, by word and by deed. He is a truly virtuous man, but his misfortunes wear him down.

Fortunately, Zadig’s moral character brings him supernatural good fortune. Just as he is at his lowest ebb, an angel visits him (in disguise, at first) to teach him a few lessons about the nature of fate.

Zadig returns to Babylon and masters the grave situation he had previously run away from. He becomes king, wins Queen Astarte’s hand in marriage, and settles down to rule Babylon:

The Empire was glorious abroad, and in the full Enjoyment of Tranquility, Peace and Plenty, at home: This, in short, was the true golden Age. The whole Country was sway’d by Love and Justice. Every one blest Zadig

(This entire section contains 1994 words.)

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Zadig; and Zadig blest Heav’n for his unexpected Success.

Zadig himself is the only dynamic, round character who goes through a journey and develops as a person. His arc is simple: he starts the story as a happy innocent, he is severely tested by many misfortunes, he begins to doubt whether anything he does has any meaning—as time after time it all turns out badly—but he is taught a strong lesson by the angel Jesrad, and with renewed energy, he goes back to successfully fight for his happiness and future.

Queen Astarte and King Moabdar

Astarte is the queen of Babylon. She is beautiful, quick-witted, and intelligent. It is she who first saves Zadig from a false charge of treason, and when he appears before the king and queen, Zadig impresses her with his grace, modesty, and good sense. Astarte falls in love with Zadig over time, without realizing it at first. She speaks highly of him to her private court, commends him time and again before the king, and sends him small presents as tokens of her esteem.

She said no more of him, as she thought, than a Queen might innocently do, who was perfectly assur’d of his Attachment to her Husband; sometimes, indeed, she would express her self with an Air of Tenderness and Affection.

Astarte and Zadig grow so fond of one another that they simultaneously realize that no good can come from how they feel. They stop seeing one another, but it is too late. The king has figured out the truth, and he orders them both to be put to death.

Fortunately for Astarte, she has loyal servants. A mute dwarf who works for her uses a crayon to draw an alarming picture of her and Zadig being cruelly slaughtered by the king’s soldiers. Astarte sends a midnight note to Zadig, after which they both manage to escape. When the story picks up with Astarte again, she is unexpectedly found by Zadig sitting on a riverbank in the Syrian countryside, where the lovers are reunited.

Astarte recounts her unusual adventures since the night her royal husband tried to have her killed. She is rescued with the help of Zadig’s best friend, Cador, who has a wild plan to keep her majesty out of sight: Astarte lives inside a colossal statue for a time. King Moabdar, after ordering the murder of Astarte and Zadig, becomes unhinged and loses all of his good qualities as a ruler, transforming into an angry tyrant. He meets a woman named Missouf whom he woos and marries as a second wife, but she turns out to be a cruel person who abuses all of the servants at court.

The king comes to the temple to pray to the gods and bows down before the great statue. Astarte decides to speak from inside the statue on behalf of the gods and intones to her prostrate husband:

The Gods reject the Vows of a Monarch, that acts the Tyrant o’er his Subjects; One, who could think of murdering an innocent Wife; and admit of a worthless Beauty to supply her Place.

This unexpected answer from the gods drives Moabdar mad, and before long, the people of Babylon take up arms and start a revolution against the tyrant. Several different groups battle for control of the throne. Astarte herself leaves the statue and joins one of the rival groups, but she is defeated by another party and enslaved. She escapes and soon hears word that Zadig is living somewhere near Memphis, Egypt, so she puts on a disguise and sets out to find him. They are reunited, though they must each go on separate paths for a while.

Astarte returns to Babylon and is joyously received and reinstated as queen. The people of Babylon insist there should be a tournament for her hand in marriage. Zadig joins the tournament and wins at every turn, but a jealous rival manages to pull off a trick that forces Zadig out of Babylon and back onto the road again. Astarte is fooled by the trick and unaware of what has happened to her beloved.

After various adventures on the road, including meeting an angel, Zadig returns to Babylon.

The Queen, who had heard of his Arrival, was in the utmost Agony, between Hope and Despair. Her Vexation had almost brought her to Death’s Door.

But Zadig is victorious, and he and Astarte become king and queen of Babylon, hand in hand at last.

The Hermit / Jesrad

Late in his adventures, Zadig meets a hermit on the road. The hermit has a long, gray, venerable beard, and he carries a small book in his hand that he constantly reads. He tells Zadig that this is the Book of Fate. Zadig looks at it but cannot decipher its strange writing.

You seem dejected, said the good Father to him. Alas! I have Cause enough, said Zadig. If you’ll permit me to accompany you, said the old Hermit, perhaps I may be of some Service to you. I have sometimes instill’d Sentiments of Consolation into the Minds of the Afflicted. Zadig had a secret Regard for the Air of the old Man, for his Beard, and his Book. He found, by conversing with him, that he was the most learned Person he had ever met with.

They agree to travel together, and the hermit asks Zadig to take an oath that he will not leave the old man, no matter what the hermit may do. Zadig takes the oath, and for good reason, it seems, as the hermit behaves strangely no matter where they go.

First they arrive at a castle and are treated with great respect by their rich host, but after they depart the next day, Zadig is alarmed to discover that the hermit has stolen a golden basin that belonged to their host. Then they visit a miser, who treats them poorly, and the hermit gives the man a few gold pieces as they take their leave, thanking him for his hospitality. They stay for the night in the home of a gentle philosopher, and as they leave the next morning, the hermit sets a blaze that burns the man’s house down. Finally, they meet a pleasant young man and his mother. On a bridge, the hermit inexplicably pushes the young man off the bridge, drowning him.

Zadig demands an explanation for the hermit’s dreadful behavior. The hermit transforms before Zadig’s eyes and reveals his true identity:

the old Hermit’s long Beard grew shorter and shorter; that the Furrows in his Face began to fill up, and that his Cheeks glow’d with a Rose-coloured Red, as if he had been in the Bloom of Fifteen. His Mantle was vanish’d at once; and on his Shoulders, which were before cover’d, appear’d four angelic Wings, each refulgent as the Sun.

The angel’s name is Jesrad, and he reveals to Zadig that in each case, his strange treatment of each person has changed their fortune and the fortune of those around them. The boy he drowned, for instance, was destined to kill his own mother and, later, his own wife and son. The miser, given two gold coins for no reason at all, became a better and more giving person because of this gift. The philosopher will find a treasure in the burnt ruins of his home that will allow him to share his virtues even better in the future, and so on. Jesrad lectures Zadig:

Mankind imagine, that the Lad, whom I plung’d into the River, was drown’d by Chance; and that our generous Benefactor’s House was reduc’d to Ashes by the same Chance; but know, there is no such Thing as Chance, all Misfortunes are intended, either as severe Trials, Judgments, or Rewards; and are the Result of Foreknowledge.

Jesrad has chosen to appear to Zadig because he senses Zadig’s potential as a great man, but he recognizes that Zadig has been beset by great misfortunes, and he wants to teach Zadig that he must persevere in the face of even the worst-seeming fate. Once the angel soars away into the clouds, Zadig returns to Babylon to shape his own fate.