Critical Evaluation

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François-Marie Arouet, known to his contemporaries and to posterity as Voltaire, represented classicism in the age of the Enlightenment. He was true to the ideas of logic and nature and presented works of philosophical optimism. The core of meaning in Zadig is similar to that of Voltaire’s more popular novel Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759; Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759). Zadig is aptly subtitled The Book of Fate. The reader is shown many chance occurrences and their results. Voltaire’s theory is that coincidence is really a trial, reward, punishment, or foresight—there are no chance happenings in the larger picture of life. His philosophy implies that people should consider the possible meanings of seemingly random events instead of dismissing them as accidental and therefore unimportant.

Zadig is a testament, as is the rest of Voltaire’s writing, to his belief in a system of universal justice and morality that applies to all people of any year or century. His philosophy, cloaked in wit, sarcasm, and satire that was relevant to his own time, still sparkles with truth more than 250 years after it was written.

The question posed in Zadig is, Why do bad things happen to good people? The plot takes Zadig through his troubles as he constantly asks himself why the bad things keep happening, forcing the reader to consider the same quandary. Zadig himself is reinforced as a wonderful specimen of maleness and humanity, a person pure of heart, a competent and clever judge, and a brave and winning fighter. Zadig is repeatedly punished for his good and honest nature, but evil is rewarded only in the short term. Just when Zadig is in trouble because his poem has been haphazardly broken in half in such a way that it appears insulting to the king, he is relieved from trouble by a parrot that transports the other half to the king—an even greater unlikelihood. The miracle of chance elevates his status. Had it not been for the earlier unjust and unlikely charge, he would not have been in the circle of the king at all. Although he is introduced to the palace by this unexpected occurrence, he ends up as the court prime minister. He also meets the queen, Astarté, with whom he will eventually live happily ever after. First, however, there are more chance incidents, many of them bad things happening for no particular reason. Bad events are just as necessary as good events in propelling Zadig toward his eventual destiny.

Zadig’s second subtitle translates from the French as “an oriental tale,” and indeed, Zadig’s ability to go where fate directs and to accept whatever happens without question or offense is based in a philosophy more Eastern than Western. Zadig embodies the nature of Chinese Daoism, which is to take the path of least resistance, as a leaf floats down a stream, going around rocks instead of attempting to go through them. This was a fairly unusual mode of thinking in eighteenth century Europe.

Near the end of Zadig , the hero happens upon a hermit who is a disguised angel. The hermit is reading from “the book of fate.” The tale that follows is ancient and dates back to the Qur՚n, which was popular in Europe from the thirteenth century on. The hermit does bad things to people who treat him very well and is kind to one who treats him badly. How and why this is possible is the root of Voltaire’s book and, incidentally, of Zadig’s problems. When questioned by Zadig, the hermit explains that the people he has hurt will...

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learn from their trials and will profit spiritually or monetarily from them. The hermit’s conclusive statement is that “there is no evil out of which some good is not born.” Zadig attempts to argue, modestly fending off the inevitable moral of this story, but the hermit disappears and leaves Zadig not completely understanding and accepting but unable to disagree.

Zadig becomes a parable, or a parody of a proper story. It is more a didactic argument for living morally and well than it is a plot- and character-oriented novel. All the scenes and people are designed for the purpose of expressing philosophical optimism. The story line is a vehicle in the vein of the classic “hero’s quest.” Here the holy grail turns out to be that Zadig marries Astarté and becomes king of Babylon. Zadig’s greatest assets—wit and the ability to solve problems—keep him constantly moving in the direction of a pleasant resolution, although he must necessarily encounter certain difficulties before fate grants him the big payoff. His troubles are punctual and specific, traditional and random. These occurrences in the life of Zadig are Voltaire’s reconfigurations of authentic oriental stories, strung together and sensibly made to order by a single hero character.

Over time, debate has arisen over whether Voltaire should be regarded as a creator and originator of ideas or whether he had the extreme competence to realign and reassert classical philosophies that he respected and that fit into his own scheme of life. Either way, he promises in the opening section of Zadig that it will be “a work that says more than it seems to say,” and this is accomplished almost as a joke on the reader. Voltaire originally wrote Zadig to entertain his aristocratic friends. It was only at their insistence and because of their enthusiasm that he had it published, though he thought of it as a trifle. Nevertheless, this trifle has come to be known as one of Voltaire’s best-loved and most accessible and humorous tales. The unlikely event that this “throwaway” piece would become so popular was not accidental or unlikely at all; rather, it was the actualization of its contents. The longevity and acclaim of Zadig are testimony to the philosophical optimism that the work slyly and diligently expresses.