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Zadig has been called a philosophical novella—and for good reason. Strung throughout the episodic story are a series of parables that teach lessons about ethics and morality. In most cases, it is the story’s protagonist, Zadig, who is teaching. Zadig teaches verbally, often through parables, allegories, and analogies to show...

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Zadig has been called a philosophical novella—and for good reason. Strung throughout the episodic story are a series of parables that teach lessons about ethics and morality. In most cases, it is the story’s protagonist, Zadig, who is teaching. Zadig teaches verbally, often through parables, allegories, and analogies to show other people a different way of thinking about things. He does so in a poetic manner, using allegorical examples and subjects. And at the same time, Zadig employs a keen intelligence to discern the truth, using what later will be known as the scientific method to see and reveal what other people cannot see.

Zadig is fined and tried early in the novella for knowing something by his judgment that he has not actually seen with his own eyes. Zadig applies his brilliant mind to prove the existence of a horse and dog at a scene, using the physical evidence they have left behind to infer their earlier presence.

As I was walking down the Lane by the Thicket-side, I took particular Notice of the Prints made upon the Sand by a Horse’s Shoes; and found that their Distances were in exact Proportion; from that Observation, I concluded the Palfrey gallop’d well. In the next Place, the Dust of some Trees in a narrow Lane, which was but seven Foot broad, was here and there swept off, both on the Right and on the Left, about three Feet and six Inches from the Middle of the Road. For which Reason I pronounc’d the Tail of the Palfrey to be three Foot and a half long, with which he had whisk’d off the Dust on both Sides as he ran along.

Many later writers, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe, point to Voltaire’s Zadig as an inspiration and influence in the development of their own literary detectives.

When burdened by the weight of extra supplies taken from the camels, Zadig tells his master about the simple physical law of gravity. (This was a physical law that the French were slow to accept, for which Voltaire often criticized the French.)

Zadig took the Liberty to explain the Reason thereof; and convinc’d him of the Laws of the Equilibrium. The Merchant was a little startled at his philosophical Discourse, and look’d upon him with a more favourable Eye than at first.

When Zadig visits the languishing, sick Prince Ogul, the prince is having his servants look for a basilisk to cure him. Zadig tricks the prince into instead practicing daily exercise, staying sober, and using a medicine bag. This cures the prince, who continues to change his lifestyle.

Zadig teaches his Egyptian master, Setoc, how to recover a debt without having any proof of the indebtedness. The money has been counted out to the man on a large stone, and he tricks the man into admitting he knows where the stone is.

Setoc loves the stars in the sky because they are so brilliant and so far away. Zadig lights a number of candles in a room and sits and adores them while Setoc is there, ignoring Setoc. Setoc understands from this that it is the maker of the stars he should adore, not the stars themselves, a critique Voltaire is making toward the idolatrous adoration of images by Christians.

In Setoc’s land, there is an ancient practice of the burning of widows on their husband’s funeral pyres—the rite still exists merely because it is ancient. Zadig argues that this is ruinous for the women and for the state and convinces Setoc and a court of judges to amend the old law so that the widows spend a few hours with a young man, chatting, before they decide to immolate themselves on the pyre. Flirting with the young men, the women will usually realize they have more to give to life and decide to stay alive instead.

Voltaire celebrated a mix of earthy humanism and rational thought throughout his life, yet he did not entirely reject spirituality, as long as

a religion . . . makes one great family of all men, and whose practices are founded on tolerance and good works.

This may explain Zadig’s eventual submission to Providence, as he bows to the lessons taught to him by the angel.

In one episode in the novella, Zadig speaks to the various sects of Bassora, each of whom has proclaimed that their religion is the supreme religion. Zadig tells them that they are all agreed—they are all right—without knowing it.

In his day, these opinions did not open doors for Voltaire and would probably not do so even today, as it is the rare religion that espouses that all religions are the same.

Even in the episode with the angel Jesrad, the story of Zadig is akin to the biblical story of Job. Zadig is visited by trial after trial in this life, and his faith is tested. He more or less passes the test by keeping his faith and continuing to live a moral life. The angel says absolutely nothing about reward or punishment in the afterlife—these trials are all about this life.

The Wicked, replied Jesrad, are always unhappy. 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.

Voltaire thinly disguises himself as the Persian poet "Sadi" in the dedication of the book. Saadi Shirazi is best known for Bustan (The Orchard) and Gulistan (The Rose Garden), two books of poetry. Bustan is told in epic verse and contains stories illustrating the morality and virtues of Muslims. Gulistan uses anecdotes and poetry to offer advice and reflections on human existence. Shirazi is also a strong humanist who says,

If you are indifferent to the misery of others, it is not fitting that they should call you a human being. . . . The example of the believers [Muslims] in their affection, mercy, and compassion for each other is that of a body. When any limb aches, the whole body reacts with sleeplessness and fever.

