50 pages 1 hour read



Fiction | Novella | Adult | Published in 1747

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Summary and Study Guide


Zadig; or, Destiny is a French philosophical novella published by Voltaire in 1747. In many ways autobiographical, the book follows Zadig—a young Zoroastrian in ancient Babylon—as he contends with a string of misfortunes that challenge his beliefs about divine reward and punishment. Zadig embodies Voltaire’s relentless attack on illogical and inhumane traditions, beliefs, and institutions, especially the belief that a divine system of reward and punishment explains all of life’s vicissitudes and that God rewards morality with happiness. This guide refers to the Penguin ebook edition of Zadig and L’Ingénu translated by John Butt, the print version of which was first published in 1964.

Plot Summary

Zadig is young, rich, and engaged to a beautiful woman he loves. He is intelligent yet humble, distinctive characteristics in a city rife with ostentation and idle talk. His happiness is fleeting, however. Zadig suffers a string of misfortunes beginning with the attempted kidnapping of his wife Semira by a rival suitor Orcan. After convalescing from a wound he suffered defending Semira, Zadig discovers that she has married Orcan out of fear that Zadig would emerge disfigured.

Heartbroken, Zadig soon marries another woman, Azora, whom he hopes will be more faithful. He sees, however, that her virtue is merely an act. Faking his death, he discovers that not only is Azora willing to marry his friend Cador (who is in on the trick) after only a day, but she is also willing to cut the nose of Zadig’s dead body to provide Cador a magical remedy for a feigned malady. Zadig divorces Azora and, fed up with love, resolves to console himself in the study of nature. The ability he gains to discern minute differences between animals causes more misfortune as he is falsely convicted of theft after describing a lost dog and horse using only their tracks.

Zadig next seeks happiness in philosophy and then in society. He is persecuted for heresy after proposing a commonsense solution to an ancient theological debate, and he is sentenced to death after a man jealous of Zadig’s social success orchestrates his conviction for treason. Saved by the king’s parrot, who reveals the deception, Zadig befriends King Moabdar and Queen Astarte, who are impressed by his humility. In admiration for Zadig’s virtue, the king soon makes him grand vizier of Babylon.

As grand vizier, Zadig governs selflessly and restores a measure of integrity to the city. His good fortune does not last, however, and soon he is forced to flee to Egypt after the king discovers he is in love with the queen. Arriving in Egypt, Zadig kills a man who is brutally beating a woman, for which Zadig is enslaved. He questions the value of virtue if it brings him nothing but misfortune and laments that God seems to be punishing him.

Zadig soon impresses his master with his knowledge and cunning, and the two become friends. Zadig campaigns against a cruel tradition, called the Pyre of Widowhood, of widows self-immolating on their husband’s funeral pyre. At a world fair, Zadig resolves a debate between a group of merchants over whose country is oldest and whose god most powerful by showing them that they both worship the creator of all things. Later, Zadig is condemned to death by a group of priests angry over the loss of widows’ jewelry as the Pyre of Widowhood is no longer practiced. The widow Zadig originally saved uses her wiles to free him.

Zadig continues wandering, all the while preoccupied with Astarte’s fate. He befriends the chief of a gang of robbers, whose happiness challenges Zadig’s conviction that morality alone begets happiness. He learns that Babylon is in chaos after Moabdar went mad and was murdered, but he learns nothing of Astarte.

Zadig then encounters a fisherman, who is the first person that appears as miserable as he. The fisherman was formerly a cheesemonger in Babylon who catered to both the queen and Zadig, though he does not know them by sight. He lost everything in a series of unfortunate events that began with missing large payments from both of them after they were forced to flee. Zadig gives the fisherman half of his money, and they part ways, Zadig cursing the heavens and the fisherman praising them.

Zadig chances upon Astarte, who is now a slave, outside the castle of her gluttonous master Ogul. They commiserate, and she tells her story. She hid in Babylon after learning of her husband’s plot to poison her. Moabdar married Missouf—the woman Zadig defended who (because of her resemblance to Astarte) was kidnapped by the king’s search party. Missouf undermined Moabdar’s already tenuous authority and the city descended into civil war. Astarte was captured and sold to Ogul.

Zadig arranges for Astarte’s freedom. They return to Babylon, where the citizens hold a tournament to select Astarte’s new husband and the next king. Zadig wins the fighting portion of the tournament, but another contestant swaps his armor for Zadig’s—their only identifying articles—forcing Zadig onto the street in a fit of rage.

In despair, Zadig meets a hermit reading the Book of Destinies. Intrigued, he agrees to follow the hermit for three days on the condition that he stay no matter what the hermit does. The hermit does several horrific things, including murdering a teenager, before transforming into an angel before Zadig’s eyes. The angel explains a deterministic theology in which everything is either divine reward or punishment. But Zadig learns nothing of the contents of God’s plan for him. The angel flies away, and Zadig returns to Babylon, where he challenges his rival and wins the tournament. Crowned king and queen of Babylon, Zadig and Astarte worship Providence and rule fairly. Zadig is magnanimous both to those who helped him and those who harmed him. He and everyone in Babylon are happy. 

Related Titles

By Voltaire