Places: Zadig

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Zadig: Ou, La Destinée, histoire orientale, 1748 (English translation, 1749)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social satire

Time of work: Antiquity

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Babylon

*Babylon. ZadigCapital 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.

BibliographyAldridge, 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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