Saadi’s belief in one large human family, intensely connected with one another, mirrors Voltaire’s belief in “one great family” of humanity. In fact, in his intimate circle, Voltaire enjoyed being called “Saadi” by his closest friends. “Saadi” and “Zadig” are fairly similar names; they are both Voltaire in this book, demonstrating the author’s thoughts, beliefs, and deepest philosophic convictions.

Places Discussed

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*Babylon. Capital of ancient Babylonia on the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia in which the novel begins and ends. Exotic and far removed from the reality of the France of Voltaire’s time, Babylon provides Voltaire with a setting in which he can plunge his readers into a fantasy world of his own creation—one in which customs, beliefs, and the turn of events can be manipulated to illustrate his philosophical ideas. No longer in familiar territory, readers have no preset expectations of what can and will happen; they are free to indulge in the fictional fantasy and concentrate on the philosophical inquiry carried on in the novel. Babylon, its court, its King Moabdar, his courtiers, and his subjects thus combine to make an excellent vehicle for Voltaire’s satire. Babylon also is an excellent setting for Voltaire’s inquiry into destiny and how an individual should react to it. Controlled by a despotic king who often rules by whim, Babylon is a place where one’s fortune can change very quickly, where good works do not necessarily bring reward, and where happiness and misfortune alternate with all too great a regularity.


*Egypt. North African land to which Zadig escapes from Babylon that Voltaire uses to satirize judicial systems. Zadig, who has slain a man in self-defense while trying to help a woman, is condemned to be sold into slavery. His camels are sold, the proceeds allocated to the city, and his money is divided among the inhabitants. Nevertheless, Voltaire praises the Egyptians for their humanity and their sense of justice.

Desert of Horeb

Desert of Horeb. Biblical site of uncertain location—possibly the Sinai Peninsula—that is home of the tribe of Sétoc, the Arab merchant who buys Zadig. Here, Voltaire creates a number of incidents that illustrate the precariousness of an individual’s fate. Zadig is highly respected by the tribe for his cleverness in trapping a dishonest Hebrew debtor and in abolishing the custom of widows burning themselves; however, priests who previously profited from jewels and other valuables of self-immolating widows regard Zadig as someone who should be eliminated. Though highly favored, Zadig finds himself accused of blasphemy and condemned to be burned. Destiny once again apparently decrees that good fortune and happiness are not to last for Zadig.

Balzora fair

Balzora fair. Place where merchants from every corner of the earth are found. A discussion among the merchants at supper permits Voltaire to engage in a comparison of religious beliefs in various countries and to conclude that different beliefs that may appear to be in conflict are actually all based on belief in a Supreme Being.


*Syria. Country where Zadig’s wanderings end. There he encounters Arbogad, the fisherman who was a cheese maker near Babylon, and other characters who recount tales illustrating the unpredictability of life. Syria is also the place where Zadig is reunited with Astarté, the queen of Babylon.


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Aldridge, A. Owen. Voltaire and the Century of Light. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975. A biography of Voltaire with extended discussions on his writings, including Zadig. Seeks to combine literature with the history of ideas and present Voltaire’s personality along with his philosophical framework.

Gay, Peter. Voltaire’s Politics: The Poet as Realist. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1959. Places Voltaire’s political ideas in the context of his times. Includes criticism, clarification, exposition, and analysis and attempts to avoid twentieth century controversies.

Sherman, Carol. Reading Voltaire’s Contes: A Semiotics of Philosophical Narration. Chapel Hill: North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages and Literatures, 1985. Systematically scrutinizes Micromégas (1753), Zadig, Candide (1759), and L’Ingénu (1767), line by line. Written in a dry, academic style. Includes charts and graphs that dissect the stories.

Topazio, Virgil W. Voltaire: A Critical Study of His Major Works. New York: Random House, 1967. The essential handbook on Voltaire. Covers his poetry, dramas, and novels. Gives insight to his life and the mood of the century in which Voltaire was working. An excellent and eminently readable study on Voltaire.

Wade, Ira O. The Intellectual Development of Voltaire. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1969. Traces Voltaire’s development from his early poetry through his philosopher status and devotes considerable time to his stay in England and the writing done there. Includes Voltaire’s thoughts on science and biblical criticism.

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