Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Jacques the Fatalist and His Master is a philosophical novel in which Diderot, through a fictional narrative, examines the problem of moral responsibility and the consequences of accepting a philosophy of determinism. Jacques and his Master start out on a journey and soon find themselves the victims of chance occurrences. One of the horses suddenly bolts for no apparent reason and the two travelers end up at an inn, where they are robbed. The progress of the entire journey is governed by chance (fate); neither Jacques nor his Master has any control over where they go. Jacques explains all of these occurrences and others throughout the journey by saying that they were predetermined, or as he defines the situations, written on the great wheel of fate.
The novel has a multilayered structure in which dialogue plays an extensive role. In addition to the actual physical journey of Jacques and his Master, Diderot creates a series of other narrated journeys. As they ride along, Jacques tells of his loves, the Master attempts to recount his amorous affairs, and the people they meet tell stories of faithful and unfaithful loves. The narratives are continuously interrupted by chance occurrences. This structure serves to emphasize Diderot’s intellectual belief in materialism and the constant change and movement that occur in a physical world, which is always in a state of metamorphosis.
It is in the narratives within the narrative that Diderot...
(The entire section is 740 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: World Fiction Series)
Jacques the Fatalist and His Master is deceptively simple in plot. The two title characters travel through an unidentified French landscape telling each other stories, which are interrupted by various adventures and misadventures. Usually, Jacques does the talking, for his master has an insatiable appetite for stories, and Jacques is a compulsive talker. Throughout the novel, Jacques tells his master the story of his falling in love, though he is bedeviled by constant interruptions, mishaps, separations, and other people’s stories: his master’s, the innkeeper’s wife’s, and a host of other minor characters’. Taking precedence over all the voices is that of the narrator, himself interrupting the characters and addressing the reader.
On the first page, the reader learns that Jacques has joined the army after a quarrel with his father, has adopted his captain’s fatalistic philosophy—“Everything which happens to us on this earth, good and bad, is written up there”—has been wounded in the knee, and has fallen in love. The master asks for the story of his love, and Jacques begins, in frustratingly minute detail for the master (and possibly the reader), to tell of how he was wounded, left for dead in front of a farmhouse, found by the farmer’s wife, treated by surgeons, of what they said, how much they drank, and the day-to-day progress of the healing. His story is punctuated throughout by the narrator’s comments on how novels...
(The entire section is 1150 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Jacques and his master are on a journey whose purpose and destination are unknown to the narrator. The latter even scolds the inquisitive reader for wanting to know such irrelevant information as how the travelers met, what their names are, where they come from, or where they are going. Instead, the narrator merely informs the reader that, as the novel opens, the master is not saying anything, and that Jacques is repeating, for his master’s benefit, the fatalist creed he learned from his captain. Everything that happens to people on earth, good or bad, Jacques explains, is foreordained, written on the great scroll “up above.” As an appropriate example, his captain always adds that every bullet shot in battle has someone’s name on it.
Jacques illustrates the truth of the captain’s doctrine by noting the interconnected chain of events in his own life: He joined the army as the result of a quarrel with his father; soon after, in his first battle, he received “his” bullet, which shattered his knee; and had it not been for that bullet, he would probably never have fallen in love. That remark arouses the master’s curiosity, and he asks his servant to tell him the story of his loves to make their journey more interesting.
The telling of that story, like the recurrent discussions of the doctrine of fatalism, constitutes a running theme throughout the novel. During the entire eight days of travel recounted in the novel, Jacques keeps...
(The entire section is 935 words.)